The Strange Story of Labour Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Times, March 14th 2010

The Scottish Labour Party has always been a strange beast, misunderstood by many, but with a romantic, sentimental sense of itself.

It is a party which has won every Westminster election since 1959 – thirteen in a row – which makes this part of Scottish politics even more uncompetitive than the SPL!

What is interesting is how the party has done this and been changed in the process. For all its myths, Scottish Labour has achieved this success without being that popular. The party has never won a majority of the popular vote, and only come near once (1966 with 49.9%).

A contributory factor to Scottish Labour’s strength – and one which aided Thatcher down south in the 1980s – has been facing a divided opposition, shaped here by the long decline of the Conservatives and the failure of the SNP to mount a serious challenge until recently.

FPTP and the geography and concentration of Labour’s support in the West of Scotland and Central Belt have aided the party’s dominance at Westminster and in local government until electoral reform.

These realities made the Scottish party a more insular, inward looking party than elsewhere – a party which saw the centre of the world, as within itself, its sphere and networks, rather than externally. Labour in England after four election defeats in the 1980s and 1990s saw the world exactly opposite.

From the 1950s on Scottish Labour changed aided by its increasing hold over swathes of Scottish life. It became a party about local and national power and preferment. Getting on in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, in politics, business and life, became about Labour. This was aided by the long tail of Tory decline, useful props as an enemy, but increasingly toothless.

Trade unions still are enormously important in this. They provide money and resources for campaigns. They get candidates nominated which lead to their selection. Anne Moffat only got the East Lothian Labour nomination through Unison, and because the union wanted to offload her from their organisation.

At least unions are part of the Labour family. In much of the West of Scotland, the party’s hinterland runs from the Scottish establishment of lawyers and teachers, to business people and property developers, and in some places connections with the criminal world.

The party has inside itself an air of denial about this. About the nature of the Labour state. Its networks and in places unedifying character. And about the lack of democracy.

It took Scottish Labour under devolution to get to its fifth leader, Iain Gray, before it had an election. Dewar, McLeish, McConnell, Wendy Alexander – not one was openly elected through competition, although with Dewar this was understandable, as his role was pre-eminent at the time.

A small episode shows the party’s lack of understanding of this. On the night of the Glasgow East by-election I made the uncontroversial point on a Newsnight by-election special, about Scottish Labour’s undemocratic tendencies, to be met by Douglas Alexander’s angry declaration – ‘We all know about Gerry Hassan’s views of Scottish Labour’.

At first I thought I had perhaps in the heat of the moment overdone it, but what was illuminating was that I was sitting in the studio next to Steven Purcell, then leader of Glasgow City Council. During a break in transmission he made observed ‘They just don’t get it. The damage of the lack of democracy. It will come back to haunt them’.

Purcell was a decent man, like most people in politics filled with good intentions. But you cannot bring uncompromised good out of a tainted, corrupted entity.

Every Scottish Labour leader of recent yore – has attempted to use the hollowed out, discredited party machine ways to bring about progressive ends. Lots of the ‘modernisers’ combined the old ways with supposedly new ends, and became even worse than the old types in the process.

Scottish Labour cannot go on like this if it wants to have a vibrant future. The party has to dramatically and publicly change to renew itself. It has to announce this change and attempt to reintroduce itself to the public.

This would involve a Labour leader having the courage to say openly that the old ways don’t work any more and are counterproductive. They would say that the party was going to dismantle the old Labour state, and embark on a new era of politics.

This would be Scottish Labour’s Clause Four moment, and could in fact, be bigger than that. It would be a moment of epiphany and electricity, igniting Scottish politics and terrifying Labour’s opponents. The question is will Scottish Labour have the prescience to eventually embark on this route, or will it continue for as long as it can to embrace the politics of familiarity and the old ways?