What now for Labour in Scotland?

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by James Maxwell

Late on Friday afternoon, in the aftermath of his party’s crushing defeat, Iain Gray conceded in an interview with the BBC that “Scottish politics changed significantly last night, and in essence we went from a four party system to something more like a two party system”.

In fact, surveying the full verdict of the Scottish electorate two days later, one could reasonably conclude that we have moved to closer to a one-party system.

The scale of the SNP’s victory was frankly breathtaking.

On both the first past the post and the list ballots, the Nationalists’ won roughly 300,000 more votes than Labour, while SNP candidates took 53 out of Scotland’s 73 constituencies.

Substantial – and totally unexpected – majorities were achieved by Christina McKelvie in Hamilton (2,213), Nicola Sturgeon in Glasgow Southside (4,349), James Dornan in Glasgow Cathcart (1,592) and Aileen Campbell in Clydesdale (4,216), among others.

Sitting Nationalist MSPs in Almond Valley, Edinburgh Eastern and Kilmarnock and Irvine massively increased their share of the vote, even after recalibrated boundaries handed notional majorities to their rivals.

It is not implausible that Alex Salmond could govern poorly for the next five years, lose the now inevitable referendum on independence and still head-up the largest MSP group at Holyrood after the 2016 elections.

Labour’s misery is compounded by the fact that so many of its big hitters – Andy Kerr, Tom McCabe, Pauline McNeil – were ejected from their seats, while of those who remain in parliament – Sarah Boyack, Jackie Ballie, Michael McMahon – none look like potential leaders.

Further, because Labour has never fully understood the significance of the list system, its new backbench group – more than half of whom were elected on the second vote – is largely comprised of low-rank, politically inexperienced constituency hacks.

Yet although the election was clearly disastrous for Labour, it remains to be seen how far the party has really absorbed the magnitude of its loss.

Some calcified loyalists appear to believe Scotland remains in the era of Labour hegemony and that nationalism is nothing more than a temporary deviation.

John McTernan, the Scotsman columnist and erstwhile political secretary to Tony Blair, argued on Newsnight last Friday that David Cameron should simply veto any referendum proposals put forward by the Scottish Government on the grounds that only Westminster has the power to authorise constitutional plebiscites. Yesterday Ken Macintosh, one of the few Labour MSPs to survive the cull, told Isobel Fraser that his party won every “intellectual argument” of the last parliamentary session and ran a “positive” electoral campaign.

These delusions are the result of a deep political trauma. The work of rebuilding can only begin once they have been properly addressed and exorcised. At this stage no one can know how long that will take.

However, some isolated voices in the party are beginning to comprehend the new reality. Former First Minister Henry McLeish has expressed his desire to see a comprehensive overhaul of the party’s structure, and Iain Gray has called for “root and branch reform”.

The first thing Labour must realise at the outset of such a process is that its most catastrophic mistake was trying to super-impose its 2010 Westminster electoral strategy onto the 2011 Holyrood elections.

Scottish voters have a very clear idea about what role they want the Scottish Parliament to play, and it is not merely to act as a buffer against Whitehall cuts. The question the electorate asked itself in the run up to the May poll was not ‘what kind of government do we want in London?’ but ‘what kind of government do we want in Edinburgh?’. Labour’s failure to recognise this exposes the degree to which it had come to take its former west coast and central belt heartlands for granted.

In the long term, it has to find some of way of arresting a seemingly inexorable process of internal decay. The current generation of Scottish Labour leaders, including Iain Gray and Andy Kerr, John Park and Wendy Alexander, are intellectually conservative. By the time they had risen to the higher reaches of the party, its radical tradition had been all but extinguished by Blairism, which fully embraced the limits of institutional politics.

In power with the Liberal Democrats for the first eight years of devolution, it simply did not posses the originality, creativity or necessary sense of moral purpose to address Scotland’s most pressing problems – a stagnant economy weakened by decades of industrial decline, high levels of poverty and ill-health underpinned by persistent inequality.

It will be tempting for Labour to conclude that its revival will come about when the Scottish people are once again sufficiently convinced of its social democratic credentials. The difficulty, however, is that Scots no longer have only the Labour Party to look to for defence of the welfare state.

Despite Salmond’s strange infatuation with Ireland’s laissez-faire economic model, the SNP has under his leadership been the most consistently redistributive mainstream party not just in Scotland, but in the UK. For the time being, the Nationalists’ represent the best hope for Scots’ egalitarian aspirations.

Given its current state of structural and intellectual disrepair, the challenge for Scottish Labour – to persuade a sceptical and disenchanted electorate that it has a credible plan to revive Scotland – is an immense and perhaps insurmountable one.