Scottish Labour: everyone’s problem


Scottish RoseFreethinking with Rob Marchant

I imagine that, in the run-up to his conference speech – and having had a rather unexpectedly busy summer – Ed Miliband is turning his thoughts to his grand plan for Britain. And rightly – this will be a defining moment for his leadership. But, at the same time, it might be a little too easy to forget a rather pressing issue north of the border.

Now, it seems clear that Labour failed to win in 2007, and was decimated in 2011, largely because it stopped having a convincing argument for the electorate, as in Westminster. But, unlike Labour nationally, it has already had four years to regroup from the initial defeat, and is patently going backwards rather than forwards. For a country which has been dominated by Labour for surely the majority of the last century, it has been a fall from a great height indeed. And it’s not over yet.

Kevin McKenna’s somewhat cruel, but accurate, piece in the Observer this weekend gets to the nub of the matter:

“those of us who thought that it couldn’t get any worse for Labour after their electoral evisceration in May were a bit hasty in our rush to pass judgment. It just has. Almost four months have passed since Gray served notice of his intention to quit.”

He then envisages the awkward scene to unfold today on parliament’s return: Labour leader Iain Gray being greeted by Alex Salmond, amid the embarrassment of finding himself still without a replacement after the recess, with the throwaway line: “Still here?”

The leadership vacuum is leaving the Scottish Party a beached whale, writhing helplessly, and no lifeboat on the immediate horizon endowed with the political strength to lever it back into the water. Jim Murphy, the only cabinet heavyweight with a brief to address the situation, is immersed in a review of the party and, if anyone can pull this off, the highly competent Murphy can. The Scottish Labour Party has historically been a tower of strength: it is full of thousands of decent, hard-working Labour members working towards what we all want, a Labour government in Westminster and in Holyrood. But it is also part of the problem, and fair to say that, if the national party is in a poor state after the halt on reform after 1997, the situation is palpably worse in Scotland, for two reasons.

The first is that it is not particularly healthy for a party to enjoy hegemony in any area over a long period of time, because the normal democratic checks and balances, such as the electorate periodically throwing out the incumbents, cease to apply. It is still less healthy for that hegemony to be then suddenly thrust into government, as it was in 1999, and stay there for eight years (albeit in coalition), because the strength of that hegemony is leveraged and multiplied, along with its toxic effects. And the gradual decimation of the Tories in Scotland over the last 50-odd years has exacerbated Labour’s dominance.

This combination of hegemony and government almost invariably leads to, at the very least, arrogance and carelessness. And in the worst case, corruption (look at the Japanese LDP, for one example of many). We can be fairly thankful that, so far at least, no significant corruption seems to have been uncovered in Scotland in recent years; but neither has it been a stranger to scandal, as Henry McLeish and Wendy Alexander found out. Losing two leaders out of five to resignations over matters of misconduct certainly fits the description of carelessness. Finally, the party has – let’s be honest – like most political parties, a few dark corners too; corners which once produced the unsavoury likes of George Galloway: not expelled, incredibly, until 2003, giving him ample time to damage the party’s image. All these things no doubt contributed to Scottish Labour’s decline.

There is a second, deeper issue, though. Tony Blair in A Journey makes clear that Scotland was always left “to Gordon”. In spite of that, my former colleague Lance Price notes in his diaries that the initial 1999 Scottish campaign was somewhat lacking in political direction: it seems that Brown rather took his eye off the ball. The election was won anyway, on a tidal wave of popular sentiment, but the party machine also appeared semi-detached during those years, despite being funded centrally. What happened, in effect, was that Scotland was rather coddled. It was rarely asked to answer to No. 10, because of the tricky Blair-Brown politics.

Now, on the one hand, a degree of autonomy was vital: devolution had created a devolved government, after all, which could not be run, or be seen to be run, from Westminster. On the other hand, the Labour-led administration did not benefit from the experience of many Westminster heavyweights; and, while it was a success early on, it was also forgotten the way that its failure might rebound significantly on Labour at UK level. Some accountability back to the national party is essential if a unified national organisation is ever to work; but that accountability was rarely to be seen.

The upshot of this is that there has been for some time a Scottish party in a less-than-healthy state with less than full accountability, which has been an integral part of Labour’s electoral decline there. But why does all this matter so much, anyway? Primarily because the people of Scotland, and Scottish members, deserve a functioning Labour Party. Anything less is not only bad for Scotland; it is bad for democracy. Secondly, let it not be forgotten, it is a vital political stronghold which has been the source of some of our biggest political figures, from Keir Hardie onwards. A third reason is practical: our performance in Scotland and the run-up to next Holyrood elections in 2016 will undoubtedly impact on the way Scots vote in 2015, and a poor outcome in Scotland could drag down the Westminster vote (although a good one could boost it). But there is a worse, lurking danger, no matter how remote it may seem now.

Back in May, I argued that Scotland was not likely to gain independence any time soon, despite Salmond’s storming victory, and I stand by that. But the longer this damaging vacuum continues, the more this faint possibility becomes less so. Tom Harris MP has nobly thrown his hat into the ring, ostensibly to try and flush out other candidates. He would surely make a great First Minister himself but, whoever it turns out to be, it needs to be someone with a radical plan for rebuilding the party, and that is before they even start on a radical policy programme to take on Salmond, and on fighting the referendum No campaign.

The most likely result as of now still seems to be that the Scottish people, in the end, will rebuff Salmond on independence when they see the whites of his eyes. But there is always the chance, getting less slim by the day, that Salmond will simply slip through his referendum while Tory and Labour opposition is weak – and one way would be to do it quite soon. He is currently, after all, as McKenna remarks, “master of all he surveys”. And that is the Armageddon scenario for the vast majority of Labour members: the breakup of the United Kingdom would have been, at least in part, down to Labour’s simple failure to get organised in time. It is bizarre to think that Cameron is probably praying for a stronger Scottish Labour.

In short, this is not Scotland’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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