Sunday, May 31, 2015

This is why Labour may never recover

If you want a startling insight into the comprehensive failure of commentators down south to "get" the enormity of what has just happened to Labour in Scotland, you could do worse than listen to the latest episode of the Polling Matters podcast. The early part of the show is full of penetrating commentary about what Labour should and should not do in trying to recover its position, and it's significant that this comes from Scottish-based contributors - Professor Curtice and George Foulkes (yes, really!). Curtice is on particularly fine form, delivering what he must know will be a deeply unwelcome message for much of the English political class - namely that Labour simply can't afford to move to the right to chase the fabled "aspirational" vote in England, because there is clear evidence that the voters they lost in Scotland are mostly left-wing people who noticed that the SNP's positioning is closer to their own views. And it's practically impossible for Labour to win an overall majority without recovering a significant number of their former Scottish seats, because they would otherwise require a 12-point nationwide lead over the Tories, almost on a par with the record set in 1997.

So left-wing voters in Scotland suddenly matter. Curtice isn't saying that Labour should move to the left to accommodate them (that would be suicidal in southern England, after all), but he's pointing out that both sides of the equation are equally important. No longer is it the case that Blairites have a "free hit" in pushing Labour to the right in pursuit of votes in Middle England, safe in the knowledge that Scottish lefties have "nowhere else to go".

You'd think this would be an utterly unanswerable point, but it seems that the notion of the impotent Scottish voter is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of the southern commentariat that not even an electoral tsunami can displace it. The podcast's two English-based contributors, Rob Vance and Leo Barasi, are asked for their views on Curtice's analysis, and immediately launch into a scattergun assault, spurting out every reason they can possibly think of for why it MUST be wrong. They don't even seem to notice that many of the reasons are directly contradictory.

'The SNP didn't win because they were able to position themselves to the left of Labour. It was SNP competence in government that did the trick.'

This is just a modified version of the old "nowhere else to go" argument. The implication is that Labour can do whatever it takes to win English votes, and the Scottish problem will just magically sort itself out as long as the party looks "competent".

'Scots voted in huge numbers for Gordon Brown in 2010 because they thought he had done well by Scotland, and they came to the same conclusion this time about Nicola Sturgeon. They looked at Ed Miliband and didn't want him as Prime Minister.'

The suggestion here is that the unprecedented swing in 2015 was just a superficial thing caused by leadership and perceptions of relative competence, and that Labour can easily reverse the process in 2020 by having a better leader. The painful soul-searching that would be required in England after a landslide defeat is apparently an optional extra in Scotland, and just the thought of it is really rather tiresome.

'In terms of winning in England, chasing left-wing votes in Scotland could be almost irrelevant to the argument.'

Curtice didn't say it was relevant to winning in England. He said it was relevant to winning in Scotland, where Labour need to win because of the electoral arithmetic. You guys really are struggling with this "Scotland mattering" concept, aren't you?

'Scotland isn't really more left-wing than England.'

It sure as hell has a track record of voting for identifiably left-wing parties. You'd think after five decades that pattern would have been noticed by now, even in London. Apparently not.

'It's all very well saying that you need to appeal to left-wing voters in Scotland, but what does that really mean?'

Absolutely, do these weird people in Scotland even KNOW THEIR OWN MINDS?

'Labour can't afford to go Blairite because of Scotland?  Well, Tony Blair wasn't too bad at winning in Scotland, was he?  You didn't think of that, did you?  Hmmmm?   HMMMM?'

Blairism wasn't discredited in Scotland at the moment of Blair's election. It was what he did in office that made the brand toxic. It's no coincidence that the SNP were first elected to government just weeks before Blair stepped down as PM in 2007 - they probably wouldn't have been if he had done his own party a favour and departed a little earlier.

'The Tories are going to go so far on constitutional reform that Labour will need an English majority to hold power anyway, so Scotland doesn't really matter.'

Hang on, I thought you said that Scotland didn't matter because we would just dutifully fall into line as before? Which is it? Labour had certainly better hope that they're not reliant on winning an English majority, because the electoral mountain that would have to be climbed isn't going away any time soon - in fact, boundary changes will just make it a whole lot worse.

'Labour don't have to worry about Scotland because the Tories will get them off the hook by introducing full fiscal autonomy, which let's face it the SNP don't want, because there would be a £7 billion black hole. That will make Labour's challenge north of the border less difficult.'

Let's face it, my friend, you could have saved us all time by having "ME NO UNDERSTAND JOCKLAND" tattooed on your forehead. Or maybe "A DEFICIT IS ONLY A BLACK HOLE WHEN IT'S A JOCK DEFICIT". By the way, the Tories are currently doing a bloody good impersonation of a government that has no intention of even honouring the Smith agreement in full, let alone introducing full fiscal autonomy - which I think you'll find was one of the flagship policies in the SNP's manifesto.

Make no mistake about it - these are the siren voices of complacency about Scotland that are currently dominating the debate over Labour's future. Unless the Scottish party can make its own voice heard (harder than ever with almost no presence at Westminster), there may be no way back for it.  Not this side of independence, at any rate.


  1. I'm noticing a definite trend: from articles about "Why Labour Failed" through "What Labour Needs To Do To Recover" to "Why Labour May Never Recover". On the whole this displays excellent progress! I'm still hoping for "Why the SNP Won Big" and "What the SNP Needs To Do To Win REALLY Big" but I fear I may end up having to write those myself. And you don't want that.

  2. So left-wing voters in Scotland suddenly matter. Curtice isn't saying that Labour should move to the left to accommodate them (that would be suicidal in southern England, after all), but he's pointing out that both sides of the equation are equally important. No longer is it the case that Blairites have a "free hit" in pushing Labour to the right in pursuit of votes in Middle England, safe in the knowledge that Scottish lefties have "nowhere else to go".

    That doesn't make both sides of the equation equally important. In Scotland, Labour are competing with a party which will probably vote against a Tory government, so any seats Labour lose here don't significantly reduce their chances of taking power. That isn't the case in England. Therefore, it's vastly more important for Labour that their next leader appeals to the electorate south of the border than north of it.

    Boundary changes will undoubtedly make things more difficult for them, but Blair handily won three majorities in England alone. With the sole exception of 2010, Labour have lost every national election in Scotland for a decade. Their best bet is to write Scotland off, go for Blair 2.0, and portray themselves as more competent Tories.

    1. That theory only works if they prenegotiate a deal with the SNP, which still means accommodating left-wing Scottish voters, albeit in a slightly different way. If they don't prenegotiate, they can't plausibly portray themselves in England as Blairites, because everyone will know the SNP will hold undefined influence.

      Labour have got to address their Scottish problem one way or another - they simply can't take power unless they do.

    2. Yes, the fly in the ointment is that voters in England appear to be turned off Labour if they think they're going to rely on SNP support. There isn't really an answer to that other than to hope the Tories eventually become unpopular enough to offset the SNP effect.

      But going "left" in an attempt to recover in Scotland would just make things even worse for them in England, while possibly not even working in Scotland. All existing evidence is that modern England will only vote Labour if it's led by Blair. Without him they can't even beat joke leaders like John Major.

    3. Let's not forget that the SNP victory has affected Labour's chances of winning in 2020 in another way. Losing 40 seats is bad for a UK wide political party but losing 35 or so safe seats is even worse. Until now Labour could divert campaigning resources from safe seats in Scotland like Coatbridge or Glasgow North East to campaign in marginals in England. Now they've lost that completely. In fact, Labour are faced by a sea of marginals. Almost no seat is truly safe for them nowadays outside of the North of England or the Welsh Valleys.

    4. @Anon. Follow the money. Those 40 MP's were worth over a £million a year in Short money. That will hurt. Their membership has shrunk - and with it the subs and the boots on the ground. They quality of SNP people the voters elected is far higher than anything Labour has to put against them right now. It is clear that the SNP actually now have the best people.

      Its only the BBC which stands in the way now of the SNP becoming dominant in Scotland. I cannot see any chance of Labour gaining traction in Scotland for at least 10 years now.

    5. Labour could go left, but only if they do a Yes/RIC and wake up and energise the disaffected and apathetic. There is a large constituency out there in England just waiting for someone to go get it. I don't think UKIP have got what it takes but they might. Labour don't seem to be doing anything to persuade white working class kippers that they deserve their vote either.

      But fighting over a reducing set of voters seems to be just fine and dandy for the big three parties (can we still talk about the LibDems that way?). I think the Greens should go get them, but I'm not sure they know how without alienating them. They need a RIC to do it for them.

      The other problem of course is I doubt modern Labour will be in any way receptive to the policies these people will want, too far outside their comfort zone. They would all be bigots to them.

  3. The only way back for Labour in Scotland would be to adopt left of centre political policies but that will only happen if the SNP abandon that ground.
    As long as Nicola is FM that just isn't going to happen so there is nowhere for them to go unless they decide to become like their party in England and adopt Tory values.
    What has happened in Scotland has been a long time in the making and is not the result of a sudden outbreak of nationalism or a protest vote,despite what some ex Labour MPs might think.
    Once people break out of the Labour voting mind set,there will be no going back.
    We don't need a new centre left party in Scotland,we already have one in the SNP.

    1. agreed.....if you look at how the Tory vote share dropped post Thatcher...Labour are following the same trend over the same time period....

  4. The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

    To convert this to political terms substitute "London commentators" for "monkeys" and "a sensible assessment of what has happened" for "the complete works of William Shakespeare".

    Voters will not wait that long.

    1. That's why the London papers are now embracing digital, because on the internet no one can see they're monkeys.

  5. "and George Foulkes (yes, really!)."

    Hahahahahahahahahaaa!! :-D

    No wonder Stormfront Lite/PB is crawling with out of touch and angry anti-scottish bigots.

  6. Labour have passed the tipping point up here
    one former Labour MP said that she could have offered everyone £100 notes at the doorstep whilst canvassing and it would have made no difference...people just do not want to listen to Labour anymore.....
    They flipped so many times even when they are telling the truth they are not trusted...
    They have lost the young....around 75% of young voters vote other than Labour...
    In a debate regarding zero hours contracts only 6 Labour MPs attended opposed to around 40 SNP MPs..
    In many peoples eyes they are treated with the same contempt as the tories and their vote share is on the same downward spiral as the tories followed post thatcher...

    there are so many reasons to think Labour are on a downward spiral towards the floor

  7. Interesting indeed. On a totally different matter, James. PLEASE would you look at EU Citizens for an Independent Scotland on Facebook, where I have been fighting a lonely - but like you, I think, important - battle to stop people taking the 'split vote' fantasy which was being promoted, with potentially serious consequences in the Sunset Times. I've been hammering away on the 'real world of politics' angle but it desperately needs your intervention on the technical facts of how the individual regional list votes would work. I am about to go travelling and will not be able to continue the battle. Please could you pick it up with at least one heavy weight intervention? They need your expertise rather badly.

    1. Nigel, I wrote an article about this that I submitted to Wings yesterday, but he hasn't got back to me about it yet. It may be that he doesn't think the issue is important. Or maybe the article isn't good enough.

      If Wings doesn't want it, the article is going begging for anyone else that wants it.

      Of course, James has published two of his own on the subject, on Scot Goes Pop.

    2. Hi Nigel, I finally found it. It says this -

      "Thanks point taken, Nigel's advice taken from Scotpop has been removed"

      It sounds like they've already censored something taken from here, so it's doubtful that I would even be allowed to take part in the discussion. There's no reasoning with people who will simply delete any comments that challenge their own views.

    3. Oh dear, that's sad.

      I maintain that this delusion probably only affects a few dozen people and almost certainly won't have any effect beyond statistical noise in the actual election. It still needs countered though.

      I wouldn't bother trying to change the minds of the people who have fallen for it. They're beyond reason. The more important thing is to have the rational counter-argument available so that people in danger of being sucked in can be put right.

  8. The rot started so many years ago, what we are left with in Scottish Labour is a dead tree - still standing, but completely hollowed out from within, an empty husk. The "Labour Recovery" horse bolted many years ago. It's too late for that now. 2007 was the last chance they had to sort things out, but they failed to retain the initiative, and once the SNP became established as a party of government, that was it. Another chance did present itself in the referendum, when they could/should have supported a second question on devomax. I believe the party rank and file would have supported this, but the unionist instincts (and hatred of the SNP) of the leadership prevented this. The only solution now is for a completely independent Scottish Labour Party that supports Scottish independence (or at the very least, FFA).

    However, even if they have the guts to grasp this big nettle, it would still take at least a generation to recover, because the SNP are now so deeply embedded, and most people don't change their voting habits very often (if at all). They had one or two big chances to change the course of history during the last decade, but they blew them and now they are history.

    1. Someone pointed out in this context the effect of the new intake of SNP MPs at Westminster. Aside from all the ridiculous press sniping about chip butties and jockeying for seats and clapping, it's becoming increasingly obvious that the calibre of people elected for the SNP last month is light years ahead of much of the buggins-turn dross that's been getting "safe" Labour seats over the years.

      As these MPs start to make their mark in parliament, which they will have much more opportunity to do than the previous single-figure voices in the wilderness could hope for, this will hard-wire the SNP even more deeply into Scots' voting habits.

  9. "Labour can easily reverse the process in 2020 by having a better leader."

    If they think the current candidates for the Labour Leadership will deliver a "better leader" they are living in Cloud Cuckooland.

  10. Our first Yougov UK VI subsample for Scotland, weighted to the May 7th result:

    56% SNP
    20% Lab
    15% Con
    5% Lib

    And this is how respondents from Scotland answered this question:

    Thinking about the future of Scotland, how likely or unlikely do you think is now it that Scotland will become an independent country in the next ten years?

    30% It is almost certain that Scotland will become independent in the next ten years
    35% It is more likely than not that Scotland will become independent in the next ten years
    NET 65% Likely

    16% It is more likely than not that Scotland will still be part of the UK in ten years time
    14% It is almost certain that Scotland will still be part of the UK in ten years time
    NET 30% Unlikely

  11. Labour have been in decline in Scotland since the 60's; same as the Tories, but just less pronounced and masked by (essentially) tactical voting for Westminster, notably since devolution.

    Over the same period, the yellow liberal vote (SNP + Lib) has been steadily increasing from its mid 20th century trough. Last time the yellow vote dominated in Scotland was prior to WW1. That gave rise to the Scottish Home Rule Bill 1913 before the war got in the way.

  12. 'the Scottish problem will just magically sort itself out as long as the party looks "competent".'

    For that to happen even if it were true, first Labour would have to manage to look competent rather than furious. Even in London, Labour (with a few notable exceptions) still seem too infuriated to manage to work with the SNP. This is not going to help their argument in the least.

  13. Labour can no longer stand on both sides of a left/right argument. It's more or less decided that in England, it was not right wing enough. In Scotland - well they have not even begun to have this conversation with themselves. Although they do appear to have retreated into "SNP BAD" territory like a scared kid reaching for a security blanket.

    One way forward for Scottish labour that I have seen written and even suggested myself, would be fir it to break completely with the UK party. Win back the vote it gifted to the SNP and then pre-negotiate a supply and confidence arrangement with the UK party. The only problem I see with this is that it will come under exactly the same attacks that the SNP did.

    By attacking the SNP for "propping up" a labour government - a line was crossed that meant that Scotland can't vote for any party now in the UK that won't be portrayed as an attempt to exert undue influence in the UK. So the old argument that Scotlands voice is so impotent that it must vote for the Scottish branch of an English party, crashed and burned like Scottish labour did.