Of all the trends apparent in politics over the last couple of decades, the one that appears pivotal is not any revolution in political thought on policy or the invention of a whole new category like socialism but the rout of the amateur. Whereas even Westminster was once the province of the gifted amateur—Scotland contributed people like Nicky Fairbairn, Tam Dalyell or Hugh Gaitskell, all able to lead the troops, spice up debate or snipe thoughfully from the sidelines without having had a day’s training in their puff.
Though Thatcher’s discipline started the trend, it was Blair’s New Labour that brought in a professionalism never before seen. Armed with pagers and computers, databases and the internet, a swarm of bright young things, ably lampooned by In the Thick of It, took a political rabble and taught it to march in step.
From a Whip’s perspective, this was bliss indeed. From new inductions of MPs who had scarcely held a job down, this was salvation: to know what to say by consulting an oracle, however prepubescent or halitosis-blessed, steered a safe course toward a career as Under-Secretary for Important Stuff if you just kept your nose clean.
If Labour was the first to embrace the new religion, the Tories and SNP were not long in following. Pagers may have gone but modern politics is held together by bright young things with perfect hair and suits standing in odd corners near centres of power talking urgently into mobiles. Lib-Dems and Greens both appear too quirky and/or shambolic for this approach to have entirely taken them over.
But that last explains why they are in the political doldrums. Because parties who have not used these ‘scientific’ methods over the last decade have been taking on the US Marines with bows and arrows. Politics has become as much about positioning, PR and surfing evanescent trends as any substantive policy. Voters have proved this time and again, with the apogee of this being Labour’s 1997 victory on a five-point pledge card. Manifestos have been obsolete as frock coats and top hats ever since.
But it was at that point that Labour especially got stated digging itself the hole it is now staring out of the bottom of in Scotland. Science is wonderful and professional has more chance than amateur but ‘ a little learning is a dangerous thing’ is a phrase that should have resonated but didn’t. For the Labour Party in Scotland never embraced New Labour and, as a result, never quite grasped (indeed wholly resented) the bright young things running amuck in Millbank Tower around the Millennium.
Science is littered with blind alleys, however hopeful they once seemed. There was no aether to transport light across space; Newton’s beautiful mechanics fails totally to explain how atoms work; phlostigen—once seen as the essence of fire—has been proved a fallacy. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Scottish Labour saw what Millbank was doing and wanted the same devastating effect on voting patterns in Scotland. But, though having access to the tools, they were untutored in how they should be applied.
Being Old Labour worked initially in their favour. Their long-term supporters and large cadre of councillors, MSPs, and staff payroll could pretend that little had changed, that they still were “the party of the working man”; dominoes and beer down the miners’ welfare was the glue that held it all together. But the MPs had seen Paree and were now convinced that the more ‘professional’ appeal to the new middle class that dominated most of what Blair did was the future.
And, since they had run Scotland before these upstart second-rate MSPs came along, they were keen for everyone else to get religion. The Essex focus groups had said that Mondeo Man was the typical floating voter, the lynch-pin of electoral victory, as demonstrated so ably in 1997, 2001, etc. So John Smith House signed up to this. Intense young men looking like David Torrance and armed with Blackberries became the shock troops, the elite Janissaries who would cluster around elections like flies.
Quite often, they looked successful, whether the 2000 Anniesland or the 2008 Glenrothes by-elections. They could even be credited with 2010’s 3% rise in Labour share of vote. But their science, though possibly valid in Essex, was flawed in Scotland. They were arguing that, just like the medieval concept of Phlostigen flowing out of a burning substance as flames, so political influence of voters flowed out of media events that they could manipulate.
Now, Phlostigen is a compelling theory. Look at any fire: the flames appear out of the material and dissolve in the cooler air; sparks fly up and away; the ashes remaining are always lighter than whatever burned. Similarly, the appearance of disciplined politics with everyone on-message and every interview question parried by answering a different question was resulting in hammering victories. The political science was equally obvious.
But if burning is subjected to exact measurement in enclosed apparatus, a very different picture appears—oxygen from the atmosphere combines with, say, carbon from wood to form carbon dioxide which, together with the residual ash, weighs more than the original. To exist, Phlostigen would have to exhibit negative weight.
Examining the classic Labour voter in Scotland would have dispelled the equivalent to the Phlostigen myth being peddled by the bright young things—even if their message was reaching some of the (smaller) middle class in Scotland. The footsoldiers standing on doorsteps and street stalls were almost all Old Labour, who didn’t like hoity-toity areas and only leafletted them. The bulk stayed close to Labour support in the estates—where people paid no attention to what suits with Blackberries said and, for years, just kept voting as their faithers had done.
Given the success Labour had for a decade from 1997, it is fairly easy to see how the campaign bright young things could be deluded into thinking they were succeeding in Scotland, just as they had done in England. But, deluded they were. The huge cracks in their theories that showed up in 2007 were dismissed as experimental error; this seemed confirmed by the 2010 partial recovery.
But if political phlostigen existed, Labour should have been on fire by 2011—four years after an SNP minority government who had almost immediately been thrown into the worst recession in decades, a ConDem coalition in Westminster to blame it on and with a new leader blameless of any error by an earlier Administration. But it was a huge damp squib for them, the 2007 result with knobs on.
Phlostigen is dead: long live political reality.