The hidden agenda of #Indyref2

“Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”

–Lao Tzu, 6th Century BC Chinese Poet

On the 18th May 2015 I predict the following: That during the next Westminster parliament:

1. There will be no #IndyRef2
2. There will be no UK exit from Europe
3. There will be no electoral reform

Bold? Maybe.
Daring? Perhaps.
Foolish?

Only if I assume that everything fed to me by the major news channels is the whole news. These issues are chewing up inches in our papers and pixels on our TV screens. They are playing their role; shifting focus on to meaningless debates, disproportionately filling our newspapers and news bulletins. Think of them like three Nigel Farages – scary though that is.

It is not that these constitutional issues do not merit consideration. In time, they will deserve proper scrutiny. But now? Now, it is a charade. A merry dance led by the Tory Government, cheek-to-cheek with the main stream media. While we consider the impact of any of these three constitutional upheavals, Westminster acts on its quite separate and real agenda.

We can see this as a certainty because the mood music has only recently stopped playing. The Indyref2 lament is still ringing in our ears.

#IndyRef2 – The Referendum that never was

Throughout this Spring, a second referendum on Scottish independence haunted the UK General Election campaign; a bogie man created for political purpose. Indyref2 lay under the bed ready to jump out and grab you in the middle of the night, before heading downstairs and raiding the house of £7.6 Billion of your money,  then driving away in your car. With your wife.

You lost. Forget about it. Stop going on about it. Why do you keep mentioning it? Losers. This narrative, as played out, for example by Caroline Flint in her appearance on Question Time, served as the aperitif – the boxer’s jab before the left (or right) hook.

That hook was straightforward – repeated by Labour, Tory and Libdem alike. The referendum was supposed to be “once in a generation.” IndyRef2 is bad. SNP is bad. Seperatism is bad.

Yet, the only main UK political party not talking about Indyref2 was the SNP.

In interview after interview Nicola Sturgeon with equanimity, both here in Scotland and in England, fielded questions on the “imminent referendum.” The mainstream media bought the narrative sold by Tories, Labour and LibDems. The absence of any manifesto commitment from the SNP for IndyRef2 was wilfully ignored.

Just take a minute to think about that. Election campaigns are so much about events and dazzle these days. Fancy 250gsm gloss-finished brochures. Pages of policies, promises and pledges. All delivered with with a flash, bang wallop in front of a room full of adoring acolytes. In all those fresh-smelling pages there was nothing about a Scottish referendum. At no stage-managed event did Nicola Sturgeon call for it. There was no manifesto commitment. The electorate could not vote for IndyRef2. So why all those questions and all that time discussing something that no one was suggesting? Weren’t there more important things to discuss?

In Scotland, we knew that we were being led up the garden path. 56 seats for the SNP. 50% of the popular vote. Scottish Labour rejected by an electorate that had awoken during the referendum campaign, by an electorate that had grown tired of the charlatan mainstream media. We are staying up all night so that we can cast further light into the dark shadows.

Cast some light on to the Indyref2 narrative and what do you find?

A good story that has legs. “David Cameron rules out a second referendum” screams the Telegraph. Of course, David knows that he can make no such promise and anyway no one is asking for a second referendum, but hey, it plays well doesn’t it?

This story is even more diaphanous when you consider that the chances of the SNP calling for a second referendum before 2018 are as likely as Scotland returning from the World Cup with a wee golden globe statue and a look of baffled bewilderment on the faces of players and an entire nation.

The SNP will not seek a new mandate until the polls prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there will be a wide margin of victory. This story – if it really ever was one – is dead, maybe not for a generation, but certainly for a whole World Cup qualifying campaign.

The story of how IndyRef2 was used during the election campaign is a clue. It is a smoking gun which shows how the Conservative Party will drive a right-wing agenda. It is smoke and mirrors and slight of hand. The election result in England in May proves its potential. So much so that the new Tory leader, when he arrives in a few years, will be more like David Blaine than David Cameron.

This is the murky prism in which the media coverage of the entire five years of miserable Tory rule will seek to debate an IndyRef2, voting reform and the consequences of the UK exit from the EU.

EU referendum

Another referendum beckons, but this time we have recent history to help us with the outcome. When the UK government agrees to a referendum the cards will be stacked in its favour.

The establishment parties will come together with one clear voice. The media will be on-side. Money will pile into the Yes campaign from the big businesses which rely so heavily on a single market to allow them to generate large profits. They can not afford to lose the flow of a well-educated, cheap, eastern and southern european workforce that helps them keep wages low in the UK. They will do everything to stymie an exit.

David Cameron will return with concessions. Small ones. But through the lens of the media they will appear large. The status quo will be saved and we will march on as before. But before we do – imagine the scenarios to be played-out, the what-ifs put to the MPs and the pundits and the experts.

Be Prepared. Hunker down. Put on your tin hat and don’t play the game.

You can spend hours and days watching and listening to people discuss something that will not happen. You can be diverted. Or you can focus on the real politics. To do that there is one further Establishment feint to be tackled.

Electoral reform

A truly proportional electoral system would change the way the UK is governed. It would, lets be clear, be the most fundamental democratic overhaul seen in the UK since universal female suffrage. The very thought places the Establishment on edge.

The route to power in Westminster would be very different. The polarised red and blue, two choices for Downing Street swingometer would cease. Perhaps there would be a body of support for political parties less pre-disposed to the US-style capitalism seen in the UK since Thatcher. That alone is reason enough to suggest that true electoral reform will never happen. 2020 will come and go with a Westminster Government elected under the First Past the Post system.

The fact is that electoral reform is not in the Tory manifesto. And they won. Labour and the SNP have nothing to gain from reforming the Westminster voting system. Perhaps the issue is considered less important in Scotland and Wales due to devolution.

Electoral reform is a ship that’s stuck in port, waiting for a captain and cargo.  Even those who would gain from it know that their efforts are better spent fighting the elections in Wales and Scotland where a list system offers a chink in the armoury protecting the two main UK parties.

The problem, for many, is that although the system may not be very good, its preferable to the alternatives. So their will be talk and debate and the ramblings of UKIP will offer further diversion on this issue.  However, when the dust has settled and we remain where we were, the real issues will have been relegated.  Again, attracted by diversionary tactics the media will place one, two or all of these chimerical issues high on their list of priorities.

The role of the three constitutional issues

By generating enough noise they will play a major role in this government’s planned programme simply by deflecting scrutiny from their policies (or lack thereof.) This Sunday morning’s papers and political programmes were brim-full of EU, PR and IndyRef2 stories.

What is absent?

Instead three, deliberately conceived, blind alleys.

The IndyRef2, EU exit and PR will draw flack from the public and shift the the attention from where the UK media – whose job it should be to hold the UK Government to task – should sit. Articles, papers and research will be carried out to fan the flames; a whole industry chasing non stories. 24 hours-a-day, in high definition and full technicolor, a kind of shadow press leading the electorate down dark alleys and dead ends.

My hope is that enough Scots and the awakening electorate in rUK will finally realise that the mood music is phoney. This mind-numbing but hypnotic Muzak will end and a story with a passionate and politically-enlivened soundtrack will take its place. If you don’t like the music you change the channel. See the light and remove yourself from the narrative of the mainstream media.

The good bank

With the longest election campaign in living memory now drawing to a close the bizarre theatre of facts and figures, claim and counter claim has had time to cover every single major issue facing the electorate. Scotland. Housing. The economy. The debt and the deficit. Immigration. Zero hour contracts. Scotland again. Coalitions. The likelihood and legitimacy of those coalitions. Trident. The NHS. Taxes and the avoidance of those taxes.  And a little bit more about Scotland. But there is an important issue that has been as hard to find as an impromptu walk about by a Tory Minister.  Remember those banks and the financial services sector and the mess they caused? Whatever happened to all that?

Scrutinising the role of the financial services became a media and public pastime after the the sector was bailed out by the grand total of £375Billion. Since the financial crisis took hold in 2008 and during every ‘banker bonus’ time since we’ve learned to look at banking through a squinting eye as we wondered just when are we getting our money back? So considering debt and the deficit have been ubiquitous in this campaign it seems to be amiss not to focus on the continuing role of the financial services sector and to ask:

– what has happened to make sure that there isn’t another financial services led crash again? and

– can our banks, if run differently, actually do some good?

What have the political parties been saying in this campaign about the financial sector?

The Tory Manifesto mentions, what has to be seen as an admission:

“our economic growth remains uneven, too reliant on financial services.”

They then cover exactly how the role of the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England will oversee the “best regulation in the world” Careful wording; not the most regulated but the “best”. The Tories talk about how their reforms covered in the Financial Services (Banking Reform Act 2013) – which will come into play in 2019 now that’s a long time in anyone’s book – will continue to strengthen the sector against future market failures.

Whatever you think of the scope of that regulation at least it is mentioned by the Tories but this seems to be the end of the reform. And to prove their lack of vision here’s the coalition government’s pre campaign announcement. Their paper “protocol for bank closures” does absolutely nothing to improve the regional support for SMEs and those consumers who most value a local bank in fact it’s not even on the agenda: “High street banks, consumer groups and the government have signed up to an industry-wide agreement to minimise the impact of branch closures” Yes, you read that correctly. Rather than looking at banks to support the regional development of the UK to how about just limit the negative impact? why set the bar high when it can be set so low?

Back to manifestos. In the Labour Manifesto there is a mention of a new way of banking and a brand new bank:

“We will develop a banking system that works for businesses in every region and every sector in Britain. The long-standing problems of our banking system mean that too many small and medium-sized businesses cannot get the finance they need to invest and grow.

Labour will establish a British Investment Bank with the mission to help businesses grow and to create wealth and jobs. It will have the resources to improve access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses, and will support a network of regional banks.”

Now this sounds good. Like someone is listening to the SME sector and a disenfranchised public. And there is a consensus that seems to be shared by the SNP and the Greens.

The SNP in their manifesto seek to hit the banks hard with an increased bank levy and a tax on banker’s bonuses. But the area of a new bank is the  most interesting part:

“….will seek seed-fund capitalisation of the Scottish Business Development Bank, enabling new investment in Scottish business growth and innovation, helping create thousands of new jobs”

The Green Party dedicate a couple of pages on reforming the Financial Sector in their manifesto. They typically peg their colours to the mast:

“The UK finance industry is a disaster area.”

And within the fruity language we again find the new (well a very old) bank:

“We will use the government-owned Royal Bank of Scotland to create a network of local banks for every city and region, ensuring that each bank is a People’s Bank, obliged to offer cheap basic banking services.”

Now this looks good a People’s Bank. A bank designed to do good?

In a variety of routes Labour, SNP and The Greens all seem to want to start to develop a new way to do banking. The route and the scope appears to differ but this overall vision has the potential to make an impact that will be felt across communities and in the wider economy and it is a shame there has been so little focus on this vision. A new approach to banking in the UK has the opportunity to affect real and meaningful economic and social change. And it is needed.

So far under the coalition government nothing much seems to have changed even in the banks that we own. As you can see from the Tory led coalition government their protocol for bank closures and their reliance on past regulation shows that the ship has sailed on more regulations. But maybe they are right, maybe we don’t need more regulation. So exactly how are things going?

RBS announced its latest figures at the end of April. A £446m loss in the year so far. According to RBS CEO Ross McEwan the bank is improving and if only they didn’t have to set aside millions of pounds to cover their potential loss owing to alleged criminal activity they would be in profit. Damn those illegal activities they can really hurt…..shareholders.

So if it’s not going so well and the opposition parties are looking at a new direction of travel is there anyone there to put meat on the bones? Thankfully there are other organisations talking about reform in the banking sector.

Local banking for the public good

At start of the election campaign the excellent Think Tank the New Economics Forum published a report entitled: “Reforming RBS: local banking for the public good”

In this detailed and explorative report the NEF pictured and supported a revisioning of RBS. A not for profit regional based financing network that focused on SMEs. In the many highlights a reformed RBS would lead to:

1. Increasing credit for the real economy. Local stakeholder banking networks focus more on small and medium enterprise (SME) lending and they increased lending to businesses and households during the recession while large commercial banks withdrew credit from the economy.

2. Protecting jobs and growing their number and quality. Investment in higher staff-to-customer ratios by local stakeholder banks with consequent tax revenues, saved welfare, and benefit costs and social benefits.

3. Improving the diversity and resilience of the UK banking system. Offering greater protection to the economy against future economic shocks. Which is  of particular interest to Scotland with %…..

4. Promoting financial inclusion through access to a current account for all UK citizens, and maintenance of universal branch coverage across the UK.

5. Rebalancing the economy. Increasing investment and economic development in regions outside London, as well as greater financial support for local social, cultural, and sporting activities.

As well as all of the above the NEF suggests that RBS would add between £8billion and £13billion to GDP over the first three years acting as a good bank. The policy could almost single handily reduce that scary £30billion cuts figure that has dominated the campaign. Not only is this a vision but it is a practical solution that adds more good than simply increasing GDP.

Reading between the lines of the red lines there are many issues where Labour can lead a progressive anti Tory alliance. The reform of our financial services starting with a look at the role of RBS could be a way in which a successful working government redraws the lines of banks, challenges them to become part of the community and to serve those communities, not to serve shareholders.

For a bank it shouldn’t be about profit. It should be about doing good. Banks shouldn’t be there to make money for their investors; they should be there to support businesses and consumers to better their lives. Wouldn’t it be great if banks measured themselves on this rather than on the bottom line? What if they could actually do good. What if you wanted to hug a banker rather than bash him?