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Monday, January 18, 2021

UK DECIDES (UK Election: Scotland the swing state to decide the election)

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The key battleground, where the election of the United Kingdom (UK) will be decided, is Scotland. Which way the 59 number of Westminster seats will go to, out of the 650 seats, between the Labour Party of Scotland and the Scottish National Party (SNP), will pretty much determine whether David Cameron of the Conservative Party, or his Labour equivalent Ed Miliband, will have the keys to 10 Downing Street, the seat of British power after May 7th.

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That is why all the major party leaders are visiting the country north of the border (Scotland) to campaign intensely for votes. But how did Scotland come to occupy such a position of prominence to decide the outcome of the UK General Election? I hear you asked.  

After the independence referendum there in September last year (which I covered heavily in this paper), majority of Labour voters who voted “Yes” for independence became livid for their party siding with the Conservative to defend the 307-years old Union. The Conservative are one of the least popular parties in Scotland. Their brand is deeply toxic. This stemmed from the poll tax imposed on them by the Thatcher government and the space room subsidy imposed on welfare claimants by the Cameron government, which is derisively called “the bedroom tax” by opponents of the policy, and the privatisation of normative values for the public. David Cameron’s disastrous post-referendum speech in the doorstep of 10 Downing Street where he said that full devolution to Scotland will go “in tandem with English Votes for English Laws (EVEL)” gave more support to the SNP.  

The Scottish National Party latched on to this, coupled with the unpopularity of the Conservative and Labour’s quandary after the referendum –  which saw a decisive 10 point victory for the Union parties-  to frame the argument in Scotland to their advantage, and win over Labour voters. And they are achieving that with an admirable gusto.  

Nicola Sturgeon, who succeeded Alex Salmond as SNP leader, after the referendum defeat, portrayed Labour in Scotland as the Party that abandoned its core values of social justice, equality, progressive politics, prosperity for the many, not the few, and an end to austerity. Record numbers of Labour supporters are sticking with them. And if poll of polls are to be believed, they are going to wipe out Labour in Scotland by scooping 50, or above, out of the maximum 59 seats for grasp, adding to their previous 6 seats in 2010, compared to Labour’s 40, bringing an end to Labour’s dominant command in Scotland for decades.  

This will make it incredibly difficult for Ed Miliband to form a majority government. The sifting of the tectonic political plate in Scotland from Labour to the SNP is one of the interesting developments happening in the UK, which political commentators there putting it into perspective, with the rise of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) under the charming bloke, pint-loving Nigel Farage in England.

How to claw back the Labour voters back is one of the biggest challenges facing Labourites.  To turn things around, Jim Murphy was elected to stop the SNP surge.  But Nicola Sturgeon made it clear repeatedly that she will work with Labour to “lock the Tories out of power”. This caused a huge furore when it was made. The Conservative when on the offensive challenging Ed Miliband to rule out forming a “lethal cocktail” coalition with a party that wants to “breakup the UK”. As always in politics, if your opponents called on you to do something, more often than not, it is to their advantage.

After behind-the scenes discussion with his shadow cabinet, advisers and political strategists, Ed Miliband decided to rule out a formal coalition with the SNP, but left the door open for a demand-and-supply arrangement basis, where the SNP can support a Labour budget, Queen Speech, and policies where they see eye-to-eye.  This was a big strategic pitch for Labour as they show that the surest way “to lock the Tories out of power” is to vote Labour, countering the SNP position.


Sturgeon given the Westminster treatment with “Frenchgate” 

The SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, posed a dilemma to the Westminster establishment. She always insists that she want more SNP Members in Parliament at Westminster to keep Labourites true to their values, and change the way the “all-boys-network of Westminster works”. 

When she squared up with the UK party leaders for the first televised debate, she emerged as the most impressive performer. She overshadowed Nigel Farage, who was tipped to win the debate due to his reputation as an outsider with no record to defend. Surprisingly, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats leader, who convincingly won the 2010 debates, earning the nicknamed Cleggmania, against all odds stack against him this time around, did well by selling the Lib Dems message to voters.

It was in the backdrop of the TV debates that the Daily Telegraph nutmeg Nicola Sturgeon. On Saturday they splashed with a headline that Sturgeon wants David Cameron to stay in 10 Downing Street, according a leaked Memo from the Commonwealth and Foreign Office (FCO). According to the Telegraph, Sturgeon made the disclosure to the French ambassador. During the discussion, the Telegraph claimed, she told the French ambassador that “Ed Miliband is not Prime Ministerial material”.

Politically, the implication of this is catastrophic for the SNP, if proven to be true. It implies that whilst in public she wants to see the Tories out of power, in private she wants them to retain it.  It behoves on Sturgeon and the French ambassador to confirm or deny the validity of the report. Within hours after the story broke out, a media scrum went after her. Asked to react to the story, she said “it is 100 percent untrue that I said I want to see David Cameron in power”, but confirmed that the meeting did actually take place with the French ambassador. Ed Miliband described the revelation as “damning”, and said that “Sturgeon must now come clean”.

But the big question became: How did the Daily Telegraph get hold of the memo, which should remain at the FCO? Sturgeon and the SNP said it was “deliberately leaked to smear her”.  They demanded an inquiry over the matter. The UK most senior Civil Servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood, who is the Head of the Civil Service, and above politics, issued a terse statement confirming that an inquiry is launched over the matter, and it will conclude and report to him before the election. At the time of writing, the inquiry is yet to finish.


Labour wheeled out former leader Blair

With the polls showing the two main parties – Labour and the Tories – in a deadheat, as the election is drawing ever closer, both sides are desperate for a jolt in the polls. It was during this moment that Labour wheeled out their former leader and Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who won three elections for them in a row (1997, 2001, and 2005).  With Tony Blair’s reputation battering taking a turn for the worst in the aftermath of his intervention in Iraq  and Afghanistan, one might think that Labour are making a cataclysm mistake by bring him out to speak on behalf of the party, reminding voters about Blair’s wars, pestilences, slicks, and spins. 

Since he stepped down as the Labour leader and Prime Minister in 2006, Blair takes a relatively low profile in British politics, focusing more on his new job as the quartet envoy (UN, US, EU, Arab League)  between Israel and Palestine, and his foundation “The Tony Blair Foundation”. At home, he is always vilified as “an adviser to rogue regimes in the Middle East” and “friend of the rich”. 

When he is asked by a British journalist about the prospects of Ed Miliband being a Prime Minister, he gives coded answers, confirming that he is not convinced with Ed. He once remarked to a journalist that “if a traditional left-wing party contests a traditional right-wing party during election, you get a traditional result”. That was the closest he came to saying that if Ed Miliband don’t change tack, the Tories are going to win. 

It is well known that Tony Blair didn’t not support Ed Miliband during the last Labour leadership election, but his brother David Miliband, who is a Blairite to the core. By contrast, Ed Miliband is a Brownite. This is as result of the intense rivalry between two chief architects of NEW LABOUR – Blair and Brown.  Ed Miliband also used to indulge in mea culpa to blunt the attacks of his opponents when they bring his party’s grim past to light, like the Iraqi war and open-border immigration, all of which he apologies for ad infinitum profusely.

But Blair is not a man who shows his sour grapes easily in public. His infectious smiles are a reminder of his decency.  He is not former Prime Minister Edward Heath, who stooped his successors for trashing his legacy. Two weeks into the election campaign, Blair picked an issue on which he agreed with Ed Miliband: Europe.  In a very well-trailed speech in the British Newspapers, he gave a solid speech in his former Parliamentary constituency of Sedgefield, taking on the “fantasies” on the Right of British politics – UKIP and the Tories – who want to withdraw the country from the European Union (EU).  It was one of the best speeches for the case of Britain’s membership in the EU. It was delivered with passion, zeal, zest, and above all, the Blair flair of communication with aplomb. The Guardian’s Newspaper’s Chief Political Correspondent, Patrick Wintour, who covered the event, described the speech as “one of the most substantive speech yet since the campaign began”. Immediately after the speech, Business leaders released a letter backing his call for Britain to stay in the EU. It all reminded me of the words of George W Bush. In his memoirs, Decision Points, he described Blair as “one of the greatest strategists thinkers”.  


Labour wrong-footed the Tories with non-doms reform

The following day after the Blair speech boosted the morale of the Labour Team, they came up with one of the most eye-catching tax policies of all: abolishing the 18th century don-domiciled (non-doms) tax loophole, which gives billionaires residing the UK free tax on their businesses and transaction abroad. It is not clear how much money the reform will accrue for the Treasury, but it was a big symbolic gesture, and resonated with voters. A poll conducted by YouGov showed that 77 percent of the public supported the move.

When a policy is popular with the electorate, opposition parties have three options to react to it. Welcome it, and it shows that you endorse it. Criticize it, and you are on the wrong side of public opinion. Throw a spanner into it by digging deep into your records to see where they are  coming from, or as the Tory Australian Campaign Strategy, Lynton Crosby , will say: “ when you are on the wrong side of the political debate, you throw a dead-cat on your opponents plate to stink it”, meaning diverting attention from the main issue. 

The Tories went for the latter option.  When the two Eds – Miliband, and his shadow Chancellor Balls – briefed the press about it, the Tories were in a state of confusion. They sent Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, not George Osborne, the Chancellor, to do the “air war” on the popular BBC radio 4 early morning Today Programme, which starts at 7am.  Pressed on the importance of the policy by presenter James Nughtie, Nicky Morgan sidestepped the question, saying:  “Labour are tinkering around the edges with this policy.”  

Not long afterwards, Sky News got hold of George Osborne to react to the no-dom tax loophole reform Labour are proposing. As the Chancellor in the past five years, he had opportunities to introduce it, but didn’t, fuelling attack on his party that they are the “party of the rich”.  George Osborne himself knows the powerful politics of such a move by Labour. When he was a boyish shadow Chancellor to Alistair Darling in 2007, he announced a tight measure in the inheritance tax loophole, and that move only stopped then- Prime Minister Gordon Brown from calling an election, which he would have won.

In the Sky interview, he said that Ed Miliband and Balls cannot tell how much money it will raise. For his part, David Cameron was armed with a line that the Conservative Campaign Headquarter (CCHQ) unearthed from an interview Ed Balls gave in January, saying that “if we tighten the rules on the no-doms status rich people will flee the country”. This line suits the Tories and it chimes with the defense of Chief Whip, Michael Gove. During NewsNight on the BBC with Evan Davis he said there will be “flight of talent”.  Pointing out Ed Balls remarks, Cameron said it shows “the chaos that will come under Labour”. It turns out that the video was edited to mislead the public, because the radio interview that the Tories were referring to Balls did say that despite the fear of capital flight, they can still go further to introduce reforms.


Michael Fallon’s personalised attack on Ed Miliband boomeranged 

Faced with the reality of not whipping up their key campaign message – the long-term economic plan – the Tories were desperate to move the debate from the non-dom policy. On Thursday they dispatched Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, to regain the initiative back for them by giving a speech on the renewal of Trident, one of the biggest security issues that will face any party forming government after 7th May. 

The Tories have an opportunity to renew Trident in the last parliament, but shelved it due to coalition disagreement over it – the Lib Dems wants three submarines, not four as the Tories want. Scotland, where Trident is based, Britain nuclear deterrents, the SNP are clear that they oppose its renewal, and the money should go into social programmes, health and education.

To drive a wedge between Labour and the SNP, Michael Fallon said that Ed Miliband “wants to barter away the security of Britain”. To firm up his point, he made a specious analogue to Ed Miliband’s move to run for the Labour party leadership, saying: “Just as he stabbed his brother in the back to be leader in his party, he is ready to stab Britain in the back.”


Shadow Foreign Secretary and Campaign Strategist chair of Labour, Douglas Alexander, said the personal attack showed the failing state of the Tory campaign, and “they are descending into politics of the gutter”. Miliband, after launching his party’s education policy alongside Shadow Education Secretary, Tristan Hunt, said: “Fallon demeaned himself and his office. And the Tories are engaged in a campaign of deceit and lies.”

The truth is that in 2016, a decision will be made about the renewal of Trident. Labour, like the Conservatives, wants Continuous-at-sea-deterrence (CASD). While Defense expert recommended that four submarines should be making patrols at-sea, Labour wants to explore the possibility of doing it with three. So the difference between the parties is very narrow. That begs the questions: Why is Fallon making a big fuss and personal attacks out of it? They are leading on the economic competence and leadership question, but it is not moving the needle in the polls. And in the history of British politics, no party leads on the two and lost election. The attack failed, as three polls out on that day gave Labour a 6 point lead over the Tories. As the Guardian Newspaper warned in its editorial: “Parties should not use National Security as political football. It is very dangerous and damaging.” 


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