I want to talk to you about power. Not political power, or entrenched patriarchal power, but the everyday kind you get from the socket in the wall. Because I heard something very disturbing indeed recently – the UK almost ran out of gas, at the worst possible time. Now at the time I heard about this, it was Thursday the 1st of March, and I was stuck on the other side of the world, in Melbourne, where it was still uncomfortably warm. If you were in the British Isles, you were currently in the grip of the Siberian weather system known as the ‘beast from the east’ so that could have been a very real problem. We all know now that it didn’t happen. If it had happened then you’d all no doubt be well aware of it, and there would probably be an enquiry into the reasons. And if you’ve read anything by me before, you may well not be entirely surprised to learn that I’m going to blame the Tories for the entire mess.
They are entirely responsible for this though, through incompetence, mismanagement and just plain greed. And I’m here tell you why (because this is nowhere near well enough understood). It’s not really the present day Tories who are to blame, although it is happening on their watch, and they haven’t done anything to prevent it, so they cannot escape blame entirely. No, I’m talking about the Tories of an earlier era, the 1980s, and of course one Margaret Hilda Thatcher.
As with so much of what is wrong with today’s UK, it started with her. Of course privatisation has a lot to answer for, and I’ll be coming back to that later, but that wasn’t the start of it. It actually started in the early 80s, when we faced a number of strategic decisions about power generation. We had, at that time, a significant number of coal-fired and nuclear generators (including all of the 1950s Magnox reactors for instance) which were approaching the end of their design lives. The government still owned all of them at this point.
So, with major shortfalls in capacity expected by the early 90s, decisions on replacements had to be made, because the time lag from turn-of-sod to turn-of-key for 1GW+ power stations, both nuclear and coal-fired plants, is typically seven years. But Thatcher was determined to destroy the NUM, so she didn’t want to order any new coal-fired stations at that time.
So what about nuclear, you may ask? Well, as a result of her ‘price of everything, value of nothing’ philosophy, she decided to build more nuclear power stations, but at the cheapest available price. So a bidding war started, with the choice coming down to the leading US design, Westinghouse’s Pressurised Water Reactor, or PWR, and the British design, Babcock & Wilcox’s Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor, or AGR. The AGR was widely acknowledged in the industry to be the safest available design at that time, however the PWR came in a bit cheaper, so the decision was eventually made to go with that. However, due to the delay, before any actual starts could be made, Chernobyl happened, making it politically impossible to build any new reactors for many years afterwards.
So they were put on indefinite hold, but by now there was no longer time to avoid widespread shortfalls in electricity supply by going back to coal, plus by then the UK coal industry no longer existed, and we’d have been hostage to the international markets anyway. It was at that point that the decision was made to go with cheap and relatively quick to build gas-fired generators, which could be fuelled with North Sea gas.
Just one problem with that – when North Sea gas came on stream, we were told that we had 2-300 hundred years supply. But that was assuming it was used the way it was in the 70s, for mainly domestic and some industrial use only. There were no gas-fired electricity generators back then. Using it for powergen has resulted in that 300 year potential being reduced to more like 30 years, and the UK is no longer self-sufficient. Scotland would be, but not the UK.
In addition to that, the whole system has since been privatised. Also by Thatcher’s government. Private companies have not found it to be in their shareholders’ interests to hold supplies in reserve for extreme weather events such as the one recently experienced. In times when demand is lower, like summer, they don’t accumulate stockpiles, they sell it on the international market. Remember gasometers? Those big things you used to see on city skylines, that went up and down on periodically, and held gas reserves? Don’t see those any more, do you? Plus there was a single facility known as Rough off the Yorkshire coast that represented around 70% of the UK’s storage capacity. It was ageing, built in 1985, and needed a thorough refurbishment, but Centrica, the owners of British Gas, decided it was too expensive and got out of the contract that required them to do all necessary maintenance work, so they could just shut it down instead, with no alternative provision. Just like they worm their way out of every major powergen infrastructure investment that’s ever needed. The private sector does not build power stations. They are happy enough to buy them cheap once the public purse has built them, and run them into the ground, but they have never built one with their own money!
That is the truth that today’s Tories will never tell you, but you can check for yourself, they haven’t. When they have built anything at all, it has been with government grants and subsidies. Back in the early 80s, when I first studied economics, we used to call utilities like gas and electricity ‘natural monopolies,’ which obviously had to be publicly owned, because they were essential services and therefore too vulnerable to exploitation if they were in private hands. The argument goes that companies (and remember, economics 101, the purpose of a company is to maximise profit), would find the temptation to profiteer from essential services too great to resist. Then along came Thatcher and said, “No, no, no, we’ll open them up to competition and prices will go down!” Well? Have they? Are you enjoying the savings? No, of course you’re not! My mother, an 83 year old pensioner on supposedly the lowest tariff, got a bill for over 900 quid at the end of last year!
Prices have skyrocketed, as those of us who actually understood the first thing about economics always knew they inevitably would. The system we have now has competition, yes, but what it also has is two levels of private enterprise, in both generation and distribution, sucking money out of the system to give to their shareholders. How was that ever going to result in lower prices? You’d have to be an idiot or a liar to suggest such an obvious nonsense. Now, I don’t think Margaret Thatcher was an idiot. She must have known what she was doing, and that makes it fraud, on a massive scale. It’s quite clear. Google the Fraud Act if you have the time. Privatisation ticks every box, and the only valid defence for anyone involved in it would be to claim that they were too stupid to understand what the inevitable results of what they were doing were. So that’s the question modern day Tories and advocates of so-called market solutions must answer – are you too stupid and incompetent, or too crooked to be in charge of a petty cash tin, never mind a major economy? Because it has to be one or the other.
To use Thatcher’s favourite phrase, there is no alternative!
Before I start there is something I have to explain, which is that ‘Spin Cycle, Part 1’ was written, and recorded for the podcast, on the 22 May, mere hours before the Manchester bombing. Obviously a great deal has happened in the campaign since then. I think it’s only fair that I reproduce that part, as originally written, so that you can see what I said at the time and compare it to how things have panned out since. I’ll put it at the bottom. I will have to update it of course, but I’ll do that by adding observations now, rather than changing anything I wrote then. Now, to business.
In part 2 we’re going to look at it from the Labour point of view. Or perhaps I should say points of view. Those guys were not expecting this. They were in the middle of a civil war. They had a leader with great support amongst the membership, and bugger all from the parliamentary party. That was a situation that they were always going to have to sort out, but it’s not at all obvious how. But at least, they thought, they had three years to work on it. It was a reasonable assumption. There was no election due, and no obvious reason (as discussed in Part 1) for an early one.
They did have one advantage though. When you have a new leader following an election loss, it is standard for that leader to institute a full scale policy review. Given that Corbyn took over, give or take, a year and a half ago, that review would have been well advanced. That has become obvious. When challenged to produce a manifesto with no notice, they came up with a suite of policies that had been costed and, I believe, focus-grouped. This was in stark contrast to the Tories, and one in the eye for those conspiracy theorists who initially suspected this election was part of some sort of master plan. Nuh. Their manifesto was a hastily cobbled together mish mash of half-formed ideas and spite, none of it even costed. They had clearly done no policy work whatsoever. They were not expecting this either.
That half-arsed manifesto gave us our first glimpse of what was to come. Having attacked just about every other vulnerable group in society without suffering much electoral disadvantage by it, presumably because members of disadvantaged groups don’t tend to vote Tory anyway, this time around they came up with a policy that targeted the elderly. As the elderly tend to vote Tory in disproportionate numbers this was effectively an attack on their own base. It went down like the proverbial lead balloon, and May was forced into an embarrassing climb down*, which she compounded by denying that it had even happened. Completely self-inflicted injury. Corbyn’s team had one job, which they absolutely nailed (respect!), and that was to come up with a pithy, memorable way of describing the policy. Dementia Tax. Perfect.
Now, at the start of the campaign Labour were 20-odd points behind, and when I wrote Part 1 the polls hadn’t yet shifted much. Even so, I said there were reasons for the Tory campaigners to be concerned. Since then a couple of things have happened to underscore those concerns. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn has turned out to be pretty good on the stump. He seems to genuinely relish campaigning, and he has come over well. Secondly, and I think far more tellingly, the Tory campaign has been spectacularly incompetent. Every move they’ve made has played into Corbyn’s hands, and May herself has proved to be a dreadful candidate. She has come across as brittle, anxious, deeply flawed and simply not across the detail of her own policies.
These impressions are important. Many of my readers, discerning lot that you are, would find them quite superficial. However, the mere fact that you are reading this suggests that you think more about your politics than most people. The majority will make up their minds based on vague impressions and ‘gut feelings.’ The strategists know this, and in that knowledge May’s team chose a presidential campaign. They didn’t have to do that. They obviously thought they were on a winner. Early in the campaign all the branding was about May, the party scarcely got a look in. It was all ‘Strong and Stable.’
You don’t often get to see a governing party drop its main slogan mid-campaign out of sheer embarrassment. Let’s just take a moment to let that sink in. They went with ‘Strong and Stable’ but their candidate looked so weak and vacillating, and so far from stable, that sticking her in front of that slogan only served to draw attention to her inadequacies. Her micro-expressions have been the gift that keeps on giving for purveyors of GIFs (if you’ll pardon the pun) and memes, in much the same way as Ed Milliband’s were two years ago.
I do seem to be talking a lot about the Tory campaign, when this section was supposed to be about Labour’s. There is a very simple reason for this. The Corbyn strategists are familiar with the maxim, attributed to Napoleon, “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.” That has been the case for most of this campaign, and has produced a very unusual outcome for Corbyn’s people. They’ve been able to have a genuinely ambitious manifesto, with lots of big ticket items and proposals for major change, and yet run what is essentially a ‘small target’ campaign. They have been able to simply send their candidate out to do his thing, and seem far more competent and credible doing it then the opponent who chose to make this a contest of personalities.
They did have a wobble early on of course, and it led to what is arguably the most interesting part of the whole campaign. I alluded to it in Part 1, and at the start of Part 2 I mentioned that Corbyn and his team were in the middle of a civil war when the election was called. Somebody, and it seems all but certain that it was somebody in the shadow cabinet, leaked major details of the manifesto a week early in an apparent sabotage attempt. Corbyn’s team must have been hanging their heads in despair. For a couple of days. The Blairite faction presumably believed, as Blair did, that Thatcher was right, the ground of political debate had permanently shifted, and that left wing policies, such as renationalisation of the railways, had been successfully painted as ‘loony’ ideas, and were effectively unsellable. They were dead wrong.
It turns out they are in fact really popular. As soon as the leak happened pollsters started canvassing opinion on the policies, and discovered that they had really strong support. Some of them even gained majority support amongst Tory voters. This, I believe, will be this campaign’s most enduring legacy. It may finally lay to rest the ghosts of 1983. That was Labour’s worst result (28%) of modern times. I argued, in an earlier piece for Ungagged called ‘Left, Right and Centre,’ that contrary to the conventional wisdom that Labour lost that election by being too left wing, it really had far more to do with the Falklands War and Michael Foot’s duffel coat. I have held that view for 34 years, and I may be about to be spectacularly vindicated. Watch this space.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the two dreadful terrorist attacks which punctuated the campaign. Here at Ungagged, our thoughts are with all of the family and friends of the victims of these terrible events. But we must also consider what impact they may have had on this campaign. Conventional wisdom says such events normally favour incumbents, especially if they are conservative incumbents. But there’s a problem. Two attacks in the last three weeks looks a bit like an attempt to influence the election** but that makes three in three months, and that is starting to look like a pattern. A deficiency. Somebody, somewhere has screwed up. I wouldn’t want to blame the police or the security services, they are limited by the resources they are given, and the leadership they receive. The buck stops with the person in charge, and with the police (in England and Wales) and MI5, that is the Home Secretary.
So when, on Monday morning, Theresa May came out to take advantage of the attacks (yes, that’s what she was doing) with her ‘Enough is enough’ speech (is there some kind of rule these days that all political slogans must be either oxymorons – ‘Continuity with change’ – or tautologies – ‘Brexit means Brexit, Enough is enough’?)*** she was also taking a very strange decision indeed – she would run against her own record as Home Secretary. Because if we haven’t been handling this right, if mistakes have been made, they are her mistakes! She was in the job for six years before becoming Prime Minister! Sir Humphrey Appleby would have considered that more than ‘courageous.’ Or, as Malcolm Tucker once said, “I mean I know politicians and hot air are supposed to go together, but I’ve never actually seen one vaporise!”
*The ‘climb down’ itself warrants a further mention, because in some ways it wasn’t really a climb down at all. You see, the problem as I see it was never the height of the ceiling, or even the lack of one, it was the low level of the floor. Putting a ceiling on the amount that can be recovered from the person’s deceased estate only protects those whose assets exceed that amount. To put that in plain English, it protects millionaires. But the floor, at just £100,000, means that unless your assets do exceed the ceiling, you’re going to lose the house. Even in Clydebank (which is hardly Mayfair) you can’t find a house worth less than £100,000 these days. Not even a flat. Even the house I grew up in, a simple two up, two down terraced house my parents purchased in 1966 for the princely sum of £1,800, went for over £200,000 the last time it was sold (amazing what you can find out online these days).
**Interesting, don’t you think, that IS clearly favours a Tory win? A subject we may have to return to after the electoral dust settles.
***One more slogan I have to mention: ‘No deal is better than a bad deal.’ We’ve all heard it, in relation to Brexit negotiations. Sounds reasonable enough, until you think about it for a moment and realise that it’s utter nonsense! In this context, ‘no deal’ has a very specific meaning. It means we fall back on WTO rules. You may want to google that to find out exactly what it means, but the point is, as a former trade union negotiator I can tell you that if the deal on the table would leave you in a worse position than not making a deal at all, then you are not going to take that deal, are you? You’d be a pretty bloody useless negotiator if you did. It is yet another completely meaningless statement.
Spin Cycle, Part 3
There’s a what now? An election? Are you sure?
In Part 3 we will look at this from the SNP point of view. Don’t worry, this won’t take long. The biggest problem facing the SNP strategists is really how well they did last time. 56 out of 59 seats is obviously a high water mark. It demands a mostly defensive campaign. The delicate part of it was to avoid making it all about either Brexit or IndyRef2. They seem to have done a reasonable job of advancing two propositions.
1. We (the SNP) are best placed to look after the interests of the Scottish people, regardless of the outcome of the election in the UK as a whole, and
2. Even if you have a positive view of Jeremy Corbyn and his manifesto, a vote for Labour in Scotland is far more likely to contribute to the election of a Tory MP than a Labour one.
It’s not rocket science. It’s Tactical Voting 101. If you do not wish to see May and the Tories returned (which I’m assuming most Ungagged readers don’t), then vote for the non-Tory candidate who has the best chance of winning in your seat. In Scotland that means the SNP, in England and Wales it means mostly Labour, with the exception of those seats where a Green, LibDem or Plaid Cymru candidate has a better chance of winning. That’s it. First Past The Post (FPTP) is the simplest voting system there is. There will be much to discuss when this is over, but for now the message couldn’t be simpler: Get out and vote, and vote the Tories out!
Hi, this is Derek Stewart Macpherson, from the Babel Fish Blog. I’ve been thinking about a new regular segment for the blog, looking not at what politicians are saying, but what’s going on behind the scenes. What the political strategists, campaign managers, communications directors, spin doctors, advisers and practitioners of the dark arts are thinking. So I thought I’d give Ungagged listeners a preview. So welcome to:
Spin Cycle, Part 1
Why Are We Having An Election?
In part 1 we’re going to look at it from the Tories’ point of view. It was Theresa May’s decision to have an election. So, why? I take it that it goes without saying that it’s not for the stated reasons? A mandate? A mandate for what? She’s two years into a five year term. She has a working majority. No, she wasn’t the PM who was elected, but that’s just a function of the fact that we don’t elect PMs, we elect MPs. They can change their leader if they like, it happens. In 1976 Harold Wilson retired two years in and Jim Callaghan served out almost the full term.
Oh, that’s right, it’s was a mandate to negotiate Brexit. Well how many mandates do you need Theresa? You’ve had a referendum and two Commons votes already! And this sudden ‘road to Damascus’ revelation walking in the Welsh hills – I don’t buy it. The only revelation I’ve ever had walking in the Welsh hills was along the lines of, “This was really not a good idea,” and the only decision I’ve made was whether it was by that point easier to go on or to turn back.
No, somebody on her staff has decided an early election was a good idea, persuaded some of their colleagues to their point of view, and then they’ve persuaded Teresa. So what were they thinking? Well this is why you’ve got me, a some time political strategist, campaign manager and candidate. A lefty who thinks Machiavelli has had a really bad press. I know how these people think! And one of the things they tend to think is that you don’t call an early election unless you have a really good reason.
And this is really early too. You see the reason why you wouldn’t generally do it is that it tends to appear cynical and opportunistic. Because it is. Why would you call a completely unnecessary election unless you saw some advantage in it? And the voters don’t tend to like cynical and opportunistic. If they catch a whiff of it, they tend to punish it at the polls. It rarely works out well for the government concerned. Now obviously this time they feel like they’ve got this mandate excuse, but why do they need an excuse? What’s the angle?
Well, I know what a lot of people think it is, which is the opportunity to kick Labour while they’re down, and maybe get a really big majority. Which would, yes, be tempting, but it wouldn’t be enough to tip it for me. Not this early. Because if they believe what they appear to believe, that the electorate is more right wing than it actually is, and that therefore Corbyn’s leadership and policies are what’s destroying the Labour Party, then logic says leave him there. As long as possible. His leadership looks pretty secure under the Labour electoral system, why wouldn’t you let that play out?
I’ll tell you why. Because there’s another factor those advisers must always take into consideration – the future. They know the type of news that helps or hurts a government. So what’s coming down the track? You might, for instance, have access to information the voters don’t have, suggesting there’s a nasty surprise coming in the unemployment figures a couple of months out from an election. So you call the election on early, in order to dodge the bad news. Or if the bad news is happening now, you hold off as long as possible, in the hope that things might get better.
So consider this: How bad do things have to look to May’s advisers to persuade them to go to an election three years early? Sure, the polling figures looked good, but Labour’s appeared to be still falling, so that means they don’t see anything good happening in the next three years! And you know what? I think they’re right! Once the Brexit negotiations get going in earnest, and the leaks begin, it’s going to be nothing but bad news for Theresa. And the kind of bad news that will not only lose votes, it’ll rattle the markets. Then, if Trump’s budget gets through, which it looks like it will, because Republican Congressmen and Senators don’t realise their own economic illiteracy, it will drive the US economy off a fiscal cliff. If that happens, expect a crash this year. I don’t know exactly when of course, but if you twisted my arm I’d guess September or October.
So, taking all that into consideration, maybe they were right to tell Theresa to go now? Well perhaps, but if I was one of them there are a couple of things I’d be worried about. The first thing is the council elections we just had. Despite the predictably favourable media coverage, the results weren’t really that encouraging for the Tories. In England, overall, the Tory gains came entirely from the collapse of the UKIP vote. Labour was only a couple of points down from last time, and the Greens probably took some of that. In Scotland, a lack of understanding of the STV system led to some essentially random outcomes. Some of those random outcomes threw up Tory councillors in surprising places, which of course they claimed as some sort of resurgence, but the numbers simply don’t bear that out.
The other thing that would worry me is that when the Labour manifesto was leaked a week early, in an obvious attempt at internal sabotage, many of the policies turned out to be extremely popular with voters. Too left wing, eh? Doesn’t look that way. Combine that with voters’ natural inclination to smell a cynical, opportunistic rat and Theresa might yet be in for a rude shock. Remember, she started this campaign expecting to win a significantly bigger majority. If she doesn’t deliver that it will be seen as a loss. In campaigning terms, anything less than the position you were in at the start of the campaign is a loss. But in this case, if she doesn’t increase her majority, and by more than a handful, it will be perceived by the public as a loss too.
So let’s not be disheartened. Let’s not make it easy for her. We have got ample material to work with here, let’s make her fight for every vote and every seat. This is not a lost cause. It could yet backfire badly for Theresa May. Let’s do everything we can to make that happen.
On this Pre-Election special, we’ll have Derek Stewart Macpherson with the first part of his Spin Cycle series, John McHarg talking about voter choice, Richie Venton on the choices socialists are facing in this election, and we’ll be hearing from Nick Durie about how this election proves the YES parties have failed to integrate movementism into their political practice.
We’ll have a magical poem called Invocation from Steve McAuliffe,Debra Torrance will be talking politics and football, Fuad Alakbarov will be talking about the election and ex Derry British Army Commander Eric Joyce will be talking about Corbyn, the IRA, Martin Mcguiness, Trident and Iraq.
Ok, let’s get this left/right political spectrum thing sorted out. Some people believe that the centre ground has shifted, especially since Thatcher, and that is certainly one way of looking at it, but I’m not convinced. You see, the evidence of 2015’s election just doesn’t support that explanation. Labour did not lose because they were too left wing (the very thought! Hilarious!!), they lost because they were unable to articulate any coherent alternative to the policies of the incumbents. And the statistician in me rebels at the idea of this free floating centre anyway. That’s just not the way a spectrum tends to work. A spectrum can return a data set, that data set can be plotted as a graph, and plotting that graph will produce a bell curve. The top of the bell curve defines the centre. It’s where most people are. And where most people tend to stay.
Politics is a special case anyway. We long ago defined what were left wing and right wing ideas. By default that defines the centre. Now, let’s have a look at the last 50 years, which happens to be roughly my lifetime. When I was born a one year old centre left Labour government was in power. They had replaced a Tory govt. which was widely regarded as centrist. We’re talking about Harold MacMillan’s ‘One Nation’ Tories. In opposition the Tories shifted somewhat to the right. Fast forward to the two elections of 1974. I want to look at those because they are the first I can remember clearly plus, I would contend, that was the last time voters in the UK were offered any kind of balanced choice, centre left v. centre right. And they were both close, but the centre left edged it.
During those five years that Labour were in power they were pushed to the right. This was, I think, in large part due to a fashion (Friedmanism) which was influencing economic academia. Yes, the centre had shifted, but only amongst academic economists, not for real people. They (the economists) managed to push Labour from the centre left into the traditional centre, sometimes through their influence over bodies like the IMF (and what an interesting case study the IMF would make, today forcing policies on Greece that they openly admit they no longer believe in, but that will have to wait for another day). We all know what happened to the Tories during this period – Margaret Thatcher. She enthusiastically embraced that economic fashion, which we now call neoliberalism, and dragged the Tories all the way from the centre right, through the mainstream right, to the hard right in a single bound.
Now despite superficial appearances, hard right policies have never actually been that popular in the UK. This was amply demonstrated in the polls of the time. Mid-term she was the most unpopular PM since records began and with the Labour Party under Michael Foot moving to reoccupy the centre left, she was heading for a catastrophic defeat. It has since become axiomatic that her subsequent victory was due to Labour’s swing to the left, even amongst Labour Party members. But that’s simply not how it was. She won in 1983 for one reason and one reason only, the oldest refuge of her political fellow travellers, a good old-fashioned war. Labour could simply have stuck to their guns and waited for the electorate’s natural distaste for extremism to deliver government back to them in 1987. Instead they chose to buy her narrative and tear themselves apart in an orgy of self-recrimination (today’s party take note), ensuring they would be out of power for another decade. This erroneous belief – that they’d lost in ’83 by being too left wing – led them into moving to the right during that decade, and not just a little bit. They went from centre left, through the true centre, to the traditional centre right by the time Blair was elected. And by the time Brown was defeated, that trend having continued, they were firmly ensconced on the mainstream right.
Now all of this has been going on for so long, with so few voices in the mainstream media to contradict the notion that the centre has shifted dramatically, that we’ve all become used to it. But our own views, individually and as a collective polity, have not really shifted that much at all. Result? We have become progressively more alienated from the mainstream political parties. In May 2015 we were presented with a choice between centre right and hard right, when what many of us actually wanted was a left of centre alternative. The media portrayed Ed Milliband as that alternative, on the basis that he was slightly less right wing than his brother, but we instinctively knew it wasn’t true. The exception was, of course, Scotland. There was a left of centre alternative for Scottish voters, and they grabbed it with both hands. Alienated English working class voters had only the fake populism of UKIP to resort to, though many clearly did so. That won’t happen this time.
So has the election of Jeremy Corbyn really made Labour unelectable, as all the journalists and pundits have been so eager to insist for the last two years? I wouldn’t be so sure if I were you guys. Because although you keep telling us how people won’t vote for left wing policies, there was very little actual discussion of what those policies might be. All the criticisms were trivial. ‘Look at his clothes!’ ‘And look at this, we’ve managed to photoshop out the WW2 veteran he was helping to the Cenotaph, and it looks like he’s doing a jig!’ You know, anyone who’s old enough will immediately get this three word reference, but if you’re too young to remember 1983 just google the three words: Cenotaph, duffel coat. You will immediately see why this campaign is so eerily reminiscent of that one. With a few differences. No Falklands War, just the slow buyer’s remorse of Brexit. And May is no Margaret Thatcher. You can tell by the fear in her eyes. And now she’s backflipped on a manifesto policy, and denied that it was ever any different. What is that, some sort of bizarre ‘1984’ reference? But, as I was saying, like 1983 very little discussion of actual policies. Until, that is, some of Corbyn’s enemies inside the Shadow Cabinet unwittingly did him a favour by leaking theirs, and they turned out to be extremely popular! A lot of pollsters and pundits have got a lot of things very badly wrong in that time. A wise commentator might very well conclude that this was a time to step back, wait, watch and listen. Reorientate yourselves, reconnect with the real centre, then perhaps next time you won’t end up with quite so much egg on your faces.
Since 2013 these ‘Hitchhikers’ electoral guides (for both Scotland and Australia) have become a bit of a tradition on my blog. I’ve now covered two Australian federal elections, a European Parliament election, a Westminster general election (No.2 coming soon), a Scottish Parliament election and of course two very different referenda. This will be the first time I’ve written a guide to local elections, and the first one I’ve also shared with ‘Ungagged’ readers, but it would appear the need is great, so time to step into the breach.
People are unsure of how best to use their vote. I’ve already been answering questions on social media. What’s become clear is that the parties still don’t understand the system, and their confusion is confusing everyone else. Now in the lead up to publishing an election guide there is of course a bit of research involved. I have a number of pollsters and psephologists I look in on, the better to advise on tactical and strategic options. One of the latter is James Kelly of Scot Goes Pop, where I found this rather frustrated sounding article. He’s getting a bit sick of fielding questions about it. Well, I’m here to help.
You see the thing about this STV (no, not the TV shannel, Single Transferable Vote) is that it’s a system I’ve been using for 30 years. It’s the system for all Australian state and federal elections. What’s more, in recent years (and at successive elections) both my kids turned 18 and got to vote for the first time. Both came to me for advice, so I have been thinking about this. It’s really not as complicated as it seems. Let me walk you through it.
When I was a kid my father once said a properly wise thing to me. He said his job was to teach me how to think, not what to think. I’ve always taken the same view with my kids. They’re smart, they know what they think, they didn’t need me to tell them who to vote for, just how to use the system to get to their desired outcome. So what I needed to work out was the simplest, most explanatory thing I could possibly say about it, and it’s this: It’s not who you put first that matters, it’s who you put last.
Now in the UK we’ve been used to a very simplistic voting system known as ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP). We get one vote, which we indicate with an ‘X’ (as though it was designed a very long time ago, for an illiterate electorate). Whoever gets the most Xs wins. Simple. It has it’s disadvantages though. It makes it very difficult for minor parties and independents to get a foothold, and it often allows an extremely unpopular candidate to be elected. How? Because it’s designed to elect the most popular candidate, and in a three or four-way contest, the most popular candidate can often be the most unpopular too. Think of the Tories. STV, on the other hand, is designed to elect the least unpopular candidate.
Here’s how it works. You get your vote, and let’s say you vote for Candidate A. FPTP says ‘Right, next!’ STV says ‘Right. But if you couldn’t have Candidate A, who would be your second choice? And your third? Your fourth?’ and so on. Now, the No.1 question seems to be, ‘Do I have to number all the boxes, and what difference will it make?’ To which the answers are ‘No’ and ‘Potentially quite a bit.’ I have seen some major party candidates asking their supporters to vote 1 for them, and leave the rest blank. That is bad advice. No, you do not have to number all the boxes. But number all the boxes!
To understand why, you need to understand the counting process. To make a preferential system (that’s what we call it in Australia, if you call it STV nobody will know what you’re talking about) work, counting has to be a process of elimination. So they count all the first preferences, the 1s. Now with FPTP that would be it. And if everybody took that bad advice I mentioned, only voted for their favourites and left the rest blank (which won’t happen), that would also be it. But in an STV system that’s not it. The candidate with the highest first preference total hasn’t won yet, unless he/she has over 50%, which is rare.
What happens next is that the candidate with the least first preferences is eliminated. All first preference votes for that candidate are then redistributed to whoever each voter put at No.2. Then they update the tally and repeat the process, eliminate the new last placed candidate and redistribute all their votes, including the ones they gained from the first candidate to be eliminated, which now go to those voters’ 3rd preferences. Repeat the process until only two candidates (or 4, if there are 2 seats – I’ll come back to this) remain. You then have what we call a Two Party Preferred (2PP) tally, and that is the result.
One important point about all this is that the candidate who was ahead in the first preference count, the one who would have won under FPTP, may well be overtaken by preferences flowing from defeated candidates. Another is that your vote cannot possibly end up with your last preference. Second last is the lowest down the order it can possibly go, because by that time you’re down to only two remaining candidates, and in order for it to get that far all of your other higher preferences would have to have been eliminated. It is, remember, a single transferable vote. It can’t be counted twice. It stays with your first preference as long as they remain in the contest.
Does STV Lend Itself to Tactical Voting?
Yes. Very much so. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this system is that it allows you to be far more flexible about expressing your true preferences than FPTP does, because as I said, it’s not who you put first that matters. It’s who you put last. Let’s imagine an example. Let’s say there’s a great local independent you have your eye on. And maybe you quite like a minor party like the Greens too. Realistically however, you think it’s probably going to come down to a battle between the major parties. With FPTP the logic is that you have to vote for the major party you want, not your wishlist candidate, because that would probably be a wasted vote, and might help the bad guys.
With STV there are no wasted votes. You can afford to give your first preference, or your first few, to whoever you like, as long as you put your major party preference ahead of those you definitely don’t want. Once they get used to the system, the parties will work out how best to direct their preferences to their advantage, preference swap deals will be done between them, and they will distribute ‘How To Vote’ cards showing exactly how they’d like you to fill out your ballot paper, just like they do here. Of course, by then you’ll be getting the hang of it too, and you can do what I do – refuse all their cards and work it out for yourself.
However, they don’t understand it yet. The SNP, Labour and the Tories seem to be following three different tactical approaches, all of them wrong. It’s now that we have to discuss multi-member constituencies, but don’t worry, it’s basically the same. In Australia we have single member constituencies in the House of Representatives, and multi-member ones in the Senate. Senate elections are usually for six members, or twelve in the case of a Double Dissolution (don’t ask if you don’t need to know, it’s very boring). I’ve been using the single member example for the sake of simplicity. In Scotland wards have two or more councillors, three or four in Glasgow for instance. That just means it’s your last two, three or four preferences your vote can never go to, instead of your last one. Now, this is where it starts to get a bit weird.
Remember I said back at the top that the parties don’t understand the system? Well, it turns out I didn’t know the half of it! Certain things have been pointed out to me since then (thanks Steve) which make that the understatement of the year. I was hoping to avoid talking about the Senate, because if you think next week is going to be complicated, this will give you the heebee jeebees. At the election last July my Senate ballot paper was well over a metre long. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is important, so bear with me.
In a normal election we have a House of Reps election and a half Senate election, because the HoR has a three year term, but Senators have six year terms, so half of them go up for election every time the HoR does. However, in certain circumstances (again, don’t ask if you don’t need to know), the government can call a Double Dissolution election, which means HoR plus a full Senate election. That’s twelve Senators to be elected for each state. But that’s not the important bit. This is – every party or grouping which has the resources to do so fields a full slate of candidates. Six in a normal election, twelve in a DD. That’s why I found myself wrestling with a four foot ballot paper with about 90 boxes on it. But that is how you do it. Not to field a full slate is at best incompetent, at worst it’s running up a white flag. It breaks a political golden rule, namely never to concede a seat, not a single vote, until the polls close.
And yet none of the parties are doing this. Apparently when the STV system was introduced, nobody thought to take a look at a country that already had it, and where political strategists have had decades to work out the optimum approach. The Tories are only fielding one candidate in many wards. That makes some sense for them I suppose, as they are unlikely to be in a position to win two anywhere in Scotland, and they know that, and we know that, and they know that we know it. Labour are typically fielding two, which is the white flag option. Even if they were all to get elected, which isn’t likely, they still wouldn’t have a majority.
The SNP seem to be fielding three candidates in the four member wards I’ve looked at. That at least gives them the possibility of forming a majority, but it’s far from ideal. It makes no sense not to run a full slate, and I’ve never seen anyone do it here, apart from independents and minor parties who lack either sufficient members or sufficient funds for the deposits. But if you are going to do it, you’d better be 100% sure that all your supporters know what order to rank them in, otherwise you’ll split your own vote, and it will cost you seats. Perhaps what one friend suggested was right, and they are trying to adapt their (spectacularly unsuccessful, as I predicted) Holyrood AMS strategy of SNP1&2. Just… be really careful. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you put them first, as long as you put them ahead of their unionist opponents, but it very much does matter that you put them in the right order. Similarly there is a tactical advantage in putting your opponents, if they’re fielding more than one candidate, in reverse order.
Is There A Strategic Angle?
Always. In Scotland, in the interests of consistency with my previously stated strategic objectives, I’d like to see the unionist parties removed from the political scene. The basic strategy for that would be to put all pro-indy parties and candidates ahead of all unionists. But consider also the value, especially in these local government elections, of a greater plurality of pro-indy representation. If we are to wipe out the unionist parties we’ll have to replace them with something. These elections are a good opportunity to get some good local independents and maybe some minor parties elected. You can take the chance, and if they don’t make it your vote will end up with the SNP anyway. In some cases you might even get, say, a Green and an SNP member. They clearly should be doing a preference swap anyway, but you don’t have to wait for them to realise that. And it might increase the overall number of councils with a pro-indy majority.
Tactics vs. Principle
This is perhaps the No.2 question I’ve been asked. What if there’s a UKIP candidate standing? Should I put them last on principle (many people, including myself, consider them a fascist party after all), or is it more important to put the Tories last for tactical reasons? The answer is that in Scotland it’s highly unlikely to matter, but the elections aren’t only in Scotland. They are taking place in some parts of England and Wales too, and it might matter there. The thing is, it would only matter if it came down to a contest between a Kipper and a Tory. That would mean you’re down to your last two preferences and all your others have already been eliminated. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to you, but it just might (see local polling I suppose). Then it might matter, but only if the Tories are running a full slate. And there I’m afraid you’re on your own. Personally I think I’d put the Kipper last, but it’s ultimately a moral question, isn’t it? I can give you tactical and strategic advice, but moral issues are between you and your conscience. The third option, not making a choice, by leaving them both out, would be abdicating from that moral judgement. Of the three, I’d say that would be the least morally justifiable choice. But that’s just me.
Ah, who’d be a traveller? The great adventures are all behind us now, and yet there are always some who set out to travel hopelessly and fail to arrive. The desire to boldly go, etc. is still strong in some. I was one such would-be adventurer, but my tale is not one of derring-do. It is the story of how high drama can so easily turn to high farce, and a salutary reminder that on the road things are rarely what they seem.
No longer greenhorn backpackers at the age of 22, and on our third overseas expedition, my partner Gayle and I were finding Europe tame and far too well trodden What we craved was a sense of adventure, danger even, and to get off the tourist track. I knew there were places that tourists didn’t go to, because I came from one. In the library we found what we needed – information that it was still possible to travel through Iran to Pakistan. The year was 1987, and the (First) Gulf War was still in full swing. Everyone we told about our plans en route said we were crazy, so we became convinced we were on the right track.
As we lacked all but the most basic travel information about the country we started to look out for travellers coming the other way, as you do, as we hung around Istanbul, but it soon became clear that no-one was doing it. We had all but given up when we bumped into Dave, a laconic Australian with an unfortunate stammer (“Got any oh – oh – oh – opium?” he would continually ask strangers, in a country where it’s dangerous enough to say it once) who filled us in on basic currency, hotel and transport details.
We encountered no other person who had come from Iran, despite spending over a month in Turkey, so it still seemed a relatively adventurous thing to attempt when we set off, the day the wind started to blow, the Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days, the Loo. I once heard, in Australia, of an elderly lady from Southern Italy who wouldn’t accept that the hot wind was not the Sirocco, despite many attempts to explain to her that it was a North Westerly coming off the top end. Well it’s the same wind, only this one is a South Easter, and it’s coming off the deserts of Rajasthan, Baluchistan and Sind. Anyway, the wind began to blow and the sun came out, for the first time since our arrival in Dogubayazit almost a week before, and we were already perspiring by the time we reached the bus stop.
Once safely ensconced in the minibus which would take us to the border, we relaxed and contemplated the day ahead. We had wondered if we would be the only westerners crossing the border that day, and it looked as though we would be, until just as the bus was about to leave, a huge, shambolic figure rounded the corner at the end of the street. Derek, from Dublin, for it was he, had a skinhead haircut which made him look quite fearsome, but inside was a frightened eighteen year old boy desperate for approval. The haircut was the responsibility of a Turkish barber. Turkish barbers give excellent value for money.
Once the bus left, Derek from Dublin talked nineteen to the dozen all the way to the border, telling us how this crossing was going to be the highlight of his trip, how hard and easy it would be, how glad he was to have found us, as he couldn’t have done it alone, and how an Irish passport was the best in the world, as everybody loves the Irish, and the Ayatollah probably had an Irish grandmother anyway (doesn’t everyone?). I made the mistake of telling him, truthfully, that Bobby Sands was a bit of a cult hero (cult of the martyr that is) in Iran, and was unable to prevent him from dropping Bobby’s name with every Iranian he subsequently met.
We soon realised that his bravado was all bluster, and that he was in fact quite terrified. It was hard to imagine at first how someone occupying such a massive frame got to be so afraid, but so it was. We reached the border post, and after dispensing with a few brief formalities with the friendly Turkish border guards, passed into a large room, divided by two long, parallel, marble-topped tables of stone, and not much else, where illuminated portraits of Khomeini and Ataturk scowled at each other across the expanse between the doors on either side. The Ayatollah wore that paranoid, disapproving, ‘what are you up to?’ look he so often did, as he fixed Mustapha Kemal with his hostile, narrow-eyed gaze, and the Father of the Turks glared haughtily and scornfully back, as if to say, “How dare you presume to challenge me, you ignorant savage!” One senses that some great, silent ideological battle of the titans is taking place in this fly infested room, as the man who banned the veil, and the man who made it compulsory, attempt to stare each other down.
Just to one side of the Ayatollah was a small stand displaying a few handicrafts and some impressive posters of Iranian soldiers marching on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, “Imam” Khomeini (the use of the term is somewhat controversial in Islamic theological circles) breaking the chains of the oppressed masses by stepping on them (the chains that is, not the masses, although some of you may choose to see some irony here), etc. We waited in this room for about an hour, being regaled with more stories of his trip, and views on life in general from Derek, our passports having been spirited away somewhere behind the locked door on the Iranian side.
Suddenly, a man appeared holding aloft two Australian passports, and we dived for the door. “Great,” we thought, “we’ve lost Derek from Dublin!” His passport had not been returned with ours. Once through the door, we examined our passports which had already been stamped, a man said “Welcome!” and we were directed down a long dark corridor.
“OK,” we thought, “which one of these doors do we go through to have our five hour search like the book says?” Not this, not that… Eventually we passed all the doors, and could see light at the end of the passageway. We walked towards it, turned a corner and were out! We were out in the sunlight, people were milling around, taxis waiting. We couldn’t believe it. Our delight was short-lived, however, as Derek from Dublin soon emerged from another exit. There had only been a slight delay with his passport, and we were stuck with him again. Now his problems really started. He had no money. Nobody had told him that you have to use the black market in Iran, and that this required you to have cash dollars to exchange. We had heard this from Dave in Istanbul, and I raced around the city on the morning of our departure, trying to find the one branch of ‘Is Bankasi’ in the whole of the city that would give me a couple of hundred greenbacks. In Dogubayazit, we had exchanged some of them at a rate of 700:1. We later got 1000:1 in Teheran. The official rate at Iranian banks was 70! When Derek heard the bad news, he couldn’t bring himself to change a traveller’s cheque at the border post Bureau de Change, so we paid for the taxi to where we could catch a bus.
On arrival we found that this was in fact the Customs check point, a mile or two down the road. We found our way into a crowded and noisy room, with countless chador-clad women sitting on piles of baggage, and lots of people trying to push their way to the front of the scrum. Then, a very small man appeared, in a very large and ostentatious hexagonal peaked cap. He was a dead ringer for Colonel Gadaffi, both in appearance and bearing. Now we’ll get some action, I thought, but no, he strutted stiffly past us, hardly giving us a second glance. Eventually we were spotted by the customs officials, who had been there all along, but were in plain clothes, and ushered beyond the partition ahead of all the valiantly scrimmaging Iranians and Turks. One of the officials gave the bags a fairly cursory inspection. Derek from Dublin perspired profusely as they passed over his Turkish police baton, his big evil looking chain, etc., and returned them all without comment. Whilst all this was taking place, Gayle was accosted by a young man who wanted us to travel to Teheran on ‘his’ bus, which was right outside the door and about to leave. We assumed he must be the driver, and, on completion of the formalities, followed him to a Turkish bus which turned out to be full of returning Iranians. The man, and another young Iranian, who turned out not to be bus drivers as suspected, but merely passengers, employed some persuasive arguments, and we elected to travel with them. Derek from Dublin exchanged six dollars, the only cash he had, with a nice young Iranian woman returning to visit her family. In another life she was a bus driver in Stockholm.
It was about 1pm when we commenced our journey to Teheran, a journey which would last until the following morning. It was immediately apparent that there was a jovial, holiday atmosphere on the bus. The passengers had been together since Istanbul, and laughed and joked with each other in the easy manner of old friends. They were a very westernised bunch of Iranians, though such, contrary to our expectations, were not in short supply, at least in the cities. The two young men spoke good English, and kept us informed and entertained throughout the journey. In the first eight or so hours, there were numerous police checks, revolutionary guard checks and searches.
During one of these, when everyone had to leave the bus, the woman who had changed Derek’s money stood up to alight, only to see two cassettes of western music fall noisily to the floor from underneath her coat. The whole bus winced. They all knew about the tapes, which she had already managed to get through several searches. It would have been extremely comical were it not so tragic. Happily, however, these were the ‘People’s’ police, not the ‘Khomeini’ police, or Revolutionary Guards as they are known in the west, and the quick-witted young woman was able to come to an arrangement which enabled her to hang on to not only the subversive cassettes, but also the substantial collection of fashion and knitting magazines she had subsequently been forced to reveal. It would be absolutely scurrilous of me to suggest that money changed hands. Incidentally, knitting magazines are much more useful, to a fashion starved, middle class Iranian woman, than Vogue or Cosmo, because although the fashions contained therein may not be exactly haute couture, their practicality resides in the fact that they contain instructions to actually make the things!
By this time, the Iranians seemed to have Derek from Dublin down as something of a figure of fun. They teased him mercilessly about his weight, for instance, in a much less subtle way than a native English speaker might have done. One suggested that he would have to pay for two seats, “Because your bodee is veree fat!” Gayle could verify this, as she was obliged to sit in the ever decreasing space next to him. Throughout the journey he regaled us with sweeping statements like, “This is the highlight of my trip! This is the worst day of my life! This is heavy! This is terrible! This is great!” He spoke of how he would go to the Irish embassy the next morning, where he would be welcomed with open arms and served bacon and eggs. He reasoned that they would have so few visitors from the old country that they could not fail to be delighted to see him. I explained to him that bacon was out of the question in a strict Islamic country like Iran, but little suspected that Derek from Dublin’s prophecy of breakfast at the embassy would shortly be fulfilled.
Shortly after sunset the bus reached Tabriz, and Derek from Dublin took the opportunity to purchase a melon, something he had been talking about since he had first observed them at a roadside stop. It had taken him this long to nerve himself to attempt the transaction. It was a twelve kilogram korpus, a pale green, vegetable marrow shaped watermelon. It was about eighteen inches long. This monstrosity travelled for some time on the bus with us, and was the subject of much hilarity amongst the other passengers. By this time Gayle and I had managed to find a seat together and Derek from Dublin was now slotted in, quite naturally it seemed, beside the other crazy in the company. He seemed a most eccentric individual, and was known to the passengers only as “Haji,” because they knew he had come from the pilgrimage at Mecca and was now returning to his family wearing twenty two trilby hats from Istanbul.
By and by we stopped at a restaurant, and everyone went in to eat chicken kebab, one of the three dishes then available in Iran (don’t y’know there’s a war on old chap?), except for Derek from Dublin, who marched in clutching his korpus, produced a plastic tray, refused all cutlery apart from a carving knife, cut himself and several others large slices, and prepared to gorge. He ate his melon rather as you’d imagine a gorilla might, if gorillas ate melons, noisily and sloppily, with juice flying everywhere (he himself was covered in it), and with great gusto. We looked around, feeling extremely embarrassed. Then came a moment of sheer, unadulterated mortification – Derek from Dublin lowered his head to the table, grasped the tray with both hands and slurped the juice noisily from it. We ordered the chicken kebab and sidled away quietly.
By the time we reached Teheran things were coming to a head. Gayle and I were by this point completely exasperated with Derek from Dublin, and wished only to be rid of him, but he was in a state of panic, as he now faced decisions about money, accommodation, etc. which he was ill-equipped to make, although the quality of his decision making was a matter of mainly academic interest, as he was in a no-win situation. He decided to tag along with us, in the hope that we would look after him. As neither of us had the heart to cast him adrift, we were obliged to do so.
The young man who had invited us onto the bus lived in Teheran and now offered to guide us to a hotel we had identified in our somewhat outdated guidebook. It was one of the cheaper ones, for Derek’s benefit (we knew that the best hotel in Teheran was well within our budget due to the extreme profitability of black market foreign currency transactions in Iran), and used to be the overlanders’ hotel in the days of the hippie trail. After an incident where I was almost killed when Derek from Dublin just had to get a picture of something on the other side of the taxi in which we were travelling, we arrived at the address in the book. When we found the hotel, it appeared to have been comprehensively sacked. A once graceful art deco building, it was now derelict and deserted, with all its windows smashed.
By this time Derek from Dublin was in a state of near apoplexy. He decided he must return to Turkey immediately. This was going to be a bit of a problem, as the transit visa he had obtained in Ankara was a ten day, one way ticket, exit at Zahedan on the Pakistani border. Having been foiled at the Amir Kabir Hotel, for that had been its name, Gayle and I took stock of our situation and realised the following:
1. The hotel had been wrecked, quite possibly precisely because it had been much frequented by westerners, so there might be little point in seeking a similar alternative.
2. Money will protect you from just about anything, almost anywhere, if you have enough.
3. Due to the aforementioned black market, we were now technically rich.
We elected to go to the Royal Gardens five star hotel at which, we understood, double rooms were available for roughly five bucks US. We took Derek from Dublin along for want of something better to do with him. We paid once more for the short taxi ride there, less than a dollar, but it would have cost Derek ten. When we arrived, we organised a room whilst Derek made a lengthy and animated phone call to the Irish embassy. He returned proclaiming, “I’m history! They’re coming around for me in ten minutes.”
Whilst Gayle and I were being shown to our room, revelling in the fact that there was a porter to carry the bags, the first time we had encountered such a luxury, the Irish diplomats came and whisked Derek from Dublin away. That was the last we ever saw of him. He had turned the anticipated drama of our Iranian border crossing into a complete farce. I suspect that the Irish, having spoken to him, feared that he might become a huge diplomatic incident, and hastened to get him somewhere they could keep an eye on him before he did something really silly.
But, after all, he did get to have breakfast at the Irish embassy.