Panem et Circenses; or Len McCluskey as Marcus Licinius Crassus

The old staple of ‘bread and circuses’ used by ancient Roman politicians to appease the their electorate is back with a vengeance when it comes to the current crop of post-election leadership competitions.  Much like the Roman arena, the braying mob (such as myself) have the opportunity to see the dramatic beginning and ending of political careers amongst the competitive combat of the gladiatorial arena.  In that respect we’ve currently got an embarassment of riches in the UK, with the Lib Dems, UKIP, and Labour all engaging in the predictable yet satisfying outbursts of blood-letting as candidates jockey for position after the failed leaders of the 2015 general election fell on their swords.

While UKIP provide the stage for the continuing soap opera that is the resurrection/defenestration of Nigel Farage’s leadership career, the Lib Dems have settled for a lacklustre evaluative analysis of relative mediocrities.  In a rare instance of UKIP-Lib Dem empathy, both parties lack alternative candidates with any obvious gravity, and both suffer from the relative boost these post-defeat leadership contests provide to the swivel-eyed loons amongst the party membership.  Labour, by contrast, have decided to provide their swivel-eyed loons with not one but two platforms for the inevitable post-defeat internecine warfare.  Both of which offer the now-traditional choice between Blairite reform or retreat into the comfort zone of the loons where the ideological purity of the party can be untroubled by inconvenient electoral success.

First up is the UK leadership contest, where Ed Miliband’s departure has predictably failed to provoke the soul-searching inquiries necessary to change electoral strategy.  The party’s continuing rejection of Blairism – or more specifically, an updated attempt to discover a policy platform which might actually make them electable – is reflected in the overall lack of Blairite candidates and the obligatory rejection of Blairism.  This was particularly notable with the current front-runner Andy Burnham, hastily distancing himself from his prior career as a government minister tainted by Blairism.  The shortage of Blairite contenders was brought into sharp relief by the comic value of Chuka Umunna’s brief campaign, which was so dynamic that (to resurrect an old Ciceronian joke about a place-holding Roman consul) the prospective leader almost didn’t get any sleep during his candidature.

In the interests of maintaining my criticism of Ed Miliband in every possible context, I can’t leave Umunna’s candidature without commenting on the opening sentence of his withdrawal statement.

‘Shortly before the election campaign, I made the decision, in the event that Labour was defeated and a new leader was to be elected, to stand for the leadership of the party….’

Clearly Ed’s defeat was completely unanticipated.

Meanwhile, without being too critical of Umunna, it is clear that his candidature was, in the final analysis, not serious; at least to the extent of his willingness to endure the predictable level of press scrutiny which would follow.  So much for the great hope of the Blairites.  To pick up on one of Umunna’s points in the video originally declaring his candidacy, this is why the reconstruction of the Labour party will take more than five years, possibly more than ten.  Another defeat is necessary before the party will be willing to learn the lesson, and accept the necessity of ‘Blairism’.

The necessity for learning the New Labour/Blairite lesson all over again is handily demonstrated in the Labour leadership north of the border, where Jim Murphy resigned despite winning a vote of confidence on the party’s executive 17-14.  I have some time for Murphy, largely on the obvious grounds of his performance for the ‘No’ campaign in the Scottish referendum last year.  In contrast to the craven incompetence displayed by many of his Labour colleagues, Murphy at least demonstrated clear moral courage by his personal campaigning, and in my view did much to expose the underlying reality of anti-democratic intimidation amongst many in the ‘Yes’ campaign.  However, Murphy is a prisoner of the party context, which means that he lacks the power base necessary to effectively lead the party, as the narrow vote on the executive in his favour indicates.  Ultimately, this is why Scottish Labour need a different leader, but that need is driven by internal political dynamics of appeasing the loons desperate to recapture the ‘progressive’ constituency lost to the SNP rather than a realistic search for a programme with broader and more genuine national appeal.

Just in case a further confirmation of the determining nature of that internal conflict was required, Murphy provided it himself when he claimed he would produce a report advocating reform of the voting structure inside Scottish Labour away from the current situation where trade unions, parliamentarians and party members constitute a third of the electorate respectively.  The rationale for this has been the conflict between Murphy and union leadership in the person of the Unite leader, Len McCluskey.  As Murphy puts it;

‘Sometimes people see it as a badge of honour to have Mr McCluskey’s support. I kind of see it as a kiss of death to be supported by that type of politics.’

The problem becomes evident when McCluskey’s attitudes are explored.  A hard-left one-time supporter of Liverpool’s Militant Tendency in their glory days, McCluskey weighed in with vocal support for local Unite official Stevie Deans when Deans was accused of stacking local Labour party membership to ensure the selection of his favoured candidate for the Falkirk by election in 2012.  The scandal emerged in 2013 when local people complained that they had been recruited into the party without their permission, triggering a suspension of the candidate selection procedure and a police investigation.  Both investigations blew over, with the police notably concluding that no criminal activity had taken place, although this was alleged to be a result of evidence being withdrawn by witnesses.

The most important outcome from this was the catalyst it provided for Ed Miliband’s brief challenge to McCluskey’s behaviour and the intense but temporary attention it focused on Miliband’s proposals for reforming financial contributions of political parties.  While the latter was aborted largely because of conservative opposition to limiting the contributions of individuals for obvious reasons of Tory self-interest, the fact that it arose at all was because of the evident conflict of interests in the Labour party.   That conflict arose between traditional picture of apparently corrupt McCluskeyite/Deanite union machine politics and a belated attempt by Miliband to recapture some measure of Blairite distance from such behaviour.  Of course, the reality was that Blair’s attempt to distance Labour from such traditional behaviour drove the party into the Ecclestone/Levy scandals over contributions as an alternative to such problematic union funding.

The original problem endures, however, with a particular Scottish resonance for Labour’s search for a new strategy after another electoral failure.  McCluskey’s intervention to threaten disaffiliation of Unite political funding from Labour came in the same breath as an implict warning that Unite in Scotland might find a more congenial relationship by funding the SNP.  I think we can safely accept his subsequent furious backpeddling as confirmation that his original intervention was a fairly crude attempt to warn off any return to Blairite heresy by playing on SNP electoral success at Labour expense.

The failure to resolve the union funding issue by Ed Miliband, despite his reform of leadership elections, and by Labour generally means that it remains an ulcer to be expolited by union leaders like McCluskey, somebody with prior form for threatening to rethink his union contributions to the party if it elects a new leader insufficiently left-wing for his tastes.  That sort of retro seventies union strong-arming takes us right back to the pre-Thatcher era, at the direct expense of Labour’s credibility with the broad mass of the British electorate.   But we already know their perceptions are an irrelevance to the dominant constituencies in Labour, so McCluskey’s gambit will probably be successful in setting the tacit boundaries of the Labour leadership contest.

In the larger sense this means the dynamics of the Labour leadership contest are less about the gladiatorial success or failures of the leadership candidates fighting and falling in the arena to the amusement of the electorate, and more about the powerful political figures funding the games.  In the late Roman Republic of Cicero and Caesar, the obvious candidate for this role would be Marcus Licinius Crassus and his employment of his massive personal wealth to buy elections and influence for client politicians fighting their way up the greasy pole of Roman electoral politics.

Crassus eventually met an ignominious end outside the arena of Roman internal politics in a disastrous military expedition against the Parthian empire, a risk McCluskey will always be able to evade while union and Labour politics remain insulated from such inconvenient collisions with external reality.  As Ed Miliband has found out, however, such immunity does not extend to those products of the system who have to submit themselves to the verdict of external reality in the form of public elections.  So for the encouragement of the next Labour leader:  Forward to Oblivion!

Re-Branding Ed, part 2 – The Guru Breaks Up

My usual two reasons for returning to this story – one, it’s amusing; and two, it’s predictable to the point of inevitability.

Having endorsed Labour’s campaign after a one-to-one session when he found himself unable to sustain the intellectual challenge in a one-to-one against Ed Miliband, who proved uncharacteristically impervious to Russell’s use of of buzzwords… I mean ‘Russell’s incisive grasp of political theory’, the inevitable soon followed.

Apparently Brand buckled into supporting Ed as a consequence of pressure from Ed’s Gestapo-like Labour activists who had the bad taste to relentlessly point out the consequences of a Tory victory to the sort of social welfare programmes that Brand likes to posture in favour of.  Uncool, man.

Brand’s mistake was to allow himself to be pinned down by a discourse based on reality; any psychic, con-man or guru on the make could have warned him to steer clear of such dangers and maintain his status by taking refugee in his normal anodyne ‘revolutionary’ generalities.  Exposure to reality, even at the hands of Ed Miliband, would only expose them as the hollow posturing they were.  Incapable of refuting Ed, his options were limited and embracing Labour allowed him to put off the evil moment where he would have to admit he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Given his backtracking after Ed’s defeat I can only suppose that Brand was then overcome with buyer’s remorse and the inevitable outrage of his intellectually-slack ‘revolutionary’ fellow-travellers at such a craven betrayal of their treasured posturing in favour of actually useful political engagement.

Ed’s mistake was to sit down with Russell Brand and think that he could possibly gain any credibility.

Still, the episode perhaps represents a trival yet accurate characterisation of Ed’s leadership – in the end, it couldn’t even convince Russell Brand.

The Clash of the Mediocrities, or How We Get the Politicians We Deserve

Despite the SNP surge in Scotland, the polling controversy and the return of Cameron to Downing Street, the 2015 election has generally lacked engaging drama. It’s been difficult to avoid the feeling that the election is a tedious interlude before significant subsequent developments, and this seems to be confirmed with resignations of the defeated political leaders, Farage for UKIP, Clegg for the Lib Dems and Miliband for Labour.  None of these leaders can really be regarded as anything other than mediocrities, largely because of their failure to recognise the continuing relevance of Blairism.  This is no real fault of Farage considering his avowedly reactionary constituency, but it remains an enduring problem for the Lib Dems and Labour.

Of the failure of leaderships assocated with their individual and collective election defeats I think the most significant is Miliband’s; Farage will almost certainly stand again for UKIP leadership and most probably win – he’s an established brand, with established appeal to that part of the electorate which takes UKIP seriously, while the party itself remains plagued with what Cameron accurately characterised as ‘swivel-eyed loons’.  In sort, Farage’s shortcomings and idiosyncrasies accurately reflect those of his constituency, which will remain relatively marginalised provided Cameron’s gambit on an EU referendum is sufficient to neutralise the threat to his votes.  And that seems to have been a successful tactic given the election results.

Clegg’s resignation is more significant, but remains a predictable consquence of going into coalition government with the Tories.  Cameron’s relative success at managing the Eurosceptic threat in his own party while holding the centre ground meant that the Lib Dems were likely to lose whatever conservative tactical votes they gained in 2010, while the defection of disaffected Labour voters lost votes in the other direction this time.  Ultimately the Lib Dems became the whipping boys for coalition policy and the loss of the temporary tactical surge they benefitted from in 2010 was predictable.  Clegg’s policy may pay off in the longer term, as the Lib Dems did demonstrate a capacity for responsible politics which might possibly address centre and right-wing reluctance to trust them in government again.  That’s not a completely trival achievement, given their otherwise virtual exclusion from power since 1945.

On the personal front Clegg certainly took a hit on the student fees fiasco.  While reneging on that election pledge was also predictable given the financial circumstances, it will remain the flagship example of the identification of the Lib Dems in coalition with austerity and the most prominent example of a politician betraying their election promises which will be repeatedly flung at them for the next decade or so.  This is certainly unfair, but I have little sympathy for the Lib Dems and Clegg in particular over this; university education has been in a funding crisis for some time.  Absent a willingness to increase funding from taxpayers via increased taxes or proportionate public spending cuts elsewhere, increasing student fees is the only available option to address that crisis.  In this instance, the Lib Dems came face to face with what can only be described as the hypocrisy of the British electorate’s wishes over such post-Thatcherite public spending issues; we want to benefit from high-quality public services but we don’t want to pay for them.  The Lib Dem election pledges over ending student fees therefore opportunistically pandered to that hypocrisy, and so I don’t take exception to the inevitable consequences, and nor should the Lib Dems.

To some extent Clegg’s problem over fees is Miliband’s problem writ small.  In Ed’s case, his attempt to invent some kind of post-Blair consensus was crippled by his inability to confront that same hypocrisy on the part of the electorate over taxation and public services.  Indeed, aside from the Iraq issue, the Thatcherite/Blairite introduction of free market competition into ideologically-sensitive areas such as education and the health service to try and square the circle involved in the contradictory demands for high quality public service and low taxation remains the biggest problem confronting all parties. But given the contradiction with internal Labour ideology, aside from the brief and superficial heyday of ‘The Third Way’ in the nineties (the golden era of acceptable Blairism), it’s always been a bigger problem for Labour than anybody else.

Labour ideologues have never been reconciled to the necessity of Blairism to win elections, and the result has been that ever since Ed won the Labour leadership election on an implicitly anti-Blairite agenda, the post-Blair Labour party and resulting Labour leadership have been less of an attempt to construct a consensus between pro- and anti-Blair factions than they have been an outright expression of anti-Blair orthodoxy.  The results, as Blair pointed out under Brown’s leadership and now under Miliband’s, has been that Labour have been unable to retain a hold on the centre ground when faced with a mediocre challenge from Cameron.

It is considered by some that the success of the SNP in Scotland demonstrates the viability of challenging Toryism from the left.  The only problem with that is that SNP policy is Cameronite rather than Nye Bevanite or Bennite.  The SNP’s successful rhetorical theft of Labour’s clothes, while facilitated by the complacent and authoritarian nature of Scottish Labour politics, is contradicted by their policies (e.g. freezing Council Tax – a superbly tactical ‘rollback’ of public spending to gladden the cockles of any small-government conservative by a party claiming to be ‘progressive’).  The SNP are, essentially, a giant con-trick where any political approach is justified provided it wins votes.  The cynic might fail to discern much difference between that and Blairism, but it remains a fact that Blairism involved more significant commitments to, and achievements for, social democracy than the SNP government in Scotland has ever obtained.

Blairism sought to deliver social democracy within the constraints imposed by the British electorate, and was successful at doing so. The SNP seek to deliver secession to vindicate an exclusively Anglophobic vision of the Scottish national identity; doing so under a ‘progressive’ cloak to steal Labour votes which will discarded as soon as another cloak becomes more convenient.  And in the end, the grand strategy of providing a ‘progressive’ Scottish bloc at Westminster to force Labour leftwards in coalition government failed because of Labour’s failure to contest the centre-ground in the rest of the UK.  If nothing else, this should expose the SNP’s dependence upon British political parties and the counter-productive impact of relying of nationalism to deliver ‘progressive’ policies in the UK political context.

Meanwhile, post-Blair Labour have sought to deliver social democracy within the constraints demanded by anti-Blairite ideology with little or no regard for winning electoral support where this conflicts with that ideology.  And as a result they’ve failed. Again.

It remains to be seen if Labour can evolve past this failed obsessional rejection of Blair.  It seems unlikely based on previous experience, where Labour needed to lose four elections over more than a decade against Thatcher and Major before the manifest need to evolve provided Blair his opportunity.  By that standard, they’ve at least one more election defeat to come before the party starts to think again.  Even if there is a dim perception of that need now, the purging of Blair and the criminality of Blairism have been in effect for so long that there are no potential leaders willing (and capable) of taking up that mantle; the cadre of mediocre rump Bennites, Brownites, Ballsites, Mcluskeyites and Ed-ites populating the current Labour party seem incapable of learning one of the core lessons of leadership, and particularly Blairite leadership; that it can be necessary, even critically important, to challenge party complacency and orthodoxy in order to gain credibility and win elections.

All of which means David Cameron can win a general election campaign using an unambitious strategy without having to work too hard – keep the Eurosceptics under control, claim the centre-ground, take few risks and let Labour defeat themselves.  Fair enough for Cameron, nil points for Labour, the Lib Dems, and most of all for the British electorate when they start whingeing about the resulting policy outcomes over the course of the new parliament.

We get the politicians – and the policies – we deserve.

That Portillo Moment

More on the 2015 General election in due course.  But before I start whingeing about the boring stuff, it’s time to dwell on one of the rare points of complete satisfaction thrown up by the election.

Every election features a watershed moment where the result at a single particular constituency captures the zeitgeist, somehow encapsulating the broader experience of the election at the essential level on a single stage as the results are announced to the jubilation of the winner and the consternation of the loser.  In 1997 it was the defeat of Michael Portillo.  After nearly two decades of Conservative government stumbled into exhausted and apathetic defeat against Blair’s resurgent New Labour, the defeat of Portillo – once the Great White Hope of Thatcherism – seemed to characterise the decisive point at which the old order expired and the new departure began.

I can still remember the atmosphere at work the next day, passing colleagues in the corridor announcing the single word ‘Portillo’ to one another through broad grins.  What moment could possibly match or surpass that in the otherwise depressingly downbeat 2015 election?

The defeat of ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway, of course.

Galloway’s ambitions as a supposed pro-Palestinian and anti-war poseur, sorry, ‘figure’, led to his explusion from the Labour party and his subsequent career as a carpet-bagging MP.  Using a platform provided by the Stop the War Coalition and the Respect political party (featuring some entirely predictable splitting by the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party and the even more predictable degeneration of Respect into a vehicle for Galloway’s ego on the way), Galloway exploited an ‘anti-war’ agenda and divisive Asian ethnic identity politics at Labour’s expense in order to get elected in London and then Bradford.

The essential problem has been that Galloway’s pretensions are hypocritical.  Despite claiming to be anti-war, Galloway has no problem with advocating violent ‘resistance’ against British troops in Iraq – resistance perpetrated by unelected terrorists who killed the majority of Iraqi civilians in the post-invasion violence.  Despite expressing his opinion of the understandable nature of a hypothetical assassination attempt on Tony Blair due to Blair’s Galloway’s characterisation of him as a mass-murderer of civilians in Iraq, Galloway’s opposition to such mass-murdering tyrannts as Blair is more selective than he likes to admit.  Let’s face it, it can be hard to tell a middle-eastern autocrat to his face that he’s a tyrannical mass-murderer of Iraqi civilians.

Galloway’s courageous attempt at doing so when he met Saddam Hussein in 1994 included the memorable phrase that he ‘saluted’ Saddam’s ‘indefagitability’.   So let’s have another reminder of Galloway’s principled stand against tyranny on that occasion.

Sadly, this won’t be the last we see of Galloway, as he will continue to indulge the Blair-rage and ‘anti-war’ posturing of those elements of the British electorate who are quite happy with despotism, war and the deaths of civilians, provided they are achieved by the correct anti-American figure of choice.  He will turn up to exploit this particular agenda again but now the slow passage of time will condemn him to irrelevance, as he will slowly metamorphose, even in the eyes of his acolytes, from a principled political dissenter to the fringe lunatic standing next to the Monster Raving Looney Party’s candidate at the hustings.

That process began with his defeat in Bradford West.

Ed-henge

For those seeking the reference points to shaping Ed Miliband’s visionary political leadership, as recently demonstrated in his recent ‘carved into stone’ election commitment photo-opportunity; In this instance. Ed’s team have triumphantly synthesised four previously-unconnected  visualisations.

Firstly, Alex Salmond’s stone obelisk celebrating the imposition of student fees on British students in Scotland.

You can imagine the blue-sky brainstorming session at the relevant meeting of Ed’s strategy team as they gaze at the depressing election campaign poll results –  ‘The Scottish ‘Yes’ campaign seemed to enthuse a disenchanted electorate and the Sneeps are about to give us a kicking – find out what sort of empty gesture politics they got away with and lift them.’

Secondly, Iain Duncan Smith’s innovative ‘IDS card’, deployed in a vain attempt to cement his position as Conservative leader shortly before his sudden-but-somehow-inevitable deposition in 2003;

[To the tune of ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ by R. Kelly]

I believe in hard work…

In rewarding people who play by the rules…

In small government.

I believe in punishing criminals…

In trusting nurses, teachers, police officers…

I believe in a low tax economy.

Thirdly, the mysterious extra-terrestrial monolith surrounded by Ed’s election strategy team from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’;

And finally, with due respect for Spinal Tap’s free-form jazz exploration ‘Jazz Odyssey’ as the transition point, let’s acknowledge Ed’s bravery in embracing the comedy genius of Tap’s ‘Stonehenge’ stage prop, which was – as one band member averred – ‘In danger of being crushed.. by a dwarf.’

Re-Branding Ed

Never let it be said that I would pass up an opportunity to belittle Ed Miliband’s leadership.  In this case, having cast aspersions on the Spinal Tap-esque ‘tombstone’ of Ed’s election strategy (see above), I need to comment on Ed’s solicitation of Russell Brand.

You might think that co-opting a celeb to back an election campaign would be part of the normal process of electioneering, and therefore unremarkable.  But this case is a particularly significant of an example of the futility of the otherwise brave attempts of a politician to connect with a spokesperson of the much-lamented apathetic disconnection between the ‘yoof’ constituency (apparently represented by a millionare celebrity like Brand) and conventional politics.

My problems with this are two-fold.  Firstly, Brand is – as far as I can see – a gigolo who frequents yoga classes for sexual conquests and TV and news media for more straightforward popular attention.  His amorphous New Age ‘revolutionary’ political philosophy certainly seems appropriate for the first context, or the undergraduate student parties where many of us first make the acquaintence of similar Byronic poseurs.  I was in fact greatly sympathetic to his earlier position of advocating non-voting, largely because it meant that anybody dumb enough or naive enough to be influenced by such slack-jawed insouciance was automatically excluding themselves from exercising any political influence over me.  His earlier stance had all the advantages of objective and dispassionate voter evaluation and disqualification without any of the disadvantages involved in actually imposing tests to ensure minimal  capacity of thought on the part of the voter.  So convincing Brand and those influenced by him to vote is not a net benefit for informed democracy in my view.  I much preferred allowing the disenchanted and lazy to exclude themselves, thereby undermining any necessity to attend to their self-indulgent whining about how they felt excluded from politics.

Politics is, and always has been, a frustratingly complex process of chosing sub-optimal solutions to genuinely difficult problems.  Much like adult life.   My advice to psuedo-revolutionary wannabe rock stars like Brand in their search for an easy way to change things for the better and/or secure the attention of impressionable girls is to grow up and deal with it without making life worse, as revolutions have a distressing tendency to do.

The second problem is that I don’t expect that Ed would lose many votes gaining Brand’s approval, but I doubt he gained very many any as it would be too late to for those following Brand’s example of not being registered to actually manage to vote in this election.  And while I’m sure Ed will get some brownie points from within his coterie for getting Brand on board (well, except for Brand’s advocation of the Greens in Brighton), pandering to self-appointed celebrity gurus reeks of gimmickry and is not sufficient to even begin addressing the larger issue of voter disenchantment.

How to Beat Congnitive Dissonance with Nationalist Denial.

How quickly five years can flash past.  I remember following the 2010 election and consequent coalition negotiations with great interest, mainly for the historical interest involved in the first return of the first full coalition government in the post-war era.  This time round things are different, and I’ve had to confront my own sense of apathy to arouse any interest in the proceedings.  One cause of this is the much-reported imminent collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland and the resurgence of the SNP, with clear echoes of the independence referendum campaign last year.  Been there, done that, and the downbeat sense of pessimism the high ‘Yes’ vote earned on a platform built largely on the denial of reality still lingers and has since been endlessly reinforced by the general election campaign here in Scotland.

I have been asked why the SNP is set to capture the Labour vote so effectively when the ‘No’ result in the referendum was apparently decisive.  There are a lot of explanations for this, and in my opinion most of them relate directly to the ‘Yes’ campaign in the referendum.  First of all, the vote wasn’t decisive; no vote except the one the legitimises independence is ever going to be decisive for many in the ‘Yes’ campaign in their aptly-called ‘neverendum’.

More significantly, that campaign allowed the SNP to capture the language and label of ‘progressive politics’ despite the obvious contradictions involved.  The SNP benefitted from the characterisation of the ‘No’ campaign as Tories or Tory apologists, thereby tapping into the deeply-rooted sense of injustice directed at the Tories in Scotland since the introduction of the Poll Tax.  The inability of the Conservatives to successfully reinvent themselves in the context of Scottish popular politics in the decades after that (Ruth Davidson being effective in person, but too little, too late) left the SNP able to capture a dwindling Tory vote.

Of course, that does little to explain the collapse of the Labour vote. While I suspect it is being overstated, the trend is real enough and ominous for Labour.  The incredible complacency of the Labour machine in Labour heartlands is one issue, handily demonstrated by the constrasting activity of the SNP’s campaign.  But that activity itself is largely fuelled by the enduring emotional momentum of the ‘Yes’ campaign bandwagon.  Inevitably enough, some blame attaches to Ed Milliband’s leadership; despite self-consciously positioning the post-Blair/Brown party to the left of the New Labour axis, this strategy has not been enough to reclaim ‘progressive’ and ‘anti-Tory’ votes in Scotland against serious competition.

Obviously I’d like to blame this on the ineptitude of the Labour leadership, but this might seem redundant just after Ed staged his own Spinal Tap ‘Stonehenge’ moment with his
obelisk of election commitments.  What makes that escapade impossible to ignore, however, is that it clearly mimics Salmond’s positioning of a similar totemistic stone obelisk (this time about university student fees) at Heriot-Watt university last year.  It’s difficult to avoid the sense that some of Miliband’s team are desperately searching through the Salmond playbook and clutching at random straws, which brings out the relative failure of Ed to convert such antics into winning back SNP votes all the more starkly.

At the larger strategic level Ed’s attempt to win from the left was always doomed; any party seeking a serious platform to win a British election will always be outflanked from the left, and even here Ed finds himself out-polled (in Scotland) by a nationalist party claiming to be ‘progressive’.  The illogical basis of that position is a key element of the problem.

So what is the problem?  I suggest that the irrationality of nationalism coupled with a strong sense of denial provides the answer.  I’d measure this in part by voter intent.  Most people I know voting SNP are not necessarily staging another take on the independence referendum (although some are).  Most seem to be doing so out of a sincere but incoherent feeling that voting SNP will maximise Scottish leverage at Westminster when the odds are that the next government will be another coalition casting about for support.  This sense of maximising leverage in the national interest allows progressive lefties newly recruited since the ‘Yes’ campaign to join forces with the traditionally conservative (with a small ‘c’) SNP supporters without asking too many awkward questions about whether the resulting policies can be reconciled with their ideals.

Although there’s always been a conflict between much SNP policy and the comfort zone of the rural conservative vote the SNP leeched from the Tories in the past, the really epic cognitive dissonance in this situation lies with the progressives.  Essentially, if they wanted ‘progressive’ policies, then they would need to forget about the design of the flag flying over the town hall and start building alliances with parties which can deliver those policies in a Westminster context.  The SNP will never have the number of MP’s necessary to form a government at Westminster, which has always meant that they’ve been dependent upon co-opting other parties into a coalition.  This is where the Scottish nationalist bandwagon fails, and fails badly.  The most obvious candidate for SNP support on their self-declared ‘progressive’ platform would be Labour, but even Ed Miliband has been forced (in the end) to disavow them, largely because of the destructive impact of their success on Scottish Labour and the tribal animosity involved but also because of their secessionist nature.

Which means that the best the SNP will be able to do is join in de facto opposition with Labour against a Conservative/Liberal coalition, or – the schadenfreude would be remarkable – in de facto opposition with the Tories against another Labour/Liberal coalition government.  Miliband would be wise not to count on the SNP’s adherence to ‘progressive politics’ at the expense of exploiting a temporary tactical advantage in those circumstances.  After all, as Scots who remember the advent of a Thatcher government with distaste might be surprised to learn, bringing down such a coalition to clear the way for a Tory government is precisely what the SNP helped to do in 1979.

Enjoyable though remembering that special bit of nationalist hypocrisy might be, it leaves the so-called progressives confronted with the fundamental reality that if they really wanted ‘progressive’ policies delivered by a British government, they would actually need to vote Labour or even Liberal Democrat to secure a government independent of factional minority coalition allies, rather than indulge in self-defeating nationalism to clear the way for a Tory government.

None of this will bother the SNP much. Whatever happens they will still be able to play the role of hypocritical and irresponsible opportunists at Westminster, endlessly posturing at Labour’s expense while all the time safe in the knowledge that any criticism of them can be characterised as unpatriotic and the Tories are still to blame for everything.  Even when votes for and by the SNP put them in power.