Scottish Labour and how the World As We Know It Turned Upside Down
Sunday Mail, February 8th 2015
The Scotland we have known has been turned upside down.
Once Scottish politics followed certain, predictable lines. Scottish Labour had become the dominant party of the land. It sent 40-50 MPs to Westminster, ran most of local government, and in huge swathes of Scotland no real opposition existed.
All empires come to an end. And so it has proven with Scottish Labour.
The party which was on the winning side of the independence referendum now finds itself facing electoral Armageddon in a few months in the forthcoming UK general election. That has been the consistent picture of national polls since last September, and now Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polls paint a bleak scenario of what once were Labour heartlands.
How has it come to this? The immediate background and explanation put by many is only part of the story. This states that Labour fought a politically inept, ill-advised campaign in the referendum. Most seriously, it is argued that it made the strategic mistake of aligning with the toxic Tories in Better Together and is now paying a heavy price.
This is the popular Nationalist take but many Labour people have swallowed it as well as a form of displacement activity which stops them having to think more seriously. Labour did indeed fight a poor referendum campaign, but what it showed was a lack of political intelligence and resources, combined with dogmatic tribalism.
The sore issue for many Labour people wasn’t what happened as a result of getting into bed with the Tories, but their unwillingness to really do so. Gordon Brown even went as far as to set up a parallel campaign: United with Labour.
The real reasons for Scottish Labour’s predicament are deep-seated and long-term. Scottish Labour became the dominant party of the country without ever winning more than half the votes at any election.
Instead, its strength was magnified by the distortions of the First Past the Post electoral system at Westminster. This guaranteed in the 1980s and early 1990s that a 40% of the vote gave the party 75% of the seats – aided by the party’s geographic concentration of support and the divisions in the non-Labour vote.
Many in the party, particularly those Westminster MPs who gained from this, saw their election and numbers as a statement of the party’s strength and appeal, and didn’t want to look any further.
This was a serious mistake for it failed to understand that anti-Labour Scotland has always, even at the times of the party’s greatest strength, been a popular majority.
Then there has been the nature and style of how Labour governed Scotland when it was at its peak. It grew arrogant, insular and self-interested, and at the same time, completely uncomprehending of how those outside its tent saw it. This was the politics of a tribe.
A paradox at the height of Scottish Labour is that it was never itself a mass party of hundreds of thousands of Scots. It was always a small party, which exercised its power through a labyrinth of networks in trade unions and local government, along with the provision of council housing. All of this gave the party an effective patronage which reached far into the lives of millions of Scots.
This old Labour world has long crumbled; its cracks and faultlines began to appear as far back as the mid-1970s and by the early 1980s were increasingly visible to many outside the party. One of the key factors in this was rising popular expectations, and the demand for more choice and control, rather than the traditional idea that your local authority or councilor knew best.
The Scottish Parliament ultimately provided the final death knell of this old Labour way of doing things. Labour – who legislated for a Parliament – saw it as not a vehicle to do positive things. This much is obvious from the eight years of Labour-Lib Dem administration under Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell. All the headline policies of that era: free care for the elderly, abolition of tuition fees, electoral reform for local government and the smoking ban, came about either directly from Lib Dem pressure or other forces outside Labour.
What Labour did see the Parliament as was a bulwark against the Tories and SNP. When this politics of opposition and negativity did not prove to be enough, the people turned to those who had a mission and purpose for the Parliament: the Nationalists.
What has Scottish Labour got left? It cannot return to the old ways of running things. It has to change and do so quickly.
What is it offering at the moment is proof of the crisis it is in. Jim Murphy keeps announcing that ‘he is boss’ and Scottish Labour is ‘under new management’. But the public have grown sceptical of politicians who say they are the change and invite people to not worry about the past (Ruth Davidson mines a similar Blairite modernisation message of ‘the person is the change’ to similar little effect).
Murphy is a skilled politician but the problems of previous generations are coming home to roost. On a recent ‘BBC Newsnight’ two Glasgow residents were asked what they thought of Murphy. One of them replied with words to the effect that ‘it is no longer good enough to talk one language – socialism in Scotland – and the opposite at Westminster’.
That encapsulates the time-honoured Labour tradition since the 1920s, and nearly a century later it has finally caught up with the party and been duly noted by many of the Scottish public and become a problem.
There is still a good chance that the polls will narrow here, or that the SNP will win many more votes, but not quite convert them into seats.
But the long-term prognosis for Scottish Labour is not good. This is a crisis of its very existence. It has to learn to fight, listen, reach out, and champion positive change. In short, it has to learn, when its back is against the wall, about how it can be a very different kind of Labour Party. Time is fast running out.