STRAIGHT TALKING. HONEST POLITICS.

In the spirit of straight talking, honest politics, I’m going to put my cards on the table right now: I’m a Corbyn voter. A classic hand-wringing, middle-class, North London leftie, the mad fact of Corbyn’s candidacy compelled me to register as a Labour supporter; empowered me to bet £3 on the foolish notion that Something More might somehow, suddenly, be achievable.

In no small part, I was inspired to do this by what happened in Scotland this year. I’m sure many of us were: finally, a viable political force south of Berwick was willing to show two fingers to austerity, and if anyone called us out, told us we were mad, that nobody would vote for such a “loony”, “radical”, “left-leaning” candidate? Well, then we had a perfect example just north of the border. The SNP had hoovered up 50% of the popular vote on an anti-austerity ticket, and after all, aren’t we one nation? One people? Better together, fighting for a common cause? Etcetera?

So yes, I registered as a supporter and took a punt on Jeremy. I took a punt on Stella and Diane as well, but you can’t expect lightning to strike in the same place three times.

The rest is history.

If this were a film, we’d now have a montage of increasingly bonkers  Telegraph front pages, spinning towards the screen, taking us from 12 September through to today: to Brighton, and to John McDonnell.

All the talk this morning was that the Shadow Chancellor’s conference speech would be “dull”, that he would be self-consciously “boring” in an attempt to dispel the prevailing media narrative that portrays him as an overly-excitable Jack Russell Terrorist. The John McRussell has been let off his lead, we are warned. He’s scampering around befouling our once-great nation: smashing our Charles & Diana engagement crockery, pissing on the rug we bought with our city bonuses and growling at our fine China.

So, yes. Boredom. Avuncularity. Steadiness. Dependability. They were the watch words. It was a tactic that had worked well for Corbyn in his first PMQs: a display of sincerity where point-scoring took a back seat to acting like a god-damned grown up and reminding everybody what a politician’s job is supposed to entail. Come on, Corbyn was saying: we may be so inbred as a political class that we can no longer tell a good dinner from a viable sexual partner, but let’s at least get the basics right. Let’s at least do that.

Today, John McDonnell did a lot of the basics very right indeed. He held out an olive branch to disgruntled Blairites, while stressing the importance of an inclusive democratic process in the formation of Labour party policy. He didn’t use any fruity language and managed to stop short of proposing intifada as a legitimate option by which to take back number 10.

He did all this, while successfully pandering to those of us who have been waiting for a viable alternative to austerity for so long that we are now utterly sick of the phrase “viable alternative to austerity”. He explained, in simple terms, that deficit reduction and austerity are not synonyms. He brought out the big guns: Stiglitz, Piketty. He sweated, a little, and stumbled over a couple of words, but damn if he didn’t look authoritative. Avuncular. Steady. Dependable.

However, his speech was not as dull as promised; it stopped just short of boring. In just a couple of sweeping remarks, McDonnell managed to piss off half of Scotland. And, at the same, time, those of us who believed in the message of straight talking, honest politics. Those of us who believed that a politician could claim to be above petty, nonsensical point scoring, and mean it. The Shadow Chancellor addressed the people of Scotland for a good thirty seconds, and this was the crux of his message:

“Let’s be clear: the SNP has now voted against the living wage, against capping rent levels, and just last week voted against fair taxes in Scotland to spend on schools”.

And a country full of people scratched their heads. When the fuck did that happen? While the rest of the UK has focused on the recent Westminster hoopla, has Nicola Sturgeon taken off her human mask to reveal the lizard that Jim Murphy always suspected was underneath? Something must be going on – after all, John McDonnell is Corbyn’s boy, right? A new politician? Someone we can trust? A man above pettiness, above point scoring? Above distorting the facts?

Er.. no. As it happens, he isn’t. And, to be honest, I still really, really want to believe that there’s been some big mistake. That McDonnell has been very badly misled by a mischievous, McTernanite advisor, or someone from Scottish Labour who hasn’t yet read the memo: you know, the one that reads We Do Things Differently Now.

But.. well, this wasn’t an off-the-cuff interview, or some rush-job for the late-night telly audience. This was a conference speech. A billboard event. Twenty minutes that you really, truly, need to stand behind and, really, truly, ought to bloody well fact check.

We’re going to have to do the fact-checking ourselves, aren’t we? Sigh.

It turns out that, once you unpack the McDonnell’s accusations, they are technically true. In the same way that the country technically voted for the Conservatives in May. In fact, the way this was spun was pretty clever, and I doff my hat to whoever thought it up.

Holyrood is a fascinating parliament for many reasons, not least of which being the fact that the government and their primary opposition are both centre-left parties (alright, quiet at the back – they both identify as centre-left parties. Happy now?).

This means that the opposition (currently: Labour) is able to use bill and motion amendments in quite a sneaky way. Take, for example, the debate around “An End to In-work Poverty”, a fairly innocuous motion brought by Green MSP Alison Johnstone and discussed in March 2015 (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_BusinessTeam/pm-v4n91-s4-rev.pdf).

Motions like these act as way for Holyrood to send a message to Westminster, on behalf of the Scottish people, on undevolved matters. In this case, the motion resolved that “this Parliament… considers that the level of poverty and inequality at work must be addressed by an incoming UK Government”.

Policy suggestions were put forward: a “£10 minimum wage by 2020, maximum ratios between highest and lowest pay within organisations, a wealth tax on the assets of the top 1% and a move toward a citizens’ income.” As I say, all pretty innocuous. It’s essentially a bland, cross-party statement requesting, in broad terms, that an incoming UK Government might want to think about being nice to the working poor.

Given the Holyrood’s political make-up, it’s no surprise that the motion eventually passed thanks to a large cross-party majority. But not without amendments. This is where it gets interesting: Labour’s Neil Findlay proposed an amendment to the bill which would have replaced the final paragraph with the following:

“[this Parliament] notes that the Scottish Government’s own statistics show that, under the last Labour administration, the number of people in in-work poverty fell by 30,000 and the number in absolute poverty fell by over half a million; recognises that, since 2006-07, the number of people in in-work poverty has increased by 50,000; notes that 414,000 people across Scotland would benefit from Scottish Labour’s plans to extend the payment of the living wage, incentivising more businesses to pay the living wage by using Make Work Pay contracts and increasing the national minimum wage to £8; believes that these actions, alongside the banning of exploitative zero-hours contracts, will improve the lives of working people across Scotland, and calls on the Scottish Government to amend the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 to extend the payment of the living wage to public sector contracts”

I don’t blame you if you couldn’t be bothered to wade through that wall of figures: suffice it to say, Findlay took a well-meaning message of support to the working poor, and tried to turn it into a screed full of anti-SNP, pro-Labour statistics, advertising Labour’s snappily-branded “Make Work Pay contracts”.

Whether his figures were right or wrong, and whatever the merits of Labour’s plans for the living wage, this should be taken for what it is: a rhetorical blast against the SNP which never had a cat in hell’s chance of making the final motion. Predictably, it was shot down in flames.

But look at the final sentence: “[This Parliament] calls on the Scottish Government… to extend the payment of the living wage to public sector contracts”.

This is the cunning bit. The SNP were always going to vote down an amendment which directly attacked their record in government – notwithstanding the fact that such a partisan Scot-specific broadside would look bizarre in the middle of a message that was intended for the UK Government. However, by including a line about paying the living wage to public sector workers, Findlay was able to force a situation in which the SNP technically voted “against the living wage”. After all, you can’t pick and choose which bits of an amendment to vote for: it’s yes or no to the whole thing.

So yes, the SNP “voted against the living wage”, and mendacious Labour politicians now had a flimsy stick to hit them with. It’s British party politics at its finest: dancing around the margins of a debate, scoring petty little points that evaporate as soon as you scrutinise them.

Precisely the kind of tactics, in fact, that New Old Labour tell us have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

“Let’s be clear: the SNP has now voted against the living wage…”

No, let’s be clear, John. They haven’t. This isn’t even a Harman-esque abstention we’re talking about. It’s nothing: a distortion of the flimsiest of truths, and something that a playground bully would be ashamed of using as ammunition.

Do I really need to carry on? Do I need to take apart the other two claims as well?

Alright then, while I’m here.

“Just last week”, John tells us, the SNP “voted against fair taxes in Scotland to spend on schools”.

Sigh. Let’s read the amendment together, shall we? This time, it’s Labour’s Iain Gray, tabling an amendment to a thrilling SNP motion entitled Building on Scotland’s Educational Success. Again, here’s the full text of the amendment (the PDF isn’t up yet, but you can watch the debate in question here: http://www.scottishparliament.tv/category.aspx?sort=date&vid=0_325etdb5):

“[This Parliament] recognises that there are over 4,000 fewer teachers in Scottish schools than there were when the SNP administration came to power in 2007, class sizes are rising, over 6,000 pupils left primary school in 2014 with a poor standard of reading, the most deprived fifth of pupils in Scotland are half as likely to achieve one or more Highers and go on to higher education as the least deprived fifth and there are 140,000 fewer college students than in 2007; believes that Scotland must do much more to raise educational standards and close the attainment gap; supports an end to funding cuts for further education, and commits to an investment in additional literacy specialists in schools funded from a 50p top rate of Scottish income tax when power over income tax rates and bands becomes devolved”.

It’s the same basic story: a fair proposition (that Scotland should use proceeds from a future 50p tax rate to increase school spending) is front-loaded with enough anti-SNP rhetoric to make it sure to be struck down. It’s the plot of The Producers played out for political ends: make it certain to fail, and reap the rewards.

And finally, McDonnell’s claim that the SNP has voted “against capping rent levels”.

This seems to relate to the Scottish Housing Bill of last year. For the bill’s third reading in June 2014, James Kelly introduced an amendment, the wording for which doesn’t appear to be online. The full report of the debate, however, is in the public record: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=9285&mode=pdf. During the debate, Kelly eloquently described many of the problems facing private renters in Scotland , and argued that rent caps were the only way to truly combat the issue.

In response, however, the SNP’s Margaret Burgess argued that, although rent caps sounded like a good idea, they shouldn’t be rushed through. A consultation on rent levels was apparently already due to begin “in the autumn” (i.e. autumn 2014): too late for the Housing Bill, but, unfortunately, the wheels of progress grind slowly.

Again, the rights and wrongs of Kelly and Burgess’ arguments aren’t really important here. The point is that the SNP has not truly voted “against capping rent levels”. Rather, they shot down an eleventh-hour amendment to a Bill that had been three years in the making. As attractive as the idea of a rent cap is (amongst both Labour and SNP supporters), Kelly could not seriously believe that such a huge measure could be forced through in such a way: this is precisely the kind of shit that Governments are supposed to think very carefully about before they sign on the dotted line.

But that was never Kelly’s objective. Once more: make it certain to fail, and reap the rewards.

I’m not suggesting that the SNP are above such tactics themselves, by the way. I’m sure they pull this kind of shit all the time – or, at least, did when they were the Holyrood opposition. That’s the nature of politics, after all. Just one reason why we all hate it and none of us vote. Just one reason why we want so desperately to believe in someone who refuses to play the game this way. Someone who plays it straight. Someone who’s honest with us.

“Let’s be clear: the SNP has now voted against the living wage, against capping rent levels, and just last week voted against fair taxes in Scotland to spend on schools”.

So this is “straight talking” is it, John? This is “honest politics”? It’s incredible, and more than a little sad, that such mealy-mouthed half-truths got snuck into an otherwise elegantly poised and well-tempered speech.

I suppose it was a good to have a couple of week’s respite from the old way of doing things, at least.

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