By Robin McAlpine
I used to keep post-it notes stuck around my computer with little phrases on them which reminded me of things I thought it worth remembering. One of my most read was one of the simplest – “that’s definitely what’s going to happen unless it doesn’t”. It has innumerable applications. It’s handy if you plan to include a joke in a speech and write a note to leave yourself space for the laughter. It’s useful if you are researching a policy proposal that you ‘know’ is going to work. It’s invaluable if you’re going to prep for an interview and you have a foolproof plan for the questions you are going to be asked. When devising political strategy, it should be compulsory.
After the Scottish Labour Party’s Spring Conference, there has been quite a lot of media debate on ‘what now?’ for the party – a fairly typical example being this from Tom Peterkin in the Scotland on Sunday. Adopting multiple voices, the party itself seems to be rehearsing the same questions aloud, almost Golum-like. And across Britain the establishment has also adopted Scottish Labour as its own in a desperate attempt to persuade Scotland to be ‘rational’ and to vote for both Westminster-as-is and lots more austerity (Martin Kettle’s odd misreading of modern Britain being a good example). Hell, even highest of high Tories Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph is simply brimming over with love for his fraternal brothers in the Labour movement.
All of it runs over a range of simple themes such as ‘should they target Glasgow?’, ‘can Jim Murphy’s dynamism bring back the voters?’, ‘should they rule out an SNP pact?’ and ‘how do they reclaim the left from the SNP?’. In most cases these are discussed not so much in terms of what a cold calculation would suggest is likely to happen but rather to prove that the unlikely is still possible. In their drive to provide hope to fragile unionists out there they have largely just avoided any counterfactual reasoning – which is just to say that they studiously refuse to consider alternative scenarios and their implications. It seemed helpful if perhaps we might briefly consider some of the ‘what ifs…’ that don’t help to prop up London’s dreams of a Scottish Labour revival. So…
What if Scotland has computers?
I’m not sure what the Daily Record is telling itself right now. I also wonder what its many good journalists are thinking. I actually think the Record had a decent first half of the referendum campaign all things considered. But it has destroyed all of that with its recent embarrassing antics. Note to the mainstream media – the days when if you didn’t report it, it didn’t happen are over. We all know that the Record is willing, with complete awareness of what it is doing, to print partisan lies on its front page. We all know that it then ran an intemperate hate campaign against the person who caught them out using language they would decry if it came from anyone else.
Today I flipped through both the Scotsman and the Herald to try and find their coverage of the fall-out from the Labour Party having a clearly misogynistic speaker on its platform on the weekend of International Women’s Day. In a way I doubt anyone believes would have happened if the speaker had been an independence supporter, it was deemed unworthy of coverage (though even those feminist icons the Sun the Daily Mail thought it worth covering and though it involved a high-profile rebuke to an elected politician from his own party).
Meanwhile the tone of unionist views about Scotland becomes as objectionable as anything a Cybernat could come up with (just check out Wings for endless examples, Max Hastings and Alan Massie being the more extreme recent examples). But they don’t print it in their Scottish editions. Presumably they think that they have totally gotten away with it.
Six months ago they all loved us and desperately wanted our input into their country. They even kindly built us a cairn to make their point. That, of course, was then. Now the priority is to tell Scotland that if we think we have a right to vote how we choose and that Westminster democracy should respect our choice then we’re very much mistaken. Britain, when you told us how much you valued us in your family of nations, we didn’t realise it was going to be the Fritzl family and you were going to keep us in a basement and abuse us.
We have computers in Scotland – and the internet. You have all the right in the world to call us incestuous retards. You have all the right in the world (I’m afraid) to gerrymander the news by hiding things that might embarrass your proteges. But you may wish to factor in our discomfort at these things and the manner in which you have made us associate it with Scottish Labour when you try to weigh up just how much Jim Murphy’s dynamism is wowing us.
What if we want principle?
Jim Murphy’s ultra-Blairite chief adviser John McTernan was caught on film at a Tory Party conference fringe meeting salivating over Margaret Thatcher and listing all the rest of the public realm he was itching to privatise. Having been caught, a Labour spokesperson’s official response appears to be “what would you expect him to say to a Tory conference?”. Nothing. Fucking nothing. That’s what I expect a senior Scottish Labour figure to say to a Tory Party conference. McTernan was an extremist even in the realms of Blairite Labour. He was seen as an extreme populist using deeply unpleasant dog-whistle politics when advising the Australian government. I know this. You know this.
Jim Murphy fares little better. Everyone in UK politics knows he was further to the political right than almost any other Labour MP (and probably further to the right than a handful of Tories too). During the referendum one of our most unionist commentators swore blind it wasn’t biased to describe the Greens and the SNP disagreeing over currency as a split because it was a split and so must be reported as such. Fine. Why this journalist does not cover everything Jim Murphy says as a U-turn is therefore a question for him. Murphy can keep saying that he’s a socialist, but what if we don’t believe him? What if we’ve also read his new adviser’s advice to him in the Scotsman during the referendum (I can’t find any links to McTernan referendum articles on the Scotsman site – only four articles attributed to him despite him having been a columnist for a number of years…) in which he was advised just to lie and say he was a socialist when he clearly wasn’t?
Lots of would-be advice-givers to Scottish Labour have credited him with giving Scotland the social democratic rhetoric they think buys us off. But what if we want principle in our politicians? How are they going to square that one? And worse still, what if it all just means that we’ve concluded he’ll say anything at all, that he would even lie? Might that work against his apparent tactical genius?
What if we want a coalition?
The ‘flag before belief’ brigade (stand up Jenny Hjul) think Labour should kill the SNP momentum stone dead by simply refusing to countenance any political discussions with their politicians in the aftermath of the General Election. It is ‘obvious’ (you see) that if Labour puts a knife to its own throat and shouts ‘vote for us or we’ll do it, we’ll really do it’ then left-leaning Scots will just have to vote for them. But what if there is a bead of sweat rolling down Ed Milliband’s forehead as he says it? What if we doubt he’s going to go through with it? What if we doubt there is a mainstream political leader in Britain who won’t do what it takes to get into government, even if they have to hold their nose to do it? Hell, what if we want a coalition with a strong Scottish block? Perhaps near-unanimity among Scottish Labour MPs is driven more by hatred than by thinking through what exactly it is their going to say on the doorsteps to people who can’t see why on earth they’d be so petty?
What if we don’t want a unionist alliance?
I realise that this will cause great pain to some of our leading unionists, but what if unionism and Toryism isn’t the same thing? In fact, what if voting No and unionism isn’t quite the same thing? Some assume that the No vote now trumps all other political beliefs ever held and all 55 per cent of No voters will vote Tory to beat an SNP candidate. But what if that isn’t right – and given that the Scottish Tories are still rolling around in the 15 per cent territory for the May vote, there is much to suggest it isn’t right. What if about a quarter of them are Tories and another quarter are either Labour or Lib Dem but hate the SNP so much they can hold their noses and vote Tory. What about the other half?
Labour was already dying long before the referendum campaign kicked off. The Tory alliance and the tone of the many things they said during that campaign is what kicked the progress of their malady into a new gear. My guess is that half of No voters do not want a Tory-inflected pan-unionist politics. The No campaign used tactics like running a very personal campaign against Alex Salmond. What about the ‘I voted No because I don’t like that Alex Salmond’ people? You think they are itching for a Milliband or a Cameron?
I’ve always guesstimated that the number of true unionists in Scotland (those for whom Scottish independence would be a deal breaker under any circumstance) is probably about 30 per cent. The unionist parties share about 50 per cent of the votes in current opinion polls. Labour lost ten percentage points the last time it was seen to be in a pan-unionist coalition and anyone who thinks it is incapable of losing another ten per cent isn’t paying attention to Labour’s vote-shedding skills. Using Tory votes to try and save Labour at Westminster might not only lose Labour Scotland forever but could potentially shift the ten per cent of voters into the Yes camp that would see the end of Britain.
What if Labour doesn’t win Glasgow – or does win Edinburgh?
It’s a tough thing perception – you might not have done anything to create it and yet you may be completely unable to escape it. Image what might happen if one or other side of Labour’s ‘let’s focus on…’ debate wins. Imagine first of all that Labour fights to win Glasgow but doesn’t succeed. What then for a party of the working classes, unable to win a fight in working class Scotland? Now imagine what happens if Labour thinks it can’t win Glasgow and quietly focusses on the more socially conservative middle-class No-voting Scotland. Imagine if it loses. Or just as bad, imagine if it wins. If it loses, its finished. If it wins, it’s a party of the centre-right middle class – or the leading party of Westminster unionism. So Labour only has one strategy which is to fight and win the lot. Which it can’t do. All outcomes send out a message that Labour is no longer the party of working class Scotland and is then either universally loathed or is actually the party of me-first Scotland. How much ‘man of the working classes’ rhetoric will Murphy have to spew out to ‘overcome’ that?
What if Jim Murphy is neither good nor popular?
This might well be the hardest question for the unionist media of them all – what if Jim Murphy is actually a much weaker politician than some believe and has only got this far in his career because he has only picked a fight when a bigger kid has his back. So sure he’ll fight for Blair in the Labour Party when Blair was untouchable. Sure he’ll fight for Trident when NATO and all its forces are there to help. Sure he’ll fight for the union so long as every newspaper is there to make his shambolic ‘tour’ sound competent. But what if Murphy’s real skill was to identify a rigged fight and to thrown himself at the inevitably winning side? What if his policy diarrhoea turns out to be desperation and not wisdom, that he struggles to make it all sound coherent or serious when cross-examined? What if the character traits that get lobby journalists in Westminster excited (which seem to me to be arrogance, lack of self-doubt and the ability to sound plausible when telling something other than the truth) don’t work as well with voters? What if people just think he is creepy and insincere, a waverer who will say anything? When the unionists positively threw their eggs into the Jim Murphy basket, did anyone pause for so much as a second to consider if there was any risk in this?
What if we’re not stupid?
In the end, all this Labour stuff really revolves around one basic strategy. It is largely based on McTernan’s time in Australia and his enduring belief that citizens are basically stupid and can be manipulated through dog-whistles (and that they never remember the last dog whistle nor ever hear any of the ones they’re not supposed to). They have lost left-of-centre Scotland by being anything but left-of-centre so pick 30 words that left-of-centre people like, invent lines and policies that have those words in them, say it over and over and deny everything else. For a while our brains will protest (‘but didn’t he say he liked tuition fees…’). Until eventually our poor wee brains will give up and we will just accept Murphy’s dominion.
Which is definitely what will happen. Unless it doesn’t.