The surge of the SNP could tip Labour into losing many of its seats in Scotland in next year’s election. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour’s Scotland problem

The idea that a new Scottish Labour leader might be a panacea for the party, as some suggest, is nonsense. Labour’s Scottish problem is deep and structural.

A few weeks before the 2011 Scottish general election, a perplexed Ed Miliband asked a New Statesman staff member why we had published a leader about Scotland in which we warned of the consequences of a victory for the Scottish National Party. His bafflement reflected a fundamental truth: for too long, Labour had been complacent about Scotland and seemed not to have understood the forces that were powering the rise of the SNP and the wider independence movement. It was deservedly routed in that election, which set us on the path to where we are today, with the SNP established as the natural party of government in Scotland.

Labour’s troubles are many in Scotland. It has long since lost the support and respect of the intelligentsia – the writers, commentators, musicians and artists who create a climate and culture. Worse, it has given the impression of neglecting its core vote. This is not just a Scotland-specific phenomenon. In 2010, there was a turnout of just 58.9 per cent in the 100 safest Labour seats.

Labour’s Scottish problem, then, is perhaps less one of policy than of tone and perception. The party has allowed a chasm to grow between itself and the electorate. Too many in Labour regarded Scotland as home territory, where easy wins could be recorded. Devolution was seen as an end, rather than the beginning of a process that would lead to Scotland gaining even greater autonomy.

The surge of the SNP, whose membership has risen from 25,000 to 92,000 in the three months since the referendum, could tip Labour into losing many of its seats in Scotland in next year’s election. (It holds 41 out of 59 in total.) In 2010 the SNP won six seats at Westminster; even conservative estimates predict that the figure could treble next May. And it is not only the SNP which is rising: the Scottish Green Party now has 8,000 members. (Scottish Labour is believed to have no more than 10,000.)

The resignation of Johann Lamont, and the resulting leadership election, offers Scottish Labour an opportunity to reinvigorate itself. After decades of treating Scotland as little more than a one-party state, it faces the urgent task of rebuilding its movement and making itself relevant again for the people whom it was established to represent.

Jim Murphy is expected to win the leadership of Scottish Labour on 13 December. He would be a sensible choice. He is a former cabinet minister and an independent thinker, and he would have the authority to challenge the party at Westminster. [Editor's note: Jim Murphy did win the leadership contest.]

In his 100-day tour to save the Union during the referendum campaign, Mr Murphy showed an admirable relish for the fight and a gift for popular communication. With the exception of Gordon Brown, he was the most impressive of the Westminster politicians who fought to defend the Union. Over recent weeks, Mr Murphy has run an energetic and pragmatic campaign. Unfairly caricatured as a “Blairite”, he has come belatedly to support greater devolution. He has shown skill in explaining what connects his challenging upbringing in Glasgow to his commitment to Labour.

His supporters hope that his election as leader will herald an era of renewal for Labour as well as demonstrating that a politician of ambition need not leave Scotland in order to have an influential and fulfilling career.

However, the idea that a new Scottish Labour leader might be a panacea for the party, as some suggest, is nonsense. Labour’s Scottish problem is deep and structural. Many on the left have given up on the party altogether. Radical pro-independence groupings are flourishing. And Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader, is intent on returning to Westminster. For too long complacent, Labour now understands the strength of the opposition to it in Scotland. If it cannot win here, its chances of ever governing again as a majority party in Westminster are bleak indeed.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear