Where Does Scottish Labour Go After the Landslide?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, May 14th 2011

Scottish Labour has a long, rich history, set of traditions and values. It spoke for a wide part of the nation, middle class and working class, old and young, and combined radicalism and realism. It gave a platform to a host of British and Scottish politicians who changed Scotland and shaped much of Westminster in the 20th century.

It is now in crisis, decline and hurting from its brutal rejection by voters. It is still going through all the excuses and evasions. ‘We held most of our vote’; it is all down to those perfidious Lib Dem protest voters who voted SNP; just as last time the SNP’s increase in votes was down to Greens and Scottish Socialists switching.

Scottish Labour is having to come to terms with a new dispensation. Yet it is struggling to see the new contours. Salmond won’t win independence; Holyrood is all a bit of a sideshow; the big boys are at Westminster. The election was lost because of the B team, whereas Labour’s A team are now back in command.

The immediate response for the party has seen Ed Miliband, technically leader of Scottish Labour, order ‘a root and branch review’. This is led by three Westminster MPs: Jim Murphy, Anne McGuire and Ann McKechin. Will this review provide any assistance or help, let alone the definitive answers, given it is to be rushed, suggesting the leadership have a good idea what they want?

The question that needs to be asked is, as Tom Harris, MP, has suggested, ‘what is Scottish Labour for?’, which illustrates that the party is in the midst of an existential crisis of its mission, purpose and soul.

What Scottish Labour’s long dominance has masked is the deep divisions within the party, and in particular between Westminster MPs and Holyrood MSPs. Many Labour MPs detest the Scottish Parliament, cannot stand the attention it gets as the focal point of Scottish public life, and are disparaging in the extreme about Labour MSPs. Many Labour MSPs portray MPs as unreconstructed dinosaurs who have little grasp and understanding of the dynamic of Scottish politics.

There is something profoundly wrong in how Scottish Labour has understood devolution. After more than a decade of the Scottish Parliament it is noteworthy that Scottish Labour MSPs engage in a very narrow political world: they do things in the Parliament, attend to their constituencies, and the once a year party conference. What they don’t do is write commentary pieces in the paper, make interventions at conferences and events, and pen pamphlets, essays and books. In short, they don’t act like part of a proper political community.

Scottish Labour MSPs are careful not to talk about Westminster issues with the exception of huge issues such as the Iraq war when they had too. Scottish Labour MPs are often, beyond the dinosaurs, nervous and hesitant of how they comment on devolved areas. This isn’t the behaviour of a coherent, confident Scottish Labour, but two separate parties which sit under the same banner.

What the party needs is a wholesale transformation which begins with having a Scottish Labour leader who speaks for all wings of the party. Bizarrely at the moment, Scottish Labour’s supposed leader is actually ‘the Leader of the Scottish Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament’. This post is elected by an electoral college of individual party members, trade unionists, MPs, MSPs and MEPs. So strangely MPs and MEPs have a say in who leads Labour at Holyrood.

This has to change. What will be the sixth Scottish Labour leader in twelve years, which is the same sort of churn as a failing football club, has to be the leader of the whole party with a mandate and mission to speak about Holyrood and Westminster issues.

Then there is the question of the talent in Scottish Labour at Holyrood and Westminster, the former of which has been exposed by the meltdown of last week. The party is aging, declining in membership, and narrowing in its vote and support, and dramatically needs to widen the pool of talent it draws from.

Similarly the party’s root and branch review should not be a Westminster only affair. It should include the whole party: Westminster, Scottish Parliament, local government and trade union. That’s only four people.

This review has to address the fact that Scottish Labour exists in name only, and develop an autonomous, distinct party which can articulate a Scottish identity and give voice to a British dimension in Scottish politics.

It needs to break out of the legacy and limits of traditional socialism and New Labour. What it cannot do is return to the cul-de-sac of either the old or new conservatives. It has to challenge the New Labour Faustian pact of embracing globalisation and not talking about the economy and political economy; in Scotland this was expressed by just a long silence and vacuum on the economy, which was filled up by micro-management, telling people off, and general authoritarianism and bossiness about life.

The party needs to challenge the public sector inertia which disfigures much of our public life. But it also has to take on the new vested interests of consultants, spivs and outsourcers which New Labour did so much to encourage: KPMG, PwC, Serco and others. Then there is the silence at the heart of our politics about the Scottish banks, financial community and masters of the universe; a terrain Labour could begin to challenge the Nationalists own position.

Even more crucially, Scottish Labour has to become a party of the future, rather than negativity, fear and hankering after the past. Douglas Alexander, MP, talked of the SNP’s victory being down to ‘sentiment, emotion and feeling’ rather than ‘the detail of policy.’ In short, he argued the SNP presented ‘a story about the future’ which people found compelling, and noted that when Labour itself acted in this expansive, aspirational way: 1945, 1964 and 1997, it won.

What would a Labour vision and account of the future look like? It would disown the politics of negativity of not just the last few weeks, and trying to bring back from the dead the scary Tory bogeyman, but the last 30 years.  Consistently over that period Scottish Labour has tried to go negative about its opponents, whether Thatcherism, New Labour or Scottish nationalism, to disguise their threadbare policy prospectus.

It would come to terms with the Scottish Nationalist vision, and cease to see them as fanatical separatists whose sole aim is ‘to rip Scotland out of the United Kingdom’. Instead, it would accept that the SNP are a party of the social democratic community, and challenge them to make this real: on equality, fairness and opportunity.

Most of all Scottish Labour would paint a picture of the future, which drew from and was proud of its past, articulating the best of social democracy, while renewing and transcending it in a more pluralist, democratic politics. Perhaps they could start with apologising for the shortcomings of Labour rule across much of Scotland. It could perhaps be their Clause Four moment.