Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Dispatches From Paisley At 10: The Fall Of Labour

This week sees the 10th anniversary of the setting up of this blog.  Over the next couple of posts we will be looking at the two big political trends in Scottish & UK politics over the past 10 years, starting off with the decline of the Labour Party.

I had been looking back at my archives a couple of weeks ago, and about 5 years ago there was a piece on Ed Miliband’s relaunch and how it blew up any lingering chance of him being Prime Minister.  There must be something in the water because here we are, at a similar point in Westminster’s ‘electoral cycle’ watching Corbyn attempt to relaunch his leadership.  Corbyn’s problem (if he even wished to be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street) is that he is fighting not just his own inadequacies as party leader but problems caused by political events, exacerbated to various degrees by Corbyn’s predecessors.
Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell with PM Tony Blair
during Scottish Labour's Spring 2007 conference

If we look at the world of January 19th 2007 (and who the hell would post their first blog on a Friday night?), New Labour held power in Westminster and in the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh.  Blair had let it be known that he was nearing the end of his time in Downing Street, but we wouldn’t know how long he would remain.  Rhodri Morgan was still holding the reigns of power in Cardiff, he would remain Welsh First Minister for another two years despite never being Blair’s first pick for the role.  It would be here in Scotland and the third Holyrood elections where Labour’s grip on Working Class votes would be loosened.

Jack McConnell had been Scottish First Minister since 2001, but had seen his share of seats fall to 51 seats in 2003’s election.  Scottish Labour were still favourites to win a historic third term, even if McConnel & Labour’s campaign did look tired and complacent.   If any moment could be said to be the starting point of Labour’s woes, then the moment when the SNP won enough list seats to creep past Labour’s final total and become the largest party would be it.  Since that teatime on May 4th 2007, Labour’s grip on Scotland and Scottish politics has been loosened and remains the case to this day.

Why Labour’s grip on Scotland and Scottish life has only loosened since that day is an easy question to answer.  Labour had always sort of taken Scotland for granted, New Labour in particular actively tailored policies to middle class and upper middle class families, somewhat sidelining less well off voters.  The calculation being that Labour voters with centre/left values wouldn’t vote for anyone else.  The SNP came along to promise to reverse Scottish Labour’s planned hospital closures, tuition fees and prescription charges – and promptly started to hoover up disaffected Labour voters miffed at Labour’s decade long march to the right.  This was compounded by Scottish Labour’s inability to reconcile itself to that loss.  This has manifested itself in two ways.

Since 2011, Scottish Labour’s tactic has been very negative tactics.  It might be only the past 18 months that the SNP have dubbed Scottish Labour’s rabid tactics as ‘SNPbad’, but this is essentially what they’ve been doing since Iain Gray became Scottish Labour’s leader in 2008.  Everything that the SNP do has been labelled as bad with little in the way of rational explanation as to why.  This line became more rabid in the aftermath of the 2011 ‘landslide’ defeat which saw an SNP majority government.  Scottish Labour’s response to this was to begin to obsess about a possible Independence Referendum.  For the next four or five weeks, Scottish Labour were constantly talking about the threat of Independence and the dastardly SNP’s plans to implement a manifesto pledge.  When the Independence Referendum became real, it covered up Scottish Labour’s big problem.  They had become something of a policy vaccum.

In 2011, Scottish Labour wanted to stand up to Tory Spending Cuts, only to run away from Austerity protestors.  If memory serves this was all they really stood on, non of their policies were really that memorable.  As a result, and over the course of the past ten years, they’ve fallen into a knee jerk type of left wing policymaking which goes like this.  Spending money is good and tax rises are good therefore we must indiscriminately raise taxes to throw money at public services.  As a socialist, I’m offended that people think of this as socialism (it’s not) and goes a long way to explaining Labour’s policy failures.  By the time Labour repeated that mistake in 2016’s Holyrood elections by promising Tax hikes for all and (an illegal) rebate (which fell apart under scrutiny), they had already made the mistake that finished them in the eyes of many Scottish voters.

It’s not surprising, or that controversial, that Scottish Labour should argue for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom.  It was the way they argued that case which alienated many Scottish voters.  Scottish Labour helped to set up the pro-Union Better Together campaign group and shared a platform with the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.  However it was the continued use of Tory attack lines and the cosy comfortableness that Scottish Labour hierarchy used those attack lines which resulted in the scales falling from many a Labour voter’s eyes.  That the referendum was ‘won’ had more to do with the SNP’s lack of economic arguments and Sterlingzone than anything Scottish Labour did as voters concluded that Independence at that point under that White Paper was too much of a risk.  Voters also concluded that Scottish Labour were also finished.   How different history would have been had Wendy Alexander remained Scottish Labour’s leader in Holyrood and the SNP gathered enough votes to hold their referendum in the first term.

644 days later and another Referendum arrived.  If the Independence Referendum split (and continues to split) Scottish votes into pro-Independence and pro-Union voters, then the EU referendum did precisely the same thing to the rest of the country.  This time Labour found itself under a leader with Eurosceptic leanings press ganged into being an apologist for the European Union.  As a result, and still remembering how they ‘won’ the last referendum but lost the peace, Labour fell rather badly between two stools by striking a sober but resolutely non cheerleading defence of the EU.

This would normally not be the fatal mistake for Labour.  However this is a party at war with itself.  Ed Milliband was not supposed to win the Labour Leadership in 2010 (according to the script put forward by pro-Blairite Labour MP’s) while Corbyn was simply not supposed to win the Labour leadership in 2015 as he fought off three candidates from Labour’s Progress Group (the now official group of Labour members who believe in Blairite Third Way politics).  It took less than a second for the Progress Wingers (on their website, the motto “The party within a party” appears – predating Momentum) to make their displeasure known at the result as Jamie Reed ‘resigned’ from the shadow cabinet.  His was not the only person to, essentially, end their political careers by throwing their toys out of the pram.

The Labour war is really a proxy for something else.  The Progress Wingers believe that power must be won before good things can be done (even if those good things are watered down to become more palatable to so called ‘swing’ voters) so policies must be tailored to appeal to swing voters.  Corbyn and his supporters believe that arguments must be made and policies must be formulated to appeal to core supporters and that they can win through the power of their arguments rather than through compromise.  It is the question which Blair never answered, indeed his premiership has rather muddied the waters in this respect.  In the post Thatcher Britain, what exactly is Labour for?

From a position 10 years ago, where Labour held the reigns of power, we now see a Labour party being torn apart from the inside and on the outside by political opponents like the Tories, UKIP and the SNP.  This is a situation entirely of their own making through their own choices or their reactions to other people’s choices.  Labour needs to have a long hard look at itself and ask serious hard questions about what it stands for, why and how it can successfully regain power without compromising those answers.  While I’m not sure if this blog will be here in another 10 years, if Labour carries on with the current self destructive path it’s on then they certainly won’t be here.  Going the same way as the Dodo, the Dinosaurs and the Liberals on the extinct list.

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