Council17 – The Aftermath

That’s the council elections done then.

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Well, that’s the voting done. The “fun” bit is going to happen over the next few days as the negotiations work out. Not one of the 32 councils in Scotland have a majority control with major Labour fiefdoms like Glasgow and North and South Lanarkshire all falling to that party’s continuing collapse. Not safe, though, were SNP councils like Dundee which has also slipped out of majority control. The rise of the Conservative and Unionists (who have been benefiting from the second half of their name even in spite of the first) has been remarkable even if all they’ve been doing is cannibalising the other Unionist parties rather than making any substantial gains on the other side of the constitutional divide.

The Greens had a good time of the elections, increasing their seats from 14 to 19. Incidentally, we’re now the largest party on Orkney Council (albeit because all the other councilors are independents). My own branch of South Lanarkshire failed to get any candidates elected although I have to give my personal thanks to the 139 people who placed their trust in me with their 1st preference votes. It was a great experience being a candidate. Who knows. It may not be my last time.

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As it stands now, South Lanarkshire will be represented by 27 SNP councilors, 21 Labour, 14 Conservatives, 1 Lib Dem and 1 Independent. With 33 required for a majority there will now be a weekend of intense negotiations over who goes where. Whilst they’ve lost their control, Labour will now be the kingmakers here. It will be their choice whether they side with a party with whom they share many or most of their values when it comes to local issues or whether they’ll side with a party with whom they share precisely one value over which their councilors will have precisely zero ability to effect.

This will be the story going on in many more councils across Scotland and I cannot predict how they’ll turn out, only that if Labour does decide to ally itself with the Tories one more time for one more stint at short term gain then their final death as a party is inevitable. They will have thrown away their last reason to exist in Scottish politics. And they wouldn’t be missed by many, not even their “allies”, once that happens.
Glasgow will be an interesting story in this regard. With the tally there being 39 SNP, 31 Labour, 8 Conservative and 7 Greens and with 43 needed for a majority there is no possibility of a Labour/Tory Alliance conspiring to keep control of this city. Instead it seems inevitable that the SNP will be the part of control here, it just remains to be seen if they’ll form a formal or informal coalition with Labour or with the Greens to get there. Obviously I’d certainly be hoping for the latter but, as with all in politics, I guess it’ll depend on the price asked by all sides involved. No matter what, Glasgow is ripe for exciting possibilities for change. Too many areas of the city have been neglected for too long and there are great opportunities and assets there just waiting for someone to have the courage to take on the challenge of exploring them. I’d personally like to see something like the Community Buyout scheme recently promoted by Common Weal given a shot. You can read about that here.

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The Confidence Trick

“Oh Mr. Blue Sky please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long (so long)
Where did we go wrong?” – ELO – Mr. Blue Sky

So the PM deigned Scotland with her presence today. A full media fanfare edition of her “Strong and Stable Tour” ahead of her snap General Election in June.

I noted especially Sky News’ coverage in the morning which described May’s evident “confidence” in feeling able to come to Scotland given our country’s typical attitude towards the Conservatives.

So how did Confident May present herself to the voters of Scotland?

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The Bridge

“Politics is a life we choose because we think we can do some good” – Kezia Dugdale, 25th April 2017

Today the Scottish Parliament debated the cuts to Child Tax Credits being imposed by Westminster. This necessarily centered much of the debate around certain exceptions to those cuts, in particular the so-called Rape Clause. This article isn’t about that Clause in particular. That must be for others. If you want, you can watch the entire debate below

Instead I want to particularly highlight Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s speech (from 26:20 above or here). Please watch it in the context of that debate before continuing.

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Now IS The Time

PM Theresa May has called for a UK General Election to be held on June 8th. Because the UK is completely united behind her vision of Brexit and now is not the time for divisive politics..or something.

This election does have to get over the stumbling block of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which requires a 2/3rds majority in the Commons to overrule but Labour have already announced their support for that move. It must be hard for them. If they do it, they’ll get a drubbing. If they don’t, they’ll be crucified in the press.
Whilst I don’t think the Tories will find the prospect of kicking Labour whilst they are down to be an unwelcome one, I still don’t think that this is the primary motivation for this call. There’s little the Tories can’t do with a majority of a dozen or so that they could do with a majority of 50+.

I don’t think this is about Labour. This is a Brexit call. May will be wanting to legitimise the hardest-of-Brexits she’s angling for but which wasn’t in the last manifesto. She’ll also be wanting to harden the party behind that vision. I’d be watching the selection process very carefully to see how many of those back-bencher Remainer Tories get quietly (or not so quietly) purged from the ranks or at least get made to submit to the party will.

With regard to Scotland, this is a gamble which only makes sense if May isn’t considering Scotland at all. All it is going to take is the pro-independence parties (especially the one which holds all of the pro-indy seats at the moment) to put up their 2015 manifesto as read and state that this General Election is about the choice between the hardest of Tory Brexits and Independence. Once they return a majority (I wonder how David Mundell is feeling right now) then no-one can deny that mandate for a referendum without ridicule.

SNP support probably isn’t as strong as it was in the wake of the Surge inflated 2015 election but FPTP will still work in its favour. The chances of returning a majority of seats by themselves is still substantial.

And then there’s Northern Ireland which is still without an Assembly. Yes, in normal times the General Election dynamics are somewhat different but between the prospect of Brexit and Direct Rule these are far from normal times. I won’t even pretend to try to predict what will happen there.

So what’s the “best case” scenario for May? A quelled party, a silenced opposition and “the regions” don’t make too much of a racket as they follow the UK into the hardest of Tory Brexits and all the cuts, Austerity and pain that will bring. Tory rule will dominate for a decade or more.

Her “worst” case? She loses her majority and the mandate for Brexit. Government crumbles, resignations happen and all the while Article 50 – which was triggered by a “united” Britain less than a month ago keeps on ticking down towards May 2019…

Interesting times.

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How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the Scottish Council Elections

Disclosure and Disclaimer: I am currently standing as a candidate in the council elections. Be assured however that this post shall be objective and party neutral. This is a guide as to how to vote, not to try to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.

A Guide to the Scottish Council Elections

One of the most read articles on this blog was a guide written in 2015 which tried to explain the mechanics behind how one votes in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections and how those votes translate into seats. With the voting age in Scotland being dropped to 16 and the upsurge in political interest in Scotland there will undoubtedly be a substantial number of people in the country who will be voting for the first time and will want to know how to do it. This article is for them and those who will be speaking to them in the days to come. As said in the disclaimer, this article will not be advocating any particular choice on who to vote for and will not be discussing options such as “tactical voting”. These are topics for other articles and other blogs.

Background

Scotland is presently organised into 32 regional authorities called councils (some call them “local” as they are currently the lowest level of effective government in Scotland but this would be erroneous as they are many times the size of actual local government in other comparable democracies)

These councils are elected every five years with the last election being held in 2012 under the proportional representation voting system known as Single Transferrable Vote, or STV. The next election is on May 4th 2017.

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Results of the 2012 elections by highest 1st preference vote in each ward. Yellow – SNP, Red – Labour, Blue – Conservative, Orange – Lib Dem, Green – Green, Grey – Independent

For the purposes of electing councilors, each regional council is split into multiple wards based on the population size of the council. Each ward then elects either 3 or 4 councilors. Due to the relatively small size of each ward and the proportional nature of the vote it is far easier for a non-party “independent” councilor to be elected (often based on either local popularity, past experience in council before leaving a previous party or by campaigning on a particular local issue) than is the case during either the Scottish Parliamentary elections or in the UK General Election.

First: Register To Vote

This is the most important thing. If you are not registered to vote, you cannot vote. There is no “on the day” registration in Scotland and the deadline for the Council elections is April 17th. If you are registered, you are likely to have received a polling card by now telling you where to vote. If you haven’t or if you know that you are not registered, then information on how to do so is here.

How To Vote

This is the easy bit of STV. Rather than the fairly opaque nature of the AMS system used in the Scottish elections where you are faced with two ballots which are both marked in the same way but are both calculated differently, STV presents you with a single ballot paper which will look a little like this:

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The candidates will be listed in alphabetical order by surname with their home address* and their party affiliation, if any, underneath. Also present may be a party logo or a slogan representing a core issue of the candidate/party.

As with the Scottish election constituency vote and the UK General election (but unlike the Scottish Parliamentary Regional vote) you are not strictly voting for a party in these elections but for a person who may or may not be a member of a party. As there may be multiple people standing in a ward representing the same party, it is therefore important to consider the candidate as a person alongside their affiliations.

To actually vote is straight-forward. You do not simply mark one box with an X as with other elections, but instead RANK the candidates in order of preference using a discrete number for each 1,2,3 etc. You may not give two or more candidates “equal” rank. You do not need to rank every candidate. Once you get to the point where you’d prefer none of the remaining candidates to get elected, you may leave their boxes blank. This is sometimes known as “vote till ye boak”. Do not make any other marks on the ballot paper as this may result in your vote being invalidated and rejected. Once completed your ballot paper may look something like this:

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Note: Preferences listed here are for illustration only and do not represent an endorsement, recommendation or author’s personal preference.

And once you’ve dropped your completed ballot into the box or sent it away via your postal ballot, that’s it. Simple. The seats are then allocated out such that the candidates elected are the ones deemed highest ranked by the largest number of people

* To be eligible to stand in local elections, one of the requirements is that a candidate must live, own property or work within the council boundaries. Note that the requirement applies at a council level, not a ward level.

The Hard Bit: Counting the Votes

Here comes the tricky part. Counting the votes and translating them to seats. This is a far more mathematical exercise than the FPTP system used in the UK elections (which is trivial. Person with the most votes wins the seats, the party with the most seats wins the government) and more complicated even the d’Hondt system used in Scotland and the EU elections (which can be tabulated with a pen and paper if you have to). If you’re reading this on the front page and want to delve into this maths, then click below to unfold. If not, I hope this has been useful and good luck to your chosen candidate(s) in May.

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The Drake Equation

When was the moment you became afraid, genuinely afraid, for the outcome of Brexit?

Maybe it happened a while ago. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet. I hit that point today.

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We’re less than a week into the Brexit process and the UK has already told the EU that there may be security concerns…nudge nudge…if it doesn’t get what it wants (although that was just a misunderstanding, don’t you know?).

Then the Government was utterly blindsided by Spain gaining a veto over any deal which involves Gibraltar – despite those in the actual know talking about it for literally months prior to the vote.

In response, senior politicians in the UK – a NATO member – are threatening another NATO member with the prospect of actual war.

And the negotiations haven’t even started yet.

As part of my EU Referendum series, back right before the Brexit vote I stated that I didn’t believe the hype that a Leave vote would be the utter ruination of everything.

I even felt that J. J. Patrick’s three part series on the road to a Dystopian Brexit was, if plausible, at least well out on the edge of the probable. At best a warning rather than a prediction.

What I hadn’t, obviously, fully appreciated was the utter incompetence of the UK Government’s Brexit team. I’m not just talking about the bumbling excuse for a clown that is Boris Johnson – such a Titanic Success he’s been – but also David Davis, who nine months after the vote and just days before the triggering of Article 50 couldn’t answer even basic questions about the “plan”.

But even all that is just incompetence. Even that would just lead to the UK being out-negotiated on every major issue by the EU until it either accepts the deal offered or stomps off into the sunset without one.

And this latter option is what looks increasingly likely. It really does look like the “plan” is to walk out of talks and to find some way of blaming the EU for it happening.

But back to that headline. The sight of the UK threatening another European nation with war as a negotiating tactic – for that is what it is, make no mistake there – is deeply disturbing. At heart, I’m a pacifist. War should never be considered an “option” in the diplomatic process, not even the final option. It should be considered to be the consequence of the failure of the last option. Even the threat of a war is one which can rapidly spiral out of control, if one ever presumed for a moment that it could have been controlled.

What’s the strategy here anyway? By launching an attack on another NATO member, the UK would pull in other NATO members, most of them also European. Does the UK want to pull the USA into this to pick an ally? Or hang one side (or both) out to dry?

Is the UK relying on Donald Trump being a rational and impartial mediator in all of this?

As has been noted elsewhere, this shouldn’t even have been any kind of issue at all. Most of the deals of any competence within the EU divorce settlement, including the Gibraltar/Spain border issue, need to be ratified by the entire EU27, including Spain, anyway. At this point it looks as though the inclusion of the explicit Spanish veto was added to the EU’s strategy document for one (or both) of two purposes. a) As a sweetener to keep Spain “on-side” and acting within the whole of the EU27 “as one” and/or b) to test the UK’s plan to see what they’d do and to test the robustness of its strategy ahead of the negotiations.

The UK didn’t just blink in the face of this test. It has shut its eyes, screamed loudly and ran right off the cliff. The EU now knows that the UK has buttons which can be pressed. Westminster needs to ramp down the rhetoric immediately and get a serious grip of itself before it reaches the negotiation table proper if it wants to be taken seriously. From the lack of planning, through the deliberate exclusion of the devolved nations (and Gibraltar) from any kind of involvement in negotiations out to frankly stupid statements like this the UK has done a great deal of harm to its own reputation and the chances of making Brexit bearable, never mind making it a “success”.

And we’re less than a week into the Brexit process. Two years to go.

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Discussing Danish Debt

There’s an interesting wee story doing the rounds that moment regarding Denmark and their foreign debt.

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I’ve seen a few folk get a bit over excited about the story and have misinterpreted it as saying that Denmark is now debt free. First up, it’s not. Their national debt is at about 38% of GDP (compared to the UK’s 85.4%). This isn’t about the Danes paying off all of their national debt, it’s just saying that they no longer have any debt which is denominated in foreign currencies. All of the Danish national debt is, for the moment, denominated in Danish krone.

There’s a more interesting story under here about why it has happened though. It’s the story of managing one’s currency and maintaining a currency peg with regard to another. This is something that folk in Scotland should be watching closely as our own debate about currencies heats up again.

Not long ago I wrote an article on defending one’s currency against speculative attacks but many of the lessons also apply to more gradual changes in currency value and the effects are being borne out in Denmark as we speak.

Recently the instability in the Eurozone and reduction in confidence in the euro has seen investors selling euros and buying krone, seeing it as a safer investment. This is pushing up the value of krone which, if it was freely floating, would affect the exchange rate between it and the euro. But Denmark seeks to maintain a stable exchange rate between the krone and the euro (At a rate of 7.46038 DKK/EUR ± 2.25%) so its central bank must intervene to prevent the rise in value. It does this by cutting interest rates (to make further purchases less attractive) and selling DKK and buying foreign currencies. This influx of foreign currency has allowed it to pay off foreign denominated debt but has also caused its foreign reserve holdings to boom from 200,000 million krone in 2008 to over 400,000 million krone today.

If the opposite case had been true, if the DKK was weakening with respect to the EUR, we might expect the levers to be pulled in the opposite direction. Interests rates would increase to attract investment and foreign reserves would be drawn down as foreign currencies were sold to buy up krone holdings and support the value of the currencies and we might see the central bank issue bonds marked in foreign currencies rather than paying them off.

It may well be that Denmark can continue do defend its currency peg for some time, although some have eyed the possibility of a break similar to the one Switzerland went through in January 2015. A couple of years on from the Swiss break the risk of Denmark following suit appears to have receded for the moment.

All in Denmark – currently the 2nd happiest county on Earth – is showing what happens when a small country of 5-and-a-bit million people, its own currency and the will to manage it can do and whether or not Scotland specifically chooses a path similar to this (by pegging a £Scot to the GBP or, indeed, the EUR), Denmark should be taken as an example of what can be done. A small island of light and clarity in a world where the people of Scotland are about to be told repeatedly and in detail what some folk think we can’t do.

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