Its Labour’s fault there’s no-one as good as Salmond

by Kevin Meagher

Alastair Darling has many qualities. He was an effective minister, a mainstay throughout Labour’s years in power and as Chancellor, he steered the economy through the worst recession since the 1930s, leaving behind a growing economy in 2010. He is widely respected and admired. But as a campaigner, he makes David Moyes look like Jose Mourinho.

He is so ill-suited to leading the cross-party campaign to galvanise Scots behind the simple proposition that they are “Better Together” with their kith and kin in the rest of the union that the No campaign against Scottish independence looks set to snatch defeat from the jaws of what should, on paper, be an easy victory.

Yet a vote for independence is now a real possibility – with a poll last weekend putting the Yes campaign just three per cent behind the No campaign, a once unthinkable prospect. (To put this in context, a poll last November had the No camp leading by a margin of 29 per cent).

This is a calamitous situation with the polling numbers now starting to reflect what is all too evident to anyone watching this referendum battle unfold: The Westminster class has badly underestimated Alex Salmond.

Frankly, it has paid too little attention to Caledonian affairs in general in recent years, wrongly assuming the devolution settlement of 1998 was the end of the line as far as Scottish nationhood goes. This has left opponents of independence with a strategic problem. There is simply no equivalent Scottish figure now able to make the case for retaining the Union with the same panache Salmond displays in trying to break it up.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK and leader of the most swivel-eyed pro-Union party in British politics, can barely open his mouth on the subject without sending undecided voters flocking towards the independence camp.

Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, southern English and middle-class are clearly deemed surplus to requirements and have the good sense to stay out of it. Labour’s Scottish Leader, Johann Lamont, is tough and said to get under Salmond’s skin, but she is a provincial figure in comparison.

So Gordon Brown was wheeled out this week to exploit his residual cache with Scottish voters. (Indeed, it is often overlooked that Labour actually increased its share of the vote in Scotland in 2010) warning about the potential threat to state pensions if Scotland votes for independence.

What we are left with, then, is a hideously mismatched fight. In one corner stands Salmond, the apex predator in Scottish politics. Pitted against him are Labour heavyweights of yesteryear, the hated Tories and the minnows of contemporary Scottish politics.

This gaping lack of a credible current figure to take the fight to him is killing the No campaign. Moreover, the greater guilt for this state of affairs belongs to Labour since Scotland is electorally and, perhaps, culturally, the party’s backyard, (with three of Labour’s six prime ministers born there).

Yet since the late Donald Dewar left Tony Blair’s Cabinet to become Scotland’s initial First Minister, no-one of similar standing has followed in his footsteps. None of the outstanding Scottish Labour politicians of this generation have thought the job big enough to forgo a career at Westminster. In so doing, they send out the signal that the Scottish Parliament is a second best option; essentially making Salmond’s argument for him.

Things may look more nuanced north of the border, but from here it looks like no-one has laid a glove on him for months. The chorus of co-ordinated warnings in recent weeks about investment and jobs being threatened if Scots vote for independence makes it sound like Private Fraser from Dad’s Army is running the show.

Yet the bleaker the claim, the more Salmond’s open, optimistic face seems to absorb the negative energy channelled against him. Last month, he saw off the unsubtle threat from George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to be part of a currency union with the remainder of the UK.

His performance on that evening’s Newsnight was a masterclass in turning what should have been a nightmare interview into a rallying counter-attack, parrying the move as “bluff, bluster and bullying.” The No campaign’s best shot bounced straight off him.

Now, with only months to go, would a change of tack towards treating Scots like adults be a better idea? Rather than histrionics and claims of impending cataclysm, would a reasoned appeal to self-interest work better in persuading Scots that the status quo is preferable to a leap into the unknown?

Ed Miliband and the Shadow Cabinet are in Glasgow on Friday, promising the start of a fightback in the run-up to September’s poll. But all this would be an awful lot easier if Salmond faced a home-grown adversary worthy of the description.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut


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12 Responses to “Its Labour’s fault there’s no-one as good as Salmond”

  1. swatantra says:

    Is what I’ve been saying for years, there are no big guns in Holyrood. Labour regard Holyrood as a a little backwater, a provincial district council. If some of the more expereinced politicians at Westminster like Murphy or Darling settled on Scotland as their future career it would make a lot of difference to Scots Labour. Lets face it Murphy and Darling haven’t a future at Westminster so it would be no skin off their nose.

  2. steve says:

    George Galloway is reported to be speaking to packed halls in favour of a ‘no’ vote.

    Perhaps the ‘Better Together’ campaign should make George the lead spokesperson.

    He certainly can talk. And he certainly knows how to win elections.

  3. Anne says:

    Actually, this is one of the few times I agree with George Galloway – he does speak very effectively for the no campaign.

    What about Douglas Alexander? Is he not a home grown Scot?

    Alex Salmond was in Carlisle yesterday – talking to the business community – I understand most were not impressed – reported that he said ‘nothing new.’

  4. There’s two points to be made.

    Firstly, you are right that this is Labour’s fault. Yes Scotland’s campaign has deftly positioned itself as speaking to Social Democratic Scotland, a Scotland that is still way left wing to New Labour or the risable “Red” Ed. You can dismiss the anti Trident rhetoric, but when Scottish Labour politicians cannot commit to scrapping the Bedroom Tax on national television (as they did often before Milliband’s own u-turn at last Autumn’s conference) then they are shown to be out of touch and just as bad as the nasty Tories. The dash to fend off UKIP (a party still to retain it’s deposit in Scotland) has considerably harmed the pro-Unionist cause.

    You also show your lack of understanding of the Scottish political scene. Lamont might get under Salmond’s skin (like Milliband gets under Flashman’s skin) but as a figurehead she is just awful and plainly not up to the job. Her speech a couple of years ago promising the end to the “Something for nothing” society torpedoed any chance she had of displacing Salmond in 2016. Her comment earlier this year saying independence was just focusing on “wee things” made her a laughing stock.

    The second point is that Salmond’s arguments are not watertight arguments. There are serious issues surrounding “Sterlingzone” and Sturgeon’s claim that we would continue to be EU members is built on unsubstantive claims. EU and Sterlingzone touch at issues of sovereignty that go against the arguments that a vote for Independence is a vote for Scottish people voting for Scottish people to make decisions on Scottish issues. Yet rather than attack these issues and then make a positive case, Better Together have smothered their arguments in negativity.

    Better Together are the architects of their own troubles, at the heart of those troubles are members of the Labour hierarchy who have shown themselves time and time again to be out of touch with Scottish sensibilities.

  5. I really shouldn’t be pointing this out, but this level of missing the point is a far bigger reason in the shift in the polls.

    UKOK’s behaviour says they think it’s about ‘big guns’ and media coverage. It’s not, because that can only reach so many people these days. Even if Gordon Brown or The Gorgeous One did two meetings a day for the next 90, that would only reach a limited number of people.

    What Yes Scotland are doing is holding packed meetings *without* star speakers (or with speakers no more ‘nationally famous’ than Lesley Riddoch and Dennis Canavan). And putting boots on the ground, training their foot soldiers incredibly thoroughly.

    Other than actual Labour party office bearers and elected representatives for example, I’ve yet to see anyone with a BT icon on their Twitter avatar. I see loads with the ‘Yes’ icon. Even allowing for selection bias, that ordinary Labour members just aren’t up for the fight, and aren’t convinced it’s one that needs to be won, is telling.

    Project Fear has badly misjudged the campaign. You’re right, they have no-one as good as Salmond. But that includes election strategists.

  6. BlindsideFlanker says:

    Yes it Labour’s fault, but not as is suggested. Labour played on a sense of Scottish victim hood during the Thatcher years, which gave them a good tranche of Scottish elected MP’s, but the genie they released , which they have lost control of, is now being exploited by the SNP.

    What you reap you sow.

  7. Tafia says:

    Labour’s main problem is that Salmond has been very succesful in building a ‘broad church’ in support of Yes. This has effectively split the Scottish Labour party from top to bottom. It’s quite common for scottish Labour councillors and Labour MSPs along with trades union officers and elected officials to give speeches at the Yes meetings and for Labpur Party activists to be out leafleting for Yes and as a result scottish Labour is fractured between a pro-London faction and a pro-Scotland faction. At street level the Labour Party that supports Better Together is in tatters.

    Should Scotland vote Yes there will still be a Scottish Labour Party – the difference is they will be genuinely scottish and will be purely concerned with Scotland and not a London lapdog. And the same is true of all the other parties with the exception of the BNP & UKIP who will cease to have a scottish dimension overnight (not that they have that much of one anyway).

    Should Better Together hold the day, I can easily see a large chunk of Labour’s voters, members and activists deserting to SNP.

  8. BazzerIpswich says:

    I’m and Englishman without a vote in the referendum.
    So, I started from the position that the UK was better together. But as the debate developed I came to believe it would be better if the scots went their own way.
    Why the change of mind?
    Well as the debate developed it occurred to me that there is a significantly large minority of scots who simply despise the way the electoral process within the UK works in that it regularly returns Tory or Tory led governments. A large minority (perhaps a majority) of scots despise tory government. This is not a healthy consequence for democracy within the UK as a whole.
    The third way of giving more devolved powers to Edinburgh won’t work either as it will enhance the already well-established perception south of the border that the scots are already getting more than their fair share of resources.
    It is an uncomfortable fact that Scotland has become a very socialist country, so it is unreasonable, therefore, to expect a Scottish nation’s parliament to subordinate itself to a UK parliament dominated by Tories.
    For the sake of harmony between the nations of England and Scotland, I just hope the scots vote YES.

  9. Tafia says:

    I’m and Englishman without a vote in the referendum.

    It has nothing to do with whether you are an Englishman – it is to do with whether you live in Scotland or not. Plenty of English people who are domicile in Scotland will be voting in the referendum – if you want to vote in it move to Scotland. Even one of the SNPs MSP is an Englishman.

    Incidentally a very very clear majority of Scots despise the tories – at the 2010 General Election only 16% voted tory. 82% voted Labour, LibDem or SNP. Likewise they are not favoured in Wales – again in 2010 in Wales they polled 27% which is the best they had done since the early 90’s. ( 67% voted Labour, Lib Dem or Plaid) In both Scotland & Wales the tories fare even worse at local council level and in regional Assembly/Parliament.

    The tories are very much an ‘England’ thing (like UKIP & the BNP) and are viewed by the people of Scotland and Wales as such. They tend to do better in both Scotland and Wales where there are high concentrations of English ‘incomers’, especially retirees – and this possibly explains why their already low vote does not hold up in regional elections as evidence suggests that incomers from England are less likely to engage in regional voting..

  10. bazzeripswich says:

    so, are we agreed that given the circumstances there is no point to maintaining a factional and fractional union

  11. uglyfatbloke says:

    A good article. The Better Together campaign has been pretty dreadful; far too many campaign gambits that have turned out to be dubious at best or just plain wrong at worst. Part of the problem has been to put so much effort in calling the gnats ‘anti-English’ when they are really ‘anti-Westminster’, but Kevin is right on the lack of leadership.
    Contrary to perceived wisdom in the press, Brown is not a valuable asset to BT any more than Blair would be. The idea that he is still popular and respected in Scotland just does n’t hold up. Lamont has been a disaster and does n’t look like getting any better. The ‘something for nothing’ speech was unwise and it’s just as well that her assertion that ‘ Scots are not genetically programmed to make political decisions’ did not get any attention in the media.
    Tafia is right about party members and officials leaning toward the yes camp. I don’t think any Labour MSPs have declared for yes, however quite a few Union officials, activists, former party officers – even the chair of a CLP – have done so, but I’m not aware of anybody dumping the gnats for Better Together.
    Gorgeous George….I don’t know that the meetings are really what you would call ‘packed’, but I get the impression (perhaps wrongly) that a fair number of people go to them because GG is a TV personality so it might just as well be Alan Titchmarsh.
    Blindsideflanker (great name by the way) raises a good point. Opposition to the tories (and a dodgy electoral system admittedly) has produced a healthy raft of Labour MPs from Scotland, the problem is they have been dreadful. That certainly includes Darling; he was an awful chancellor and so was Brown. Worse yet, it has produced – for example – Ian Davidson and others like him. The playground bully may be able to get a gang to follow his lead, but that does not make him right or genuinely popular.
    The gnats can still be beaten quite easily. Full Fiscal Autonomy would satisfy Scottish aspirations and since Scotland would have to ‘pay for itself’ (as Pritti Patel put it) it would be perfectly acceptable, even welcomed in England. The gnats (like the tories and glib dumbs) are also very weak in personal liberty. To be honest, Labour is too, but there’s no reason why that has to continue to be the case.

  12. I do agree with all of the ideas you’ve offered on your post. They’re really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are very short for novices. Could you please extend them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

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