Scottish Labour’s identity crisis

New leader Johann Lamont has to develop a coherent political and constitutional alternative to the S

New leader Johann Lamont has to develop a coherent political and constitutional alternative to the SNP - but what it is?

Johann Lamont woke up this morning leader of a party which has lost all sense of itself. Over the last six or seven years, Scottish Labour has watched as the SNP has gradually appropriated much of its traditional left-of-centre agenda. Now, with a nationalist majority at Holyrood, Labour finds its ideological identity absorbed into a new Scottish consensus, with little or no space to build a distinctive progressive alternative.
 
Lamont's over-arching task is clear. She has to demonstrate that Labour amounts to more than just the anti-independence party; that it has a coherent political and economic vision for Scotland.
 
This will be more difficult than it sounds. If she shifts the party to the centre, she will run it straight into an electoral brick-wall. A large part of the SNP's success can be attributed to the sense of frustration many Scots came to feel with New Labour's neo-liberal project. Alex Salmond understood this and, despite his own baffling fixation with Ireland's low-tax, light-touch economy, developed a package of policies - including free university education and an integrated health service - which adhered more closely to the broad social-democratic instincts of the Scottish electorate.
 
On the other hand, if Lamont tries to outflank the nationalists on the left Labour's support will be reduced to a shrinking core vote in its central belt and west coast heartlands. Lamont has already tested this approach - at the elections in May - and it produced disastrous results. That's not to say there isn't room for Labour to attack Salmond from the left - the First Minister's plans to lower corporation tax and his close relationship to some members Scotland's disgraced financial elite leave him open to charges of fiscal conservatism. In order to be effective, though, such attacks would have form part of a wider strategy which draws in sections of society beyond the party's trade union and public sector base.
 
Lamont faces a similar dilemma when it comes to the constitution. The break-up of Britain terrifies Labour, so much so, in fact, that its response to the SNP's May victory was to retreat into a kind of extreme, reactionary Unionism. In recent months, senior Labour figures have described the nationalists as "neo-fascist", accused them of trying to "rig" the referendum ballot and made repeated - and usually unsubstantiated - claims about online smear campaigns run by pro-independence activists. Yet the angrier Labour has become and the more aggressively it has rejected real constitutional reform, the lower its poll ratings have sunk.
 
What should be absolutely clear is that the status-quo - which here refers to both the current devolutionary settlement and Calman's loaded exchange of fiscal powers - is a non-starter. Scottish public opinion demands more and, by now, Lamont must have realised that. But she must also be aware that were she to embrace either devo-max or full-fiscal autonomy, she would be conceding 90 per cent of the case for independence. A federal Britain would see the Scottish Parliament gain responsibility for all aspects of government in Scotland except defence and foreign affairs. That means the case for the UK would rest on Trident, a seat on the UN Security Council and not much else. Is that the role Labour really wants to play in Scotland, as the principal defender of Britain's dangerous, redundant and hugely expensive nuclear missile system?
 
Whatever road Lamont decides to take her party down, she should be in no doubt that its future hangs in the balance. As her defeated opponent Tom Harris warned during the leadership contest, Scottish Labour has reached a pivotal moment in its history and failure to live up to the challenges ahead will result in "well-deserved obscurity and irrelevance". Serious shock therapy is needed to resolve this crisis of identity - who knows if Lamont is capable of administering it.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.