The Lessons of Glasgow East
Open Democracy, July 25th 2008
Gerry Hassan shows how the Scottish National Party’s by-election victory in a previously unassailable Labour fiefdom is a signal of shifting tectonic plates in United Kingdom politics as a whole.
Scottish and British politics are clearly moving into a new political era. The sensational Glasgow East by-election victory for the Scottish National Party (SNP) and humiliation for Labour in one of its safest seats is evidence enough, but even it only hints at the scale of the changes underway and the degree to which a momentous contest for the future is sharpening.
The Glasgow East result confirmed in the early hours of 25 July 2008 – in which the SNP overturned a Labour majority of 13,507 to win by 365 votes, a swing of 22.54% – is a product of a number of different political trends, all of which are now pushing one way north of the border: towards the SNP and away from longstanding Labour dominance.
Three of these trends are immediately apparent in the by-election outcome:
• the backlash from fifty years of Labour hegemony of Scottish politics: the “machine” politics, the clientist state, the reality that for years it has been the incumbent party
• the fact this is the third term of a Labour government in the United Kingdom becoming more and more unpopular, which despite three election victories and a decade of economic growth has failed to remake the political weather
• the popularity of the SNP and the political honeymoon of Alex Salmond’s minority administration in the Scottish parliament – an administration which has been at once popular, populist and competent.
These three trends are feeding into a long-term changing of gears in Scottish politics, which can only be bad news for Labour. This involves both Labour’s hollowing-out as a party, as the authoritarian clientist politics which it developed to perfection in its Scottish heartland is no longer working; and the SNP administration’s knowing how to stand up for Scotland – and thus stand up to Westminster – and developing a progressive agenda distinctive enough to be different from the neo-liberal consensus.
The Scottish Labour Party has always been a strange, even unfathomable, creature to observers inside and outside Scotland alike. The establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999 – passed by a Labour government after it came to power in London 1997, after eighteen years of Conservative rule – has thrown new scrutiny, attention and pressures on to its north-of-the-border fiefdom. The party has not responded well, or with any sense of grace, to this unfamiliar situation.
In nine years of devolution, the party has had four leaders in the Scottish parliament: Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell and Wendy Alexander. None was elected in a proper contest involving party members, and two – McLeish and Alexander – resigned amid financial scandals involving constituency or campaign expenses.
This sequence points to two of Scottish Labour’s characteristics: its denial of democracy, and the way it has blurred the lines between party and state. True, there never was a golden era of democracy in Scottish Labour, but as the party has become more and more the country’s political establishment so any kind of internal democratic practice and debate has disappeared. Instead, a self-important cabal of the party – made up of its Westminster (London) MPs, its Holyrood (Edinburgh) MSPs, councillors, researchers and advisers – have taken control of the direction of the party. This process that has been to the ultimate detriment of the party itself.
A vanished legacy
The unattractive face of British Labour, by now a bizarre mixture of battered managerialism and neo-liberalism, compounds the problems of its Scottish counterpart. The Gordon Brown administration inherited office on Tony Blair’s departure in June 2007 at an already low and vulnerable point in the political cycle; though his near-exhausted legacy still cannot excuse how inept and poor Brown has been.
Nor, however, should all the blame for Labour’s overall predicament – or for the Glasgow East result – be dumped upon Gordon Brown’s shoulders. For eleven years of “New” Labour rule and a decade of dominance have reduced any sense of moral mission and compass – outside of Brown’s own psyche – to a ruin. The standard New Labour defence of its record on the economy and social justice – the much proclaimed sixty-three successive quarters of economic growth (which includes Labour laying claim to the last four years of Conservative rule) – carries a grating echo of the triumphialism of the Margaret Thatcher and (in a far lower key) John Major era that preceded it.
It is revealing in this respect to see in the aftermath of Glasgow East politicians like Douglas Alexander – up-and-coming stars of New Labour’s decade of dominance and in his case, as a close ally of Gordon and sister of Wendy, an emblem of what the party has become – repeat this technocratic mantra. The willed evasion of a catastrophic political defeat by reference to economic achievements, the acknowledgment of hard times for consumers, and the need for leadership – all in a disembodied language gutted of genuine thinking and engagement – is both irresistibly reminiscent of late-Thatcher arrogance and loss-of-touch, and a resounding symbol of how Labour’s operating mode brings politics itself into discredit.
A missed project
The reduction of Labour’s progressive credentials to an all-time low in Scotland and the UK meant that the SNP administration at Holyrood which entered office after the Scottish election of May 2007 had in a sense a luckier inheritance than Gordon Brown south of the border eight weeks later – notwithstanding that it had only a one-seat majority in parliament.
But the SNP had also made its luck and changed the political weather, a fact confirmed again by its stunning success in Glasgow East. Even now, fourteen months and two leaders later, Labour remains in denial about the SNP. Many in Labour – including most of its MSPs and MPs – see the “Nats” as some kind of pestilential and illegitimate guerrilla army operating in Labour’s own (and they do mean “own”) heartlands. Wendy Alexander accused the SNP of being obsessed with Scotland’s constitutional future, but was herself consumed by the same obsession. She thus spent her short-lived and ill-fated leadership fighting a phantom tiger of her own creation, wondering all the while why she never laid any punches.
The SNP – contrary to Labour’s fevered imaginings – is like many centre-left parties around the world, an uneasy compromise between social democracy and neo-liberalism, with no real understanding of political economy or the grotesque ways modern capitalism works (thus, closer to New Labour itself than either would like). Yet it has in government so far managed to address this balance better than Scottish Labour ever has done, displaying more of a capacity for statecraft and stagecraft, all the while conveying its project with a sense of mission, story and voice (something Labour had years ago but has long since lost.
A lost kingdom
The Glasgow East by-election highlighted all this and more. The seat, one of Glasgow’s most deprived areas is, if not the “broken Britain” of Conservative leader David Cameron’s rhetoric, part of a “forgotten Britain” – despite the investments and programmes that under Labour have levered money into the constituency.
The reasons Glasgow East is as it is are many and complex, but Labour’s custodianship of it and areas like it has become part of the problem. Labour’s candidate Margaret Curran proclaims that the party’s cause is “inequality” and “injustice”, but the party hasn’t unambiguously embodied or furthered these causes for decades. One underlying issue in the by-election, for example, was the scandalously poor quality of public representatives who have for long worn the Labour rosette in Scotland; something personified by the outgoing Labour MP David Marshall, who seemed to represent the seat in the “absentee-landlord”-style of a 19th-century “rotten borough”.
Thus the singular story of Glasgow East also contains within it more profound and long-term changes in the nature of Scottish and United Kingdom politics. The most important is that the old unitary UK, once held together by a populist unionism which managed to contain both a Tory reactionary story of Britain and the old Labour story of the people and progress, has died.
For a brief period after 1997, it looked as if it might be possible that a New Labour story of Britain – one that highlighted diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism – might be able to take the centre ground and shape the future of the UK in a way previous progressives had only dreamed of. That New Labour story is now in tatters, destroyed by centralism, cronyism and corruption, and the Blair-Brown fixation on Atlanticism. What is interesting is that no new compelling story of Britain has emerged from the Conservatives or anyone else.
This failure to develop any plausible British story – of which Gordon Brown’s many missives on Britishness are a symptom, not the solution – offers many new challenges, opportunities and openings to progressives across these isles. The SNP, buoyed by its Glasgow East victory, has powerful political momentum – as long as it does not overreach itself or fall victim to its own form of arrogance. More broadly, the contours of Scottish and UK politics now point to a prospective referendum on Scottish independence (most probably in 2010): this promises to be a historic, even seismic event in the history of Scotland and the UK.
Beyond Labour and unionist scaremongering, beyond nationalist sentimentality too, the current moment offers a challenge to progressives and public opinion north and south (and west and southwest) of the Scotland-England border: namely, to address the question of what kind of society they want to advance, and how as a result they should contest the embedded vested interests in Westminster and across entrenched political elites.