A Watershed Moment for Scottish Labour, Scotland and the UK

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, March 8th 2015

Scottish Labour’s predicament and condition is centre stage in British politics. It has become one of the major factors which will determine the fate of the next UK election and government.

Jim Murphy’s leadership, with its constant announcements and hyper-activity,  whilst not having created the fundamental problems the party faces, seems to offer no real solution so far.

Underneath all this Scottish Labour does not understand the position it finds itself in and how to get out of it. Fundamentally the party does not comprehend the state of post-referendum Scotland it faces.

Its problems have been a long time coming: the morphing of the party into the political establishment, its lack of imagination and purpose about what devolution was for, and finally, its lack of a progressive case for the union in the referendum, combined with their alliance with the Tories in ‘Better Together’.

This can be seen in the contradictory pronouncements on the party’s stand towards the SNP running up to and after the election. Senior Labour members are calling for tactical voting for the Tories and Lib Dems to stop the SNP juggernaut. Down South voices are even raising the possibility of a Labour-Tory grand coalition to stop the SNP.

This weekend Scottish Labour met for one day – with Jim Murphy having his new ‘Clause Four’ approved. Ed Miliband reiterated that the coming electoral battle was a choice between him and David Cameron in No. 10 and the threat the Tories posed to Scotland’s public spending.

The party faces a strategic dilemma. An increasing number of Scottish Labour voices are calling for the party to rule out a post-election deal with the SNP. The thinking is that Scottish voters should be made to realise that they cannot cost-free support the SNP. This is the ‘Vote SNP Get Tories’ official line of the party – emphasising that every Scottish Labour MP lost makes it more likely that David Cameron can cling on to office.

Scottish and British Labour find themselves in a difficult place. The party cannot rule out a deal or say it would do a deal. Both would reveal weakness while inaction underlines it.

Ruling out a deal with the SNP talks the SNP up and plays into the SNP’s hands. It raises the slippery slope of, once having ruled out the Nationalists, where do you stop – the Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP? Talking of a deal is even more implausible given the bad blood between the two parties, but even more seriously, it would confront Labour with its own mortality and the diminishing prospects of a majority Labour Government.

There is the question of who should make these decisions. On the one hand Ed Miliband is Labour’s candidate for Prime Minister and would seem the natural choice. However, if he did he would underline the limited ‘branch office’ status of Scottish Labour stated by Murphy’s predecessor Johanna Lamont and compound the party’s problems.

The sensitivity of this was shown by Jim Murphy declaring in an interview ‘I’m not a Westminster politician’ – trying to stress that he was a Scottish politician who just happened to go to Westminster. The whole episode illustrated what has become the toxic nature of Britain’s Parliament – in Scotland and to a lesser extent across the UK. And Murphy’s desperate and slightly comic attempts to distance himself from it.

The party is misfiring across a range of policy areas. Deputy Leader Kezia Dugdale this week mangled Labour’s recent key policy of ‘1,000 more nurses than the SNP’, repeatedly describing it wrongly as ‘1,000 more nurses’ on BBC ‘Question Time’. This points to a lack of professional policy development and basic PR skills.

The electoral battleground of May revealed by polls shows there is not one safe Labour seat in Scotland – not even Jim Murphy’s. But the SNP has to be wary of not overhyping their prospects and manage their expectations.

There are scant few Labour-SNP real marginal seats in Scotland: a 10% swing from Labour to SNP would only net the party two seats, while a 15% swing would win it 19 seats.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum when the first polls put the SNP ahead senior Labour figures thought this was a blip which would soon fade. Then they thought the arrival of Jim Murphy would change things.

Time is running out. Tory peer Danny Finkelstein, who ran John Major’s ill-fated campaign in 1997, observed this week on Scottish Labour that ‘nothing can help them’. He compared their position to the British Conservatives under Major in 1997 faced with the Blair landslide – meaning that the political tide has turned and the people made their decision.

That remains to be seen. But it increasingly looks like Scotland will soon experience a watershed election and seismic moment in its politics and history. The SNP and Nicola Sturgeon have found themselves on the right side of these forces for the moment.

Labour find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. They have won the referendum, but seemingly lost the argument and Scotland in the process.