by Kevin Meagher
The dark, stinking hole Labour finds itself in these days might not feel quite so dark and stinking if the Scottish party had got its act together last year. The loss of forty seats north of the border in the general election turned disaster in England into cataclysm across the UK.
Last Thursday, the party suffered a repeat pasting in elections to the Scottish Parliament. Labour took nothing short of a punishment beating at the hands of the electorate, sliding into third place behind the Conservatives. After last May’s debacle, it was a ceremonial cherry placed on top of the steaming turd that is the Scottish Labour party.
How did it come to this? How did Labour ‘lose’ Scotland and by doing so, make it improbable the party will win a general election any time before the advent of commercial space travel? And why aren’t we angrier with the bunglers in the Scottish party who frittered away Labour’s position?
But first, let’s be clear: the extinguishing of Labour as a force in Scottish politics is the party’s own fault. The SNP hasn’t cheated its way to power. There has been no coup d’etat. They are triumphant because they have outplayed Scottish Labour at every turn in recent years, up to the point where it’s clear the party no longer seems to understand the Scottish people.
This is not a recent failing. Labour lost control of the parliament to the SNP as long ago as 2007. The situation was exacerbated at the 2011 elections, before the party’s virtual annihilation in last year’s general election. There have been ample opportunities to arrest the decline.
Clearly, it all came to a head during the independence referendum. By opposing ‘nationalism’ Scottish Labour foolishly forfeited ‘patriotism’ in the process. The party didn’t seem to understand that there is nothing wrong with being a proud Scot and wanting to see your nationhood recognised.
Equally, there is no reason why that identity cannot co-exist in a spirit of partnership and friendship with the people of England. It’s all a matter of tone. Yet instead of finding a subtle balance, seeking to persuade Scots, the party waded in behind the dreadful, puerile ‘Project Fear’ agenda of the ‘Better Together’ campaign.
In a referendum campaign where emotions were raw and identity politics was potent, it was a stupid move to sound like Westminster’s branch office, with Ed Balls dutifully toeing the line of George Osborne and Danny Alexander in petulantly ruling-out a currency union with an independent Scotland.
Yet just a few short months after winning the independence referendum a visiting Martian would be wondering which side really won and which lost. While the SNP surge was held back by a 55-45 per cent margin, the anti-independence Better Together coalition lost ground from practically the first day of the campaign to the last, turning what was a seemingly impregnable position at the start into a slender victory which has subsequently failed to quell demands for independence.
But back to Labour. How does the party fix its problems? How does it clamber out of the dark abyss? Perhaps a clue lies in peering across the aisle. When you see figures like Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon – fiery, confident, visionary, and, above all, optimistic leaders – you see people who believe in something, can clearly articulate it, fight for it and galvanise people behind them.
Following Donald Dewar’s untimely death in 2000, the Scottish party chose to field a series of B-team politicians who, let me put it generously, would struggle to find their way into the cabinet of an English county council.
Talent was not in short supply, however it chose to hop on a train from Edinburgh and Glasgow each Monday and head for London. We allowed an unmistakable message to go out: the Scottish Parliament is a second-best option. Ambitious Labour politicos still preferred Westminster. If we were really treating Scotland like a proud nation, we would send our best to represent our party. We didn’t. And the public noticed.
Jim Murphy became the first senior figure since Dewar to forego Westminster for Holyrood, taking the reins of the dysfunctional Scottish party six months before last May’s general election. His failure to arrest the party’s decline was not all his fault, but he was also Labour’s Scottish Secretary before 2010. The party was heading, inexorably, towards the iceberg that has ripped its hull to shreds while Murphy was on the bridge. He was symptomatic of a Scottish Labour political class that took its backyard for granted for too long.
At least he can say he had a good record as a local MP, turning his once-marginal Eastwood seat into a fortress, before last May’s annihilation, where the party lost 40 of its 41 MPs. Alas, the same work ethic was not in evidence among many ex-Scottish MPs, who were quite happy swanning around in Westminster while the SNP parked its tanks on their lawns.
For years, visiting party officials from England have been aghast at how riven the Scottish party is by the petty squabbling and boss politics of the pygmies who run the place; displacement activity for doing any actual campaigning.
What of the new broom? Labour’s current Scottish leader, 34 year-old Kezia Dugdale, is fluent but unconvincing. Again, the weight of failure for last week’s disaster is not hers alone, but she claimed last week’s result was ‘heart-breaking’ with all the earnestness of the student politician she still resembles.
Pitted against the impressive Nicola Sturgeon and highly-effective Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, even Dugdale’s gender isn’t a useful point of difference. And is it really too much to expect that a party leader has a track record and a bit of vision?
Over the next couple of years, it will become apparent whether or not Labour is at the bottom of a political cycle, or whether something structural has changed in Scottish politics. If it’s the former, then with the right policies and leadership – and quite a lot of blind luck – the party has a reasonable expectation of getting back in the game.
However, if a structural shift in political loyalties has taken place, then, without the prospect of winning back those 40 seats, and with a national leadership that simply will not stoop low enough to capture enough English marginals, Labour’s hopes of being a party of government are lost.
But at least we know who we should be furious with: the lazy, leaderless, incompetent, arrogant and ineffective Scottish Labour party and its leaders and MPs, who have handed a generational advantage to the Conservatives.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut