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The defeat of Scottish Labour – post rational politics or shifting plates?

Neil-FindlaySo it wasn’t a tsunami, earthquake, tidal wave or landslide – it was all of them and as many other cataclysmic metaphors as you want to throw in. Scottish Labour was obliterated at the polls with majorities in the 10’s and 20’s of thousands wiped out at a stroke with only Ian Murray left clinging on.

So are we now entering a new period where politics is not based on a comparing policy positions or manifestos but on a national mood, where like New Labour in 1997 it just becomes ‘the thing to do’? In workplaces, amongst the creative community, the voluntary sector, in polite circles and pubs and bars it has become cool to support the SNP. A bit like Chelsea FC – hardly anyone supported them when they were rubbish but now they are winning everyone’s a fan.

And over the last few years a new adjective, whose definition appears to be ‘negative, old style, distant politics’, came into our lexicon: ‘Westminster’ – no longer just a place! At every turn this was skilfully used to exemplify everything that people dislike about the UK political system. This feeling grew and grew and, despite some major and positive developments under the Blair/Brown governments – big reductions in poverty, the national minimum wage, tax credits etc. – it was the Iraq war and later the expenses scandal that were the heavy straws that broke the camel’s back resulting in mass public opposition and disenchantment, membership resignations and a huge breach of trust with the electorate.

Despite Labour delivering the new Scottish parliament, the fixing of candidate selections left a largely unknown and comparatively inexperienced group in government. Donald Dewar’s death, the McLeish shambles and McConnell period compounded our problems. We were seen us dull and lacking in ambition, always appearing to look over our shoulder for someone else’s permission and afraid to take too many bold policy positions (the smoking ban one of the very obvious exceptions). This culminated in Labour being out of office since 2007.

At the same time the SNP became (along with Sinn Fein) the cleverest electoral force in the country with high quality strategists, policy advisers and media operators and in Alex Salmond they had one of the sharpest political minds around. The fact that it won a single seat majority in 2007 followed by an outright majority in 2011 was truly remarkable and brought the inevitable referendum in 2014.

It is my view that the decision (by whom I still don’t know) to establish the Better Together campaign in 2011 was one of the biggest political misjudgements in Labour’s 100 year history. That decision was taken with no reference to party members, MPs, MSPs, trade unions or indeed anyone that I know. It was a disastrous call! We had spent the previous 30 years successfully demonising the Tories as the enemy of the Scottish people, particularly the Scottish industrial working class and yet now the party of the workers was going to campaign alongside our traditional enemy.

Ironically the Yes camp, including Trotskyists and venture capitalists, climate change deniers and greens and tax justice campaigner and tax avoiders, did not see any contradictions within its ranks nor did it attract similar charges of betrayal or collaboration. The Labour broad left and many in the trade unions protested at Labour’s Better Together alliance and refused to get involved, eventually supporting the belated United with Labour campaign when it was launched, while others organised around the Red Paper collective.

Saying we were Better Together meant bugger all to someone who was unemployed or in a low paid, zero hours contract. It meant nothing to communities hurting from the impact of austerity imposed upon them by the very Tories Labour campaigned alongside, and it meant nothing to young people who wanted a message of hope for the future. The campaign should have been based on the principle of radical federalism and solidarity: the need for Labour to improve the lives of working people across the UK where the interests of a worker in Livingston is the same as a worker in Liverpool and the need for a strong, united Labour movement to challenge the excesses of capitalism, austerity and inequality.

We should also have reminded people that it’s the Labour Party and the wider movement that has always been at the forefront of delivering the greatest change and social progress in our history – the NHS, the welfare state, Health and Safety legislation, equality legislation, the minimum wage, social housing, education and the Scottish Parliament.  But that case was never properly made, as Better Together offered a negative narrative rather than one of hope and social progress. This was a huge and fundamental mistake and contributed to the inevitable result that was to follow.

Nevertheless, we have entered an astonishing period where, despite Labour being out of power in Scotland for 8 years and for five years at Westminster, we are still somehow blamed for every problem that affects our country (a situation that is even more baffling in areas where Labour does not run the local council either). And during  that period we have witnessed:

  • Our NHS teetering on the brink – its budgets cut more than in Tory England, waiting times increasing, social care in crisis and increasing numbers of GP surgeries closed to new patients.
  • Council services being decimated with an 8 year council tax freeze costing 70,000 jobs destroying our public services – a policy that benefits the wealthy most and punishes the poor who rely on those services. Where was/is the Labour campaign to defend local government jobs and services?
  • Our colleges have lost 130,000 places largely for working class students.
  • The implementation of the new school curriculum has been a predictable mess.
  • Our police services are in turmoil with stations closing, staff made redundant and stop and search on an industrial scale whilst the police are routinely armed.
  • The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was passed without a single government backbencher voting against – easily the worst piece of legislation of the devolution era.
  • The franchise of our railways flogged of to the Dutch, the Northern Ferries and sleeper services to SERCO with Cal Mac next for privatisation.
  • Plans to abolish corroboration, a pillar of our justice system, proposed then abandoned following an outcry.
  • A fracking moratorium announced for 2 years to get us past the UK and Scottish election but which will inevitably be followed by drilling across the central belt led by the union busters at INEOS.
  • Poverty and health and wealth inequality increasing as the middle class benefit most from free prescriptions, free university tuition, bus travel etc. whilst schools in the poorest areas lose classroom assistants, community health provision is in crisis and public transport fares rise. Incidentally, I fully support universal provision such as free prescriptions, school meals, bus passes etc. but without progressive taxation to pay for them they just become a middle class subsidy.

In the Scottish Parliament we saw the Scottish Government voting down Labour proposals to extend the living wage, end zero hours contracts, limit private sector rent increases etc. – all Labour proposals – all voted down by the SNP

But none of this matters in our post rational world.

Nor it appears do the commitments in the manifesto of the parties. If we are to believe what is promoted by the SNP and the media then the Scottish people wanted an alternative to austerity and a leftish policy agenda.

If that is the case then the Labour manifesto was much more to the left than the SNP on almost every issue. Labour promised:

  • More cash for the NHS,
  • A future fund for young people,
  • 1000 extra nurses,
  • more Progressive taxation,
  • policies to end the need for food banks,
  • a youth jobs guarantee,
  • an end to zero hours contracts,
  • an increased minimum wage and an extension of the Living wage and
  • Investment to end food banks.

Add to this the assessment by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the SNP’s budget proposals would mean longer austerity rather than an end to it, and the disaster that full fiscal autonomy will bring (£7.6 billion of further cuts) and Labour should have been sweeping up votes and seats.

But none of this mattered – people had switched off and refused to listen to anything Labour said. We could have offered a free million pound note to everyone who voted Labour and still this would have been rejected. This is not the fault of the electorate, we can’t blame the SNP – it’s our fault, Labour’s fault. The people lacked faith in our sincerity.

So the £7.6 billion question is where does Labour go from here?

Well of course that is the question that every Labour member, every trade union affiliate, every MSP, MEP and Ian Murray will have to address in the coming weeks. It is not a time for people to stay quiet; it is not a time for centralised solutions and for a management or top down fix. If you suffer a trauma or bereavement it is best that the whole family talks about it and learns from that grievous event and ultimately strives to make things better within the family. But for the Labour family time is short – the Scottish Parliament elections are a year away and I know we all want to play a full part in rebuilding the party and movement we love. It is our movement and our values that have driven the campaigns for and delivered the greatest social change for working people in our history. We can do so again BUT this requires a full, free, open and democratic debate about how we go forward.

So here are a few thoughts on the way forward:-

  • We should look at creating an autonomous or federal structure within the Labour party giving the Scottish party the ability to develop its own policies, select candidates etc.
  • Re-democratise our party giving members back power to develop policy and end the top down fixes we have witnessed over the last few decades. Let’s not fear democratic debate, let’s embrace it.
  • Do not measure everything we do against what the SNP do but develop a policy agenda that is clearly steeped in Labour’s traditions and values
  • Take a clear anti austerity stance – promoting fairness, equality and a broad range of progressive policies
  • Concentrate on what matters most to people – a secure job, fair pay, a roof over their head, the NHS, education and dignity in old age.
  • At the earliest opportunity debate Trident and accept the party’s decision – if it is different from the UK party – so be it.
  • Oppose TTIP – it is a huge threat to our public services and our democracy
  • Launch a campaign to defend public services especially local government which is being decimated, working with our councillors who are one of our greatest assets and are in the front line.
  • Re- build our relationship with the trade unions – many trade unionists want a successful and effective Labour party, promoting an agenda that supports working people and their families.
  • Re- establish political education within the party to stimulate debate and ideas and involve our members in policy development not just administration
  • Re-build and reinvigorate local parties with co-ordinated activity and campaigns in each constituency
  • Have a complete overhaul of our campaigning strategy – move away from seeing a door knocking league table as evidence of a good or bad campaigning.
  • Use the talents and resources that are in our communities and embrace the people that are willing to help us. Who are the experts, the academics, the industry specialists, the community activists, the strategists, the teachers, lawyers, doctors, the workers, journalists, IT experts, the young people, people from the BME and LGBT community who will assist us if only they are asked?

There is much more to be said and done but this is a crucial time for Labour – let us start the debate about how we bring about change but let us never lose sight of our timeless values of solidarity, community, cooperation, fairness, equality and justice. It is these values that make us all socialists.

This article previously appeared at Labour Hame


  1. Sandra Crawford says:

    Neil, can you please put yourself forward for the top job.
    You CV above is so much better than the platitudes of Liz Kendall etc.

  2. Robert says:

    Right well when you think what labour spoke about and whom they spoke to it not unexpected I left the Coop this morning and now I will seek to find another party.

    When I hear Welsh labour a year before an election saying people must work, and they are talking about Wales one of the worse areas in the EU for jobs work low pay and rotten employers.

    With Chuka now pulling out I do think you should stand as labour leader why not give it ago.

    If we end up with another right wing Progress drone Wales may well have a Tory Assembly after the election in May.

    Reeves may a massive blunder b7y not speaking to 22 million pensioners sick disabled and unemployed people telling people labour is not the party of welfare or benenfist when most of the low paid live off welfare and benefits. it was an erro and the SNP have now taken over in Scotland as the socialist party whether that right or wrong they are speaking the 2words the people wanted to hear labour did not.

    We have to many middle of the road right wing parties.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Co-op London chair Gareth Thomas announces mayor bid

  4. Craighaggis says:

    If the SNP are the Chelsea of the day, Labour are Liverpool: a glorious history and traditions cast aside and unable to win a Champions League spot. Where is the party’s Brendan Rodgers?

  5. Richard Butchins (C4 Documentary Producer of ‘Britain on The Sick’ WRITES: ‘FOR ANYONE still confused about why #Labour can’t ever win an election again: “You voted with them for more austerity cuts. You voted with them for Trident renewal. You voted with them for more foolish military interventions in the Middle East, even though you must know by now how the Iraq War has damaged you. You abstained from the vote on the fracking moratorium which would have succeeded had you not been so cowardly. You have not been a counterweight to the nasty coalition, you have enabled them.”

  6. Labour – A Potted #History: ‘Fifty years on, ‪Labour‬ still promising ‘better next time’: Now it offers more of the same . . .’ by Ian Bell Herald Scotland 23 April 2014

    By a neat coincidence, one of the year’s less heralded anniversaries falls in October, just four weeks after Scotland’s referendum.

    To the faint surprise of some of us, half a century will have elapsed since Labour won power and ended, in the catchphrase of the day, “13 years of Tory misrule”.

    In fact, it wasn’t much of a victory. The Conservative Party and their new leader, Alex Douglas-Home, were in a familiar mess: exhausted, scandal-ridden, toff-afflicted and bereft of ideas. The Old Etonian in charge was easily and often satirised as out of touch, a figure better suited to grouse moors than to the new “meritocratic” Britain. Yet Labour barely scraped home.
    Harold Wilson only got into Downing Street, in fact, because a large part of the Tory vote migrated to the Liberals. Despite their modern, media-adept leader and their national economic plan, Labour’s support scarcely improved – by 0.3% – from the hiding it received in 1959. The party took office with a parliamentary majority of four.

    In late 1964, Labour didn’t have many laurels to boast of, but they did have a manifesto that still makes for fascinating reading. “The New Britain” assured its readers, for example, that “the ending of economic privilege, the abolition of poverty in the midst of plenty, and the creation of real equality of opportunity” had become “immediate targets of political action”.

    Steel needed to be nationalised. Tory plans for the “restoration of a ‘free’ market economy in Britain” needed to be undone. House prices were “soaring”; there was “growing stagnation, unemployment and under-employment in large parts of the North, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”, allied to “a drift of work and people to the overcrowded London and Midland regions”.

    This wouldn’t do.

    Worse, there was in Britain “a pervasive atmosphere of irresponsibility … a selfish, get-rich-quick mood, in which the public interest is always subordinated to private advantage”. Public money was being “lavished on wasteful military projects” while “austerity National Insurance benefits” imposed “poverty standards on the retired, the sick and the unemployed”.
    Labour – promising “fresh and virile leadership” – said benefits had “fallen below the minimum levels of human need”. They abhorred the “burden of prescription charges on the Health Service” – abolished by Labour in 1965, restored by Labour in 1968 – but also worried over “the problems of leisure in the age of automation”. Scotland got a mention. That’s not a figure of speech.

    Half a century is enough of a span to allow talk of history. The historical part relevant to Labour could be summed up in two words: next time. For five decades that species of hope has kept the party more or less alive. It has been 50 years of “next time”. Once Labour defended their achievements, now they are complicit in their demolition. The refrain stays the same: next time.

    Ed Miliband might get a majority, perhaps even a majority greater than four. Stranger things have happened. But here’s 50 years witnessed since Harold Wilson first flickered across the screen of a Murphy telly to back a simple claim: with Labour, next time never comes. The contemporary party’s embrace of austerity and all it entails guarantees that a half-century streak will not end in 2015.

    For Better Together to prevail in Scotland’s referendum, you would have to believe otherwise. You would have to believe in Labour’s “progressive case” – while, confusingly, telling Scots that their progressive reputation is a myth – to justify a majority for No. For Labour voters, that key part of the electorate in this contest, the choice is plain enough: independence or “next time”.
    That being the case, reminders of last time are problematic. As opinion polls narrow, demands by fretful Unionists for more interventions by Labour’s “big beasts” from yon time court a risk. The reappearance of some who are otherwise home free in the Lords might serve to remind voters what happened to “next time” last time. Faces from the reactionary past fronting a rejectionist campaign are not synonymous with progressive ideals.

    Tories are obtuse about this. Some are sufficiently self-aware to realise that packing David Cameron or George Osborne off to Scotland is counter-productive. People who want you to believe that Scots are no different from folk elsewhere haven’t forgotten election results. In solidarity with Stevenage (or whatever) Scots don’t elect many Tories and barely notice Ukip. Conservatives therefore define Scotland as Labour’s problem and grumble when the problem isn’t solved.

    The attacks on Alistair Darling arrive with each new set of polls. This week’s anonymous Conservative genius observes of the former Chancellor: “He’s a middlingly competent accountant with zero charisma. You never see him. Where is the big figure to lead the campaign and take the fight to Salmond? It’s just dismal.” Set aside the (ignorant) insult to an advocate. Such Tories are also arguing, it seems, for Mr Darling to be dumped in favour of Lord Reid, John Reid as was.

    What this would achieve isn’t clear, though the reactions from Lord Reid’s Celtic Park constituency would be interesting. It doesn’t resolve the Unionist problem. Setting aside the ineffable incompetence of the scarcely representative CBI Scotland, Better Together has plenty of those “big” figures available. What it lacks is a Labour politician who has not spent a career promising “next time” and falling – let’s be polite – a little short.

    Gordon Brown exemplifies the problem. In a speech in Glasgow yesterday he contrasted two possible futures for Scotland. In one glimpse into the crystal ball he saw an independent country struggling to support pension liabilities – nothing to do with actual costs – while deprived of what he effectively alleged to be a UK subsidy at a time when pensioner numbers are rising.

    The remarks were disputable, to say the least, but that wasn’t the real difficulty for Better Together and Labour. Gordon Brown on pension security? The man who, as Chancellor, had to invent the annual winter fuel allowance in 1999 when pensioners decided that a 75p increase was not the stuff of dreams? The man who removed the tax credits on company dividends for pension funds and, if you believe his critics, destroyed occupational schemes?
    Labour have spent half a century promising “next time”. Now it offers more of the same and a few words from a specialist in such promises. Better Together wants to attack Alex Salmond for proposing to cut corporation tax if he is elected after independence? You could make a good case. But you then have to pray that no-one remembers Mr Brown cutting the same tax by 3% in 1999.

    In those days, he was one of the big figures in a New Labour government swept to power by the old, desperate belief that next time would be different. Just like the last time. Now Scots are asked to believe it once again because that, supposedly, is what true solidarity means. Instead, half a century of experience says it’s what credulity means.

    Harold Wilson was the first politician whose name ever stuck in my child’s mind. At that age, you can be persuaded to believe just about anything. But that was long ago, in another country.

  7. Christopher Fird says:

    Neil’s analysis is in my view sadly inadequate.
    To compare the Yes campaign as somehow a mirror image of Better Together is simply inaccurate but symptomatic of what is not being appreciated. Neil completely fails to address, despite knowing it to be so, that the Yes campaign was not simply the official SNP led campaign but a popular movement including the separate Radical Independence Campaign which united the vast majority of the radical left in Scotland, including Labour voters for Scottish Independence. 3000 at the last RIC conference was about a fashion like supporting a football team.
    And it was RIC over and above who were an engine driving the popular movement from below.
    Neil also fails to recognise that the problem of Labour cooperating with the Tories did not begin with Better Together – but can also be seen in Labour having formal coalitions with the Tories in Scottish local authorities such as Stirling. Clearly Scottish Labour feel more in common with fellow Unionists than fellow progressive forces.
    Neil also fails to grasp the full extent of the nature of the popular and democratic rebellion that has developed in Scotland which has also filtered into the SNP of which 1 in 50 Scots is now a member. Again this was not like supporting Chelsea FC.
    Nor can we forget the position taken by Milliband and other of failing to challenge the chauvinist campaign in England against Scotland, instead informing us he would rather not be in government than do a deal with the SNP.
    If one sees the sustaining in whatever redefined form of the archaic Act of Union as the basis for defining what is socialist and left then one ceases to see the movement as it is – and thus drown in the very tsunami wave. And this is what happened – socialists who supported independence were in many quarters ceased to be viewed as even part of the left any more. The treatment of Labour members was even worse. this sadly continues to be the case. How often has been written that the national question is a social question, and these matters should not be counterposed.
    Any new recomposition of the movement and for an independent Scottish Labour Party seems impossible if it is not around a major re-unification of the left as it exists in Scotland and becomes part of the actual popular movement that exists – which means amongst other things ceasing to be a prisoner of the UK constitution.

  8. Barry Ewart says:

    We should give as much power to regions as possible and I did like the idea of a constitutional convention to decide what powers should be regional and what should be national.
    As a brilliant writer in the New Left Review argued, we are now in the third stage of capitalism – globalisation.
    Breaking up the UK state and leaving the EC (although I want a reformed bottom up democratic socialist EC where we kick Neo Liberalism out) may be going against the tide of history?
    If one region has a lower corporation tax their than the rest of the UK it could mean attracting big business from other parts of the UK at their expense and a different minimum wage could set workers against workers. Social democracy in one region when we perhaps need democratic socialist policies in all regions.
    Just some food for thought.

  9. Barry Ewart says:

    P.S. I have always loved Liverpool but my main team is Leeds United – can you imagine how I feel!
    Yours in solidarity!

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