Tom Harris, whose dry comment on Scottish Labour’s election debacle this is, is only one of a posse of capable and experienced politicians whose next stop is the burroo. Aside from those who jumped ship, Douglas Alexander, Anne Begg and even Jim Murphy elicited respect from their opponents as well as their constituents. That they should be swept away reversing 5-figure majorities on swings never before seen in modern politics deserves far more than customary simplistic explanation of left-right swings beloved by the media.
What was interesting about the BBC coverage in particular was not so much that they reported on the stunning changes in Scotland but that they did so from a traditional ‘British’ (i.e. London-centred English) perspective. The coverage of the stalled Labour revival across England (with London a notable exception) was astute in many cases. Paul Mason of Channel 4’s analysis of the UK’s new political geography was succinct:
This underscores the degree to which Labour in England was unable to break out of what has been its traditional heartlands where heavy industry and mining once dominated. Pat Kane tweeted an even more graphic map of this phenomenon by comparing the areas of Labour support in England with the distribution of former coalfields, as shown.
There are exceptions to this uniform coincidence (London & Kent) but the point remains—Labour could not break out of its post-industrial ghetto into the more aspirational rural idylls. It was the failure to make progress here—more than any other factor—that scuppered any Labour government and caused Milliband to fall on his sword. Labour will now descend into internecine conflict whether the party was not left enough or not right enough; whether it was too Blairite or too much in the pockets of the unions. But that would be repeating the mistakes of the past and remaining blind to a new era, heralded as graphically as it could be by its obliteration in Scotland.
Labour are not alone in seeing tomorrows politics in terms of the past—the whole night’s coverage by the BBC was entirely by London-anchored reporting with outposts in the far-flung colonies like Manchester. But the hexagonal colour tile map taking shape outside BBC’s Broadcasting House showed a startling variety among the four countries of the UK.
Reporters made much of the divergent colours between England and Scotland as virtually all the 59 tiles representing Scottish constituencies turned SNP yellow. But the 18 tiles for Northern Ireland were coloured a mix of ‘Other’ parties, as they have for a century—which was reported as normal. Wales was the only one of the four looking vaguely like England, made the more so by three more Tory seats—and 27% representation there.
Given that England covers 533 of the 650 seats being elected (82%), it is hardly surprising that the bulk of coverage focused on those. But while much was made of the voting revolution in Scotland, the attempts to explain it were couched very much in English terms and the underlying drivers barely understood.
Some factors were universal across most of the UK. That the Liberal-Democrats were going to suffer as a punishment for their coalition with the Tories was widely predicted. But its sheer scale was underestimated—a loss of 49 of their 57 seats not only decimated their experienced MP cohort but sent them back into a minority wilderness out of which they had inched over half a century. Why the punishment was so severe remains unclear, given their centrist policies and the general drift of parties in that direction.
“The Lib Dems are not just empty. They are a void within a vacuum surrounded by a vast inanition.” (Boris Johnson)
Understandably, the main story of the night was the Tories’ ability to form a majority government, despite having been in power and administering swingeing austerity measures for the last five years. Virtually no pundit or poll had foreseen this.
The second story was Labour’s modest progress in England and Wales—14 more seats almost entirely at the expense of the L-Ds, with the exception of some impressive victories in London. Even had their normal Scottish contingent of 40 MPs been returned as before, this was far too weak a performance to get anywhere near government.
The third story was the Labour wipe-out in Scotland at the hands of the SNP. But this was reported entirely in terms of the English CON/LAB/LD ‘main parties’ when such a framework clearly no longer applies—even Paul Mason and Pat Kane’s keen observations seem to miss the probably permanent dislocation of Scotland from the British political mainstream, much as happened with Ireland in the run-up to WWI.
“The sweetest victory of all…we confounded the pollsters…We held on in Scotland.” (David Cameron)
Cameron’s quote is shorthand for the myopia that exists in the unionist parties even after the rise of the SNP and the political awakening of the referendum last September should have opened their eyes. For the Prime Minister to see the UK governing party holding a single seat in Scotland with a thin majority of 798 (1.5%) as anything other than tragic says much for their focus.
From once being as typical in party balance as England, since the seventies, Scotland has drifted in its own direction. At this election, it left the reservation altogether. A chart of its history of representation at Westminster illustrates this well.
For unionist parties to have countenanced this decline and seen it in terms of Westminster (and therefore English) terms seems foolhardy and counter-productive. First the Tories, who once held a voting majority, lost that edge through a series of thrawn decisions that decimated Scottish heavy industry, culminating in the disaster (for Scottish Tories) of Thatcherism.
“There is no such thing as Society” (Margaret Thatcher)
Labour gladly stepped into the vacuum without needing to actually do anything. They spent the next quarter-century sending mostly buggins-turn voting fodder down to Westminster where Scottish interests like oil funds or fishing rights or opposition to Trident were subsumed into their battle with the now-totally-English-focused Tories. Even capable Labour MPs like Smith, Cook, Darling, Brown, Alexander, etc ‘went native’, seeing themselves more as London’s men in Scotland, rather than the reverse. Only Dewar had the vision to join the Scottish Parliament but had died within the year.
Labour could have learned from the Tories whose ‘hollowing out’ in Scotland under Thatcher reduced them on a feeble footing from which they have never recovered. Despite the Goldies and Monteiths, they are still seen—however unfairly—as an English party of ‘Hooray Henries’ confined to comfy Borders or Perthshire estates or the rarified world of Edinburgh QCs and the Honourable Company of Archers.
Either unionist party could have smelled the coffee, absorbed the bolshy zeitgeist abroad since the nineties and developed Scottish policies in tune with the people they claimed to represent. But after two decades of ineffectual opposition (kept in local power mostly by not being Tories), Labour in Scotland caught its terminal disease—Blairism. This did not sit well down the Miners’ Welfare in Auchenshoogle but it offered success and power—whether in Edinburgh or London—both irresistible to candidate and branch organiser alike. It was tholed philosophically as a means to an end.
But it also meant a hollowing-out of the Scottish party. On top of the political nursery of council sinecures, Labour now had over a hundred MPs and MSPs, all of whom needed office managers, press officers, SPADs, etc. The payroll vote swelled to over a thousand. But self-motivated, principled activists, who once formed the backbone of the party and rooted it in the communities it served, shrank to a core of idealists. Worst of all, the ‘B’ team from whom the MSPs had been recruited sought promotion to the London gravy train, where they took up jobs with no notable impact back home—certainly not when it came to benefiting Scotland.
The bottom line: despite mouthing a mantra of ‘ordinary working class’ or ‘looking after the vulnerable’ or ‘traditional values’, it doubtful that John Maclean or Keir Hardie would have given the time of day to wasp-chewers like Curran or bar-room brawlers like Joyce, let alone Derry Irvine’s taste in wallpaper or Peter Mandelson’s penchant for guacamole over mushy peas. The Westminster elite became alien to the remaining social fabric that held Scottish Labour together as a civic force at grass roots level.
All of this could be seen as progress and a modern party would have adjusted and moved on. But the dogged loyalty and local rewards created a system that threw up too few able politicians at any level. For every Wendy Alexander there were a dozen Karen Whitefields and nobody had the ability or stature of Wilson’s Willie Ross to take advantage of the power they deployed as Scottish Secretary.
It is no coincidence that the earlier fall of the Scottish Tories or the rather more rapid disintegration of Scottish Labour can be discussed with barely a reference to the SNP. Because both parties brought their demise on themselves. Despite the euphoria of Blair’s sweeping victory in 1997 (enhanced by Scottish Tories shooting themselves in the foot opposing any Scottish Parliament) the strong contingent of SNP MSPs elected in 1999 was their first warning.
But it didn’t warn. Organisation continued to drift; policy was set by London; decent performers headed South. Then came the louder fire alarm of 2007. Proportional representation winnowed the ranks of numpty West Central councillors like machine gun fire while SNP councillors doubled and half Scotland’s council fell out of Labour control. More stunning was enough SNP MSPs to form a minority administration under Alex Salmond and its competent operation. Suddenly, even Labour’s payroll vote was shrinking.
Radical action might have saved things—but Scottish Labour seemed incapable of ‘action’, let alone anything ‘radical’. Their group psyche of being the only ones capable of representing working and downtrodden people became outraged that the SNP had muscled in on ‘their’ patch. Members developed a venal hatred of all things SNP, surpassing even their long-held venal hatred of Tories.
The result was not pretty. They chose leaders like Gray and Lamont who were grey and lamentable—light on leadership and idea-free zones. Their opposition was interminable girning and nothing else. Sympathetic media did Labour no favours by beaming FMQs into ordinary homes, showing Salmond running rings round their supposed champions.
The final straw was the 2010 general election when Brown was clearly a wounded animal and, after 13 years of Blairism, a Tory victory was likely. Labour voters trotted out for the last loyal time to be rewarded in a lesson in London Labour impotence. ‘Osterity’ should have been an open goal but they picked the wrong brother as Leader ant PMQs became not much better than FMQs. Worse—almost every Labour talking head on Marr or Newsnight was some button-down slick ‘soothmoother’ or excruciatingly earnest ‘Blair Babe’, many of them (e.g. Balls) with the oily facelessness of ex-SPADs. Not one Willie Ross or John Reid with whom the once-Labour-to-a-man denizens of Carntyne or Cardenden could identify.
At the 2011 Scottish elections ‘third warning’ another slew of mediocre Labour MSPs went down like ninepins across once-hallowed home turf of Lanarkshire. The SNP achieved the supposedly impossible outright majority in the Scottish Parliament. Outraged resentment oozed from every Labour statement. They resembled a small child refused an ice cream who hopes that by squatting down, closing their eyes and holding their breath their just entitlement would be restored. To the apolitical bulk of Scots, it was their undoing.
Perhaps a better metaphor than a spoiled child would be a rabbit in the headlights. For the last four years, little changed: policy was dire; spokespeople were dire; joint work with on Better Together was negative caterwauling of the ‘Scots are too poor, too wee…’ sort. Had they claimed that, with independence Irn Bru would become poisonous and our first-born would arrive with two left feet and thus be hopeless at football, they could hardly have insulted supporters more.
The ‘victory’ of the NO campaign last September was nothing of the sort. Given the fanfare of media arrayed against them, the canny Scots should never have got near voting YES in the first place. But hurried intervention of promises just prior the shuffling of feet at Westminster since outraged many by its cynical deviousness. From then on, a serious gubbing for Scottish Labour was inevitable.
But what made this election the perfect storm for Labour was the loneliness of Jim Murphy’s one-man band underscored by Kezia’s overpromotion. Once-traditional Labour heartlands were loyally fed a Milksop-Millibland message…and jumped ship. All the SNP had to do was avoid making any mistakes. Having come of age, they made none.
Tom Harris’ wry explanation of “not enough votes, mainly” while true, provides no clue how Labour moves on from this. Fortunately, one glaring lesson of what NOT to do is clear—don’t be a branch office. The Tories have done that and have been mired in the wilderness for 18 years so far.
If the three unionist party rumps are too thrawn to learn from the SNP, they need to look at Ulster, where parties start from the premiss that they represent locals in the imperial capital and not the other way round. Because recent 55% NO vote or not, Scotland is off the reservation and ain’t coming back.
If the unionists are serious about being our friends, they must stop saying ‘British’ when they mean ‘English’, they must stop throwing their 533 English votes around when it suits them and start handling Scotland AS IF it were a sovereign nation because that’s where it’s headed if they don’t.