A guest post by Mary Stewart from A Greater Stage
And so the endless speculation on who is or isn’t seeking the crown Jim Murphy is leaving behind has begun. Expect hours of meaningless drivel to come from the Scottish press and for the time being we should probably take Jackanory Jim’s statement at face value that he is definitely going at face value. But before he does he graciously accepts that the party that he led to such spectacular defeat needs reform.
He’s right of course, based on the raw numbers it looks like Labour lost nearly a third (32%) of their support from 2010 and gained little if any of the additional four hundred and forty-eight thousand electors who voted in 2015 but hadn’t in 2010. You don’t recapture ground like that without a long hard look at what you did wrong. His first recommendation he has already revealed, one member one vote, a long overdue update of the byzantine electoral process that still exists within Scottish Labour. Of course it could be pointed out that the SNP adopted that curious thing called democracy some time ago, but to do so would be to diminish the fact that Labour’s Scottish dominions are at long last trying to move past the days when Scotland was taken for granted and we should have sympathy for this particular devil as the battle faced is not just for Labour’s soul but potentially the Union’s as well.
What will be presented in a month’s time is anyone’s guess but it seems reasonable to conclude that in his resignation package the answer will be a further shift to the right. Murphy’s own politics and public pronouncements suggest this, that to move forward the Scottish branch has to become more Blairite; how else to translate the comment that it is “the least reformed part of the Labour party”? The message would seem clear; in his mind for Labour to win it needs to tack to the misnamed centre-ground, back even further to the right.
Within the context of those at the top of his party Jim has finally got it spot on, a quick look at those who want the poisoned chalice of next UK Labour leader shows that his calls for reform hit the right note at Westminster as all are products of the Blair years. All believers that what is needed is a return to a “message” that appeals to aspiration, no mention of the desperation of the millions Labour has left behind. And, odd as it sounds, here a degree of sympathy creeps in for Jim and whoever takes the fiery throne of Scottish leader as the early evidence is that the wider party and indeed electorate are not so convinced.
We’ve already had the dud hand grenade from Unite that it will look at its long standing links with the Labour party - it's bluster, just Len McCluskey exacting revenge for Mr Murphy’s own digs at him. But the problem remains that this is not the first time a union has indicated it might leave the Labour fold, and between members electing not to pay the political levy and increasing numbers both voting and pushing for active support of the SNP, Jim should he do a reverse-Farage or a successor may find that reform comes too late to save the flow of cash to the little red piggy bank.
Just as with the unions, the rank and file of the party is far from sure about reform, particularly if it’s Blairite in nature, most especially in Scotland where the average Labour voter is more likely to be older and the epitome of habit rather than choice. Their parents voted Labour, their grandparents voted Labour, so they too vote Labour, recalling not Labour as it is, but Labour as it was, supported by a largely pro-Labour Scottish press that colludes in hiding what the UK Labour party has become and how dysfunctional and utterly indifferent to the realities of modern Scotland the Bath Street branch office has been for years.
The problem is that people chose to vote SNP two weeks ago, the referendum certainly influenced that choice, but nevertheless it was a conscious decision, not simply the default selection. The resulting difficulty now facing Labour in Scotland is that as they know full well, and have long benefitted from, once that choice is made it can take a lot for it to be changed. Historically as a nation we are loyal to institutions we perceive as being ours, a good example being the last clan charge; it was on behalf of the Hanoverian crown during the American War of Independence as the clans remained loyal to the institution if not entirely to the family that held it. Scotland was loyal to Labour for sixty years as we believed they spoke for us, now nearly one and a half million Scots voted for the nasty Nats, history suggests it’s for the SNP to lose rather than Labour’s to gain.
But it’s not only us, there are signs that England too is crying out for an alternative that is not Blairite and certainly far from what our new Conservative overlords thinks it has a mandate for. Wings Over Scotland for example notably posted articles that evidenced the support for the centre-left message of First Minister Sturgeon. People in England, far from the Jockophobia of the right-wing press openly wished that the SNP were fielding candidates south of Carlisle. This was not some isolated incident either, social media more generally was awash with similar sentiments including the widely shared map that showed a new Anglo/Scottish border closer to the Mersey than the Solway and Tweed.
But for a blog such as this one, there is the more pertinent message of polling, most of it has been anecdotal and far from scientific and as such beyond the remit of James and his fantastic efforts to make sense of the numbers. But some of it has been closer to the norms of mainstream political polling, such as social attitudes surveys; all were rigorous and all saying the same thing: The UK overwhelmingly holds to the post-war consensus. Yes, we all want to get ahead, we all want our nice gadgets and to be comfortable, Thatcherism has reinforced that deep human need, but clear majorities all still want a social safety net. We, whether it be the UK or Scotland want growth but for a substantial number not if the cost is American levels of deprivation and where people you quite possibly know still go to bed cold and hungry even though they hold down a job and are anything but a drain on the state.
The future direction of the Labour party both in Scotland and more widely in the UK is important. Thursday 7th May was simply a warning of things to come for, in Scotland Labour was punished for getting into bed with the Tories in the referendum, but just as important was their failure to honour the devo-max pledges after it. Labour more generally suffered because it talked of combating social inequality and yet repeatedly voted for austerity. Spoke of opportunity and change and yet behaved like feudal overlords in Scotland, storming off to a friendly press like petulant children when their fiefdom was taken away from them. Claimed to still be the party that protected the vulnerable and yet joined in the right-wing witch hunt of immigrants and people on benefits, Rachel Reeves' comment about being for working people and that being the clue, perhaps the most damning indictment of how far Labour now is from the party of Keir Hardie. Labour’s failure to have a consistent message let alone one that matched actions with words was what undid them, throw in a leader who suffered from credibility issues from day one and in hindsight it is perhaps more puzzling to wonder why we thought they stood a chance in the first place.
Still not feeling any sympathy? Understandable, not least as none of the above will come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog or others of a similar pro-independence stripe. But the task facing the two people who seek to lead what remains of Labour is monumental. Across the UK they need to rebuild trust and revitalise a party shattered by a defeat the likes of which hasn’t been seen in three decades (and in 115 years of history in Scotland). On top of that they have contradictory messages on how to proceed coming their way, the whisper of past success and the boorish braying of the “British” on the right. The silence of an English electorate that is not engaged and does not trust them to keep their word let alone be an alternative to Cameron, and the sound rejection by Scotland on the left.
But even that is not all, as much as the actions of the Conservative regime will help decide if the Union survives, so too will Labour’s. If Labour tacks to the right it will almost certainly never win in Scotland again and make it difficult for the SNP to do anything but push for another referendum. If it tacks left it may yet save the union, Scotland might return to the fold. It might not, but make it easier for the SNP to stand with them as a coalition of willing progressives.
Believe it or not it also has ramifications for an independent Scotland, were Labour to go right, the Scottish party may cease to exist as it is absorbed by the others because Scotland’s last memory of the people’s party was that the people were the wealthy few not the struggling many. If it goes left it would mean that we had a credible alternative to the SNP helping keep our future a democratic one. So please, speaking as seditious separatist, have some sympathy for the devil, because although many of the problems are of its own making, some of them aren’t. Use all your well-learned politesse, show some courtesy and respect, because Labour were once a vital part of our defence against the Lucifers of Westminster and a final irrevocable fall could lay waste to not only our but the UK’s social democratic soul.
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This is guest post no.3 since I made my 'appeal' the other day. Guest posts are welcome on any topic (within reason!). My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.