Are the Days of Scottish Labour Over?
Scottish Review, April 8th 2015
The official general election campaign kicked off last week. But in reality it has been running since the turn of the year, with all parties and observers knowing in advance that polling day would be May 7th.
Scotland has witnessed a palpable air of perma-campaigning for the last two or three years with the experience of the referendum. But there has been an air of excitement and expectation for some about the coming general election, since the aftermath of the indyref, and when the first polls put the SNP ahead of Labour.
One defining theme these last few months, in light of the polls, has been the slow demise of the once seemingly impregnable Scottish Labour Party. The party knew it had to do something; Johann Lamont resigned saying the Westminster leadership treated the party as a ‘London branch’ and Jim Murphy was elected leader – the seventh party leader in fifteen years.
Murphy has been hyperactive – even without his Irn Bru crates – and has criss-crossed the nation, making speeches and policy announcements and talking endlessly about his love of football. He has done all this, undertaken dozens of TV and radio interviews, employed new staff, adopted the things you are meant to have like a campaign grid, but all of this has had, to the initial surprise of many, absolutely no effect at all.
The Scottish people seem to have made their minds up about the party they so admired and felt a connection too. A significant number – 69% – of Scots think that Labour has lost touch with ordinary people; three-quarters believe that Labour needs to change its policies to become fit for government, while a majority think that Labour does not care for their needs. Despite all his hyper-activity, Jim Murphy’s opinion poll ratings are nose-diving, whilst unbelievably Ed Miliband is more unpopular in Scotland than David Cameron.
Whatever the actual election result on May 7th this is a significant watershed in Scotland which needs examination and understanding beyond the usual narrow political frame. This epic and unprecedented scale of change carries many different levels – from personal stories and reflections to deep emotions and historical memories.
Many of us grew up feeling familiar with Labour Scotland – its politics, cultures and practices. There was a historical connection to a set of collective stories and powerful images: of a Scotland of cloth-capped men, huge hardship and poverty, and big powerful industries that did impressive but humanly difficult things such as building ships and excavating coal.
The Labour story was about believing that this past world of economic and social injustice had been, for all the problems people still faced, largely overcome by the collective efforts of working people and the labour movement. This was a world of significant achievements which impacted on and changed Scottish lives: the creation of the NHS, the massive slum clearance programmes which dramatically altered the face of our cities and gave hundreds of thousands decent living conditions, the Hydro-Electric schemes which harnessed the power of water in the Highlands, and much much more. Part of Scotland intuitively knows this without necessarily understanding the details.
Yet in recent years a very different feeling has emerged towards Labour which has gone from a gentle sense of disappointment to a more pronounced betrayal, and since the referendum, one of in many places of anger and fury. This draws on a litany of crimes and misdemeanours – from Tony Blair and Iraq, to Gordon Brown’s role in New Labour, and for some the ultimate treachery of siding with the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the referendum.
This coalesces in the present into an often elemental rage against Jim Murphy, the modern Scottish Labour Party and leading party figures. At the recent ‘Changin Scotland’ weekend in Ullapool one participant reflecting on their feelings after the referendum confessed that, ‘I can’t help it but I hate Jim Murphy.’
Such sentiment has a long lineage into perceptions and recollections of the past, and a general comparison of Labour’s historic achievements and values to the derisory state of the party today. This is a political mood about collective memories and imagination which for all its lack of detail is deeply rooted and ingrained, and one which in its account of the past and present points to the probable shape of Scotland’s future.
Yet it is also true that in the here and now there is a displacement effect in the scale of anger and fury felt by many towards Scottish Labour. It is no longer the unchallenged leading party of the country or in most places the political establishment (Glasgow and Lanarkshire excepted).
Part of Scotland still views the party as one that needs to be punished and brought down for how it has let people down. But all of this deflects from the reality that the SNP have governed Scotland for coming up for eight years and are fast becoming the new political establishment. This rage against the former Labour machine prevents a national mood emerging which reflects how Scotland has actually changed and begins a more detailed scrutiny of the decisions the SNP make.
At one point Scotland has to attempt to embrace a politics which is more future focused, and isn’t looking back to a mythical past: whether it is a nostalgia for a once radical ‘Red Clydeside’ or seeing everything through the prism of Margaret Thatcher and the 1980s.
Scottish Labour doesn’t help in this. The party has since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament shown it has little idea what it positively stands for or the Scotland it wishes to see in the future. Tellingly, despite rubbing shoulder to shoulder with the SNP in the Parliament, having independence apart, rather similar policies and values, and being made up of rather similar people, Labour have entrenched what can only be called a psychotic view of the SNP: as dangerous, deranged separatists who cannot be trusted with the national purse.
The Scottish party choose to open its election campaign with a short film reminding voters of events of over 36 years ago in March 1979 when the SNP voted to bring down the Callaghan Labour Government. This is still one of the central tropes by which Scottish Labour in its heart choose to judge the SNP: one which is meaningless and buried deep in political folklore to nearly all voters. It is like David Cameron and the Tories making one of the central themes of their current campaign the chaos of ‘the winter of discontent’ of 1978-79.
There is even a profound contradiction in Labour’s ‘the SNP brought in Thatcherism’ message which undercuts everything Labour says it stands for. This is that Labour’s argument on 1979 is based on the premise that Thatcherism was imposed on Scotland. Yet the Tories were elected by the popular will of the people in 1979 not imposed on the UK. The only way to argue as Labour have tried to do that Scotland had Thatcherism imposed on it is to make a nationalist argument about ‘no mandate’ and all that – which is the opposite of what Labour is trying to do. That’s the illogical positions that blind hatred takes you into.
We will hear a lot about Labour Scotland in the next few weeks, the state of its heartlands, its detachment from traditional supporters many of whom voted ‘Yes’, and the electoral challenges numerous Labour MPs face in once safe seats. One of the places which will be continually referenced will be Glasgow and the threat to a whole host of Labour representatives. This will be presented as a battle for the heart and soul of Scottish Labour and a defining contest – but Glasgow and the West of Scotland are but one part of a rich, diverse political culture.
Writing recently in ‘The Times’ Kevin McKenna toured his native city and commented that ‘Glasgow man is me’ – by which he meant traditional Labour supporters who had made the journey to Yes and were now standing at the precipice of voting SNP. This is only a partial story: one which has dangers of over-sentimentalising and romantcising Labour’s past and the city of Glasgow.
Something huge has happened in these past few years in Scotland. We are only just beginning to see the shape and contours of it, let alone begin to understand it. Scottish Labour’s first election broadcast saw the actor Martin Freeman say ‘The Labour Party started in Scotland’; it is just possible the next few weeks could see the beginning of the end of the Labour Party in Scotland.
With such huge changes and high stakes, we owe it to ourselves to try to begin to understand what has happened and is happening under our very eyes: a tale which is complex and compelling and one we should resist the urge to put into a simplistic tale of heroes and villains. Scotland has, many believe, grown up a lot in the last few years, and it is about time our politics more accurately captured and represented that sentiment.