Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Our revolutions were never on the telly in the first place

The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by zerox in four parts without commercial interruption,

The revolution will not be televised.

Gil Scott-Heron's dad was the first black player to sign for Celtic. Look it up. Whilst this is about the only notable connection this now sadly deceased (as of this weekend) exponent of the proto-hiphop underground Manhattan music scene had to Scotland, these lyrics could at full stretch have a message to those Parliamentarians who now find themselves on the opposition benches at Holyrood: Even if you hatch a plan for the fight back of the century, for the next 5 years it's going to be pretty chuffing hard to get anyone to write about it.

Staring down the barrel of the SNP super-majority, in mindfulness of the Soviet discipline of the SNP back benches will be daunting for every parliamentarian who doesn't sleep under the soft blanket of nationalism. All parties opposite will now have to embrace a new style of political warfare, and take such opportunities as they can to harry and challenge the SNP in any forum, presenting cogent and rational counter arguments, carefully picking battles and refraining from opposing just for opposing's sake. Persuading TV cameras or the print media to cover their guerrilla style insurgency will be a colossal undertaking.

Oddly though, for the Lib Dems this may have levelled the playing field.

If you half close your eyes and look at it in the right light, the opposition benches of the new Scottish Parliament are perfectly balanced and for the first time, Labour MSPs find themselves punching at exactly the same weight as the Lib Dems, the Tories, the Greens and Margo. In short we all command exactly the same ability to influence the legislative agenda, to amend bills and to change the narrative of the next 5 years and this amounts to precisely hee-haw.

My point is, that no matter how bad the Lib Dem result in May's election, apart from a few more appearances at First Ministers Questions we would exert as much influence in this parliament with 5 times as many MSPs as we have right now. Perversely the quick and streamlined way in which team Rennie have pulled themselves together, and got straight down to going after the SNP on issues of policy puts them at an advantage over Labour and the Tories, both of whom remain shell-shocked and effectively in neutral as they cast around their own battle-weary columns for a new Leader.

Even as recently as March, Iain Gray looked a dead-cert for Bute house and Labour could trade access and a glimpse of post election Labour controlled Scotland for column inches, similarly, the Tories could rely on the Hatty Jakes factor to pull the cameras. Being ignored is nothing new for Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament, who have, for the past four years, operated against the back drop of media ambivalence, scorn and slight regard.

Until the others cowboy up and start making the most of what they've been left with, they leave the podium clear for the Greens, Margo and Willie Rennie's Famous Five to act, for a time at least, as the official opposition in this country.

When Labour and the Tories do find their respective voices and a blueprint for revolt against the SNP bull-dozer, the next shock to the system will come when they realise that nobody's watching.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Tales of ash and the North Atlantic

The Icelandic volcano erupted as I shook the last of my grandfather from his canister over a remote hill top in the Brecon Beacons. Strangely fitting that events in the North Atlantic should so dominate the weekend we mark his passing, as they had so dominated his life. My Grandfather was a hero in those waters.

When this nation was on its knees and in desperate need of resupply, Lieutenant commander Tony Cole-Hamilton RN stood, with a small band of naval officers and enlisted men between the U-Boat wolf packs and the convoys of American aid that would lead to the salvation of this country. One of the last surviving veterans who personally witnessed the sinking of HMS Hood by the Bismark, he would often attest that the, now infamous, four word message from HMS Prince of Wales handed to him on the bridge of the the HMS Acates, which read simply: 'Hood sunk, am retiring.' was one of the saddest moments of his entire life.

All told that war robbed him of his hearing and two siblings, his brother David a fellow naval officer aboard a destroyer torpedoed by a U-boat (he was 28) and his sister Joan, an MBE and top-flight FCO intelligence at 27 whose flight from San Fransisco to the conference at Potsdam disappeared from radar screens over the Atlantic. Their's was a generation of men and women who had to put everything on the line and did so with quiet dignity and profound resilience. But Grandpa never let the tragedy of war define him. Delighting in mirth and mischief, he was a riot.

My favourite of the many hilarious and almost certainly apocryphal tales was this one:

Before his days in the navy he owned an Otter class dinghy, he loved it very much, but had to part with it as he moved away to naval college at Dartmouth. Many years later he was on shore leave, driving through the south coast. He drove passed a house where under tarpaulin he caught a glimpse of a boat identical to the one he had owned as a boy. So struck was he by the similarity he actually pulled up, got out of the car and went into the drive, he greeted the puzzled home-owner who happened to be leaving his house to take his dog for a walk.

"Sorry to disturb you," says grandpa, "but is that an otter?"

The man looked bewildered and replied tersely,

"Good-god man, can’t you see it’s a Jack Rustle."

He would have approved of the irreverent and slightly macabre jokes at his expense this weekend concerning Grandpa's possible contribution to the mayhem caused by clouds of ash over the Atlantic.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

what's not to love about losing?

I think I’m getting the hang of losing elections.

I counted it backwards and I’m pretty sure that I’ve been running for something or managing someone else’s campaign since 2004. I’d almost forgotten what not being on a war footing felt like. Since the polls closed on the 5th of May, I’ve carried with me a sense of overwhelming liberation.

I look back on the campaign just passed I’m not really gripped by a sense of having been cheated of victory or of hard work gone to waste. Instead I find myself mired in serenity and when I think about the election I seem just to recall those little slices of campaign ephemera which when retold, I can scarcely believe myself.

Knocking something like 14,000 doors over 9 months, you see a lot of snapshots of a lot of lives:

The Spanish gentleman who answered the door in an apron and a thong and insisted on conducting our conversation while he continued his exercise routine of lunges and bending over to touch his toes (repeatedly, and at the worst possible angle);

The lady who insisted I come in and eat some of her fried tofu (which was delicious but led me to leave greasy finger prints all over my canvassing returns)

Or the woman 4 doors down from the tofu lady who was in labour (the condition, not the party) and was more than a little annoyed that I was not the duty midwife. Believe me when I tell you that, when you find yourself being asked to go look for hot water and towels your pre-prepared patter goes out the window.

It’s this interaction with humanity which makes running for elections something I know I’ll keep doing. But for now I’m going to enjoy being peacetime ACH and reacquainting myself with the non political pastimes and people of life beyond politics.

Tomorrow I head to Wales to stand upwind of my Grandfather as we scatter his ashes over the Brecon Beacons. It will be a bit of a C-H family jamboree and probably just what I need. As a brother, son, cousin and nephew (even as a husband and father) I have been pretty dreadful in recent months. My long suffering wife is used to the campaign lifestyle, but my little boy was too young to understand why I had to be absent so often. Since my apparent return to his daylight life, he has taken up residence as my shadow, my clothes are caked in three year old grime and I am teaching him to draw circles, lines and velociraptors. What’s not to love about losing elections.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

He's saved the party before, he can do it again.

A two word message was telegraphed to the fleet when Churchill was reappointed First Lord of the Admiralty:

'Winston's back'

The message came as some degree of comfort to officers and enlisted men of the Royal Navy who knew that in time of great peril you put people of experience in charge. Times such as those called for heroes who had shown their metal before, for street fighters.

Whilst parallels with Churchill are melodramatic and we don't have legions of Nazi's eyeing up our back yard as potential Lebensraum, a blitz-like mentality has taken hold in the Scottish Party.

Indeed it is widely agreed by activists and supporters that the one small piece of good news to come out of the charnel house of May 5th was the election to the Scottish Parliament of Willie Rennie.

As far as saving the party goes, the man has form. Celebrated as the architect of the crucial Christchurch By-election, Willie Rennie has slogged his guts out for the Liberal Democrats since he was recruited to the party from the unlikely breeding ground of Paisley University. He has held roles in the back room, as part of the high command, as Chief Executive and as a key figure in the early days of devolution, advising the parliamentary group and acting as a chief negotiator and strategist for the party in coalition with Labour.

Without question however his deliverance of the entire Liberal Movement through victory in Dunfermline was his and arguably the Scottish party's finest hour. Coming as it did as oil for the troubled waters of scandal, plummeting poll ratings and a fractious leadership campaign, the incredible feat of winning a by-election in Gordon Brown's back yard immediately righted the ship and silenced battalions of critics circling a struggling party that they had expected to be nothing more than political carrion within weeks.

News of his uncontested election to the leadership of the party, noon yesterday, had much the same affect as a two word telegraph might have, sent out to the remnants of the battered compliment of Scottish Liberal Democrats still barely afloat after the tempest of electoral annihilation.

'Willie's back'.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The end of the Party

One of the brightest sights in the known universe is the death throes of a star. Celestial giants of sufficient mass (say eight times that of our own sun) can end their stellar lives in a conflagration of brilliance and ferocious energy. The supernova is a spectacular apex of nuclear fusion and explosion that signals the beginning of the end and offers a quite beautiful demonstration of the axiom: going out with a bang.

At around 1.45am on Friday the 6th May 2011, the SNP went nova.

The founding fathers of Scotland’s constitutional convention, the framers of devolution, settled on an electoral system that was designed to lend itself to consensus and compromise by ensuring the near impossibility of an overall majority. On polling day, the SNP beat the system and got exactly that. They may come to regret that success for a generation.

Any way you slice it the SNP manifesto and its architects now represent the Alpha and the Omega for all that will happen over the next 5 years of this parliamentary session. No longer can they point to the limitations of minority government to excuse their short comings in office and whilst they can blame Westminster for the size of the cake that is given to Scotland, they alone shall be judged on how that cake is sliced. With 'austerity' and 'shortage' as the watchwords of the fiscal future, it isn’t going to be pretty.

Cakes and cuts aside, the 600lb gorilla in the wings for the Nats is what to do about the Promised Land. Even the most deluded of nationalist drones, can’t fail to see that the good will and trust invested in them by the Scottish People in May does not come with a commensurate surge in support for independence. Far from it. A YouGov poll last week put support for independence at just 29%, sober reading for the phalanx of newly elected Nat MSPs.

The major problem for the SNP will come when that question has been put to the people. Whatever the answer, the formidable discipline that the SNP have shown, will surely begin to dissolve as the factions begin to surface once again now that there is no longer the greater good of the independence project to keep them focussed and in line. Indeed, the cracks have already started to appear in the shape of a grass roots kick-back against the notion of 'independence-lite', developed by pragmatic SNP grandees who aren't blind to where the Scottish people are on this issue.

People forget just how riven the SNP can be. Shortly after the millennium the SNP were on the verge of meltdown. Open warfare between factions loyal to Swinney, Cunningham and Sturgeon threatened to tear the party asunder until the king over the water finally returned from retirement at Westminster to knock a few heads together.

Since Salmond reclaimed the nationalist throne, he has been able to keep his troops in absolute check (not a single rebellion in the past 4 years) by suggesting that the ‘ultimate prize’ would be jeopardised should the SNP show anything other than absolute unity. Without that carrot, and with having to carry the can for all that goes wrong over the next 5 years, the SNP will begin to turn on itself once again. The sizeable base of floating voters that now exists in Scotland will then drift down stream from the SNP and it may never return.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

About what just happened...

If annihilation has a smell, for me it's wild garlic.

The anti-cyclone that graced these shores throughout the months of March and April 2011, saw the rampant proflegation of the herb along the cycle paths of Edinburgh. This tarmac network was my primary conduit between campaign offices, and the front-lines of Edinburgh Central in what, I'm sure, will go down as one of the most dramatic Scottish Parliamentary electoral defeats of all time.

Selected by the party to fight the seat in July of last year, I had knocked over 14,000 doors and written over 2,000 casework letters to ensure that nothing about the campaign to deliver the seat, notionally given us to by a favourable boundary shift, would be left to chance. In the face of snow storms and single digit poll ratings, my small band of activists, to whom I owe more than I could repay, held our nerve, grew thick skins and pitched head first into the biggest and most sophisticated campaign the Scottish party had ever mounted.

We threw everything a Central and Central threw it back. We came third.

Nothing, not one thing could have prepared us for what happened in the target seat that so many had hoped to provide a little slice of good news in an inevitably grim election. Going into polling day, everything was as it should have been, our door to door canvas returns were great, our national poll ratings seemed to be recovering whilst the Labour party (our chief competition) was on its knees and had launched an attack leaflet going after me personally in the dying hours of the campaign. The later development, we thought, was proof positive that they were picking up what we thought we were seeing on the doors. Indeed they were losing the seat. Just not to us.

When the first hints of defeat came in from the count, I sent Alistair Carmichael MP, who was going into bat for us as a talking head on the results programme, a two word text message:

'Looking ropey'

to which he replied:

'not just you mate'

This was the point the bubble burst for me. The point at which I realised that I had constructed a pleasant fiction in which this campaign was being fought, a fiction in which, I believed, we could sidestep the coalition issue and focus on the record of delivery in our time in government in Scotland or on what I was doing at a neighbourhood level. No dice.

As political massacre's go, last Thursday's was pretty chuffing total. Seats that had been long celebrated as citadels of liberalism, were swept away in the nationalist surge. It was so bad that after getting over the initial shock, many of us settled into a sleep deprived brand of gallows humour. At one point, Emma Sykes my volunteer coordinator, after losing her own deposit in Almond Valley uploaded a facebook status update:

'Look, can everyone just stop getting shot?!'

I got off lightly. I have a job that I love and a lot to look forward to in the shape of a new baby and a growing toddler. I look at the MSPs we lost and their staff who will now be made redundant, this was their life's work and their livelihoods. So I say again, I got off lightly.

Without question, the decisions taken by my party to form a coalition with the conservatives and what's happened since, formed the architecture of our downfall, but if so I accept it. As I said after the count, if my defeat is part payment for the fact that no child seeking asylum in this country will ever again have to face a night in a detention centre. Then I accept it. I didn't get into politics to win elections after all.