The strange death of Labour Scotland

Gerry Hassan explains why Labour needs to reinvent itself north of the border

Scotland is living in historic times. An election that was seen by many of us as a transition from the old Labour Scotland to a more Nationalist era, has suddenly become one of epic transformation. Scottish Labour won a mere 31.7 per cent of the constituency vote and 26.3 per cent of the regional vote; it took a mere 15 out of 73 FPTP constituencies. This broke a number of unenviable records for the party; the lowest number of FPTP seats since the disaster of 1931, and the worst share of the constituency vote since 1918, before Labour became a major national party in Scotland.

This has been a long time coming. What we have seen is the slow decline of Scottish Labour: part of a long hollowing out, without a major spike or tipping point until Thursday. Devolution was always going to challenge and undermine the Labour one party state which had grown to dominate Scottish political and public life: a point no one senior in the party seemed to grasp.

Scottish society has changed from the one which gave birth to Labour hegemony. There were three pillars of the post-war Scottish state: the predominance of council housing, trade union membership, and Labour dominance of local government. The Scotland of the 1960s and 1970s saw each of these represent majorities of the population, but from 1979 onward slowly whither and become minorities.

The last of these three pillars of Scottish Labour’s house, the party’s local government base fell when the Labour-Lib Dem devolved Executive introduced proportional representation into the town halls up and down the country, overnight wiping out Labour’s one party rule. And yet the party seems to have been in denial, that times had changed and a new kind of politics needed.

When Labour lost narrowly to the SNP in 2007, I wrote a piece for ‘The Scotsman’ making this argument about Labour’s three pillars. The next day I appeared on BBC Radio Scotland to develop this argument, alongside Brian Wilson, former MP, and Margaret Curran, at the time a MSP; I expected them to listen and engage, but they dismissed it out of hand as exaggerated; clearly Scottish Labour after its 2007 defeat was still not at the point British Labour got to in 1983: realising the old show was over.

If the old ways of Scottish Labour are over, what does the party do? It is both simple and complex. This is a party called ‘the Scottish Labour Party’ from 1994, but it doesn’t really exist: it isn’t an autonomous, distinct, credible force in the new terrain of Scottish politics.

What Scottish Labour has to do is create itself. The Scottish Labour Party has to become a reality. An autonomous, self-governing party. For all the mood music of Scottish Labour becoming more Scottish throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and its change of name, no substantial changes or shifts of power have occurred from London to Scotland.

Then the party needs a new form of leadership. Not an election for the Leader of the Scottish Labour Group of the Scottish Parliament. The newly elected leader would be the sixth leader in the last twelve years in that post. That tells you something damning. The current leader of Scottish Labour is actually Ed Miliband. This needs to change urgently.

The party has to take on the Westminster arrogance of some of its Scottish Labour MPs. These people look at the difference between Douglas Alexander and say Iain Gray, and believe that Westminster has Labour’s A team and the Scottish Parliament has its B team. They have to stop thinking like this; it is part of the problem.

The Scottish Labour Westminster group look at the political map of Scotland and see its red swathe due to FPTP – with 41 out of 59 seats Labour at the last election, and believe that this reflects the true strength of the party. They still have that kind of insularity, arrogance and lack of grasp of pluralist politics.

This mentality still feels ‘put out’ by the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and has at points been jealous about the amount of media attention showered on Labour MSPs. A prevailing opinion of Labour MPs has been to scratch their heads at the rationale of a Labour Government agreeing to an electoral system for the Scottish Parliament which didn’t produce the kind of automatic Labour majority they were used to. That worldview will think now that the introduction of PR gave the SNP a platform and critical mass to get to the situation we are in now.

Then we have the issue of Labour and Scottish identity and nationalism. Scottish Labour has historically been the party of home rule and devolution, with the missing period of the 1950s and 1960s when the party became one of apologetic centralisation. Even then Labour had a powerful home rule tradition and wing.

The point is Labour have been for a Scottish Parliament since the times of Keir Hardie and did legislate for it in government, but rather strangely it had no idea what a Scottish Parliament was meant to do. The party needs to have a reality check about the policy and vision vacuum which sits at its heart.

To put it bluntly, Scottish Labour became a party of negativity not just in this election, but over the last 30 years from 1979 onwards. Scottish Labour has defined itself against three forces: first, Thatcherism, then, New Labour, and now, Scottish nationalism. This politics of oppositionalism is directly related to its defence of the Labour entitlement culture.

Scottish Labour has to come to terms with Scottish nationalism, a force which has shaped Scottish politics for much of the last 40 years, and which is now set to shape things for the foreseeable future. Many of Scottish Labour’s politicians, whether they be A or B team, have a near-deranged, myopic view of the SNP. I am thinking of politicians of a calibre such as Douglas Alexander, Wendy Alexander and Margaret Curran.

What is it about the SNP which drives Labour mad? It isn’t that the SNP has on occasions dared to co-operate with the Tories in Westminster, famously contributing to the demise of the Callaghan Labour Government in 1979. It is much more guttural, emotional and deep than any logical, evidence based account of history. Scottish Labour I surmise hate the SNP because they remind themselves of their own inadequacies; the SNP have for all their compromises and shortcomings, a sense of idealism, purpose and story; Scottish Labour doesn’t.

This missing ingredient in Scottish Labour should not lead to a yearning for a golden era of the people’s party or charms of traditional socialism. After Labour’s defeat, Bob Holman wrote in ‘The Herald’ of ‘the party abandoning socialism and supporting New Labour’s readiness to privatise public services’; Laure Flowerdew spoke of the Labour vote collapsing because ‘Scotland is primarily left-wing and Labour isn’t’. The crimes and misdemeanours of New Labour are often used to present a comforting view of Scotland as ‘Red Clydeside’ and to vindicate unreconstructed labourism.

Scottish Labour needs a new mission and purpose, one profoundly Scottish, telling a story which dares to be Scottish while acknowledging the British dimension. This account needs to take responsibility for the Labour Scotland the party has created, and apologise for its mismanagement and authoritarianism, and make a distinct break with part of its past. It has to do all of this with less resources, networks, personnel and confidence than it has had since it became a national party in the 1920s; this will make the party’s renewal more difficult, more urgent and needed.

Most of all Scottish Labour has to give voice to a new type of progressive politics, which draws on the best traditions of Scottish social democracy, and which comes to terms with and reaches some kind of accommodation with the broader forces of Scottish nationalism, which exist well beyond the SNP, while opposing independence.

Scottish Labour has a proud history, set of traditions and stories. Yet the Scotland it created and which gave it its strength and dominance no longer exist, and so far the party has shown no sign that it understands the nature of Scottish society, or the appeal and attractions of the Scottish Nationalists. The next few years look like they will be very turbulent and challenging for the party.

Gerry Hassan is a Scottish political and cultural commentator. This article was originally posted on his blog here.

3 thoughts on “The strange death of Labour Scotland

  1. Whilst I have some sympathy with some of the comments which some might argue could equally apply to Wales it really is too early to write off the Labour Party in Scotland. Only just over 50% of Scottish voters took part in the recent election. The Labour constituency vote fell by just 0.5%. The SNP owed its victory to the collapse of the Tory and Liberal Democrat vote in many parts of Scotland as well as the failure of the Scottish Labour campaign. The publication this week by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre of the economic reality actually facing the new Scottish Parliament also shows the black hole that exists in the SNP promises. In the 1980s and the 1990s the Parti Quebecois made a similar breakthrough in Canada to the SNP. Everyone thought that Independence for Quebec was inevitable. But the Parti Quebecois failed to deliver on the real issues that matter to most voters and those issues are not constitutional change. In the recent Canadian election the Parti Quebecois was hammered with thousands of French speaking voters turning to the NDP which has always traditionally had its strength in the English speaking west of Canada. There is a long way to go in the game that Salmond is playing. He might have won the first half but there is no guarantee that he will end up the victor when the final whistle is blown.

  2. The comments on Labour being far from dead is fair, but the comparision to Canadian politics is not.

    Salmond does have a challenge on his hands, but who would have guessed just a month ago that they would be where they are now? With the Tories rather than Labour in power in London, the SNP’s options are far broader than they would otherwise be. After all, with Scotland going UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) or at least a big step that way and with a partial or full withdrawl of their MPs, what hope do Labour have of winning in London again?

  3. Blair’s majorities were big enough that Scottish MPs did not make any difference, which is, in a sense, the nature of the problem and a good reason for devolution. The REAL reason for devolution was to preserve Labour seat-fillers from the SNP, hence the Holyrood electoral system which, as Jack McConnel told us at the time, was specifically designed to prevent an SNP victory – by protecting Labour and Lib-Dem electoral interests. So that turned out great huh?
    Journalists have been happy to take the Labour line that the collapse of the Lib-Dems let the SNP in – after all the Labour vote did not fall by very much, however this is wishful thinking. A lot of middle class voters moved from Lib Dem to Labour while lots of working class voters moved from Labour to SNP. In fact, the working class has deserted the Labour party in Scotland, largely because Labour has deserted them. It is possible that labour may make a recovery in Scotland, but it won’t be at the Local Government elections next year since they are run on a democratic system. They may be able to hold on at Westmisnter under FPTP, but that is looking increasingly unlikley since they now hold only a handful of Holyrood constituency seats. Most likely, Labour in Scotland have simply reached the end of their shelf life and, as happened to the Tories and to the Liberals before them, they are simply on the way out. Whether that is due to the strong Scottish Labour traditions of incompetence or arrogance or subservience or corruption or cronyism is not really the issue so much as the fact that the people are fed up with them.
    If there were a Westminster General Election next week, Labour would probably lose 30 (yes, 30) seats to the SNP and the Liberals would lose another six or eight. The Tories only have one to lose, so that’s great for them…

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