I’m kind of loathed to write this, yet feel compelled. I don’t really want to spend the time on the subject, but need to get the poison out of my system. This is due to two events, one I witnessed, the other I was involved in, and happened to occur within about a week of each other.
The first was a Twitter discussion about a Universal Basic Income, which I became involved in, and happened to include John McTernan. The second was an online interview of John McTernan by Michael Gray, for KILTR/Independence Live, which you can find here.
About John McTernan: plenty has been written about him (and I’m sure a lot more has been spoken) and if you are reading this, then you probably know who he is, but on the off-chance that you do not, John McTernan is a political strategist whose major political roles have been working for the UK Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as Australia’s Julia Gillard. He also worked in Scotland for the Labour party under Jim Murphy during the Scottish Independence Referendum Campaign, working also therefore for the successful Better Together team, which obtained the “no” vote, and the subsequent 2015 General Election Campaign, where Scottish Labour MPs were disastrously reduced from 41 to one.
McTernan is not currently active within politics, or at least not within any political party, although he continues to write and comment on the subject.
Whenever you see or hear or read John McTernan commenting on politics in the UK, or in Scotland more specifically, it will generally go along these lines:
‘Tony Blair and New Labour were wonderful and the best Government ever…some parts of the current Labour party, who share my views, are good, but the likes of Corbyn, McDonnell and any leftyists are bad…SNP is bad…Lib Dems, meh, and The Tories, of course they are really bad, and only I and the people I agree with come up come up with the right, properly costed policies, whereas everyone else is incapable of doing anything that works and/or will get them voted into office.’
I’ll deal with the interview first. What I will do is select some statements McTernan made and provide them in an abridged transcript form, which I have done to eliminate unnecessary text and to try and keep it as concise as possible. You should find the statements to be in context, and not misleading therefore, but I will add some context where I think it may be lacking, or as I think appropriate, but you can always check out the interview for yourself. I’ve added timings so that you can find what was said.
The point of my doing this will become clear.
NB an accurate transcript of a conversation may indicate hesitations, a person self-correcting and occasionally what they say, or start to say, may not make make sense, and may not mean what was intended, but was still understood in the context of the conversation. This is more common than you might realise and should be regarded as quite normal and very human.
On being asked about the 2016 Scottish Parliament Elections (SP16) campaign so far:
…not really illuminating anything more than the fact that Nicola Sturgeon’s an extreme Blairite…but we all knew she was a Blairite already… (Time in – 1m:40s).
the economic case for Independence is in tatters (3:54)
…for as long as Scotland is Ulster, and every question is seen through the constitutional prism, you will get voting along lines that have got nothing to do with performance, nothing to do with principle, nothing to do with policy, nothing to do with quality… (4:50)
Nicola Sturgeon is on her way to have eight, nine, ten, whatever years in politics, and not win a referendum, and not even hold a referendum, and that will, in the end, be what she did in Scottish politics… (6:59)
The message discipline of the SNP…has led to a thinking deficit (8:51)
Fifty-five percent of Scots want to stay in the United Kingdom; it’s probably a larger number now… (10:22)
Scotland will not become independent; that’s a clear, clear thing now (10:33)
Responding to a question about Scottish Labour suffering at the 2015 General Election off the back of how it fought the independence referendum:
“All you’re interest in (sic) – is in discussing what happened in a referendum that was decisive and decided a question… (13:00).
Responding to how he views the UK Wide Labour Party under Corbyn:
…it’s never had a worse leadership in its history… (17:55)
There is no chance that the ultra-left policies of John McDonnell will help Labour get elected…if you are fundamentally weak on economics and fundamentally weak on defence and security… (21:35)
…of course you can raise taxes, but people will not vote for tax increases… (26:21)
You can have a ludicrous debate about…about… housing and social housing…based on an impossibilism that says, ‘it’s terrible, we must do it’, and when you ask, ‘How do we do it?’, you say ‘It must be done’… (33:51)
There is nothing that undermines the Labour Party more than the weekly appearance of Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minster’s Questions, to demonstrate he can’t – he’s not competent to do a core part of his day job at the moment. Imagine that man, who goes up to Prime Minister’s Questions every week, having to make the decisions that a Prime Minister has to make; impossible. (34:45)
NB this one.
…The problem with this…this morass of leftist policy, it’s essentially policy making by assertion… (36:08)
You win by persuading people that you have an analysis of how to change things (36:22).
Homelessness in Scotland is obviously the responsibility of the Scottish Government…it’s a symbol of the failure of the SNP as a Government…is definitely, absolutely the responsibility of the Scottish Government, and it’s a direct consequence of them deciding, cynically, to strip local government of finance (37:38).
The original intention of the Higher Education Governance Bill is one of the most outrageous and totalitarian acts that’s ever been proposed within Britain… (43:14).
I’ll never stop fighting to take the Labour party back to make it an electable Labour Party that can run the country…which does what Tony Blair did…make us a force for good, abroad… (56:52).
If you have not guessed by now, and with my hint above about policy making by assertion, what links all the above is that McTernan often goes beyond asserting his opinion and makes statements based upon false premises, as if they are facts, or at least asserted on a premise that ain’t necessarily so.
I could challenge all of those statements above if not also the various premises they are based upon.
This may hardly be ground-breaking news in terms of how an individual political operator operates, but McTernan is an outstanding example of such.
Right from the get-go, McTernan is at it. His first response starts innocuously enough about the SP16 campaign being predictable, but within seconds he has asserted that the SNP Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is a Blairite – and an “extreme” one, at that.
If you think about it, this remark isn’t really aimed at Nicola Sturgeon. Describing her as an ‘extreme Blairite’ is a sling-shot aimed more at SNP supporters who will resent the comparison, particularly the ex-Labour supporters who feel that New Labour left them. McTernan’s active role in that administration, and unwavering support for it, long after it has gone, means that he retains poster-boy status for the very thing that they defected to the SNP over.
McTernan has taken plenty of stick over the years and clearly isn’t too bothered about giving it back. Indeed, McTernan is someone who seems to revel in winding up opponents, but, despite its obvious dangers, he happily goes after those in the electorate that doesn’t vote his way, too.
This assault on the SNP support is confirmed by his own gradual undermining of Sturgeon and the SNP, during the course of the interview, as McTernan takes every opportunity to attack the SNP, only showing them respect for their ability to win elections, whilst praising the Blair Government that he was part of, to the hilts. It demonstrates his undying affection for the Blair era and the man himself, and his policies. Yet Sturgeon is a Blairite. It’s a clear contradiction, a comparison that he doesn’t genuinely believe and is therefore designed purely to antagonise.
McTernan is nothing if not consistent in this approach. Whilst at least some other former high-ranking ministerial staff or former elected officials, can relax and become a little more neutral and impartial, without necessarily changing their core beliefs (the likes of Michael Portillo comes to mind as an example), McTernan remains entirely dogmatic and unwavering in his beliefs. He is unapologetic & evasive over any negative matter than he might bear some responsibility for.
The reason for McTernan’s ire with SNP supporters is obvious; but again, if you happen to be new to the man or to Scottish politics, the next matter will explain it.
In the interview with Gray, McTernan subsequently refused to even discuss how he and Scottish Labour turned from being the victors of the Independence Referendum in September 2014, to losing 40 out of 41 MPs at the 2015 General Election (GE2015), to the party of Independence, a mere seven months later.
McTernan deflects the conversation by asserting that his interviewer just wants to discuss the referendum, which as far as he is concerned is done and dusted and not interesting any more. His only concession to the subject of GE2015 is that he goes on to say that he was happy with how Scottish Labour won the referendum, and would do it again the same way – which goes some way to answering the question, whilst also contradicting his stance that he has just taken on not wanting to talk about the referendum campaign.
Clearly the issue of how Scottish Labour shared a platform with The Tories over Independence and had gradually lost much of its support in recent years, to the point where that sharing of a platform with the Tories over Independence, was the last straw for many already disaffected Labour supporters. McTernan would rather deflect and contradict himself than discuss the matter, because that means discussing to what extent he is responsible for the loss of 40 Labour MPs in Scotland.
The homelessness issue I highlight because he blames the SNP/ScotGov for it. Now this, I can accept is at least arguable, but the counter-argument – and I would say is the real reason for it – is that homelessness is rising right across the UK, so isn’t the UK Government more, if not entirely, responsible? Bearing in mind that this interview was more centred around Scottish politics, McTernan still chose to attack the SNP only, without so much as mentioning the Tory UK Government.
He continues in the same vain for the rest of the interview. He makes assertions as if they are facts, pontificating at length, if allowed, about how his political opponents are not competent, or provide no policies, or at least not any credible policies. He uses phrases such as “impossibilism“, in order to get across that something just cannot be done in the way his opponents want or describe, often without justifying why that’s the case, and if he does provide any such, it is by describing situations and events or how things will unfold entirely in and on his own terms, which again, ain’t necessarily so.
I did however spot one other glaring and unintentional contradiction during the interview, which is McTernan’s insistence on certain matters being so, such as “people will not vote for tax increases” so therefore you can’t possibly argue a case for tax increases, yet goes on to say, “You win by persuading people that you have an analysis of how to change things“.
So you need to persuade the public on things, except the things that, he says, the public cannot be persuaded to change its collective mind over.
With McTernan, his view and his way is always right, is always best, always indisputable and everyone else who doesn’t agree or comply is crap, their policies wrong, or without basis or without public support.
Again, I accept that this is hardly ground-breaking news, but what makes McTernan ‘special’ is the extent to which this applies to him – and still does, despite being out of a political job.
Now to the second matter, that happened first, a week or so earlier, and directly involved me.
As a proponent of the Basic Income idea, I was following some tweets about it when I saw John McTernan state the following:
Workfare, or what many people call slave labour, is a good, if expensive policy? Odd then that even the Tories are dropping it, as it wasn’t getting people into paid work and off benefits.
I wasn’t about to let someone, particularly a supposed Labour party supporter, defend this policy, so I intervened.
NB For anyone unfamiliar with Twitter exchanges, especially fast-moving ones, people can respond to overlapping tweets and individual tweets can create branch lines where there has been more than one reply to that tweet. This also means that it can be difficult to re-create outside of Twitter. To try and best re-create the aspects of the conversation I wish to refer to, I have used direct links in some instances and screen-shots in others, but at the time of writing, neither I nor John McTernan have deleted any of the tweets made during this discussion, so you can see them for yourself, as is, from either of our Tweet and reply timelines; @johnmcternan and @radiojammor.
This is how I ended up debating with John McTernan over (Universal) Basic Income (UBI/BI), on Twitter, on 22-23 March 2016.
Moral issues? Real needs? What’s he talking about? What is morally wrong with UBI? What more real a need can you have than the basic need of sustenance?
Ah, so it’s not just his unspecified moral concerns, but those of the public – and it’s been doomed already and can’t be revived. Hmmm…and as for affordability, those Green Party UBI proposals have been costed, so I knew that was a false claim.
A Universal Basic Income is going to be trialled in Canada, where a related scheme called Mincome was trialled in the 1970s, at a time when it was also seriously considered by the US Government. Switzerland is soon to have a referendum, Finland and Holland have experimental schemes in the works and Japan has recently expressed an interest. Support for such a scheme is spreading around the world, particularly in light of recent technology breakthroughs that are expected to lead to millions of jobs of work disappearing.
The Green Party in England and Wales, as well as Scotland already have UBI (Citizen’s Income) as a policy. The Labour Party has expressed an interest in it and at the SNP Spring conference in Glasgow, they supported a motion on Basic Income, so I decided to point out this support to undermine his claims about the lack of public support for the idea.
Massive cuts? What’s he talking about? Those proposals make most people better off compared to what they replace. And he knows that the basic income would cover any ‘tax hike’ to pay for the scheme for everyone except the most well off, for whom the extra tax burden, less their basic income (which, remember, they will get too), will be peanuts to them.
The tweets on the subject of UBI and Workfare continued on without me for a while, as I had things to do, and I wanted to re-familiarise myself with the Greens’ UBI proposals, but as before, I saw nothing untoward with them, so I went back with the intention of getting to the bottom of what McTernan’s claims were – but here are some of the other related tweets first.
So, McTernan also claims that these proposals create child poverty and fakes the numbers. As to the childcare accusation, I’ll come back to that in due course.
McTernan never responded to that last point. At least he confirms that his objections are really his own and on the grounds stated here about conditionality. His earlier claims about “moral” objections are really his belief that there should be job-seeking conditionality attached, plus an assumption of public support for that view; but much of the British public are barely aware of the concept of a Basic Income, as it was only widely discussed for the first time in the run-up to GE2015, but The Greens had a nightmare with presentation of the issue, so it failed to impact at the election, although awareness in the UK was increased.
McTernan fails to provide an argument for this stance in the event of there being not enough jobs to go round, which I’ve already argued in a previous blog, is a situation we are already in, so he doesn’t have to address a follow-up question as to whether he believes that this assumed public support would continue once the public realises that full employment is a fantasy and long-term or even permanent unemployment is going to be the norm for millions more than it is now.
His lack of response also suggests that he won’t easily admit to what he would advocate. With his support of Workfare and insistence on conditionality within benefits, he would seem to be happy to let people either work for nothing or starve, regardless of how few paying jobs there might be.
The alternative to that is that he is stuck in the past and has his head in the sand, obstinately refusing to adapt his views or accept that what he believes is needed – just because it was popular and electable a dozen or so years ago – may no longer be what is needed, or is at all helpful now, let alone in the not too distant future.
As to his fiscal and fakery claims, keep reading the tweets:
What? Why does this mean poverty? How and why would The Greens do this? It is a nonsense claim without any genuine basis.
Okay, here it comes…
At this point, John decides to go back to the disabled tax credits argument.
McTernan’s claim that these UBI proposals will create “poverty” is based on his own false premises; that a) there is an un-costed double UBI ‘fiddle’ related to single parents, which I demonstrated was false by getting him to specify exactly what it was he meant and then pointing out where it is costed in the proposals, and b) UBI will not replace childcare tax credits, so he claims that this is a cut and parents will be worse off, when what The Green Party proposals say is that there will be free childcare provision, so parents will have no need of child care tax credits.
He also tries to tie-in Housing Benefit, which The Greens’ UBI is not going to replace in any way, shape or form, as they have stated. McTernan knows that. Housing Benefit would continue to be a means-tested benefit, and if there are any cost issues with that (outside of spending money on things McTernan doesn’t want money spent on), they are issues with Housing Benefit provision, not UBI provision.
McTernan is basically trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the unaware, by asserting the equivalent of e.g. the defence budget is wrong and our entire defence is compromised, not because there is anything wrong with the defence budget, but because the budget for HMRC, who collects the tax, has not been properly sorted out.
Even if the latter was true, why the hell would you let it get so far as to affect the former? You sort out the latter; the former doesn’t need to change.
McTernan has either a) failed to understand what the proposals say, b) become so entrenched in his own belief system of how things are supposed to work that he cannot or will not accept or understand alternatives, or c) he does understand them and is being entirely disingenuous in order to promote his own views as superior alternatives, regardless of whether or not they are.
I personally believe that it is a combination of the latter two. McTernan is being entirely disingenuous about UBI, just as he is about anything he doesn’t agree with and can’t genuinely fault.
McTernan is not stupid. He makes mistakes, but if he does, it is far more likely to be down to being such a zealot about his own dogma.
Indeed, I would say McTernan’s biggest mistake is that he has cried wolf so often, he has discredited himself. These two recent events also indicate that he is far from being rehabilitated.
This is why I say you should not accept any of McTernan’s bitter, poisonous pills of would-be political wisdom because many of those bitter pills are placebos, where the ingredients are lies and will only harm you psychologically if you allow them to, whilst others are tranquillizers, designed to nullify your senses to reality.
McTernan’s past its sell-by date ideology is that of a bitter, unashamed Blairite, who has yet to come to terms with Labour not being in power at Number 10, or the slaughter of Scottish Labour at GE2015, his ideology being dispensed with by Labour, as well as the with the Labour party now being led by someone that he is ideologically opposed to.
McTernan has become a fringe figure. He shows no signs of either willingness or ability to adapt to current circumstances or change his belligerent ways and is therefore likely to remain such.