The Dunfermline victory can’t disguise Scottish Labour’s difficulties

Despite the party's by-election success, all the signs still point towards another SNP-controlled parliament in 2016.

Is the news from Dunfermline this morning another sign of Scottish Labour’s revival? Having managed to hold on to Glasgow city council last year despite a determined challenge from the SNP and, more recently, slash the nationalists’ majority in Aberdeen Donside, you could be forgiven for thinking things were starting to turn back in the party’s favour.

In reality, Cara Hilton’s victory – emphatic though it was – does nothing to change the current direction of Scottish politics. The SNP won the constituency in 2011 by just 590 votes and its MSP, Bill Walker, was (eventually) forced to resign the seat after being convicted of 23 counts of domestic abuse against three ex-wives and a step-daughter. Dunfermline is not, at any rate, natural SNP territory.

The more pressing question is why Labour has made so little progress over the last two years. Although the polls have narrowed in recent months, the SNP maintains a four to five point lead over Labour in terms of Holyrood voting intentions. Moreover, Salmond’s administration enjoys strong underlying approval ratings: 57 per cent of the Scottish electorate (together with 53 per cent of Labour voters) are satisfied with the performance of the Scottish government. These are impressive numbers for a party halfway through its second term in office. 

To some extent, Labour’s problem is presentational. It hasn’t yet persuaded Scots that it is an authentically Scottish party, run from Scotland, in Scotland’s interests. Nor can it offer a clearly defined policy platform. Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has established a commission to review the party’s approach to universal benefits. While they wait for the commission’s report, however, her colleagues are tying themselves in knots trying to carve out coherent positions on concessionary travel, free prescriptions and university funding.

But Labour also faces a deeply-rooted, structural challenge. The party has lost support at every Holyrood election since the first in 1999. From a peak of nearly 910,000 constituency and 785,000 list votes under Donald Dewar, it slumped to a low of 630,000 constituency and 525,000 list votes in 2011 under Iain Gray.

Significantly, the largest fall in its vote share didn’t occur in 2007 or 2011, as a result of a surge in SNP popularity. It occurred in 2003, when large chunks of the left vote broke away to smaller, more radical parties such as the Scottish Socialists and the Greens. These voters haven’t returned to Labour and there is little sign that they intend to.

There has been a broader weakening of Labour’s base, too. At the 2011 elections, Labour trailed the nationalists by 14 per cent among Scots who identified themselves as working class and by 19 per cent among Scots who qualified as working class according to official criteria. The SNP was also the party of choice for public sector workers, trade unionists and even Catholics, all of whom Labour would once have considered part of its natural constituency.

Labour is entitled to celebrate the Dunfermline result. The party fought doggedly, against a typically well organised nationalist campaign, to take the seat. But it shouldn’t let this modest success disguise the scale of the task at hand. All the signs still point towards another SNP-controlled parliament in 2016. 

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder