Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Populism and Smugness

Oh dear. One Labour MP accuses a party leader of 'smugness'. Another Labour MP accuses a party leader of 'frantic populism'. Just another series of skirmishes in Scottish Labour's daily attempted media assault on the SNP? Surprisingly, this time, no it's not.

Proving that you instantly in some Labour minds become 'smug' if you look like you're about to beat them, Mr Eric Joyce has weighed into David Cameron. His crime? Letting it be known that the Conservative party is starting to prepare for the prospect of Government at Westminster.

Looking at recent UK-wide polls (Scotland being a different story entirely), it doesn't seem an unlikely prospect. However, Labour is the natural party of government, runs the thinking, and anyone who may be about to usurp that position is 'smug', 'presumptious', 'arrogant', or perhaps even all three if the press officer on duty is particularly articulate.

Turning now to frantic populism - is this another initiative of the Scottish Government falling victim to attack from a Labour Party too timid and guileless to do likewise in office? Again, no. This time, it's Nick Raynsford, a former housing minister, who in a clear-sighted article for the New Statesman, has turned his fire on Gordon Brown, and urged his government to recognise that "there is no single 'Get out of Jail' card" for their current difficulties.

Referring to policies floated over the past week in an attempt to regain the political initiative, such as a suspension of stamp duty (how to kill housing market activity in one fell swoop) and a £150 payment for families to help with fuel costs, Mr Raynsford said: "'When you are in a hole, stop digging'."

He goes on: "So what types of digging needs to stop? First is the frantic search for some magic populist policy solution. There is no single 'Get out of Jail' card, and it is foolish to believe that such simplistic solutions will do the trick. Indeed some are counter productive, inviting the public's contempt by implying a desperation to "buy" support by ditching unpopular taxes or offering dubious incentives."

"Just as dubious is the siren call for more initiatives. One of the greatest mistakes in government is to confuse activity with outcomes. Just because ministers feel busy devising 101 new ways of tackling a problem does not guarantee the problem gets solved. Instead the public grow cynical as government rhetoric becomes increasingly divorced from reality, while practitioners grow exasperated to implement yet another initiative, often before the previous one has even been evaluated."

Sounds pretty sensible to me. But then, so did Tom McCabe's recent take on the current travails of Scottish Labour, which saw him dismissed by a backbench Glasgow Labour MP as being 'out of the loop' for his troubles. For others, Labour's Scottish troubles are the fault of PR in local government, which saw many of their minority FPTP citadels toppled. For Brian Wilson, it's all the fault of devolution itself. The party collectively flails and thrashes in all directions. The public like less and less what they see and Labour's electoral fortunes decline accordingly, in England as well as Scotland.

Harold Wilson was fond of comparing the Labour Party to a stagecoach - when it was rattling along at speed, people were either too exhillarated or too queasy to worry about the direction. It was only when the coach stopped and the passengers got off that there were squabbles over where to go next.

Personally, I'm fond of pointing out that a fish always rots from the head down. A party which became solely about the pursuit, retention and exercising of power, once denied that power, will no longer have a purpose. Sure, the payroll can keep things ticking over in the absence of broader support, but once the councillor allowances start to disappear, when the MSP numbers become diminished, when the patronage can no longer be sloshed around as once it was, when the membership and activist commitment begins to dry up, when those at or near the top start bickering, it becomes a vicious and self-reinforcing cycle of decline.

Could we be witnessing here with these misplaced scripted jibes and internecine squabbles the puffs of acrid smoke which herald the long-term disintigration of the Labour Party? Or is the smoke the first signs of the bushfire which will, in time, allow vibrant new growth to appear through the scorched earth? Either way, the stench of defeat and purposelessness eminating from Labour on both sides of the border is becoming overwhelming.


Homercles of Edinburgh said...

It seems counter-intuitive that cutting the cost of buying property might kill the property market - please explain your rationale!

Richard Thomson said...

Right now, stamp duty applies to house purchases over £125k. The government has floated the idea that this might change.

If you were about to buy a house at a price which would incur stamp duty, but suddenly learned that if you held off for a few weeks, there was a strong chance that this liability would disappear, what would you do?

Personally, I'd probably hold off buying a house in the hope of saving myself a few thousand pounds in tax. If lots of others were to follow suit, as they show every sign of doing in the present climate, the market then grinds to a halt as paeople anticipate a change which will be beneficial.

So yes, cutting the cost of property might stimulate the property market. However, leaving people in a state of uncertainty as to future tax changes will do nothing other than put it into cold storage!



Homercles of Edinburgh said...

Gotcha - you're talking about the rumour thereof rather than the measure itself.

See how blogger lets you type comment text, and then deletes it a few seconds after showing the page? Pure shite.

Richard Thomson said...

Gotcha - you're talking about the rumour thereof rather than the measure itself.

Indeed I am. It's the expectation set that becomes the killer.

See how blogger lets you type comment text, and then deletes it a few seconds after showing the page? Pure shite.

Agreed. I've been caught out myself a few times like that.