Scotsman May 8 Scottish Labour sleepwalk to disaster & how to wake up

Make no mistake about it Jim Murphy saw this coming, but it was all too little and too late. He was not alone.

The Labour party both in Scotland and at Westminster has been sleep walking towards this catastrophe for the last decade. What was remarkable was that Murphy, his advisors and so many in the party hierarchy did not catch on sooner. How late it was became evident at his inaugural speech as Scottish Labour leader at Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh last autumn when he appeared stuck in a 1997 New Labour time warp.

Dire polls over the next couple of months forced him to change tack, move to the left of his Blairite tendencies, although these were still to prove a monkey on his back throughout the campaign. His appeal to many Scottish voters would lack conviction, unlike those of true believers in their respective causes such as Nicola Sturgeon and even Ruth Davidson.

But all too often in politics people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. Scottish Labour, in particular, sunk into this mind-set due to a legacy of the first-past-the-post voting system. Scotland was viewed for too long as virtually a one-party state over the last 20 years, albeit Labour never attained 50 per cent of the vote. That the majority of Scots were not Labour supporters bypassed so many commentators and, more damagingly, Labour itself. But the system gave them the lion’s share of Westminster seats and, till ten years ago, local authorities. This is now a problem for the SNP, on 50 per cent of the vote yet with over 90 per cent of seats.

Meanwhile the malaise associated with the one-party state syndrome seeped into the party’s bones – complacency, conservatism, careerism and cronyism – and Labour is now paying a heavy price for its tin ear and blind eye.

Back in 2011 two weeks into the Scottish Parliament elections I attended a meeting in Labour HQ in my role as media manager. The hard-core support was holding up around 25-30 per cent but I pointed out the mood out in the country was very different. “People don’t like us”. I was challenged immediately by several senior figures and accused of defeatism and negativity. It was time to be blunt: “Even our own people don’t like us”.

It took me back to a meeting the year before after Labour’s success in the 2010 general election. This time I’d I challenge the Roy Jenkins’s analogy: Labour had a precious china vase in its hands – the electorate – and I was told it was my job not to drop it as we crossed a polished floor. I could not believe the political myopia where senior figures could not at this stage recognise the electorate were voting differently in Holyrood and Westminster elections. The 2010 result had been a mixture of an anti-Tory vote, with Labour as the best bet to keep them out, along with a residual loyalty to Gordon Brown.

Now, I maintained, that compact had been broken. Voters were aggrieved. Labour had been their standard bearer against Thatcherism and then had 13 years of government. Many good things were achieved but society had changed, if not Scottish Labourism, and voters in the 21st century were behaving more like consumers than citizens. They don’t have a long-term memory what a party has done for them. Labour had let them down by letting the Tories back in and all bets were off.

Socially and culturally Scotland had also changed and Labour has not adjusted. Academics like Gerry Hassan have point out the three pillars of Scottish Labourism – unions, local government and council hosing – have all but withered away.

Other deep cultural currents that also supported and influenced the party have changed. For the adage Labour owed more to Methodism than Marxism, in Scotland it was a middle-class Presbyterian paternalism – we know what is best for you – allied to Irish Catholic working class foot soldiers.

But socially conservative Scotland had accelerated towards being an increasingly secular country in the last decade. One example was the strident opposition to Section 28 (Section 2A in Scotland) ten years ago. My last act before leaving Holyrood in 2011 was to urge Labour to take a lead on same-sex marriage and position themselves as Scotland’s social progressives unlike the ever-cautious SNP who were stalling. But Scottish Labour’s own social conservatism, along with an increasing inability to make decisions, held them back.

Overall the greatest frustration for many members has been the hierarchy’s resistance to internal reform which it must now address.

Wendy Alexander had been virtually the party’s only intellectual strategist in Scotland in the last decade. But during her short period as leader she was blocked regarding structural and constitutional reform, not least her “bring it on” challenge to the SNP for a referendum in 2008. Senior aides to Alex Salmond have told me since if Labour had followed through, history would have been very different. It was the one time Labour could have outflanked them in the last decade.

Meantime, along with two colleagues, models for an independent and autonomous party such as the Catalan Socialist in Spain or the independent Christian Social Union in Bavaria, which is allied, to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a federal Germany were examined. There was no so much resistance to our suggestions as total indifference.

Fundamentally, though, a lot of party members have woken up long before the hierarchy at Westminster, or even Holyrood, to the need for an independent or autonomous Scottish Labour party.

One that would reform a bureaucracy more fitting to the 21st century than the Edwardian era; one that would open up the party to new blood and candidates with primaries; one that would address head-on major policies like the regressive council tax through new banding or a land value tax; one that would adopt localism in the face of highly centralised SNP government; one that would reach out to small businesses as natural allies in face of globalisation and transnational corporations; one that would advocate electoral and constitutional reform across the UK; one that would address serious ideas in the form of a dynamic think-tank.

But, most of all, an outward looking party that could convince the people of Scotland that Labour really is on their side. Whether Jim Murphy has the intellectual imagination or political conviction to pursue such initiatives, or even dare embrace them, remains to be seen. A reflection of Labour’s malaise is there is currently no clear alternative to him.

One thought on “Scotsman May 8 Scottish Labour sleepwalk to disaster & how to wake up”

  1. The cover of FPTP was acknowledged and abused for many years: I recall late Jimmy Allison describing how “4 party system works in our favour”.

    In Glasgow as long ago as 2003, SNP and SSP took total of 35% of the vote, but split vote which 15 – 20 Labour councillors in.

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