“In 1983 the United States of America went to war against the tiny Caribbean island of Greneda. This, however, was a far more equal battle than the British General Election of the same year. It was said that the Labour campaign started badly and then fell away, but this is being generous. It was the worst campaign in electoral history, and it hurt to watch it. There are various things that can lose a party votes in elections. You might have a leader who does not look like prime ministerial material, you might have a manifesto that alienates many of the electorate, you might have a hostile media, you might appear hopelessly divided as a political party, or your campaign might be poorly organised and unfocused. Or, like Labour in 1983, you might manage all of the above” – extract from “Things Can Only Get Better” by John O’Farrell
Yep, the events leading up to June 9 1983 is something seared into the consciousness of every Labour supporter, so much so that they vowed never again. So why did it happen again last month with the Holyrood elections? Leader that didn’t look First Minister material – check, though Grey was a dab hand at jumping into sandwich shops. Manifesto that alienates many of the electorate - well what manifesto apart from the pledges stolen from the SNP. Hostile media - are you kidding! Yoda that resides in my bookcase is more hostile than most of the political “interrogators” within the Scottish media (Isobel Fraser apart). Hopelessly divided – I don’t think any of the shadow cabinet has the intelligence to voice a different point of view from their leader. Poorly organised & unfocused campaign – check. In spades.
Labours rank performance has returned to the public consciousness as a report has been published looking into the details of who voted for what party on May 5. It showed that the SNP hovered up working class voters and voters from all religious groups, with more “Catholic” voters opting to vote SNP than Labour for the first time. Working class voters & “Catholic” voters were previously seen as the bedrock of Labour support. What this survey also showed was that the lie being peddled by Labour on election night, that the SNP were beneficiaries of a straight swing from the Lib Dems and that their vote held up, was that. According to the report, half of that drop switched to the SNP, while the other half made its way to the other parties. This means that the Labour vote dropped by more than the final figure of 17,766. Presumably those votes went straight to the SNP. All of which brings us back to the analogy with 1983, which presented that Labour party with similar problems.
In 1983, the parties taking votes from Labour were Thatcher’s Conservatives and the fledgling Social Democratic Party that came within 650,000 votes of supplanting Labour from second place in the popular vote. In Labour’s way this time were the Scottish National Party, who alongside being a competent government gunning for their second term have developed a successful Scottish take on Clinton’s “TheThird Way” and New Labour – ironic considering that many of the influences for New Labour policies came from the old SDP – many of the advisors of New Labour were originally SDP people while Roy Jenkins was a friend and influence on Tony Blair.
This defeat has led some to call for Labour in Holyrood to go down the New Labour route. In a post for the Labour Hame blog, New Labour loyalist John McTiernan outlines this route –
“Where do they start? With tone – and Tone. From first to last, from “A new dawn has broken has it not” at the Royal Festival Hall to “This is the greatest nation in the world” in Trimdon… Scottish Labour should start there. And for Blair, it was always about values.
Start with education. This is core to our sense of self; we are known worldwide for the quality of our education. Except that’s just not true now… Or take law and order. You can’t go far wrong with tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. Labour’s knife crime policy was one of the most popular single policies of any party at the election. They should stick to it. But they should brigade it with a prevention strategy. The restoration of the Future Jobs Fund was one leg of that, apprenticeships another. This is a key battleground… And then there’s health. At the core of Nicola Sturgeon’s health strategy is an opposition to hospital reorganisation…
The future not the past. The many not the few. Leadership not drift. There’s life in the old songs still… Who dares wins”
The problem with that synopsis is twofold. Firstly, currently parked on the New Labour part of the political spectrum are the SNP – a party currently advocating Corporation Tax cuts and investment in public services in the same breath. A party not afraid to do business with the most famous capitalist raider on the planet and simultaneously not afraid to pledge to keep Scottish Water within public ownership. In short, the SNP have read the New Labour handbook (itself adapted from the prototype SDP, Clinton’s “The Third Way”) and adapted it to Holyrood. Scottish problems for Scottish solutions.
Allied to this is the second problem facing Labour, that they are a party bereft of any vote winning policies. The SNP had their policy on freezing Council tax, the policy on retaining funding for the NHS, their policy on free education. All policies that would have been advocated by a past version of the Labour party but were either derided by this version, with no alternatives put forward, or shamelessly stolen and re-packaged immediately before the election. Because of this, the impression given at the election was that there was no alternative but a second SNP term, which is what we have.
So where next for Labour in Holyrood? There won’t be any lurch to the left, as the current Labour group do not strike me as firebrand socialists in the best traditions of Jimmy Reid or… er um… nope can’t think of anyone else. The problem may well be a lurch to the right, which would take Labour further away from the “Scottish Sensibility”, thus leaving the SNP with more space to pick their ideas from.
While Iain Gray remains as leader, Labour in Holyrood have time to assess where they want to go, and to try and work out viable positions to take over the next five years, and to mull over possible replacements. With this in mind, their choice as next leader needs to be a viable candidate for First Minister come 2016. Whoever it is must recognise that the bar for First Minister has been raised since the position was held by Dewar, McLeish and McConnell. They must develop a vision, and yet be consistent enough not to come across as opportunistic. It’s a tall order, and a task that in 1983 Labour did not totally get to grips with until one of the new intake took the reigns himself 11 years later. To paraphrase another of Blair’s slogans, time for the Scottish party to reform or die.