A Warning from the Past: What happened to Scottish Labour could happen to the SNP

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 14th 2018

What goes up must come down is a truism worth remembering in relation to politics – as well as to economics and every kind of asset or property bubble.

There once was a political party in Scotland which saw itself as the embodiment of the radical tradition, in touch with voters, and embodying social justice. It became more and more complacent, self-congratulatory, and out of touch – eventually morphing into the Scottish establishment. That party was the Scottish Labour Party.

The received wisdom of many people in each party about Scottish Labour and SNP is that no two parties could be more different. But in reality the similarities are much more real than the differences. Take current politics. The emergence of a Corbyn factor north of the border has changed our political dynamics. This became a live issue particularly in the 2017 election and its aftermath. It established Labour on the left flank of the SNP and illuminated the SNP’s cautious centrism which the party leadership has judged pre-Corbyn to be enough to present themselves in social democratic colours.

The state of politics sees the SNP sit in the centre ground with Labour to its left and the Tories to their centre-right; the Scottish Greens sit further to the left of Labour, while only the Lib Dems provide the Nationalists’ company and any competition in the centre.

Looking back to the 1980s is salutary. Then Scottish Labour straddled the centre ground. To its left sat the SNP trying to woo West of Scotland working class Labour voters. To its right were the Tories trying to deal with the shadow of the Thatcherite mantle, while then as now the only other force in the centre ground was the Liberal-SDP Alliance, the precursors of today’s Lib Dems.

Scottish Labour was seen as a powerful behemoth, a near invincible force carrying all before it in appeal, and having a powerful electoral machine which other parties could but only dream of. This turned out to be more appearance than reality. Viewed from today we can ask how did it all go wrong for Scottish Labour – and what lessons are there for others?

By the 1980s Scottish Labour had been the dominant force of politics for several decades and had become set in the ways it did its politics which increasingly became a problem. First, the party for all the talk of a machine, lacked a real one. Instead, it had few members and activists and at its centre was hollowed out, reliant on patronage and preferment for its reach. Even worse, it treated core voters as a group which they increasingly took for granted, didn’t campaign or canvass, and in safe seats, only had to get out in small numbers to win.

Second, it did not understand the country beyond its own appeal and politics: non-Labour Scotland. This mattered because the party never even at its peak won a popular majority of the vote, with some Labour politicians misreading their huge parliamentary representation as a measure of their strength, and the party’s dominance becoming reliant on a divided opposition (as was the same for Thatcher in England in the 1980s).

Third, it didn’t champion or embrace pluralism, instead embodying a controlling, distrusting attitude of independent authority and thinking. Fourth, it did not do policy well, leaving that sort of thing to British Labour, while it engaging in the everyday act of administratively governing its many fiefdoms. Fifth, despite this there was an attitude across the party that it owned the cause of social justice, and that without having to bother to define it or offer details, this was Labour’s natural territory.

Sixth, Scottish Labour was once motivated by a powerful sense of mission, but by the 1980s elements of doubt had begun to creep in and the party wasn’t sure of the story it had to tell. Finally, exasperating all of the above, Scottish Labour – because it had become the political establishment – did not respond well to any kind of criticism no matter how mild. Instead, the party had a deep-seated intolerance, aided by tribalism that raised the shutters even to friendly advice daring to suggest the party could do better.

All of these factors contributed to Scottish Labour developing an insularity and insensitivity informed by having the most votes and representatives; and hence being motivated – as would happen with other organisations in a similar place – by internal dynamics rather than external factors, and slowly becoming desensitised by this attitude, all of which aided the beginning of its decline.

Fast forward to Scotland today. The SNP are not in the same position as Scottish Labour in the 1980s. Their dominance is more recent and hence they haven’t reached the levels of Labour indifference and cronyism. But there are some similarities which should set the alarm bells ringing unless they change.

First, there is the lack of an active machine. The SNP have members, money and resources, but it hasn’t added up to the omnipotent machine people thought it would post-2014. The SNP’s swollen membership was conspicuous by its absence in the 2016 and 2017 elections. Only 34% of members could be bothered to vote when Angus Robertson was elected depute leader in 2016, and a similar turnout is likely in the current contest.

Second, the SNP has shown it doesn’t comprehend non-Nationalist Scotland. Like Labour even at the height of its popularity, the SNP has not been able to win a majority of the vote, and has subsequently over-read its reach and appeal, most obviously in the period of the SNP 56. And it has under-stated that one factor in its dominance has been and still is a divided opposition (along with the quality of it) – and if either of these change so may the SNP’s prospects.

Third, the party has not embraced a politics or culture of pluralism. Instead, it has undertaken a politics of discipline and in office this command and control process politics has been combined with one of centralisation and standardisation which has, as with Labour, seen the answer to numerous problems as gathering more powers to ministers.

Fourth, the SNP despite a record of competence in government does not really have a driving interest in policy. Hence, the shopping list of achievements in government are a mix of populist and opportunist, but what has been conspicuously missing has been genuine innovative policies. Some might cite the smoking ban, but while beginning with a SNP backbench MSP Stewart Maxwell, this was passed by Labour and Lib Dems, and in this respect, the imminent minimum pricing in alcohol is a rare exception.

Education Secretary John Swinney replying in ‘The Guardian’ to Libby Brooks noting the lack of big ideas in the SNP and other parties, stated that the Scottish Government exhibited ‘a wealth of innovative policymaking under way in Scotland, with a domestic policy agenda more imaginative than in any other part of [the] UK, much of it leading the international field.’ Then followed a list of technocratic adjustments in health and education which wouldn’t set the heather on fire, and which was almost dare I say Gordon Brown like in its mantra.

Fifth, there is a propensity to believe the party unapologetically owns the mantle of ‘social justice’ to the exclusion of others and doesn’t need to do anything to prove it: Tories are wicked, Labour are discredited. Sixth, the SNP has had in recent years an upbeat story to tell about Scotland whether you agreed with it or not. Salmond in 2007 and 2011 presented a positive vision of the future, but now after ten years in office, the party under Nicola Sturgeon seems unsure what kind of Scotland it stands for beyond competent managerialism and mitigating Brexit.

Finally, amplifying all of the above is how the SNP responds to those who criticise it and deviate from their message. The party has shown in its period in office an increasing impatience with anyone who offers any kind of criticism and deviates from the party line. This ultimately reduces politics to the yah-boo of ‘SNP good/SNP bad’ on social media with everyone losing.

The SNP have followed the path of Scottish Labour to become the political establishment. They are a party of outsiders who have become insiders. They have become a party which represents decent, but unimaginative managerialism, and then tries to coat it in progressive, social democratic values. This leaves a widening chasm between how the party sees itself, the language it uses to defend its record, and how it is seen by voters.

The SNP still have many advantages and strengths. They remain by far the most popular party in Scotland and in all likelihood this will continue into the future. But something is changing which points to part of this being more based on negatives than positives: namely, a divided opposition and their relative weakness, which may at some point change.

The SNP are a political party which embodies an idea and cause. All three of these elements have tensions between each other: some of the most passionate supporters of the party claim the idea and cause as reason no criticism should be tolerated. Yet, political party fortunes go up and down, and the linking of the SNP’s fortunes and independence as synonymous carries problems for the latter, but also for the former, as many independence supporters, do not want to engage in the normal rules of political engagement to their own ultimate detriment.

The similar experiences of Labour and SNP will no doubt offend some. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Underneath the rhetoric, and leaving the constitutional question aside, these are two parties made of the same sort of people, motivated by many of the same issues: desiring a more equal, fair Scotland, more open, diverse and with opportunity for all, irrespective of background.

A British Election Survey in 2014 underlined this Labour-SNP overlap. This showed that SNP voters thought they were the most left-wing of Scotland’s parties with Labour significantly to the right; Labour voters had a mirror image with their party the most left-wing and the SNP to the right. However, when one looked at where Labour and SNP voters placed their own parties it was on exactly the same ground. Hence, a large part of our politics is a pretense, of exacerbating micro-differences between the two, while Nationalist anger towards Labour as ‘red Tory’ is an attempt to manufacture difference.

Scottish politics is currently in a strange place – one of a lull before the storm, a phoney war before the Brexit barrage goes up. The SNP leadership is waiting to see what happens with Brexit before making big decisions which has contributed to a hiatus in government and politics.

With all this going on and big strategic choices about Scotland’s future to be made, the SNP should remember the strange story of the decline of Scottish Labour. No political dominance lasts forever and no party remains in office and popular in perpetuity. The SNP would do well to look at the experience of Scottish Labour, and try to learn and adapt to a different kind of politics.