Labour’s last chance saloon … was last time

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by Dave Berry, SNP Candidate for East Lothian

All the evidence is that we are coming to the end of an era. Since before WW2, Labour has been the political giant that dominated the Scottish political landscape. Its early years, led by John Maclean, took socialist principles from industrial Scotland out into mines and factories all across Britain. And in those days, its reputation as “the party of the working man” was well founded. It remained so as long as grim conditions for workers needed to be fought.

But the foundries, the mines, the shipyards, indeed almost all the heavy engineering that gave Scotland primacy a century ago, are long gone. Even as late as the Eighties when the miners’ strike was being fought throughout Scotland, the solid phalanx of Labour MPs were a statement against Thatcherism and were justified by their ‘speaking for the workers’.

Except that they didn’t. For at least the last half century, Labour in Scotland had been getting complacent. Having swept the cities clear of Tory MPs in the sixties and seventies and dominating every urban council, former idealists like Maclean were replaced by careerists. Politics became a reward for loyal party members. Those who helped out at elections would be offered a council seat which, across the Central Belt was usually a sure thing.

Once elected, a term or so at minimum stipend, keeping your nose clean and voting as directed would be rewarded by a vice-convener post and an SRA boost, then perhaps Convener or even Leader, with additional SRAs from police boards and the like. Quite comfortable salaries and real status in the community would be enough for most and so the boat was seldom rocked. Others moved quietly into the equally secure shoes of MPs, although the intense spotlight at Westminster meant that much more than blind loyalty was required to be more than an unknown backbencher there.

With the introduction of the Scottish Parliament, the Labour party applied the same approach to choosing its MSPs. As a result, the bulk of them were old hands from Scottish councils with a smattering of gender balance by female party and social services stalwarts, all led by a small cohort of experienced hands like Donald Dewar. Despite that cohort’s best efforts, fate soon placed the government in the hands of those with little or no experience except Labour’s hothouse of Scottish local government. Holyrood’s first eight years were widely regarded as a disappointment by many supporters of devolution, let alone independence. Even Labour sees it as second class, with ambitious members staying at or heading for Westminster “where the power is”.

The result was the shock of a first minority and a first SNP government. Rather than taking this as a salutary lesson in their own shortcomings, Labour then figuratively circled the wagons — as if this aberration would soon pass — and relied on a relentless barrage of negative comment on the SNP to restore them to their own. Unlike the Tories, they eschewed any collaboration that could have claimed policy victories against a minority government. Today, the average voter has trouble identifying Labour’s leader, let alone any of the shadow cabinet.

When Labour’s manifesto was launched on April 6th it spent much of its energy attacking the UK ConDem government, as if the looming Scottish Election was no more than an intermediate poll on the Cameron/Clegg performance and that the real contest would come with the 2015 General Election. In other words, the Scottish election can be won by dragging out the old Thatcherite bogeyman and scaring voters into running to Labour.

This is dangerous thinking.

Though the scare card worked for Labour in 2003, it flopped in 2007. Though the Labour vote share went up in 2010 on a similar message, they exposed the fallacy of their own argument by losing to a Tory-in-all-but-name government. Had the ‘feeble fifty’ Labour Scots MPs from the eighties been able to protect Scotland from Thatcherism, it wouldn’t have taken until 1997 to derail it (and some believe it was carried on, rather than derailed).

So Scottish Labour approaches this election with the weakest front bench team ever fielded, with no-one of Dewar’s stature nor even of Deacon’s or Alexander’s undoubted abilities. It does so armed with policies borrowed from its main rival and it positions itself as if to fight a UK election. It is a poor show.

Were the loyalties of Old Labour still intact, the inertia there might just carry them back into their perceived inheritance. But just as the blue rinsers who kept Major’s ship afloat in 1992 were no longer with us in 1997, so the grizzled miners who doggedly, if uncomprehendingly, voted New Labour through the noughties, are also no longer with us. Meantime, their sons work in financial services, have bought their council house and have moved on.

Labour in Scotland is Wile E. Coyote — their steady-as-she-goes momentum carrying them past warning signs and out over the canyon rim. In 2011, their inertial 19th century voter philosophy will reduced them to a core vote that makes them statistically unelectable — the support is simply no longer there.

The good news is that their last soul-searching real restructure was almost 30 years ago, in the aftermath of 1983’s “longest suicide note in history”. The similar drubbing that they are about to receive may in fact be necessary for them to see the utter necessity of them rebuilding for the 21st century, so that they may represent a significant slice of the Scottish population — but purged of their poisonous hubris that Labour has some moral right to rule the world.