Bateman: Praise for Scottish Labour not yet backed up in the opinion polls

You can zig, baby. I'm gonna zag.

Commentary by Derek Bateman

Much excitement among Labourites that after eight years their heroes may have scored against the SNP.

Eight years…in 2007 interest rates were above 5%, Blair stood down for Brown and Britain came second last in Eurovision. Eight years…when the voters finally rumbled Labour, the SNP grew into a mature government and the voting system was demolished by their 2011 surge. Eight years…when Labour were nuked north and south into charred remains, lost an election to a vicious Tory party and the SNP membership shot to 100,000.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

Eight years…no other government in history has a record like that of virtual non-stop success and popularity, growing support even after a devastating defeat on their key policy. If it’s true that after all those years – in which my own family arrived and now learn in the ‘failing’ education system – Labour has had a success, isn’t that in itself the real story for journalists interested in their country rather than cheerleading their political party?

Or is the truth that none of them is quite writing off the Nats yet because, as soon as you ponder the idea, it turns from analysis into Christmas panto.

Yet in articles and tweets the desperation of commentators for a revived Labour can barely be contained. Most of these people, remember, have lived in thrall to Labour, many grew up in Labour families and all their training and professional experience has centred around the same flailing behemoth. The Guardian’s political editor Michael White was tweeting that Scottish Labour has found its mojo and the sheen was coming off the Nats. I saw a tweet which seemed to indicate Kenny Farquharson in The Times was saying something similar.

I think they have a point – if you ignore the Nationalist record of the last eight years, if you believe Labour under Kezia Dugdale is serious, if you think the opinion polls are wrong and if you believe that there are enough votes to the left of the SNP to go round. You have also to believe that it is Holyrood’s role to spend Scottish taxpayer’s money covering the cuts imposed by Westminster.


Two of the key events of the last week weren’t the actual decisions Labour took – on Trident and on restoring tax credit cuts – but rather what they demonstrate as a consequence. On Trident, it took 24 hours for the defence spokesman to show them who is boss. It wasn’t subtle. It was a public humiliation for a party claiming it was newly autonomous. And Kezia had no reply. The mute silence of autonomous Scottish Labour proved beyond doubt that autonomy is decoration.

I'm Kezia, me
I’m Kezia, me

All decisions that matter will always be made in London and even if, like me, you approve of a different viewpoint in Scotland and welcome it as a campaigning device within the party, the truth that hurts is the structural subordination of Scottish Labour. They can, as Kezia might say, carp from the sidelines, but what they can’t do is change a single Scottish policy on a reserved matter even when Scotland is literally in the firing line. They must be independent to do otherwise.

On credit cuts, the policy she has chosen is the clearest evidence of how impotent Scotland is on a key issue like welfare. The triumph trumpeted by the Unionists with laptops is merely an admission of powerlessness. Scotland is reduced to stripping other spending commitments – on which a government was elected, by the way – to find the cash to replace the money removed by the Tory government. It’s the same principle as working tax credits themselves – they help families but are a subsidy to employers. In this case Labour is promising to subsidise a brutal Tory policy rather than joining forces to prevent its implementation. As Sturgeon pointed out, there is widespread cross-party discontent at play yet at the very moment the Tories are most vulnerable, Scottish Labour switches its attack lines on to the SNP.


Both of these position are confirmation that Scottish Labour remains captive to London diktat both on internal party policy and on wider Scottish interests. Independence is a cure for both and anyone who follows this without the media’s Labourite bias will realise the logic. They may not agree with a separate Scotland, but it’s hard to deny that Kezia has positioned her party so it points towards independence, either for Scottish Labour, for Scotland, or both.

I think Nationalists need to lighten up too. So used are we all to success and crippling Unionist failure that when Labour produce a successful slogan – on a policy without costings – there is unnecessary consternation. Like critical commentators, this is good because it begins to move our politics more on to an even keel, one where the media attacks the government (already a Unionist speciality) and one where there is a real and, so help me, an effective opposition.

I have a growing unease at the sheer scale of SNP dominance or, indeed any party’s dominance, which is my primary reason for supporting PR. Talk of one-party states is silly and ill-informed but my suspicion is that the wider public don’t like it either – it makes them suspicious. That in turn makes them less likely to back independence if it means giving even more power to the SNP.

There is a balance in democracy and the rise of the SNP has coincided with (and partly caused) the decline of the others. A return to credibility by Labour and even electoral advance would not be a threat to the SNP and may even help the longer-term case for independence.  I just don’t see any reason yet to think it’s about to happen. But Labour are pleasing their cheerleaders in the media.