Can Scottish Labour clear up the mess it has got itself into?

Gerry Hassan

Compass, April 30th 2015

Something amazing is happening in the UK general election in Scotland. Its campaign and mood is so different from the rest of the UK. Voters are animated and engaged: one survey predicting 85% certain to vote, 20% more than the highest figures in England.

The old certainties have gone. Whereas once Scotland returned a block of 40-50 MPs to Westminster, and nothing of any real significance happened here, now the entire world has been turned upside down. Instead of a Scottish Labour lead over the SNP of 20% plus, we now have a SNP lead over Labour of a minimum 20%, with the last three polls showing leads of 25%, 32% and 34%, while SNP support has been over 50% in all three. Even if, as many expect, these polls narrow a bit, something major is happening north of the border which could have huge consequences for the future of the Labour Party and UK.

It all used to be so different. Scottish Labour once defined Scotland. It gave birth to British Labour, to many of its early pioneers and campaigners, provided part of the party’s radicalism in the 1920s, and in more modern times, in the 1980s, gave stability and ballast to the party when it was pushed back into its electoral heartlands.

Scottish Labour’s successes in many respects have been its undoing. First, the party’s historic achievements changed Scotland and working class lives for the better: slum clearance, better health and education, greater opportunities for working class kids and more. This made people want more than the ‘cooncilism’ and petty bureaucracy knows best which defined Labour rule in Scotland; and it has proven to be an attitudinal shift which it has been beyond the party’s abilities to adapt to.

Second, as Labour increased its hold on Scotland it became in effect the political establishment: a sort of self-preservation society. In Glasgow and the West of Scotland this was characterised by widespread cronyism, corruption and a world of shady deals, one where a Labour insider class across a range of networks practiced an entitlement culture on the rates and public purse. Sadly, to this day it endures in various pockets of the country like a battered, defeated army.

The Avoidance of Responsibility at the heart of Scottish Labour

For many years I was a member of Scottish Labour, first in Dundee, then in Glasgow. When I first moved to Glasgow in the early 1990s and went out campaigning and canvassing for Labour it produced a profound shock. As a Labour canvasser I was expected to go out to the most badly designed, built and maintained council estates, including some huge tower blocks without a shred of humanity in them, and ask people to vote Labour for the party which had done this to them.

It was then I realised that a large element of Scottish Labour (and British Labour too) was based on an avoidance of any kind of responsibility for decisions the party took. Labour had by the 1990s run Glasgow, with a couple of brief interludes, since 1933. Much of the shape, feel, positives and negatives of the city could be laid at the hands of local Labour.

Yet, when Labour canvassers went out asking for people’s votes, the inadequacies of council services were never Labour’s fault, but always somebody else’s. It would be the fault of the wicked Tories, the perennial cry of ‘Tory cuts’, Westminster, or even more abstractly, capitalism. This allowed even the most intelligent Labour members to square being a member of a party which did grotesque local politics. They inhabited a world where a sort of ‘fantasy Labour’ existed divorced from the grim reality of what the party actually did in power. This detached attitude had the direct consequence of allowing grubby, reactionary and at their worst, corrupt Labour councils to continue doing what they were doing while individual and often good members belonged to an idealised, non-existent party.

Scottish Labour local government wasn’t all bad but there was little innovation and imagination, except when it came to bending the rules and looking after the Labour insider class. Some of the worst post-war local government scandals in the UK (bar Dame Shirley Porter and T. Dan Smith) happened in Scotland. There was Dundee in the 1970s where the council and construction companies had the city sewn up: this led to the city being described as ‘a mafia town’ and George Galloway the ‘fresh broom’ who chased the crooks out of town! There was Monklands District Council in the early 1990s, covering the parliamentary seat of then leader John Smith, where jobs and council services were preferentially targeted at the Catholic community in the area; Labour and Smith kept quiet about this until the Tories made serious political capital out of it.

Scottish Labour reached its high point of national appeal in 1987 when it elected 50 MPs and in 1997 when it achieved 56 MPs (out of a then Westminster total of 72). Westminster Scottish Labour MPs mistook this strength as an accurate measure of popular support; this when Scottish Labour has never won a majority of the popular vote, and only came close once, in 1966 when it won 49.9%.

This attitude displayed itself in arrogance, anti-pluralist politics and a dismissal of others. There was even after Labour came to office in 1997 and legislated for devolution, a deep-seated contempt for the Scottish Parliament in a significant segment of Westminster Scottish Labour MPs. They felt displaced and ignored by it, thought the quality of Labour MSPs not up to their high standards, and talked with horror of the PR electoral system and ‘Labour giving away its majority’.

Once upon a time Labour could count on its Scottish vote come what may. No longer. Tory pollster Michael Ashcroft recently ran focus groups in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Paisley, which reveal much about why voters are turning their back on Labour in droves. Made up mostly, but not exclusively, of Labour supporters in 2010, they offered such comments as ‘I’ve been Labour like a stick of rock all my life but I’ve hit a wall with them’ and the damning indictment of the party as nothing more than a ‘branch office’ with the view that ‘It’s the UK party that pulls the strings for the Labour Party in Scotland.’

Scottish Labour’s problems long predate the indyref: the politics of patronage and preferment for decades, the internal focus of a large segment of the party for years thinking it could weight their vote, and the absence of any real positive idea about what a Labour politics for the Scottish Parliament would be. Then came the ‘Better Together’ alliance of Labour, Tories and Lib Dems, a final tipping point which gave Labour voters permission to jump ship. Even more damning in the indyref was the absence (Gordon Brown’s late intervention apart) of any distinctive Labour case for the union – as a means to an end to a fairer society. One voter in Ashcroft’s focus groups put it thus: ‘They could have been ‘Labour for No’ and made a socialist case for a No vote, and let the Conservatives focus on their core voters. It seemed like they pushing a homogenous establishment view rather than a Labour view.’

Scottish Labour as a declining tribe

Scottish Labour can only really be understood as a tribe, and its relationship with the SNP as that between two competing, rather similar tribes. Scottish Labour and the SNP in the last 40-50 years have been made up of many of the same sort of people, but as the SNP rose, some of the best talent and idealists made the decision to join the Nationalists, rather than Labour, with a commensurate impact on both.

As long ago as 1967 Winnie Ewing, victor of the famous Hamilton by-election, was from an ILP family, and seen as one of Labour’s own who had turned her back on her political family. Nicola Sturgeon when she joined the SNP in Dreghorn, Ayrshire in 1986 wasn’t doing it as a careerist move to have a life in politics, but as a deeply idealistic statement.

The dynamic between Labour and the SNP in recent years has got much more bitter on the Labour side. This is because Labour is a declining tribe and tide, and the SNP a rising one. Meeting many of the people who are left in Scottish Labour, there are still lots of decent and honest socialists and social democrats. But overall, there is a whiff of a partisan, entrenched and bitter outlook of the world, one increasingly divorced from reality. This is being shaped by the dwindling ranks of Scottish Labour, and their displacement in both national power and wider public sphere by the SNP.

Labour has gone through a lot of past talent without it being replenished. There was the Labour golden generation of the 1980s: Brown, Darling, Cook, Dewar and others who came to prominence in that decade and afterwards, all entering ministerial office with New Labour post-1997. Then there was the Scottish Labour cohort which was elected to the first Scottish Parliament of 1999: Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander and others, who all became ministers. The first group has passed out of Labour politics; the second, exhausted or blown themselves up. Both failed to attempt to renew the party: the first focused on Westminster, the second seeing politics as the art of technocratic managerialism.

The choice in this election is between Scottish Labour being annihilated and returning a foothill of a dozen or so seats which would allow the possibility of imagining a comeback. The big question post-May 7th and the arrival of ‘peak SNP’ is what does Scottish Labour stand for after it has had power taken away from it? Without a believable answer to that question and a change of direction and purpose, it is increasingly likely that there won’t be much of a future for the Scottish Labour Party. And that will have huge consequences not just for the future of the British Labour Party, but British politics and the continuation of the union.