In Scotland, everyone hates Labour

12th May, 2015 2:32 pm

The symptoms of the size of the task ahead for those who wish to secure any kind of future for Scottish Labour are unmistakeable.

The evidence was there in the massive swings and the devastating losses of so-called “safe” seats in the General Election, and also the way in which no Labour candidate (no matter how competent, dedicated and talented) was safe from any SNP candidate (no matter how incompetent, unprincipled or untalented).

There was the range of opprobrium hurled at us as “Red Tories”; there is continuing ridicule in the streets; and the long term realisation that Scottish Labour is a toxic brand. It should also be remembered that Labour’s near wipe-out in Scotland differed in a crucial way from the Tory apocalypse in 1997: in John Major’s case, his party lost from a position of government, rather than while in opposition.

In fact the standard chant of the Nationalists (taken up on banners on railway and motorway bridges in the west of Scotland) “Red Tories Out!” made no sense in that Labour were in opposition in both Westminster and Holyrood. If people were unhappy with the UK or Scotland both, it made more sense to blame the Tories, the SNP and indeed both.

Just as illogical was much of the policy debate leading up to 7th May. The SNP waited until Scottish Labour had published its manifesto, then cut and pasted most of its commitments into to its own: 50p tax rate, Mansion Tax, et al.

(The exception was Trident, which had not been an issue which had drawn blood in any previous General Election – besides which, a number of Labour candidates have never made a secret of their unilateralist views. Likewise, the SNP hammered away on the issue of the Iraq War, which makes as much sense in 2015 as not voting for Attlee in 1945 because Lansbury had been a pacifist in 1935.)

The position regarding economic policy was no less absurd. The SNP promised to end austerity by two means. The first was an increase in public expenditure (actually not that much more than Labour’s offer, according the IFS). The second was by seeking Full Fiscal Autonomy from the UK – which would have cut Scotland off from over £7 billion of UK revenues, with the result of much more austerity rather than less.

The only point in relating these contradictions and failings in SNP policy at this stage is to use them as illustrations of the depth of Scottish Labour’s problems. Like the superiority of Labour candidates, the greater consistency and practicality of our policies did not register, because no-one was listening.

Further evidence of this process was the way in which during the campaign, the SNP’s failures in office were ignored, and indeed Nicola Sturgeon was elevated to near-goddess like status. Issues which would have cost other parties hundreds of thousands of votes were overlooked: these included falling standards of literacy in Scotland’s schools, shortages of GPs, new drink driving laws which are killing off country pubs and destination restaurants.

It seemed that Nicola Sturgeon could have strangled kittens on live television and her poll ratings would have increased. But what is more chilling for Labour is the mirror image: that Jim Murphy could have raised Lazarus from the dead and donated his technique to the Scottish NHS and still have lost support.

What has happened in Scotland seems pretty obvious. The electorate has fallen out of love with the Labour Party, despite our record whenever in office of progressive policy and achievement from the NHS to the National Minimum Wage. It did so at the time of the independence referendum and since then it has missed out indifference and turned straight to hatred and scorn.

On the doorstep, most comrades found the same thing: hostility and real and deep anger at Scottish Labour’s role in delivering the No vote majority. This is despite the fact that a Yes vote would have been economically ruinous to Scotland and deeply damaging to the most vulnerable in society, and that the pragmatic alternative – devolution – had been our policy for decades.

How did the referendum have such an effect? The standard answer – we were punished for working with the Tories – does not hold water in the light of the SNP having been in partnership with the same Tories as a minority Scottish government as recently as 2011.

In the absence of political logic, the answers may lie elsewhere. One theory is that the SNP effectively built an illusion of the wonderful world which independence would represent, in which voters had invested their emotions heavily. So Labour was punished for our role in (necessarily) destroying that illusion. Another theory is that faced with obdurate questions regarding continuing economic stress, voters are choosing to answer an easier one: “do you believe in Scotland?”

And where all governments get some things right and somethings wrong, we are in the position of allowing ourselves to blamed for all that is wrong while our opponents take credit for all that is right.

For example, during the election campaign, Alex Salmond received an honorary degree from Glasgow University; his citation credited him for having introduced free elderly care in Scotland, which happened while Labour Henry McLeish was First Minister. Alex Salmond was not even an MSP at the time.

The conclusion that we must therefore draw is that the Scottish Labour Party is culpable of a massive and obviously catastrophic political failure.

How that came about, how to remedy it, and indeed whether any remedy is possible requires much more examination. But it is worth describing the situation in which Scottish Labour finds itself for two reasons.

First, we need to recognise that the way back, if there is to be one, will be long and arduous. Certainly the 2016 Holyrood elections look to be too early to make an impression, and it seems we will lose further constituency seats.

Secondly, the Labour Party in the rest of the UK needs to look at what can happen during a referendum, and at the same time look over our shoulder at the number of votes and second places achieved by Ukip. We face an EU referendum in the next two years, and Labour can be very certain that Ukip strategists are very closely examining the SNP surge and its relationship to the pro-independence campaign.

They too will be seeking to encourage voters to fall out of love with Labour.

We have been warned.

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  • Colin Gordon

    Most of this article reads like a pretty sensible analysis of the current mystifying developments in mass psychology: “In the absence of political logic, the answers may lie elsewhere. One theory is that the SNP effectively built an illusion of the wonderful world which independence would represent, in which voters had invested their emotions heavily.” Unfortunately, though understandably, you then find the diagnosis of this psychic tsunami too difficult to consider for more than a moment, and instead go on to say we must conclude that “the Scottish Labour Party is culpable of a massive
    and obviously catastrophic political failure”. Yet your own analysis actually suggests that on the contrary there is no good reason to think that Scottish Labour was culpable of anything much at all. If you are right, then maybe you need to hang on at this difficult time to the thought that the crimes of Labour are – at any rate to a considerable extent – just as much of an illusion as the miraculous beneficence of SNP rule, and that even the talented leaders of the SNP are not capable of suspending reality indefinitely. Fix whatever can be identified that actually needs to be fixed, stay in the game and wait patiently for more rational times to return.

    • You may well have a good point. I think the situation in Scotland is well beyond serious for Labour. But it doesn’t follow that sudden maximum change is the best strategy to turn things round.

      We need to think. But it could be (I don’t claim to know) that the best approach would indeed be a more patient and dogged one.

      • Paul Richardson

        If anything needs to change then it sounds like Scottish Labour being more local to Scotland. No leadership runmong up from London or sending directives. Maybe reestablish the idea that Scottish Labour is for Scotland.

      • Colin Gordon

        Thanks Carl.

        In terms of fixing what needs to be fixed… the following is modest proposal for a Labour Party of Scotland mission statement. Italians would call it a Rifondazione, though I am not sure that is a happy precedent!

        1. To work as an independent political party in Scotland, in long-term, equal alliance with its sister parties in England, Wales and Northern
        Ireland, based on shared values of equality, solidarity and
        prosperity for the many, coordinated through a UK Confederation of
        Labour Parties.

        2. To conduct ourselves so as to earn and retain democratic trust as a party of community action and government of, by and for the Scottish people.

        3. At this time LPS advocates and will work towards Scottish self-government within a new federal constitution for the UK. Labour’s core value is and will always remain patriotic and democratic socialism, not nationalism. However it is the right of the Scottish nation and people to choose their own future, and LPS will serve the people under whatever consitutional arrangement our fellow citizens may in future democratically choose.

  • new_number_2

    A necessary first step is getting rid of Jim Murphy who shouldn’t have been appointed in the first place.

    • Peter A. Russell

      That will be “elected”?

    • Jim Clegg

      Would yet another leadership election really do Scottish Labour any good?

      • new_number_2

        Yes. It would do a great deal of good.

  • This is one of the more sensible pieces I’ve read on this. I think you’re right about a “backlash” against Labour following #indyref, and about Scotland being dominated currently by a debate about national feelings above all else.

    Secondly, there is clearly in Scotland (as there certainly used to be in parts of the North of England when I was young) a feeling that Labour *is* the establishment locally and that it takes people utterly for granted. This is the bit that has taken decades to build to this point, and that will take years to undo. It will require councillors and candidates who really work hard for people. Open primaries may help.

    The other factor I think we need to face up to though is that just as in England, Ed and his general positioning were uninspiring to potential Labour voters in Scotland. Contrary to conventional wisdom I don’t think this is because he was “not left wing enough”: social attitudes are broadly similar on either side of the border. I suspect it was for all the same reasons Labour failed in England.

    People can be incredibly hard on someone they perceive as weak, as voters were to the LibDems. I wonder if a perception of Labour as ineffectual as far back as 2013 may partly explain an angry, frustrated desire to kick it when it seemed to be down in both 2014 and 2015.

  • swatnan

    You couldn’t have put it more succinctly.. Has Labour become the ‘Nasty Party’ in Scotland?

  • Brumanuensis

    A very good article. Watching the campaign in Scotland, I was reminded of what Jim Callaghan said about 1979:

    “There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change and it is for Mrs. [Sturgeon]”

    With a slight paraphrase.

    • BillFrancisOConnor

      A very good point. Callaghan was referring to the breakdown of the post-war social democratic consensus in the mid 1970s by which time the drastic shortages and privations of the 1930s were a distant memory.. While society in the mid 1970s was more equal than it had been before or has been since people were no longer content to do a repetitive job, earn £25 a week and live in a council flat – hence the turn to Thatcher. Logic breaks down and emotion takes over- it’s like some Scots have taken leave of their senses as if to say ‘we don’t care if we’re poor and/or jobless and/or our infrastructure is crap’ at least we are an independent country. In such circumstances logic and reason lose all their appeal

      • Daniel Speight

        I hate to say it, but doesn’t both Callaghan’s and Brums ideas take us back to blaming the electorate?

        • Brumanuensis

          I’m not blaming the electorate. I’m pointing out that there are occasions when the electorate’s political world-view undergoes a profound shift and at those times, there’s almost nothing that you can do to stop the process.

    • Fred Worthy

      Did I hear during the election campaign that the SNP were giving food vouchers to the unemployed in Aberdeen, if so, was this in place of receiving any benefits.

      • Brumanuensis

        I hadn’t heard of that. Wouldn’t that be illegal ‘treating’ under election rules?

        • Fred Worthy

          it was said during the debate in Scotland by Jim Murphy to Mizz Sturgeon,but was quickly passed over,it was so quick I just wondered if anyone heard it as well.If I am not mistaken,subject to this being confirmed it would be a massive slur on the SNP, would it not.

  • Nick Dunne

    What a load of nonsense and further evidence of why the labour party has lost all credibility in Scotland, blaming the voters and the SNP for their failures. The Labour MPs in Scotland, with the odd exception, have been lazy, self serving and lacked any real representation of their constituencies, took the voters for granted. The movement in Scotland is anti westminster and the establishment parties in westminster. People are looking for a political landscape that is more of a civic national movement. Voters could see little difference between the tories and the labour party. Labour in scotland are viewed as too right wing and in England the party thinks they have been too left wing. Labour having Jim Murphy as its leader in Scotland is only of any real use to the SNP as he has proven to drive support in their direction at a furious rate. He needs to go

  • Gordon

    It seems to me that history is being rewritten in Scotland in an effort to make sense of what took place in this election. How can it be true that Scotland hates Labour when they are the second largest party by number of votes across the country, they still have a core support that is worthy of recognition and Scottish Labour must reach out quickly to give assurances that these people must feel they need right now.
    I believe that part of the answer to Scotland is that for several years Scottish Labour campaigned on a negative platform that undersold the people of Scotland. You cannot expect to get away with selling out a friend or your family so why expect to get away with selling out a nation as they did with the referendum campaign.
    Moving then into this election talking about how a vote for the SNP was a vote for David Cameron is the same message from another angle as the referendum however the difference this time was that the vote was for a voice at Westminster not a choice to leave the UK. Scotland needed to hear a different message from Labour, they wanted to hear about progression, hope and to take on the mantle of the voice of the Scottish people and that is where the SNP tactically slaughtered Scottish Labour who for some reason thought they won the referendum by articulating the negative when in fact they won despite articulating that message. The majority of Scots are unionists by nature I would argue despite the closeness of the result, in the end Labour’s campaign in September 14 was the reason why it was so close something the Labour leadership seem to have misunderstood post referendum result .
    The SNP did not need to do anything, say anything or mean anything in this election other than to talk about aspiration, hope not fear and a voice for Scotland. The policies they put forward are Labour policies so if Labour won they would be able to say they delivered and if Labour lost as they did they can now say they tried but the anti Scottish vote in Westminster prevented the Scottish voice being heard. If David Cameron does not recognise this fact and resolve to listen and deliver for Scotland he will have opened the door to a Scottish exit from the UK.
    The truth is that most Scots did not listen to the Labour message, why should they. Voters had made up there minds long before the election started that they would not give Labour the chance to do them down again, and so when Labour opened up with the negative campaigning you could see the swing to the SNP overnight. Polls rising daily towards the SNP became positive affirmation to most Scots that they were on the right side of the argument hence the huge swings and the loss of many Labour MPs.
    Labour have a huge task ahead, the biggest error they could make right now is to try and justify the result. They have to just hold up there hands and admit they got it wrong, admit they lost sight of what it is to be part of the Scottish nation and that they wont ever turn their backs again. At the moment anything being said in Scotland by Labour is coming over as white noise, you cant talk about the future if no one can hear you. Turn the noise down first, then you might be heard and if your message is one of hope, aspiration and the future you may just turn it around in the next election.

  • RegisteredHere

    With the greatest respect to the Labour Party and it’s many achievements, I’m not sure that traditional supporters in England need to be convinced to fall out of love with Labour by the SNP or UKIP(?!), because Labour in the 21st century hasbeen too content in mitigating the worst effects of neo-liberalism rather than coming up with a workable alternative. Meanwhile the Tories have obstinately stuck to their donors’ guns in defending their (failed) neo-feudalism, just as the SNP, Greens or Plaid have stolen Labour’s progressive credentials; and if people wanted the SDP, we would have voted for the LibDems, ffs!

    I think Labour really needs to decide whether it’s Establishment or not, because many people in England and Wales seem to be only marginally less-p1ssed off than the Scots, and I for one would have no problem in dropping Labour like hot sh!t if the best it can offer is a slightly-less evil Conservative Party. If the economic reform is too difficult, then at least support a PR-elected English parliament (which wold benefit the Scots once the London infrastructure bill was shared out), or electoral reform, or simply oppose Osborne’s devo-Westminster and EVEL, but for Brtitain’s sake be a bloody opposition!

    In the same vein, ‘Likewise, the SNP hammered away on the issue of the Iraq War, which makes as much sense in 2015 as not voting for Attlee in 1945‘ would only be true if Miliband had distanced himself from Nu-Labour, which he didn’t really.

  • Here’s how someone would look at this logically, given your struggle to understand what has happened to Scottish Labour.

    You’re piece is this : –

    1. I believe X, Y and Z
    2. How did this happen given X, Y and Z.

    The problem is that you are only trying to address the question – item 2. At no point do you address item 1.

    What if Tom Clarke (for example) is not the greatest human being on earth and actually a second rate, entitlement politician widely loathed and only accepted because of the red rosette he wears in place of any policies or beliefs?

    What if the “out” in Red Tories Out doesn’t mean a government but a local representative who stands for a party which has ruled that constituency for 80 years and seen their constituents get consistently poorer regardless of who controls Westminster?

    What if the £7,.6bn black hole doesn'[t exist because it is more than offset by £12bn of Fiscal Transfers from Scotland to rUK every year whether oil is high or low and the morality and legitimacy of the £12bn Fiscal Transfers is the REAL debate for Scotland and Scots?

    What if the much lauded leader is actually as hollow and empty as his critics make out?

    But no, at no point does anyone in Scottish Labour seem to question these core beliefs (except perhaps the last one). Never can it be questioned because the Scottish people “love” Scottish Labour who are Entitled to win seats. Because of things that happened decades or a century ago.

    It always comes down to the same core arguemnt. How could the Electoral (their fault) of ordinary Scots (their fault) be fooled by the SNP (their fault) into voting against Scottish Labour (never Labour’s fault).

    • Brumanuensis

      “What if the “out” in Red Tories Out doesn’t mean a government but a local representative who stands for a party which has ruled that constituency for 80 years and seen their constituents get consistently poorer regardless of who controls Westminster?”

      Are you seriously arguing that Scottish living standards haven’t improved since the 1930s?

      “What if the £7,.6bn black hole doesn'[t exist because it is more than offset by £12bn of Fiscal Transfers from Scotland to rUK every year whether oil is high or low and the morality and legitimacy of the £12bn Fiscal Transfers is the REAL debate for Scotland and Scots?”

      It does exist, regardless of SNP flannelling:

      • Again, you aren’t reading what was written. You are blaming the electorate and the SNP and not questioning your assumptions properly.

        Relative Deprivation is the standard measure of poverty NOT absolute deprivation. This is the long established method. Of course you can always find some measure to say your right and everyone else is wrong but hey, why listen.

        As for the projected black hole you again aren’t listening. There are £12bn of Fiscal Transfers in GERS from Scotland to Westminster. It’s £12bn because Scotland gets no say in how it is calculated. Perhaps others in Scotland don’t feel that after 30 years of heavily subsidising the rest of the UK, Scotland shouldn’t continue to do so.

        • Jim Clegg

          ‘There are £12bn of Fiscal Transfers in GERS from Scotland to Westminster’
          Prove it.
          On which of the 93 pages of the 2013-14 GERS report does it say that?

          • It’s not a separate item, it’s in other lines. Currently its made up of (approx figures) £3bn paying interest on Westminster Debt, £3bn Defense unsuitable for Scotland, £1.5bn Foreign and Commonwealth services, £2bn Civil Service, £2,5bn “UK Wide Infrastructure” which is never spent in Scotland and pays for most major infrastructure projects in England.

            Very little of that is justifiable to be allocated to Scotland, perhaps 60% of currently allocated Defence and half of F&C and Civil Service. Maybe if more F&C and Civil Service jobs were in Scotland a larger portion might be fair. As it is it is not.

            Not one penny of “UK Wide Infrastructure” should be allocated to Scotland and not one penny of English Debt repayment. In reality, Scotland should be due a reparation for having subsidised England so heavily for the last 35 years (probably longer but no figures before 1980).

          • Brumanuensis

            Ah, so it’s not an actual identifiable figure, but a series of ideological bug-bears of yours, onto which you’ve slapped on some figures. Ok, so the English, Welsh and Northern Irish should claim back any of their money that went on Scottish projects. Not sure you’d like that.

            “Scotland should be due a reparation for having subsidised England so heavily for the last 35 years (probably longer but no figures before 1980)”.

            On the contrary, prior to the 1980s,historical figures show that Scotland was in a net deficit to the rest of the UK since the nineteenth century. Indeed, it’s current fiscal balance isn’t exactly overwhelmingly positive. It is largely down to oil and gas, and those are declining reserves. Once you strip them out, Scotland has a pretty hefty deficit relative to rUK. Ironically, this year’s GERS suggests a net deficit of £12 billion pounds for Scotland internally, including oil and gas revenues.

            A nice overview of the deficit here, from the ever excellent Kevin Hague:

          • Juan

            careful Bruma… you’re confusing a 44.7er with facts…

          • Brumanuensis

            I have to live in hope that at least one of them will be persuaded.

        • Brumanuensis

          “Again, you aren’t reading what was written. You are blaming the electorate and the SNP and not questioning your assumptions properly”.

          Why are your assumptions any more correct than mine? You haven’t actually proved that you’re right.

          “Relative Deprivation is the standard measure of poverty NOT absolute deprivation. This is the long established method. Of course you can always find some measure to say your right and everyone else is wrong but hey, why listen”.

          Ok, show me evidence that in terms of relative poverty, Scotland has enjoyed no improvements in living standards since the 1930s.

  • Daniel Speight

    The standard answer – we were punished for working with the Tories – does not hold water in the light…

    You know Peter more often than not Occam’s Razor does supply the right answer. the big damage was done by joining the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ campaign. The last time Labour formed a political coalition with the Tories and the Liberals was during WW2 as far as I know.

    A bit more thought was needed. Then again the arrogance of both the party in Westminster and Scottish MPs like Tom Harris was eventually going to get its comeuppance.

    Maybe you will discover another answer, but it could be the party no longer exists in Scotland before you find it.

  • Steve38

    The accusation of ‘Red Tories’ stuck because it had some accuracy. Labour party policies on offer in the last few years differ only marginally from their Tory counterparts. A slightly different take on neo-liberal managerialism. That goes some way to explaining the party’s failure both in Scotland and the rest of the UK. No reason to choose Labour because they are all the same.

    In Scotland the chameleon-like SNP saw the obvious gap left by the Labour party and put themselves into it. Over the decades of its existence the nationalist party has strayed all over the political spectrum in search of support for its divisive, self-interested cause. The Labour party gifted it an opportunity and it took it wholeheartedly. The only reason the party did not do worse in England is that the alternatives on offer were the discredited LibDems and the disreputable UKIP.

  • Wolves_Phil

    But in England, everyone on the left hates the SNP.

    It’s plain now for all to see that without their efforts in scaring the English into voting Conservative, the Conservatives could not have won a majority.

    The SNP seem very pleased with their work. Just look at them celebrating an election result which has delivered a majority Conservative government.

  • Patrick Nelson

    I don’t think the Scots hate Labour at all and the SNP will probably run out of steam soon, in all probability this will happen with a little help from some secretive mechanism of the British establishment, maybe they will do something like send a gang of Tory thugs to attack Ed Miliband whilst wearing Alex Salmond masks, oops they already have, what am I thinking.

    If the establishment forces ranged against the SNP don’t succeed I can’t help thinking “Don’t run away on your own Scotland, take Wales and the North with you! We’re all in the same boat, the economic underdogs of Britain – We could stand like the three Musketeers! So SNP, why not change your name to the “Everything above the Bristol – Nottingham line national party”, it’s far less divisive and doesn’t make you look like a appear to be racists to the untrained eye.”…”what do you mean you don’t want to do that because were not Scottish”… “so maybe there is something a little murkier, dirtier and nastier going on with you eh? mmm Scottish supremacists eh?”

  • beeswing

    There is a very simple way to look at this. Take the Glasgow East seat, regarded as the poorest and most deprived constituency in the UK, The Labour party have held this seat since the war (small interlude John Mason) in that time under Labour is has become poorer in real terms, Labour have done absolutely nothing for these people but take them for granted, The people of Glasgow East watched as Margaret Curran quite casually claimed nearly £200,000 in expenses on top of her salary, This situation can be seen in almost every constituency (to varying degrees) Labour held in Scotland, Couple this with the referendum campaign, where people could see Labour standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories, And when you have Labour activists standing on doorsteps telling OAPs they would lose their pensions if they voted Yes, And before you refute this it happened to MY Granny, You know said party has lost the people,

  • Jim Fraser

    A brilliant piece of clear-eyed political analysis, and one that deserves wider distribution in Labour circles. Tony Blair in no way re-positioned the Labour party to the right to win elections in the home counties. Ed did not say he’d rather have the Tories in power than do any sort of deal with the SNP. Scottish voters have no reason to feel taken for granted, we gave them the NHS for goodness sake! One thing though is clear: Jim Murphy must be kept in place. He in no way led a root and branch review of Scottish Labour in 2011, he has obviously only been involved for five short months. Nor did he get Johann Lamont ‘resigned’ after she had just won, let’s remember, the independence referendum. Scottish Labour just isn’t a branch office, no matter what Johann said when overcome with gratitude over how her party treated her. Voters in Scotland have simply gone mad, encouraged by the wildly pro-SNP Scottish media, and will return to the fold, with their tails firmly between their legs, in the fullness of time. At which time the Labour party will forgive them and mention the matter no more.


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