Message in a ballot – Scottish Labour’s lurch to the right

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By Peter A. Bell
 
The past week has been a busy time for the priesthood of political punditry as they dutifully descended upon the eviscerated corpse of Scotland’s local elections to solemnly scrabble about in the statistical entrails seeking signs and portents.
 
Some of these seers sought that metaphorical gobbet of goat’s guts that would allow them to declare a definitive victor in the electoral contest. The vagaries and vagueness of the voting system meant that various votaries were able to make diverse pronouncements in the matter with equal conviction and broadly equivalent plausibility.

The arithmetic very much favoured the Scottish National Party, while Scottish Labour benefited from well-earned low expectations which, with a little help from their friends at the BBC, allowed anything short of ignominious defeat to be portrayed as a great leap forward.  The nationalists got incontestable mathematical superiority.  Labour got a much needed morale boost.

There were a few self-appointed sages who swore they divined certainties for the future in the local election results.  Murdo Fraser took himself unto the great temple of Twitter there to proclaim the one true message of the ballot.  The word according to this particular prophet of the second coming of the Union is that nationalists must abandon all hope as there is, “No chance of winning the referendum now.”.

That soft susurration you may have heard was the sound of a discreet veil being drawn.  Or it may have been a sigh of relief as Nostradamus realised his status is not subject to serious challenge from the jester to the court of the Kingdom of Fife.  As surely everyone other than the most dedicated propagandist will allow, the disconnects between the local elections and the referendum are such that absolutely no conclusions can sensibly drawn about the latter from the former.  None!

Other psephological savants went in search of that famously elusive quarry of the more scholarly reader of statistical spoor – the trend.  The art of this school of harbinger-hunting lies in drawing straight lines between selected points in a chosen version of history then extrapolating the directional tendency thus derived to determine which of a number of postulated future events the line might pass through.

It’s far more fun than it sounds.  With a bit of imagination, it might even make a popular board game.  And so long as the practitioner doesn’t get altogether too creative with the interpretive aspects of the ritual this form of soothsaying can produce genuinely useful indications.

The fact that political opponents can identify different, and often quite contradictory, trends from their own customised casting of precisely the same bones should warn us that the scope for creativity in such cleromancy is significant and thoroughly exploited.  But there is one clearly identifiable trend apparent in the wake of the local elections.  And it is a trend which many find quite disturbing.

Following the decisive victory for the SNP in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections there was much talk of this signalling a “sea-change” in Scottish politics.  Few would dispute this.  But I’m not so sure that the nature of this sea-change was properly appreciated. 

I think it fair to say that most commentators viewed the matter in terms of “traditional” party politics.  A view conditioned by a prevailing custom of thinking in terms of a right/left political divide manifested in the competing postures of the Conservative and Labour parties.  A view which affords at best only superficial recognition to the fact that this arrangement long since ceased to be representative of a principled debate informed by radically different world-views and instead had descended into a ritualised faux adversarial farce played out between the mutually supportive partners in a symbiotic hegemony.

Basically, the new arrangement tended to be portrayed as little more than a change from an old two-party system dominated by Labour to a new two-party system dominated to a lesser degree by the SNP.  As if all that had happened was that the music had stopped in a game of party political musical chairs.  This was a blip.  Things would soon get back to “normal”.  The paradigm of British politics could continue to be applied in the interim with only minor adjustments here and there.

But I always suspected that there was more to it than that.  My own reading of the runes back in May 2011 was that we were witnessing a major realignment in Scottish politics that went much deeper than mere party identities.  A transformation which, while not totally rejecting the accepted spectrum of political ideologies, brought to the table a formalisation of the distinctiveness of Scottish politics and a new formulation of a Scottish/British dichotomy that is politically valid and electorally relevant.

The new reality of Scottish politics is a clear, over-arching Nationalist/Unionist divide.

While this split along the newly dominant fault-line of the constitution may have been no more than hinted at by the 2011 election, it has become perfectly explicit in the aftermath of the council elections with a pattern emerging from the wheely-dealy mists as Scottish Labour has repeatedly set aside both its own principles and the verdict of the electorate to enter into power-sharing coalitions with Tories and their Liberal Democrat partners in councils across Scotland.

Coalitions in local government are hardly unusual.  The STV voting system and multi-member wards make it unlikely that a single party will dominate in any council and the necessity of forming an effective administration can make for strange bedfellows.  The SNP recognised this when they dropped, at local level, their long-standing policy of not entering into partnership with Tories.

What is different this time around is that Labour’s decision to empower Conservatives against the wishes of the electorate is principally, if not exclusively, motivated by the parties’ shared Unionist fervour.  Whereas in the past left-leaning parties would cooperate in order to keep the Tories out, in the new Scottish politics all differences of policy and priority are consigned to the same skip as even the pretence of principle so as to form a united anti-independence front.

More disturbing still are early indications that it may be Labour who are making the greater concessions in order to cement this anti-independence cabal.  Which makes sense when you consider that it is Labour who have most to lose as a party from the rise of the SNP and, again as a party, the most reason to feel threatened by the prospect of Scotland’s independence. 

Some may see it as no more than coincidence that Johann Lamont has chosen this moment to go over to the dark side on the issue of tuition fees.  Others will cynically suggest that there are no coincidences in politics.

Only time will tell just how far Scottish Labour will move to the right in order to accommodate their Unionist allies.  But there is now no mistaking the fact that the anti-independence campaign is their top priority and that pretty much anything else is liable to be sacrificed on the altar of political expedience in the name of preserving the Union.