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The Great Centrelink Debt Fiasco

How did this happen?


I’ve been getting asked a lot of questions about Centrelink recently. ‘Why is this happening?’ ‘What were they thinking?’ ‘How did they manage to cock this up so badly?’ The reason they’re asking me is that long before I was a blogger, before there even were blogs, way back in another lifetime called the 90s, I was a Social Security officer. And not just that. I was also a union delegate, chair of the Victorian delegates committee, and a National Councillor with the CPSU. And, most pertinently, for over a year I was a data matching officer. So I know the system, I know what’s gone wrong, and I feel I should explain. My past has collided with my present, because this calls for a Babel Fish translation.

Before I do that however there’s something else I need to deal with. A fellow blogger writing on this subject, Andie Fox, has had her personal information released to the media in order to, it was claimed, ‘correct the record.’ She has responded here. This claimed ‘legal right to correct the record’ does not exist. This was unethical, immoral and highly illegal. I am intimately acquainted with the privacy provisions of the Social Security Act (1991). They drummed them into us in basic training. Later, in my capacity as a union delegate, I was obliged to represent a member wrongly accused of a privacy violation. Here’s how it works: It was (and remains for those still working there) illegal for us to access any information, whether computer records or paper files, that we were not required to access for the purpose of doing our jobs. It was (and remains, etc) illegal for us to disclose to any third party any personal information whatsoever that we’d learned in the course of our work. It was very much a ‘need to know’ policy. We couldn’t even discuss cases with our colleagues if they didn’t need to know.

Let me give you an example of that in action. At one point I had a new car. Well, new to me. I’d had it for a couple of weeks. One morning I found a park right outside the office. That was unheard of. I took it as a good omen. I thought it was my lucky day. I was wrong. A couple of hours later, while I was working in the back office, I was informed that someone had hit my car and driven off. It so happened that some of my colleagues, who were out the front having a smoko, saw the whole thing. The culprit was a client. He had just left the office. Two of them knew his name. Both of them spoke to me, described the incident, and one discreetly slipped me a piece of paper with a scribbled SSR (Social Security Reference No.) on it, saying, “You didn’t get this from me, ok?

By this time the police had been called, and the next thing that happened was that the regional manager came flying out of his office to admonish us that we couldn’t tell those police officers anything that we had learned in the course of our work. So my witnesses could tell them his registration number, because they saw that during the incident, but not his name, address or anything that could identify him which they only knew because they knew him as a client. One of them had been talking to him just five minutes before, but couldn’t discuss that because it had taken place over a DSS desk. The police had to have official permission even to come through the door (Centrelink offices are Commonwealth premises, state police forces have no jurisdiction there), and I was then obliged to tell them that although I knew exactly who the culprit was, I couldn’t tell them anything except the registration number of his old shitbox Kingswood panel van, which (they later informed me) turned out to be registered to a two dollar shelf company.

I never got to recover those damages, and I just had to suck that up. Which is how I know that what the minister, Alan Tudge, and anyone in the department who assisted him in releasing this blogger’s personal information, has done constitutes a serious criminal offence. An offence that carries a maximum prison sentence greater than 12 months. He could go to jail. But a conviction, even if he escapes jail time, would disqualify him from being an MP. To call his actions foolhardy would be an extreme understatement. Now I, like the majority of Australians, have a Centrelink file. I will not, however, be discussing anything pertaining to that here. Unlike most, I also have a history of employment in DSS, the predecessor department to DHS. I will be discussing only non-confidential, systems-related information I acquired in the course of working there.

All of my personal information is, like everyone else’s, confidential. I really shouldn’t have to say that, but due to what has happened to Ms. Fox, I feel it is necessary to deny here any permission, explicit or implied, for the minister, or any officer of the department, to access any information about me. As I said, I understand the requirements of the privacy provisions. I have held myself to that standard, as the above story demonstrates. And you may be assured, I will hold you to that standard too. If I catch so much as a whiff of any unauthorised information about me finding its way into the public domain, I will insist on a full scale privacy investigation, and when you are caught, as you will be (because all access to the computer system is identifiable by a unique logon ID), I will insist on your prosecution, to the fullest extent of the law. You have been warned.

Now, to return to the matter in hand, some will say well, this was twenty years ago, the system must have changed a lot since then surely. Well, no actually. The basic software architecture that underpins the main social security system (including one of the largest databases in the country by the way) hasn’t changed in well over forty years. It was old and creaky when I was using it, and it’s positively antiquated now. Really it belongs in a museum, but on the other hand you’d have to say it’s proved remarkably robust, as by and large it still does the job. It still processes the transactions that have to be processed and pays the people it’s supposed to pay. Mostly.

The ATO computer system (another massive database) is also functionally obsolete by the standards of whatever device you’re reading this on now. The key to working with such systems is to have a good understanding of what they can and cannot do. One of the important things they can’t do is talk to each other. They were designed as one-off, unique, stand alone systems. It was never envisaged that they would be required to talk to each other. If you find that strange remember, when they were designed it was never envisaged that the year 2000 would arrive. Or (arguably) that they would still be in service when it did.

Anyway, in the 90s it was decided that being able to compare data on various government computer systems would be a good idea, and I.T. people from some of those departments were tasked with working out how to do it. To their credit they did work out a way, and the next question became ‘what are we looking for?’ So they worked out various things that could be cross-checked. These were called ‘Match Keys.’ Between DSS (now Centrelink) and the ATO (this is where it becomes relevant to the current debt fiasco), one of these Match Keys was a simple comparison of income. It works like this – the computer looks for discrepancies between ATO annual assessed income and annualised total DSS-declared fortnightly income.

Now, I have to explain what I just said, and why it is a blunt instrument. The ATO assesses income on an annual basis. July 1 to June 30. They don’t care when, within that financial year, you earned the income. Their computer system only knows how much you earned for that whole financial year. The DSS system knows how much, if anything, you earned during any fortnight that you were eligible for a payment from them. It’s not hard to simply add that up for the financial year, and arrive at an annual figure for DSS-declared income. It’s not hard, but it’s highly misleading. I’ll explain why, and also why it wasn’t a problem until now.

Why it’s misleading, why it’s a blunt instrument, is because it will throw up a match every time those two figures differ, and that means every time someone wasn’t in receipt of a DSS/Centrelink payment for the entire financial year. Yes, that’s right, not joking, if you worked for part of a financial year, and at another time during that year you claimed a Centrelink payment, you will be matched. And with the ever-increasing casualisation of the workforce, that’s a lot of people these days. Let’s look at a hypothetical example. If you’re not one of the dwindling minority with a job for life, you might have to take the odd temp job, maybe even a few casual days when they come up. So let’s say in the financial year in question you have a couple of temp positions, a three month one and a two month one. In between them you claim Newstart Allowance, but you also do some casual work, the income from which you declare on your fortnightly forms, as you’re supposed to. Later in the year you score a permanent job, but after a couple of months you get sick. You haven’t had time to accrue much sick leave yet so you have to take unpaid leave, and claim Sickness Allowance for a month or so.

Now, doesn’t that sound like a reasonably common scenario in today’s workforce? You’ve done nothing wrong. You’ve only claimed payments you were entitled to. You’ve declared all the income you were required to declare, to both the ATO and Centrelink. But Centrelink has a total figure of the income you declared to them (which was just for the casual work you had while you were on Newstart), whilst the ATO has that figure, plus the total of Newstart and Sickness Allowance payments you received, plus the income from your three periods of full time work. Obviously those two figures are going to be very different. Congratulations! You just tripped a Match Key!

Now, if this had happened prior to 2016, chances are you’d never have known about it. So what’s changed? It’s not the Match Key. That is, like the old computer system itself, self-evidently the same one I was working with in the 90s. No, what’s changed is that until last year someone like 90s me, a ‘Data Matching Officer,’ would have received a big pile of computer printouts (dot matrix, oh yeah, high tech) and checked them. The old-fashioned way, using what military pilots like to refer to as the Mark 1 Eyeball. We’d look at them. First we’d eliminate the 10-15% that were clearly just two different people with similar names (no, I feel like I’m saying this a lot, but I am not joking). The next thing we looked for was people who were not receiving DSS payments for the full financial year. We generally binned those ones. Because the obvious explanation – that they earned the additional income in the periods they weren’t on benefits – was the correct explanation 99 times out of 100. That’s a little thing called Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is usually correct. The Match Key does not take account of Occam’s Razor. Which is why I advisedly referred to it as a blunt instrument. 😀

But it was never designed to be used without the human checking part of the process! And that is what’s changed. They’ve removed that checking process, the job I used to do, and instead started writing automatically (unseen by human eye) to everyone with a match. Which is, frankly, crazy. So the obvious question is, “Why?” Why would they do such an idiotic thing? Here I can only resort to conjecture, but I have a few observations which may help to shed a little light. Firstly, this is absolutely a political decision. I know this because no-one in the department, no-one with any actual experience of the data matching system, would ever suggest such a ludicrous idea. I suspect someone in the minister’s office has seen the headline figure for this Match Key (which, it turns out, is about $4 billion), and got all excited about it. But it’s not there! It is a hypothetical figure that tells you how much would be owed if all the matches represented genuine discrepancies (which most of them don’t) and if all that money was recoverable (which it wouldn’t be). Only about 2% (not 80%, as still claimed by the government) of them represented genuine discrepancies, so the $4 billion is really more like $80 million. Which would have been recovered anyway! It would seem the ministerial staffers didn’t grasp this. Or did they?

The less charitable explanation is that they knew perfectly well that most of the matches weren’t legitimate, but cynically decided to pursue all of them anyway, in the hope that many people would simply believe the information sent to them in an official looking government letter, and pay up. There is considerable evidence beginning to emerge that this has indeed happened in many cases. This has been assisted by their hopelessly inadequate and opaque review process. However, if that’s what happened, then it was always a risky gamble. It was relatively cheap, in terms of staffing, to pre-check these matches so that only genuine discrepancies were pursued. It will cost a great deal more to review them all. And of course there was always the chance that the whole thing would come out, and become a massive embarrassment. Which it has. I think that just about wraps it up for the minister. His position has become utterly untenable. Bye bye Mr Tudge!


If anyone reading this has been affected by this issue, and you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll do my best to find out (I still have some contacts in the department).


Battle of Backwater Bridge

A modern day atrocity is being perpetrated against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, as they protest the construction, by a consortium including Donald Trump no less, of a pipeline through their traditional lands. I’ve recently come to know Ruth Hopkins, one of the activists on site, and I really think more people need to know about this. Please share:


image6Victoria Pearson

The situation in North Dakota took a significantly more sinister turn on Sunday, as militarised security personnel began to attack unarmed water protectors with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades.


In a move condemned by both the UN and Amnesty International, water cannon were deployed against unarmed peaceful protesters, including elders and children, during freezing conditions. Journalists on scene reported ice forming on the protester’s clothing and skin, triggering cardiac arrest in one elder, who is currently in a critical condition in hospital. Latest reports state that over 300 people are injured, with 27 needing hospital treatment for a variety of injuries including hypothermia, fractures, sight and hearing damage and injuries from rubber bullets. One unarmed 21 year old woman, Sophia Wilansky, suffered a direct hit from a concussion grenade which injured her so badly she is now facing having her arm amputated (you can…

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Be Careful What You Wish For (Part 2)

The Hitchhikers’ Guide to – #AusVotes2016


LauraNotTingling                                                               Image – Mike Bowers – Guardian Australia

Well, it’s over. The longest and most boring Australian election campaign I can remember. The polls are open. All that remains is to go and vote, and await the results.  The last poll has come in at 50:50, but all the pundits and the bookies think Malcolm Turnbull and the LNP will be re-elected, but with a reduced majority. Of course it’s impossible not to add the proviso that the pollsters, the pundits and the bookies all had a very bad week last week in the Brexit referendum. Well, actually the bookies would have done well out of it, but that’s because they mis-priced it and the favourite lost. What can Australia learn from that? I’ll be coming to that in a minute, but first that decision to bring on a double dissolution, and to telegraph the decision months ahead of time. Bear with me while I answer the question most non-Australian readers are asking right now:

What’s A Double Dissolution?

Australia has a bicameral (two chambers) ‘Westminster system’ parliament with the lower house, the House of Representatives, having a three year term. However, members of the upper house, the Senate, serve a six year term. This is managed by holding a half Senate election with every House of Reps election. In certain circumstances though the government can call a full election of both houses, a double dissolution. If a piece of government legislation is rejected twice by the Senate, that is known as a double dissolution ‘trigger.’ Governments are not obliged to pull that trigger, and they rarely do, but that’s what Malcolm Turnbull has chosen to do this time.

A Palace Coup

Turnbull took over from Tony Abbott, who had become extremely unpopular, in a party room coup before he had completed his first term. He became so unpopular because he was by any objective standard a terrible Prime Minister. He was deeply misguided, and his only redeeming feature was that he was also ineffectual. He retains a rump of bitter support on the hard right. When Turnbull took over last September most of the country was just relieved, and his popularity soared. But ever since them it has been slowly eroded. It should be noted that both major party leaders are fighting their first federal election campaigns. ALP leader Bill Shorten has run plenty of campaigns in the trade union movement though. Turnbull’s only previous campaign was the unsuccessful referendum campaign for a republic, before he entered parliament. He has always been seen as a winner though, ever since he first came to public notice by winning the ‘Spycatcher‘ case, against the Thatcher government, in an Australian court.

His management of this campaign has not been impressive. Letting it be understood that it was his intention to bring on a DD (it’s too long to keep typing it out) was a courageous decision, in the Sir Humphrey sense. It allowed pundits to work out the only practical date for such an election months ahead of time. The more time, the more opportunities for gaffes, cock ups and controversies. So how did he start out this interminable campaign? By flying a succession of policy kites, proposing ‘big ideas’ which were all withdrawn, some with startling rapidity. By the time we got to the budget all that remained was a few minor adjustments to superannuation concessions and a modest company tax cut by stealth. So modest that it is forecast to increase GDP growth by just 0.1% after 10 years, but at a cost to the budget of some $50 billion. None of this has deterred Malcolm from declaring that he has an economic plan for ‘jobs and growth,’ his slogan. I wouldn’t call that a plan though, would you? So logically there are two possibilities. Either he just has a plan to say he has a plan, or he has another plan that he’s not sharing with us.

Now by this point in the campaign, which is a good couple of months ago by now, I was starting to feel a rising sense of deja vu. This was starting to bear a striking resemblance to last year’s UK election campaign. As I said in a blog at the time, the major parties seemed to have decided that voters were too stupid to think about more than one idea at a time, so they went with one policy each. Not so much of a policy even as a sort of vague general feeling. The vibe. Last year we saw the Tories say they’d be better at managing the economy, Labour said they’d be better at protecting the NHS. This year we’ve got the coalition with jobs and growth, and the ALP with protecting Medicare. So pretty much exactly the same!

Then Something Happened

So this banal, superficial campaign dragged on and on. And on. Until suddenly, unexpectedly, just over a week ago something happened. The Brexit vote. Australian political commentators seized on it, firstly because it was something, anything, to break the mindless tedium. Something we weren’t expecting. This campaign has not contained a whole lot of stuff we weren’t expecting, so the media gave it blanket coverage. Then of course some people started to wonder what it might mean for us. Economically? Probably not that much. The UK is not China. It’s just not that important to us in that way (sorry Boris). Nonetheless, our stock market took a tumble, on fears that it could be the straw that broke the camel of the world economy’s back. It shouldn’t be that big a deal, but the austerity policies pursued by most of the world’s developed economies have left things in such a fragile state that it might not take much. But we don’t really know, that process has a long time to play out, so speculation inevitably turned to the possible parallels with Australia’s situation. Malcolm was quick to claim it was an argument against change. Stability, he cried. Firm hand on the tiller, that sort of thing. But is that really the lesson we should be learning?

The Significance

There are actually a surprising amount of similarities here, and it’s not a good story for Malcolm. He and David Cameron are quite politically similar for a start. They are both economically right wing neoliberals who are fairly socially progressive. This is because neoliberals really don’t care much about social issues. Remember Thatcher’s infamous quote, “There’s no such thing as society?” However, both their parties have large numbers of socially conservative members who have had to be managed and placated. Now this is where it really starts to get spooky, because they’ve ended up, for different reasons, with the same strategy for placating them. David Cameron really only has himself to blame. He clearly thought that holding a referendum was a cute way of allowing some disaffected voters to let off some steam. He agreed in 2012 to the Scottish independence referendum with an alacrity which surprised many of us, and even acceded to First Minister Alex Salmond’s timetable, which called for a two year campaign. He thought he’d get a crushing victory, particularly as he had the support of the Labour Party which had dominated Scottish politics for generations, and bury the issue for the foreseeable future. As we now know, it didn’t work out that way.

In 2013, while that campaign was just getting into swing, he used the tactic again. He decided to placate his backbench by promising them a referendum on EU membership. This, he thought, would also help resist the challenge of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which was eating alarmingly into the Tory vote at that time. There is a very high probability however that he never thought he’d have to hold it. When he promised it in 2013 he couldn’t deliver it, because the 2010 parliament was a hung parliament, and he was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. So he said he’d do it in the next parliament, if he got a majority. At no time during the next two years did any of the polls suggest he’d get one. Turned out that was also one the pollsters got wrong, and he did. Even so, and even after getting the fright of his political life in 2014 when he very nearly ended up presiding over the break up of the UK, there was no apparent sense that ‘Remain’ might lose.

Cockhead Cameron

Now, just to explain, a referendum in the UK is like a plebiscite in Australia. It has no constitutional status, because there’s no written constitution, so it is advisory. It requires only a simple majority. They are not held very often, because technically they don’t need to be held at all. If their outcomes are to be implemented it’s parliament that has to implement them anyway. So in fact, exactly like a plebiscite in Australia. Even so, they tend only to happen when a matter of major constitutional significance is at stake. Issues like Scottish independence and whether not to leave the EU are, it must be conceded, major existential questions. Marriage equality is not such an issue. Both the Scottish and UK parliaments just went ahead and passed that. But it’s Liberal policy for essentially the same reason – Malcolm’s made a Faustian bargain. Come on, we all know it. The party room didn’t dump Tony in favour of him because they really wanted him more. Just like the English Tories, they love a bastard, and they loved Tony. But when it comes right down to it, there is nothing for a politician that trumps saving their own seat, and they could see that Tony would drive them off an electoral cliff. So, sorrowing, they dispatched him.

Now, all the polling showed that most voters thought Malcolm should be their leader, so they went to him. They made it clear to him that they would support him on the condition that he left most of Abbott’s eclectic, right wing, socially conservative policies in place. Including the plebiscite. Now it’s not my intention to suggest the result of that is seriously in question. We all know what the outcome will be, it’s not close. Abbott put it in place because he knew that pressure for the change was mounting, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. So like the Brexit vote, it was a stalling tactic. The problem with deals like that is, when you’re dealing with hard line social conservatives, sometimes the attitudes which are brought to the surface and legitimised can be very ugly indeed. The Brexit vote has encouraged a disturbing amount of racism and bigotry. Reports of hate crimes are up dramatically. You are playing with fire when you tell people whose attitudes were formed, and belong in, a different era to speak up, get it all off their chests and say all the things we’ve been trying to tell them for years not to say. They call it political correctness. I call it progress.

So what’s the real lesson for Australia from Brexit? Beware of conservative leaders, beholden to their lunatic fringe backbenchers, bearing poisonous plebiscites. Look at it this way: Malcolm is David Cameron, Tony is Boris and Cory Bernardi is Nigel Farage. My outlier prediction, if Malcolm gets back with a reduced majority, as seems not unlikely, he will be weakened. The issue on which he called the election, all those weeks ago (a terrible issue to pick, as few voters understand or care about it) may yet wound him further, as there is a good chance he still won’t have the numbers to pass it in a joint sitting. The plebiscite will bring all the homophobes and religious weirdos out of the woodwork, probably to make common cause with the ‘Reclaim’ neo-nazis, the Hansonites, the bizarre anti-halal people, Family First and the shooters and fishers. The standard of political discourse in this country will be set back decades. The LNP old guard will use the whole business as a wedge to further weaken Turnbull, and Abbott will be PM again by this time next year. Trust me, that’s what he thinks.

Time to get ready to go and do my civic duty. I’ll be back to comment on the results, and to pick a few bones with whoever comes out on top. There have been issues in this election which both major parties refused to address, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let them off the hook. Watch this space.

Right, polls closed. Now we wait. I can’t remember when I’ve taken less joy in voting. There was at least one voluble argument at my local polling station, with Liberal canvassers on the receiving end. Not sure what sparked it, but there’s a lot of frustration out there. I’m in Melbourne Ports, where it’s thought the Greens have an outside chance of knocking off one of the most right wing old dinosaurs in the ALP, Michael Danby. Let’s hope so.

By the way, for those wondering why this is Part 2, Part 1 is my look at the wash up from the Brexit vote, which isn’t finished yet. This one seemed to follow logically from that, but obviously I was on a deadline. 🙂


Update – 9.30pm AEST: The ABC’s psephologist Antony Green just predicted that we won’t see a result tonight. It’s very close, and there is a strong possibility of a hung parliament.

9.45pm: Apparently Collingwood have won more games on election day than any other AFL club, at 6. It’s about to be 7 as they are 18 points ahead of Carlton with a couple of minutes remaining.

11pm: And we don’t seem to be getting much closer to a result yet. Four or five seats are stubbornly undecided, and the govt. is still a couple short of a majority. (non-Aus readers – we have an STV system, so we are waiting on the distribution of preferences).

11.30pm: Bill Shorten is on his feet, sounding like he’s won, without actually saying so. In campaigning terms he has. My money’s still on a hung parliament.

Project Fear vs. Project Fear – #EU2016

Live from 7am (and here till the bitter end)

And they’re off! The polls are open and voting is under way in the #EUReferendum 2016. The Babel Fish Blog, now that we seem to have overcome the technical glitch de jour, will be with you throughout the day, bringing you updates, exit polls and our own distinctive brand of comment and analysis. Might leave the video at the bottom though, as it’s pretty, calming, and nothing whatsoever to do with the referendum.


Live Blog


6.07am: And it’s officially over. ‘Leave’ has now reached its 50% target. And 23 hours after I started, I am now going to take a short break.

4.39am: The BBC just called it for ‘Leave!’

4.30am: Well, having spent the last few hours watching the ‘Leave’ lead slowly but surely grow, it’s now around 750,000, or 51.6%, with around 60-65% of the votes counted. It’s hard to see Remain coming back from here, and I’m almost ready to call it. NB: The gap in England of over 1.3 million for Leave is no longer offset by the gap in favour of Remain in Scotland, which is around 620,000.

2.55am: Right now,  just on votes counted, the Scottish Remain vote is just cancelling out the English Leave vote. The prospect of a split decision, with Scotland keeping England in against its will, is still very much in play.

2.35am: Australian stock exchange just lost 3% on fears of a ‘Leave’ vote.

2.30am: Well, at this point the earliest predictions have been reversed. It’s still tight, but most now have ‘Leave’ in front and even the bookies have switched. Ladbrokes now has ‘Leave’ at 4:7 on. Of course, we’re still waiting for the London results. Remain has just retaken the lead on the raw vote tally, but only by about 10,000 votes out of 4 million counted. It’s going to be a long night (and I just had to correct pm to am on this post, it’s already been a long night).

1.23am: West Dunbartonshire –

Remain – 62%

Leave – 38%

1.18am: Here’s what the pound did when the Sunderland result was announced, with a stronger than expected win for ‘Leave’


12.05am: Remain win in Newcastle, but by less than expected

11.55pm: Nigel Farage has told reporters that the ‘Eurosceptic genie is out of the bottle’. Here is the video:

11.45pm: First actual result declared, and it’s Gibraltar.

Remain: 19,322

Leave: 823

To be fair, that one was never expected to be close. 😉

11pm: Well, we’re finally beginning to get some news, and early reports are of a narrow win for ‘Remain.’ Farage has said as much. It doesn’t look like anything you could remotely call decisive though.

7.30pm: I’m beginning to think I’ve gone a bit early with this. Just found out they’re not expecting a declaration until around 6am, 23 hours after I began. And it looks like nothing at all will happen until after 10pm anyway. So: a nap, or another coffee?

5.30pm: Well into the post-work voters now. Still no exit polls. I might go back to writing ‘The Story So Far,’ which is down at the bottom.

12 noon: Still nothing much to report.

10am: Polling gets off to a slow start in London and the South East due to storms and flooding. Good thing I don’t believe in omens. But it’s sunny back home in Clydebank, so enjoy it while you can folks.


7am: Polls open, last minute opinion polls still suggest the result is too close to call.

Last 10 days polls:



The Story So Far

Right, so obviously nothing much is going to happen for a while, and this blog is not the sort that will be showing you pictures of dogs at polling booths (I’m looking at you, Guardian). So let’s take the opportunity to have a chat about the issues. First of all, some regular readers may have been wondering why I haven’t had much to say about the EU referendum until now. I have to say, it’s been because I’ve been somewhat ambivalent about the whole business. It’s hard to love the EU, isn’t it? We haven’t yet developed a real sense of European identity for one thing. Although I’ll bet most of you have never found yourself in the corner at a barbecue in Melbourne, with someone from Spain or Serbia, Finland or France, trying to explain Australian culture to them. I have, and I can tell you I’ve never felt more European. But that’s cultural. It’s the EU as an institution I have issues with.

It’s not that it’s bureaucratic. Of course it’s bureaucratic. It’s a public sector body with a clientèle of 500 million. That’s going to take a massive bureaucracy, in fact it’s pretty much a definition of bureaucracy, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I have been a public servant. A bureaucrat if you like. In the 80s I spent nine months with the Australian Taxation Office, and in the 90s, five years with the Department of Social Security. Both bureaucracies. And both, I would argue, necessary ones. Some absolutely essential tasks can only be carried out by bureaucracies. Now obviously it’s best if your bureaucracies are efficient bureaucracies, and DSS in particular was an extremely efficient bureaucracy. They get inefficient when they get too fat at the top, because most of the actual work of a bureaucracy gets done by those at the lower levels.

Sometimes a government, or whoever is running the bureaucracy, employs high level bureaucrats, or worse, hires consultants, in the hope that they will have ideas which will lead to greater efficiency in the future. This is a mistake, as it turns out the best ideas are also generated at the lower levels, because those are the people who actually do the job and know what’s going on. The EU is not the most efficient bureaucracy by a long chalk. It’s top heavy, which is sort of inevitable. After all, where’s the local EU office in your area? There isn’t one, because they don’t really deliver services at a local level. That’s not what concerns me most about it though. And incidentally, I have now mentioned the word ‘bureaucracy’ enough times to fill the Eurosceptic quota. I’ll try not to use it again. My main concerns about the EU could be grouped, I think, under two headings.


It’s not very democratic. There’s the European Parliament of course, with its dubious electoral system, but it really doesn’t have much power. The real power resides with the Commission, and increasingly with the ECB. Commissioners are directly appointed by their governments, and most of the real negotiation takes place there. Funny thing is, it’s the Eurosceptics who have been most resistant to further democratisation, in case it would give the elected representatives greater legitimacy and so infringe more on their sovereignty. They have been trenchantly opposed to any form of political union, but it’s with political union that democracy would potentially become the dominant force. What we’ve had is a trade and financial union, which is completely undemocratic, because there has been no democratisation to go with it.

The Neoliberal Orthodoxy

The EU, and its institutions, particularly the ECB, has been completely captured by it. So much so that policy formulations continue to be applied, even as senior officials concede they are thoroughly discredited. And that’s what happened to Greece. Now I, like many, was disgusted at the way Greece was treated. Is still being treated. For those of us on the left that left a very bad taste in our mouths and severely damaged the EU’s standing in our eyes.

I’ll come back to this again a little later

The Hitchhikers’ Guide To – Holyrood 2016

That time has come again. And here is the traditional election eve briefing, straight from the editor’s office on the 23rd floor. Tomorrow Scotland goes to the polls. It’s going to be a busy year for this blog, with the election in Scotland, an EU In/Out referendum in June, an Australian double dissolution election which will almost certainly take place on the 2nd of July and of course the one we’re all watching nervously, the caricature of democracy that is the year long US spending contest. They are all interesting in different ways. Very different ways. The referendum and the DD will be interestingly close, the US one – who knows? But let’s start with tomorrow. That’s not going to be close at all, except perhaps for 2nd place.


Every exercise of democracy in Scotland these days seems portentous and potentially transformational, this one no less so than others. The difference seems to be that many people are seeing this one as particularly complicated. I suppose it is when compared to the creakingly anachronistic ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) system favoured by Westminster. And when compared to the binary simplicity of a referendum. But if you want to see complicated come back and watch when it’s time to explain the impact of the new Australian Senate voting system in a double dissolution election. The only thing simple about that will be the colours of the ballot papers: green and white. I mean, lilac and peach? Seriously? So first let’s have a look at how this one works, with the usual proviso that if you are already confidant you’re across it you can safely skip to the next paragraph. 🙂

The System

Known by various names such as the Additional Member System (AMS) and the Modified d’Hondt System, it is a fairly crude and simple attempt at something relatively proportional and as such it works reasonably well. It does so with a parliament composed of 73 constituency members, and 56 ‘list’ members. The constituencies roughly correspond to the old Westminster constituencies we had before Holyrood existed, and are elected by the same old FPTP method we’re all familiar with. The additional positions on the list are allocated to eight regions with seven members each. Which means as a voter you will be theoretically represented by eight MSPs. Two of whom you’ll actually have voted for. Now, as I am a voter in Australia too I am quite used to having two ballot papers, and being represented by a local member and twelve Senators per state, but there the similarity ends. Australia’s is a bicameral parliament (upper and lower houses) so the elections are for a local member in the House of Representatives (lower) and multiple members in the Senate (upper). Voting is preferential, and compulsory. In a simple preferential system (Reps) the first preferences are counted, and the candidate in last place is eliminated. The second preferences of that candidate are then distributed and the process is repeated until there are only two left. You are then left with a score know as the Two Party Preferred (2PP) vote. And a result. The Senate is similar, but more complex. You can vote for parties, or for their individual candidates, in order of preference. It takes a long time to count, but everyone’s vote ends up with a candidate, whether it’s their first preference, or a lower one.

The designers of the Scottish system have gone for simplicity and, I can’t help feeling, they’ve done so at the expense of democracy. Instead of getting proportionality through giving voters multiple preferences, they have chosen to do so by means of a simple mathematical formula instead. It works by redressing the inherent imbalances of the FPTP system used in the constituency section through the list vote, in the following way: you vote for a party. Just one party. The vote each party receives is then divided by the number of constituency seats it won, in that region, plus one. ‘Why the plus one?’ you might be thinking. Well, it’s quite simple really. Some parties won’t win any list seats, but any number divided by zero equals infinity. Divided by one is okay though, the number doesn’t change. So they do the calculation and the party with the highest score gets one member. The party chooses which one. That member is then added to that party’s total and the calculation is done again. It’s done seven times to produce seven members. The important thing to note is that the more seats you win, the harder it gets to win another.

Now I should probably say at this point that this guide is being published so close to the election for two main reasons. The first is so that it can take account of as much of the late polling as possible. The other is because I knew that whatever I say, some people aren’t going to like it. And that’s a pity. But it can’t be helped. This blog’s mission is to take the best available information, analyse it and explain what it means. We are in the explanation business, but also the prediction business. We can’t shrink from it. Leave you hanging by simply explaining the working of the system without coming to a conclusion about how it’s going to pan out on this occasion. It would be a cop out. That puts a bit of pressure on, as I’m only human and I’d really quite like to keep my record of correct predictions, and also because opinion is quite deeply divided. As you must have guessed by now, I am speaking of the controversy over what to do with your second (list) vote to best advance the cause of independence. I will come to that. But first we must deal with a few other things, like the headline story for instance, and to do that we must take a look at…

The Polls

So what can we say about the polls? Well, no predictions would be possible without them, but we know they can be misleading. Everybody knows they got it badly wrong in 2011, and none more so than the pollsters themselves. Getting it that wrong is quite simply bad for business, so all of them redesigned their metrics for Scotland. They had done this prior to the referendum which, sadly, we have to recognise they got more or less right. In last year’s GE they got England wrong, but were pretty much spot on in Scotland. I’ve been watching polls since, oh, I think 1974 was the first election(s) I was fully aware of. I can tell you that when they get it substantially wrong it tends to be characterised by volatility, outlier polls, etc. When they all agree, and don’t change much for well over a year, as in this case, that tends to indicate that people have made up their minds. Stopped listening even. The position from which they have not moved is an unprecedented one. One which would have been utterly unbelievable in my youth. The extraordinary collapse of support for the Labour Party would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

Reports of my Death…

Have, in the case of the Labour Party in Scotland, not been greatly exaggerated. During the referendum campaign I put forward the hypothesis that the party had staked all its credibility, and for its parliamentarians, their careers, on the outcome of that vote. But it didn’t pan out the way they envisaged. They expected a crushing victory, which would demoralise the SNP (the Yes campaign and the SNP were synonymous in their minds) and enhance their prestige. That didn’t happen. They scraped a fairly narrow victory, with a major confidence wobble towards the end of the campaign when they stared into the abyss. Little did they know it was but a premonition of their coming demise. Credibility, like political capital, is a limited currency. As I predicted, Labour had spent all of theirs in the campaign. They alienated many of their own supporters, and even lost credibility with No voters because they just told so many lies. It was clear that they would say anything for political advantage. It’s my belief that many No voters must have been aware of that at the time, but were prepared to overlook it, such was their fear of independence. Once you come to look at a party which has acted this way in a subsequent election campaign though, you cannot un-see the truth that you saw about them in the referendum campaign. How can you ever trust anything they say again?

Now, this had already happened when I wrote The Party’s Over (An Obituary for ‘Scottish’ Labour) this time last year. The decline has only continued since then, however at a reduced pace, as the bulk of the damage was already done. They have fought a lacklustre campaign, punctuated by occasional train wrecks like their signature tax policy, which turned out to be unworkable and, well, just not thought through. Their leader, Kezia Dugdale, has been deeply unimpressive. Some seem to think she will be good one day, although I wouldn’t bet on it, but nobody seems to think she is ready for this level of responsibility yet. Indeed there were leadership rumblings from within the party, as Iain Macwhirter wrote in The Herald, even before the launch of the manifesto. All of which begs the question, why was someone so relatively young and inexperienced left to rescue the party’s Scottish fortunes in the first place? Well, it seems Labour’s fabled ‘big beasts’ are no more.

There should be plenty of them, after all forty of their Westminster MPs lost their seats last year. Well, that’s not quite true, some chose to jump before they were pushed. Some of the biggest (Brown, Alexander, Darling) have already moved on to lucrative positions in the corporate world, the customary reward for advancing corporate interests and maintaining the neoliberal orthodoxy for thirteen years while in government. Of the remainder, many are trying for election to Holyrood, but none it seems wanted to take on the leadership after the calamity of Jim Murphy’s Westminster campaign. They seem to have learned something, unlike their party as a whole, and what they have learned is that their brand is toxic in Scotland, Scottish voters have not forgiven them for their actions in 2014, and are in no mood to be kind to them. What they do not seem to have considered is the possibility you should always have a look at when everyone disagrees with you – that you might just be wrong. That thought doesn’t seem to have crossed many Labour minds at all, not in Scotland anyway. They remain wedded to a hard line, unionist position and to their Blairite past. That’s not winning them any friends these days. They could hardly look more out of touch if they got up half an hour early every morning to practise.

Meanwhile, back at HQ in London, the party is busily tearing itself apart precisely because there has been an attempt at renewal, and the Blairites don’t like it one bit. They have never accepted Corbyn’s leadership (as I predicted in An Open Letter to Jeremy Corbyn last year) and are intent on bringing him down. Some of his friends seem to be hurting him more than his enemies at present and the whole thing is an undignified mess. All of which is not helping matters for Kezia and Co. It already looked pretty bad a month ago. Here is a March poll-of-polls:


As you can see, they are hovering around the 19/20% level they’ve been at for most of the year. What has happened since then is that the battle for second place appears to have tightened in some recent polls. One or two even suggest they are lagging behind the Tories. Now, let’s be under no illusion about this, the situation has not come about because the Tories are gaining in popularity. They’re not. They have been stuck on that level of support for many, many years. It is a measure of just how far Labour have fallen. This is a party which won 41 Westminster seats in 2010, with over 40% of the vote. The SNP were then languishing back on around 20%. So what happened? Well I think 2010 might well be the last example of a familiar voting pattern in Scotland, whereby whenever the Tories looked like getting into No. 10 Scots would flock back to the Labour Party in the hope of influencing the outcome. But doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, it has been said, is a definition of insanity. Sooner or later we were going to twig to the fact that it didn’t work. There simply aren’t enough of us to tip the balance in a UK election, not unless it’s very, very close. But with the events of the referendum campaign we have a far more politically engaged and aware electorate than at any time in recent history. That is bad news for Labour.

The problem they have is this: Scotland, as I have argued before, hasn’t been the same polity as England for some years. Labour has been fighting the Tories in England, but fighting the SNP in Scotland. Their favourite tactic for doing this has been to tell Scottish voters that we have to vote for them, or risk a Tory government at Westminster. ‘Vote SNP, get the Tories’ as the mantra goes. It stopped working in 2010. Once more we voted Labour, and got the Tories anyway. But there’s a little bit more to it than that. The Tories failed to secure a majority, so it came down to who the LibDems would back. Labour were, it would seem, so ashamed of their performance in government that they declined to even negotiate with the LibDems. They refused to even try to block the Tories from taking power. Now that was not the deal. We vote for you, and you just stand back and meekly allow the Tories to walk into No. 10? Do you seriously think, or even imagine in your wildest dreams, that we’d have elected 41 Labour MPs if we’d known that’s what they would do? Are you mad? You may answer that last question, the others were rhetorical. Scottish voters answered them the following year by electing an SNP Scottish Government with an absolute majority. Labour then further undermined the idea by graphically demonstrating, in the referendum campaign, where their loyalties really lay. When the chips were down, they preferred to stand with their Tory ‘rivals’ rather than with their supporters in Scotland. That will not be forgotten.

The New Normal?

This has led us to the situation where we now have a Scottish Government, an SNP one which, it must be remembered, has already been in power for nine years, enjoying greater than 50% support (which hasn’t happened since the 1950s), roughly two and a half times more than their closest rivals (which is completely unprecedented), and we face the real prospect of the Labour Party being beaten into third place (which hasn’t happened since 1918). Voters are simply not buying Labour’s rhetoric any more, but the party seems incapable of coming up with any alternatives. So we now face a situation where there is no effective or credible opposition. The government goes into this election in such a strong position that it basically cannot lose. The time has come to take a look at that government and its approach to the election, because this has quite a lot of people confused. Particularly ‘Yes’ supporters from outwith the ranks of the SNP. We have been hearing a lot of messages, often accompanied by the hashtag #BothVotesSNP, telling us how crucial it is that we all vote that way in order to ensure the survival of the SNP government. Messages like this one:


Now, I don’t want to pick on Mhairi particularly, she’s a good kid, but this is a very strong, and fairly typical, statement which well-represents the sort of thing we’ve been hearing from SNP leaders and activists and, well, I had the graphic for this one. The point is, what are we to make of it? Is she right? In many ways, this question has become the most interesting issue of the entire campaign. It has sparked the liveliest debate. I’d go so far as to say that, apart for the question of who will come second (which is surely a matter of mainly academic interest by now), it is this question which preoccupies the thoughts of the nation as we go to the polls. So, is she right?

Is #BothVotesSNP the best Strategy?

Well no, she’s not. For several reasons. I’ll detail them in a moment, but first I have to explain, in the interests of full disclosure, why I’m a bit annoyed with the SNP at the moment. Perhaps I should not be surprised (I’m not really, just a bit disappointed) to see a political party behaving like a political party. But in 2014 we had something bigger than a party. We had a movement. The SNP were an important part of that movement of course, but were far from the totality of it. Again, perhaps I should not be surprised when, in the absence of any effective opposition from the Labour Party, the SNP casts about for someone else with whom to have an argument about something that matters. The problem I’m having is that the people they’re arguing with are the non-SNP elements from within the ‘Yes’ campaign. People like me. Now, in the referendum campaign, we all agreed to put other political differences aside for the sake of our common goal of independence. We worked well together. We didn’t quite make it, but we came close enough that pretty much the entire movement agreed to carry on, to stay together, to continue to make our arguments and secure the additional support we need to get us over the line next time.

I should also declare that I was one of those arguing for a formalised Yes Alliance to continue that co-operation into future election campaigns. It may even have been my idea, as I was calling for it even before the referendum. I continued to argue for it after that, and its first task would have been to take a united front into the UK General Election last year. When we were unable to secure such an agreement from the SNP who argued (correctly as it turned out) that they could be competitive in every constituency, we took it on the chin and argued for an SNP vote, for strategic reasons, and for the good of the nation. I wrote, again in my election article ‘The Party’s Over,’ in support of that position:

“If people could really get that we don’t need to accept any of the second hand damaged goods sent to us by Westminster in our Scottish political system, what kind of a parliament might we not produce, in all our myriad colours, at Holyrood in 2016? I don’t know, but I’d be fascinated to find out, wouldn’t you? And the feeling is there to do this now. To strike while the iron’s hot. I sense a hugely important symbolic and strategic turning point is within our grasp. I say we grab it, and worry about the tactics later. Labour will say we’ll have a one party state (conveniently forgetting all the decades when they enjoyed that situation), but we know that’s not what’s going to happen. Let May the 7th 2015 be remembered as the start of the great realignment of Scottish politics and the beginning of a new Scottish Enlightenment.”

This wasn’t just my position. It was, at that time, the SNP’s position too. “Lend us your vote,” they said. “and your time will come, in the Holyrood elections next year.” And now that the time has come, the SNP are no longer asking us to lend them our votes. They are demanding them, in increasingly petulant terms. So, back to that statement (and the many others like it). What’s wrong with it? Well, it’s simply an unsupported assertion. And a non-specific one. What does she mean by ‘everything?’ All available data is telling us there’s no conceivable ‘risk’ whatsoever to the SNP’s overall majority. There is no poll which shows them getting less than an absolute majority from constituency seats alone. The same arithmetic means it will be impossible for them to win more than 2 or 3 list seats, and that those will be in ‘Highlands and Islands.’ If you live in any other region a list vote for the SNP will have no effect (not contribute to electing any MSPs). If, on the other hand, you look at what’s best for the movement (as opposed to the party), obviously it’s good for the cause of independence to have a pro-indy government. Equally obviously, it would be even better for that cause if that support was bipartisan, i.e. both government and opposition were pro-indy.

I mention this because, with 50-56% support in the constituency vote, it was in the power of the SNP, by directing their supporters to vote for another pro-indy party in the list ballot, to also choose their preferred opposition. Not to do so ensures that the Labour Party remains the opposition, and they will receive all the media attention that goes with that status. And all the publicly funded staff that go with the MSP positions. To have a pro-indy government and opposition would marginalise unionism as a political force in Scotland. It would effectively be the end of the argument. Their opinion would no longer be heard, and after that independence would be virtually a fait accompli. Just a matter of time. Now, Labour are on 20% or less, and it is absolutely impossible to win from that position in any electoral system. Ditto the Tories on about 15%. Black’s attitude, as with the rest of the SNP leadership, is predicated on the fear that all the polls are wrong and are overestimating the SNP’s true support by at least 10-15%, and that all the unionist parties would be capable of forming a ‘grand coalition.’ That is simply an unrealistic scenario. Not going to happen. So from the point of view of the independence movement there is in fact nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by using your 2nd ballot to vote for another pro-indy party/group.

An Argument From Personal Incredulity

The first reason the SNP are arguing against such a strategy seems to be that they can’t believe their eyes. Or their luck. Or, they tell me, the opinion polls. I’ve had the discussion with a number of SNP supporters. The majority of these discussions didn’t last very long, because most rank and file SNP supporters tended to go with the line that, “Nicola Sturgeon wouldn’t ask for both votes if it wasn’t important.” So basically, “Mummy knows best.” As that is not, and could never be, a serious argument for me, I tended to make my excuses and withdraw from the conversation at that point. The more serious answers that I got to my challenge – “Please explain to me why voting SNP 1&2 is a superior strategy for advancing the cause of Scottish independence.” – however were all predicated on the aforementioned possibility of the polls being wrong. I have already discussed why I do not consider that likely, and that brings me to what I suspect is the second reason. I believe the SNP are thinking tactically when they should be thinking strategically. I believe the reason for their intransigence is as much psychological as it is political – they decided on their position last year and thus painted themselves into a corner. Now, although it has become clear that their poll numbers are not coming back to the field (as they thought/feared they would), and the equation has changed, they cannot change with it. Conventional political wisdom says you should never allow yourself to become complacent. But what last September looked like complacency now looks like simple realism. So, to the advice for tactical and strategic voters.

The Hitchhikers’ Guide – Tactical

It seems to me there are few options for tactical voting in this election, however two do come to mind. The first is for unionist voters. It’s unlikely that they will, but they could decide to consider which of them has the best (though still slim) chance of edging out the SNP in their constituencies, and which has the best chance of maximising anti-indy representation in the list section for their regions. That latter, however, is a fiendishly complex calculation that even this babel fish would hesitate to attempt, simply because Labour and the Tories are running virtually neck and neck. The other obvious tactical option would be to do as Mhairi Black says, and use both votes for the SNP, in the hope of improving their majority by two or three seats. This would be the tactical move to make if you conflate the SNP with the independence movement. But, it will not make much of a difference. This is because in order for the SNP to win more than a few extra list seats, their actual support would have to be about 10-15% greater than it is now, at about 65-70%.

The Hitchhikers’ Guide – Strategic

Firstly I am pleased to note that the term ‘strategic voting’ has rather caught on in the last year. Pleased because I coined it. I’m not sure all of those using it fully understand it though. What I meant by it was looking beyond any current electoral considerations to the bigger picture. In the Scottish context what I meant by ‘bigger picture’ was looking at what was best for the cause of Scottish independence. I am convinced today, as I was when I first wrote about it, that the best way of advancing that cause would be to reduce, and if possible remove, the influence of the unionist parties in Scottish politics. The SNP could, as I’ve already mentioned, have decided to pursue this outcome, had they been sufficiently bold. Had I been in Nicola Sturgeon’s position, I would have trusted the people and done a deal with one of the other pro-indy parties/groups. Because let’s face it, on 50%+ of the vote, with their nearest rivals on 20%, if even half of SNP voters followed such advice, that party/group would be the 2nd largest in parliament and become the official opposition. They have not proved to be sufficiently bold, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be. The consistent gap of 7 or 8% between the SNP’s poll numbers in the constituencies and that in the lists suggest that a significant number of you already intend to do just that. I encourage you to do so, and assure you that in so doing you will not be risking the SNP’s overall majority. Such votes will increase the chances of other pro-indy MSPs winning seats, but they would come at the expense of Labour and the Tories, not the SNP. Because that is how the system works.

The Predictions

So lastly I come to the matter of what I think is going to happen. I haven’t done this before, not actually predicted numbers. I want to do so this time because it will be interesting to compare them to the actual outcome, as well as the predicted outcome of various other list vote options, so here goes:

SNP – 73 (70 constituencies + 3 list seats)

Labour – 23-25 (no constituencies, all list)

Conservative – 18-20 (2 constituencies, remainder list)

LibDem – 3 (1 constituency + 2 list seats)

Green – 6 or 7 (all list)

So there you go. Let’s meet back here on Friday and see how I went. 🙂 You will notice there is still a little flexibility in my predictions. This is because there is still a chance of RISE or even Solidarity picking up a seat or two if just a little more SNP support in the constituencies were to come their way in the list section. You will also notice that the SNP’s total doesn’t seem to change much (up 4 from 69), but this disguises a significant increase in constituency seats, offset by an inevitable decrease in list seats. For comparison purposes, here is what we might have been looking at had Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP followed my advice and chosen to support another pro-indy group (I’m going to assume it would have been RISE as none of their leadership has been convicted of perjury, and unlike the Greens they are not standing against the SNP in any constituencies) for the list vote, and if just half of those voters followed that advice (which assumes the other half vote SNP despite the advice):

SNP – 70, RISE – 26, Labour – 15, Conservative – 14, Green – 3, LibDem – 1.

I know, that’s not going to happen now, but I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been. I have one more for you. This is what would have happened if everyone had followed my advice, right from the start. RISE, Solidarity and the Greens would all be part of one group, which I’ll call ‘Yes Alliance.’ The SNP vote remains the same, but they do not stand in the list vote, so all of it transfers to Yes Alliance, as does the Green vote of course:

SNP – 70, Yes Alliance – 42. Labour – 9, Conservative – 7, LibDem – 1.

Oh, wouldn’t that have been wonderful?

Lest We Forget… The Clydebank Blitz

March 13-15, 1941

It is 9pm in Scotland as I write this. Seventy five years ago the air raid sirens were beginning to sound in Clydebank. Now, we’ve all become used to the succession of war anniversaries over the last couple of years. There have been 100th anniversaries from the First World War as well as 70th and 75th anniversaries from the Second. We have seen parades, solemn ceremonies, fields of tin poppies around the Tower of London, etc. I’m betting you won’t be seeing much about this one on BBC1 though. In fact, unless you come from the town, or have some connection to it you could be forgiven for never having heard of it. But there are good reasons why we should all be aware of it, why we should not forget.

For this reason I’ve decided to do something I’ve been thinking about doing since I started blogging, but haven’t found the occasion to do until now – a live blog. You can follow it as I write it. You see, when those sirens started to sound on the night of the 13th March, 1941 they heralded the start of nine hours of continuous bombing. The first of two such nights the town would endure. So I hit enter on the title at 9 o’clock, and it has been visible since then. Over the next nine hours I will keep vigil with those Bankies of 75 years ago, tell their story, and add to it a little story of my own that may shed some light on the events of those two awful nights.

By this time the first bombs had begun to fall. Now, this wasn’t any great surprise in itself. The war was in its second year, there had been other raids on Clydeside, and interminable false alarms. Clydebank contained numerous potential targets, significant to the war effort, but two in particular stood out – the shipyard, John Brown’s, whose workforce considered it the greatest in the world, and the Singer factory. Occupying the largest single factory site in the world, this massive industrial complex had been rapidly and efficiently converted to the production of munitions at the outset of war. By this time its workforce had expanded to a peak of 17,500. My paternal grandmother was one of them.

The town looked very different back then. If you are familiar with today’s layout, let me paint the picture for you. If you take a good look at Kilbowie Road, you’ll notice that part of the hill is artificial. Between the canal and the now anachronistic Singer Station, it’s a ramp. There is flat ground to either side. On the West there’s the business park, on the East is the shopping centre. It looked very different when I was growing up there in the late 60s and 70s. The factory was still there, albeit with a much-reduced workforce and without its iconic clock. My father even worked there for a few years in the late 70s. Where the shopping centre now stands, there was a very strange thing, to my young eyes anyway. There was a dead railway station.

That wasn’t strange in itself, there were quite a few in the town at that time, as Beeching had been through with his axe, but this one was odd. It was a terminus, an end-of-line station, and it was at least a dozen platforms. But that was it. The rails had been taken up, and there was no infrastructure, just overgrown, long-abandoned platforms. I was mystified by it. This is where my grandmother comes in. She told me that when she was working there, that’s how she used to arrive each day. She lived in Auchinairn, but in order for the workforce to be expanded at a time when many men were in the armed forces, women were recruited from across the Glasgow area to work there. Rather than accommodate them in the town, they moved them in and out by train daily, a massive logistical operation which required the construction of ‘Singer’s Lie,’ the ghost station I’d discovered. The trains brought them in every morning, waited there for them all day (hence the ‘Lie’ bit), and took them away again at night. No doubt saving many of their lives 75 years ago tonight.

I allowed myself a little break then, for some fish and chips. The sort of thing some people would have had the chance to grab before the sirens started to sound. When that happened many would go to their Anderson shelters. Quite a lot of people had them, but they were of dubious efficacy. They were quite good at absorbing, or rather deflecting, the energy of a shock wave from a nearby detonation, but offered no protection at all in case of a direct hit, so many also chose to remain in their homes. There were no deep shelters in Clydebank, no tube network or anything like that. They must have guessed that a raid was coming, as on previous nights German surveillance aircraft had been observed over the town. They could have had little idea, however, of the scale of the devastation that was about to be visited upon them.

There has, ever since I can remember, been a bit of a mystery surrounding the Clydebank Blitz. That’s the way we learned about it in school anyway, and that’s the way I heard it from some of those who had lived through it. I knew several octogenarians in my street and I was always keen to hear their stories. It was always presumed, you see, that the two main targets were the shipyard and the Singer factory. That would make sense. But although both were hit, as were other industrial targets further from the town centre, neither was badly affected. Both were reported as being back in full production the next day. Now that might have been a bit of propaganda, but if so it’s only a slight exaggeration. They were not substantially damaged. The town, however, was all but entirely destroyed. Of around 12,000 dwellings in the town, either seven or eight (depending who you talk to) remained undamaged after the two nights. Around 9,500 were destroyed or seriously damaged. Why?

There have been various suggested explanations for this (and I’ll be offering my own later). One is that they somehow mistook the Forth and Clyde Canal for the River Clyde, but this seems unlikely. The first aircraft over the town were from an elite, low-flying ‘Pathfinder’ squadron, which had flown all the way across Scotland, ignoring many other viable targets en route. Would they really make such a basic error? A fellow blogger, in ‘Strandsky Tales,’ has made a persuasive case that the true target was not the infrastructure at all, but the town’s highly skilled workforce. Clydebank was the industrial town par excellence, the first of the ‘New Towns’ (although it has since been written out of their history, and we’ll see why), it was built around the shipyard. Some of what are now its outer suburbs were villages, but the town which grew at their centre wasn’t there before the 1870s, when the J & G Thomson shipyard was set up there, taking advantage of a key piece of local geography. It was the place where a major tributary, the River Cart, joined the Clyde from the South. This was the highest place up the Clyde where you could launch really big ships, by using the mouth of the Cart to launch them into. They could then do a three point turn. From roughly where the main slipway used to be, it looks like this today:


I just wanted to put that in. You may recognise it from the image at the top of this blog, but that version is just a slice from the centre. It doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of the full picture. And it was one of my favourite places to go as a kid, when I wanted to be alone, when I wanted to think. Usually about whatever girl I was madly in love with at the time. The point is, most people don’t really think of Clydebank as a beautiful place. But it’s there, if you look for it. Anyway, due to this geographical feature, a town was born. At first the shipyard brought workers down river from Glasgow by paddle steamer, but they soon began to build the first dwellings in the town. Known as ‘Tamson’s Buildings,’ these tenements are gone now, along with most of the former main street, but their next two projects, a row of ‘cottages’ in Whitecrook Street and a row of terraced houses in Barns Street (one of which I grew up in) still survive. By 1880, the population was around 2,000. Then Singer arrived. They built a factory which was enormous, but also state of the art. They had the ability to carry out any industrial process. The factory had everything it needed on site, its own foundry producing iron and steel, its own power station and even its own gasworks. In the Blitz its massive lumber yard was hit, burning for days. But back in the 1880s it attracted even more people to the new town, which was granted its Burgh Charter in 1886. By the turn of the century its population was nearing 40,000. It became known as ‘the risingest burgh on the Clyde.’ The 30s hadn’t been easy, but even so the population was closer to 60,000 by that fateful night 75 years ago. At about this time, the bombing finally ceased, for the first night anyway, and the survivors were starting to emerge blinking into the early morning light to see what remained of their lives, and if maybe somewhere amongst the carnage there was a packet of cigarettes for sale. It’s time for me to do the same, and when I return I’ll tell you what they found.

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Clydebank-Blitz-street with tram

March 14th, 1941

The first night of bombing is over. Day is breaking. It’s a Friday. People are starting to emerge from bomb shelters and buildings. Emergency services are desperately trying to gain control of the situation and begin to dig people from the rubble, having experienced a night almost impossible to imagine. They had lost water, communications and of course lighting early in the raid, although this last became academic as the town began to burn. In addition to the high explosive bombs, ranging from 50kg devices up to ‘parachute mines’ of almost 1,000kg, 105,300 1kg incendiary devices (according to the Luftwaffe) were also dropped, causing devastation on a massive scale. The glow from the fires could be seen from as far away as Aberdeenshire and Northern Ireland. Firefighters reported it was brighter than daylight within the town.

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The number of casualties has never been universally accepted, and it was certainly not acknowledged in any detail at the time, but 48,000 people were declared homeless that night, although some estimates put the total closer to 60,000. The town was pretty much gone, its inhabitants made into refugees overnight. This was not your modern sort of war, with blanket media coverage. Information was strictly controlled. There were no newsreel cameras to record the devastation, and only a limited number of still photographs survive, mainly by amateur photographers. The shock and trauma is clear, however, in the faces of survivors as they wait, with whatever possessions they could salvage, to be evacuated during the day.


Some, in the eastern end of the town, were able to leave on trams which were still operational, but most had to wait for buses to be brought in, even as the dead were removed in lorries. There had been no attempt to evacuate anyone prior to the raid, nor to warn the population, although the reconnaissance missions on previous nights had indicated that an attack was coming. Nor did the evacuation of the 14th have the appearance of planning, as an unknown number of people were not able to be moved, and had to endure a second night of hell. At morning parades on military bases all over the UK, servicemen from Clydebank were ordered to fall out and report to their commanding officers, who informed them they were on compassionate leave, effective immediately, and that they should go home. There was no big story on the evening news however. The raid was acknowledged, but the scale of death and destruction was either played down, or simply not mentioned. Clydebank was referred to only as ‘a town in Western Scotland.’

So how can we imagine this? How can we describe and quantify what happened to Clydebank on the night of the 13/14th of March, the first night of the blitz? Was it the worst in the UK? The second worst? Well, let’s not compete with Coventry here, but to give you some idea of proportionality, let’s compare it to later RAF raids on Germany. It took the RAF a bit longer to get going, and in particular to get large numbers of Lancaster bombers operational. 236 bombers are thought to have participated in the first raid on Clydebank (population 60,000). That compares to about 764 in the biggest raid on Berlin (population 4 million) in 1943, 722 on the first night of the raids that destroyed Hamburg (population 2 million) and caused the first recognised man-made firestorm, also in 1943, and 1325 in two waves in what has been widely judged to be the most destructive raid of the war, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the first night of the attack on Dresden (population 350,000, plus an unknown number of refugees) in 1945. Now the Lancaster had the largest bomb capacity of any WWII bomber, but even so it’s not hard to see that only Dresden comes close for intensity.

In accounts of the night an expression keeps cropping up – that in some areas ‘the oxygen was bombed out of the air.’ This is supported by reports that significant numbers of people, some in larger bomb shelters, actually died of suffocation. Now, I stand to be corrected by any specialists in the field, but my knowledge of science says that’s not actually a thing. Certainly, the gases produced by a large explosion could temporarily displace the air from the surrounding area, but not for long enough for people to suffocate. The pressure differentials caused by a firestorm could, however, produce the effect of sucking the air out of a confined space for long enough to kill. When you look at photographs of the ‘Holy City’ or Radnor Park, an entire densely packed suburb destroyed, burned to the ground, it is hard not to wonder if Clydebank did not experience the first artificial firestorms that night.



These are views of Second Avenue, which despite its name is the first street of ascending rows of streets on the hill. Just about everything behind that is gone. This is a view from the other side of Kilbowie Road some time later, showing the surviving La Scala (later ABC) cinema standing alone in a debris field which once housed thousands of people:


This is an aerial view taken some twenty-plus years later, partly showing the terraces where the streets of the Holy City used to be. The area was not rebuilt until the late 60s.


March 15th, 1941

The bombing is over. Those unable to escape the town the previous day have endured another night of terror, arguably made all the worse because this time they knew what was coming. In two nine hour raids on consecutive nights, 439 aircraft had dropped 503,000kg (half a kiloton, a greater yeild than many battlefield nuclear devices) of high explosives and 2412 containers of incendiary bombs (weighing between 70kg and 250kg), so roughly 150,000 devices. Only two planes were shot down, possibly by the crew of the Polish warship berthed at John Brown’s. The RAF failed to field any sort of meaningful defence. For a detailed discussion of the censorship and the reasons for it, see this article by John Macleod. This is a contemporary  map of Clydebank, overlaid with a map of the damage done, courtesy of Tom McKendrick:


The red dots represent bombs, with the circles around them showing severe damage blast radius (although those of the largest, 1,000kg parachute mines have been drawn to half scale). This is a theoretical measure of course, as in practice some of the shock wave is absorbed by neighbouring buildings. The yellow dots represent incendiary damage. Not the 150,000 individual devices of course, no, each dot represents an entire building destroyed by them. The shading shows damage to buildings. Buildings are colour coded (for some reason known only to Tom) in a range from pink, totally destroyed – to black. minor damage.

The official death toll was 528, with around twice that number seriously wounded. Many through the years have expressed incredulity at such numbers, although it should be noted that there is another somewhat more extensive definition of ‘Clydebank’ which yields a figure of twice that. Even so, this sounds like an underestimate given the scale of the destruction and the lack of strong shelters. Due to the censorship at the time, and the chaos caused by the events of those two nights, we may never know the true figures.

March 16th, 1941

Now all that is left are the stories. And there were a lot of stories. I grew up on them, so let me add just a few of those which were shared with me. First there was my mother’s story. My parents weren’t from Clydebank, we actually moved in there when I was 1 year old, but my mother, who still lives there, would have been 6 at the time, and she recalls being taken by her parents (her mother, I must confess, had some pretty strange ideas about what constituted appropriate entertainment for a young child) on the tram from Finneston to see the ruins of Clydebank. She recalls being shocked to see the contents of people’s kitchens and their personal possessions scattered everywhere. Then there were my grandmother’s (the other one’s) stories of working at the Singer factory during the war. She had one more Clydebank story to add. In 1979, whilst cat-sitting at our house for a week, she walked down to Glasgow Road, where she was obliged to stop as one of the main tenement blocks there was being demolished. An elderly man was watching with tears in his eyes. Seeing her, someone of his own generation, he slowly shook his head and remarked, “Aye, Hitler couldn’y dae it, we hid tae dae it wirsel’s.”

Then there was the story of the old St James’s Kirk, also demolished in the late 70s, which was used as a temporary morgue during the blitz. It was said to be haunted in latter days. Now, you’ve no idea how difficult it is to find a picture of it today. I had to settle for this drawing, from earlier times. Next door to it, in the spot which is hidden in this view by the end of the row of houses known as Atlas Cottages, was a cinema. Well, in 1941 it was a cinema. When my friends and I used to play there it was a bomb site. Yes, even in the 70s, we grew up surrounded by many bomb sites. This one had not been cleared in any way, and we clambered over rubble, finding bits of rows of seats and other relics of its former purpose. Last time I visited, in 2014, the whole area was a grassy space surrounded by trees, as if the rubble of both the church and the cinema had simply been piled up towards the rear of the site, covered with earth and sown with grass. I wondered how many people who visit it today have any idea of what is buried beneath that mound.


Another story came from a friend’s father, when I was in my teens. He had been in the army, and was based at Aldershot when the news reached him, in the form of being told to fall out, and sent home on leave. He recalled the agonising wait of the journey, which took around 24 hours, taking all the slow trains going North. He arrived on the morning of the 15th, to find a scene of utter devastation. He told how he roamed the ruins for some time, unable to find his street, never mind his home. It was another returnee like him who famously, when told the death toll was around 500, responded incredulously, “Five hundred? In which street?”

However I left Clydebank when I was 18 and the stories stopped. Except for one more, and it’s that one I want to share you, because it explains a lot, and I may well be the only Bankie who knows it. Remember we talked of the mystery of the apparent failure of the Luftwaffe to seriously damage their two main targets? About ten or twelve years ago my friend and neighbour in Melbourne, who was born a Geordie, but came out to Australia as a young child, had a visit from his father. His father, in his late 80s by then, had spent his career as a whisky salesman and had been all over Scotland, so when I met him he asked where I was from. When I told him he looked slightly pale.
“Do you know it?” I asked.
“I served there during the war,” he told me.
He went on to explain that he hadn’t actually been based in Clydebank, but that Clydebank was the reason they were stationed where they were, in Renfrew, on a slight rise, just to the west of the ferry. Now at that time the Clydebank council used to put out a calender with pictures of old Clydebank, and my mum used to send them to me every year. I had about half a dozen of them in a drawer. I asked him to wait a moment and raced next door to find them. I found one shot that was pre-war and looking over Clydebank from approximately the place he described.

He explained that a lifetime ago he had in fact been Gunnery Sergeant Leo Birkett of the Royal Artillery, in charge in those days of an anti-aircraft unit tasked with defending John Brown’s yard and the Singer factory. He immediately recognised the view in my picture.
“Yes, that was my view, except maybe from a bit higher up,” he told me, “and that’s the Singer clock, isn’t it?”
When I confirmed this he told me that his first job each day was to sight the guns. This he did by taking a bearing from the Singer clock and going 15 degrees to the right of that.
“We only had primitive radar,” he explained, “We could see when something was coming our way, but not exactly what. Couldn’t pick out individual targets or anything, so we just put up a curtain of flak along that line, in front of the shipyard and the factory.”

As soon as I heard this, I realised I had just heard the final piece of the story of the blitz, one I’d never heard anywhere else before. The answer to the great unanswered question of that whole tragic affair – how was it that the Luftwaffe pilots had managed to leave the two biggest industrial targets relatively unscathed, but reduce the town to a smoking ruin? Because when you think about it, what he told me reveals that the tactics employed in defending those targets made the destruction of the town all but inevitable. Those pilots tasked with bombing the yard and factory would have been faced with a choice. Either fly through a potentially deadly ack ack curtain, or drop your bombs early and go home. Or possibly fly around the curtain and bomb other targets in Dalmuir and Dalnotter, which were seriously damaged. I’m not sure how else they could have done it, because moving the curtain further east wouldn’t have helped. There would still have been people in front of it pretty much all the way back to the Firth of Forth. But given that they did do it the way they did, what other outcome could there possibly have been?

So in conclusion, make no mistake, what was perpetrated against the people of Clydebank between the 13th and the 15th of March, 1941 was a war crime. It was terrorism, in that term’s original sense. But what was done afterwards, or rather what wasn’t done, by successive Westminster governments, was arguably a greater crime. Why was it that as a boy, over thirty years later, I was still playing in bomb sites? Clydebank was never rebuilt. Sure, bits were patched up, in piecemeal fashion, but the job was never done properly. Some places, like the cinema next to the church, despite its proximity to the old centre of town, have remained vacant ever since. No co-ordinated redevelopment effort was ever made. Clydebank was simply left to its own devices. Left to rot. Forgotten. The coup de grace was delivered in the late 70s and 80s, when the town finally lost the last of its industries. Even Singer and the shipyard are gone now. The population today is little more than half of what it was on the 13th of March, 1941. Which, you might think, makes the biblical quotation on this extremely belated memorial plaque into something of a sick joke:


Many thanks to my new friend Colin Smith (@young_son) for this beautiful song and accompanying video about the events described above:

We’re not going back to sleep

Eloquent and passionate. If you harboured any doubts that some of the best writing these days is coming from the new media, this piece, perhaps the best yet, from one of the Babel Fish Blog’s favourite fellow bloggers, will put them to rest. Enjoy.

Wee Ginger Dug

The Scottish public will wake up to the SNP eventually, is the soothing mantra that the Unionist commentariat tell themselves so they can get to sleep at night. Soon, soon, it’s just around the corner. Won’t be long now. Won’t be long. Hush now Daily Mailster and don’t cry. It won’t be long until Scotland returns to the fold like the good sheep we want them to be. They’re mad cultists, those Scots, say the establishment Westminions as they pray for salvation by a Messiah who delivered Scotland into EVEL. They lie tossing and turning, praying for redemption.

But they have no gods and their precious few heroes sold their souls for an ermine robe and a seat on the board. Stop listening to the spin say the spiders casting webs of lies. Wake up to the SNP, wake up to the SNP, count the Labour sheep and dream. Do…

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The Overall Benefit Cap at £20k pa

I’m reblogging this not merely to make a political point, but because it contains vital information for anyone who thinks they might be affected by the reduction of the benefit cap to £20,000. If you feel you might be in this category I highly recommend you read it. Spoiler Alert: it’s not good news.

Joe Halewood

The overall benefit cap is an housing benefit reform policy and when reduced this year will see (a) the current 100,000 children in temporary homeless accommodation increase to at least 500,000; and (b) make the ubiquitous 3 bed property unaffordable for any private and social tenant who receives housing benefit which gives disastrous social and economic consequences for the country.

What is the OBC?

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Asking a flea how to cure the bubonic plague

An enjoyable piece of well-aimed invective, as we’ve come to expect from the author.

Wee Ginger Dug

Earlier this week Ruthie Davidson got down off her tank long enough to stand up on a podium and give a talk to the Rowntree Foundation on how to combat poverty. The invite to the Tory leaderene followed the successful speech about blood donation given to the same foundation recently by Dracula. To be fair, the invitation wasn’t quite as out to lunch as it might appear at first glance, Ruthie does know a lot about poverty seeing as how her party is a leading cause of it. Asking Ruth Davidson to give a speech on preventing poverty is like asking a flea for its opinions on the best way to prevent the bubonic plague.

Unsurprisingly, Ruthie shares the view that poverty is best challenged by threatening recipients of social security with sanctions. In the world of the Tories the poor are out to lunch, but only as they trudge…

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Get tae

As I’ve promised the piece I’m currently working on as an exclusive for The Point magazine, here’s an excellent piece from Wee Ginger Dug to keep you going. Enjoy!

Wee Ginger Dug

Scotland’s over-abundance of right wing commentators have reacted predictably to suggestions from Nicola Sturgeon that the BBC should be federalised and Scotland gain its own dedicated English language TV channel. Some have stated proud-Scotly that they don’t want the BBC to become any more Scottish, wearing their cultural cringe and ignorance on their sleeves like a badge of pride. Scottish culture is after all only fit for pithy insults and invitations to get tae. Putting more of it on the telly might actually encourage people to take it seriously, and that would never do. Allow people to explore their own culture and they might just decide that there’s more to life than the Great British Bake Off and poverty porn on Channel 5. They might realise that Scotland isn’t the marginal and unimportant little province which it is reduced to by an unequal Union.

One of the strangest things about…

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