Gravedigger? Or Saviour?
By Gordon Guthrie @gordonguthrie
Is He The Gravedigger?
A popular meme among the ’45 leaning Twitter crowd. But to realistically address it, there needs to be an assessment of the current state of the Scottish Labour.
Where Stands Scottish Labour?
The ‘07 election was seen as an aberation by Labour insiders — I remember being told by a Labour pal and former MSP that the SNP would be out by Xmas. The ‘10 Westminster election seemed to confirm that Labour had just lent some voters to the SNP for Westminster — and all was basically well.
But Labour and the SNP went into the local elections held on the same day ’07 with 509 and 181 councillors respectively — they came out with 348 and 363 — in 2012 the gap widened to 394 and 425 — and critically these councillors were all over Scotland and no longer coralled up in the SNP ‘heartlands’.
Labour went into ’11 with what appeared to be a commanding poll lead. Actually the underlying figures were terrible. Alex Salmond was seen as a more credible FM than Iain Gray among Labour voters, the SNP trust figures generally were strong — the voters thought the Holyrood Goverment was doing a good job (by impressive margins). The headline poll figure tracked the UK opinion poll ratings and coverage of Westminster and unwound during the election proper. The result struck Labour like a bomb — and the SNP’s slim majority put the referendum on the table.
Confident (and as it turns out, correct this time) that its opinion polling was good on #IndyRef it plunged into the Referendum Campaign calculating that victory would put Scottish Labour in pole position to regain its rightful place in Scottish politics. If you had to summarise Scottish Labour in a single word, rightful would be it — entitlement made flesh.
- 45% gets you a narrow majority in a de Honda split seat/list parliament like Holyrood
- 45% gets you a solid defeat in a binary referendum like the #IndyRef
- 45% gets you strong government under the intentionally lethal First-Past-The-Post system used at Westminster (in a 4 party election)
Secondly, the Yes campaign spent 2 years encouraging, engaging and inspiring its voters and building a massive, inclusive campaigning and cultural infrastructure — and its voters are disappointed by the outcome but ambitious, engaged and enthused.
Conversely, the No campaign spent the first year trying to dampen the campaign (as had worked so successfully in the AV Referendum) by, in Willie Whitelaw’s words, going round and round the country stirring up apathy — not responding to speaker requests being the biggest example. It then spent the last 6 months scaring the living bejesus out of its voters preaching the 4 black gospels of war, famine, death and pestilence.
Its voters are relieved by the outcome, but not inspired or enthused — hence the reason Scottish Labour has membership figures so poor that the voting figures in the leadership election had to be supressed.
Thirdly, the Yes coalition was a coalition of 85% of the SNP’s core voters, 40% of Labour’s and a smattering of Tories, Liberals and smaller parties. The No coalition only includes 60% of Labour’s core voters — but only if you define core voters as people who vote Labour at Westminster.
Given that the Labour Party has now ‘lent’ the SNP a big chunk of its voters 7 times (Holyrood ’07 and ’11, local elections ’07 and ‘12, European elections ’09 and ’12 and the IndyRef) and got them back once (Westminster ‘10) — it might be argued that Labour’s Westminster vote used to consist of its core vote plus a 1/3 of the SNP’s voters on loan. Oops.
To the outsider it appears that Scottish Labour has never had a proper post-mortem on either ’07 or ’11 — and it is not clear that there will be time for anyone to have an IndyRef post-mortem before May. These repeated lacunae now look rather serious.
There’s very little evidence of it, though. The Scottish Labour Party was never ‘Blairised’ in any significant way. Run through the Leaders: Dewar, Macleish, McConnell, Alexander, Gray, Lamont. Brownites, Scottish Labour Actionites, a ‘Smithite’, thrawn Feminists — Blairites are most conspicuous by their absense. All of them worked with your bog-standard Blairites: Reid, Murphy, McKenna — but the Labour Party in Scotland was largely left to itself — and the Scottish Labour Group at Holyrood voted for the Iraq War — with a very few honourable exceptions.
The 1948 Labour Party nationalised the commanding heights of industry, Steel, Coal, Railways, Electricity as they understood it, the very sinews of war. By the time the Berlin Wall fell that class of ‘socialism’ was a dead as a doornail. The commanding heights of industry now are Amazon, Google, Apple and a host of other technology, computing and electronics companies.
This substantive political issue was what Blairism-the-movement (the ‘modernisers’ as was) was about. And it won the battle in the Labour Party convincingly in Scotland and across the UK — and was supported more strongly among ordinary party members than in the Trade Unions or MPs.
Blairism-the-leadership-cult (hello John McTernan! waves) profited mightly from it. All the other stuff (NHS reformarama, management gobbledegook, invading Iraq) was an attempt to cobble together a new centre for a movement that (like the rest of the 2nd international parties) had lost their raison d’être.
One of the problems that the Labour Party has though, is that two Blairisms are conflated. The political moment of the modernisation of the Left brought huge numbers of people into politics. If you were to simply taking Blairism-the-leadership-cult on tour again like an 80’s revival band it would be entirely hollow.
But given that the Labour MP with the most votes under his belt for that period was Jim Murphy — the fluke winner of a safe Tory seat — it is quite possible to argue Scottish Labour might have benefited from more of his style of Blairism.
Hard to say from an outsiders perspective. The Scottish Labour Party does not traditionally have a reputation for conviviality in the conventional sense. Murphy did serve on the commission which recommended more powers for the Scottish Labour Party leader — though that doesn’t appear to have been delivered on.
This is really a charge of common purpose. The Blairites (of whom Jim Murphy was one) won 3 smashing election victories (as Mr Rawnsley had occasion to point out the other week):
Tony Blair’s Parliamentary Majorities
- to dominate the centre ground in politics and use that pluralities to get into Government
- to move the centre ground in politics in the direction of their underlying ethos
New Labour ditched the old ethos of workers control, but struggled to replace it with another one. This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, the old 2nd International world is as politically dead as the Jacobins — the new world is not yet born.
Triangulation brings a couple of problems. One is that your opponents can move the centre of the debate in their direction — as the SNP has been doing in Scotland, and UKIP quite differently in England. The other is that turnout tends to fall, or can be made to fall.
The ambition was to put in place a 5 year plan to make the SNP the most successful campaigning political party in the English speaking world. (English speaking because the voter-contact led campaigning model is only really used in countries that haven’t been under the fascist or communist jackboot.) 3 inches thick in many volumes, it made hundreds of recommendations.
Needless to say it was heavily influenced by Labour’s ’97 campaigning approach and the work I did on the replacement of the venerable PCElpack with Labour.Contact— although I did a full literature review and extensively examined the Howard Dean primary campiagn for the Democratic nomination — a well that Obama later drew on for his ’08 election.
Looking back on the fantastic job that Peter Murrell and the unsung team at SNP HQ have done on building the modern party, it is intresting to see where they junked some of the key recommendations, techniques and approaches that are still in use by the Labour Party and the No campaign.
Much as I would like to, I am not about to flash the SNP’s petticoats in a public forum. Rather than going into the nitty-gritty, let me just say that the fact that the No campaign ran on pretty straight New Labour lines is one of the reasons it failed to get the victory boost and renewal that it expected to get from the IndyRef. Take my word for it.
When the No campaign was trying to avoid the maelstrom of Indyref he took the fight to the enemy. Gordon Brown relied on the tried and trust TV management techniques of speaking in front of curated made-for-telly audiences but Murphy went out and spoke to voters, come one, come all.
The pressure to change has been building within the Holyrood wing since the early days of the Parliament. Whatever the wrongs and rights of Murphy’s role in the Holyrood Vs Westminster sniping that has been endemic in Scottish Labour — he clearly has grasped the necessity of change now and is making it happen in a way that Wendy Alexander or Johan Lamont didn’t or couldn’t.
Poor Murdo Fraser takes the rôle of Cathal Goulding in Scottish Politics. If his plan to create a separate Scottish Bavarian-style CSU from the ashes of the Conservatives had come about he would have made merry hay during the IndyRef. (I personally would stick Ian Davidson down as the Ó Brádaigh figure but that’s just me). The question remains is Jim Murphy right too late?
Murphy has to appeal to Yes voters to come home to avoid a total wipeout in May— and his new team are hastily repositioning themselves to do that. But had Labour been a bit wiser during the referendum and learnt from Harold Wilson things could be very different.
Wilson allowed the Labour Party to campaign on both sides of the EEC Referendum and avoided a damaging split. If Labour had embraced the IndyRef debates positively and recognised that its voters straddled the question — they would have not only gained more members and renewal from the No side of the debate — but would also be in a position to embrace and bring in Yes activists of a Labourist and anti-SNP bent — thousands of whom are now in RIC and the SSP (even reluctantly in the SNP).
It is easy to dismiss them as crackpot Trotskyists, but that is a mistake. They did turn out 1,000 people to do a mass canvas at a time and have considerably political maturity and skills. Once upon a time the Labour Party was good at taming and maturing the mad but promising Trot, as former RCPer Jim Murphy and ex-IMG Alisdair Darling both well know: youthful moon-howlers the pair.
The SNP organisational renewal began the weekend after the SNP conference in ‘02 — with fieldwork and interviews running up to the election in May, literature review thereafter and the final report being delivered in the autumn. The practice run began in the autumn of ‘04 in Linlithgow where I was the SNP candidate for the ’05 Westminsters. The main implementation began with the Cathcart and Livingston by-elections that summer, coming to full fruit in ‘07. Even then it took another 4 years to hit the sweet spot properly.
By contrast, Scottish Labour has to fight a 50+ seat election — when it hasn’t fought more than a dozen seats at a time for nearly 20 years or longer — in 4 months time. But luckily for Jim one of those 12 seats was always Eastwood, so he actually knows what a fighting constituency looks like, unlike many of his colleagues.
As a party it has a propensity for tin-eared shows of strength that actually project weakness — think Gordon Brown continuing to seek nominations for the Leadership contest after there were no longer enough free MPs to nominate a challenger, or the ludicrous Imperial March in Glasgow where a Procession Of The Payroll was supposed to counter the (admittedly somewhat insane) exuberant mass politics of the IndyRef and duly ended up a YouTube sensation with 468,550 views.
Wee Dougie Alexander’s trumpeting of his Obama-guru is another such. Labour fights elections every year, it should be able to grow its own expertise — depending on buying in talent is pitiful, especially when they are not very good. The point about American politics is that there are a lot of Americans.
So Obama had 300,000 volunteers in his campaign? Rescaled to the UK that’s 50,000, to Scotland its less than 5,000. RIC turned out 1,000 people at a single place at a time. And I’m sure the allocation of gurudom to the now peculiarly Scottish Westminster election is a distinctly low priority — it would appear that Team Murphy is going it alone.
The last Clause 4 debate came after half a decade of slog — with this sudden one the SNP will be banging on him U-turning — a charge that will resonate with many of his new target voters — Yesser’s. And quite rightly too (if any one in the broadcast media needs a rent-a-quote on the subject you have my contact details. Synthetic outrage a speciality).
Its also clear that the election campaign will be made with what is to hand — telephone canvass returns from the IndyRef cut with Mosaic classifications of social class and a traditional Labour Media grid. Scottish Labour will struggle with money and manpower but a small team can run a good grid if they know what they’re about (and they do).
SNPer’s whinging on Twitter about how “he’s never off the telly” better get used to it. His team already have a full grid to May, with announcements, schemes and plans to get him in the Sunday papers and on the politics shows. The SNP really needs to raise its game and go toe-to-toe on it.
Never forget that the telly and the papers have space to fill under a hard deadline, and if you can reliably give them something of interest they will use it. The answer is a crisp and strategic media team not droning about MSM on your blog.
But his problems won’t end in May. Off the back of that it goes straight into the Holyrood election campaign, and he has to break the stranglehold his duff Holyrood team have on the list seats, but that is another story altogether.