Scottish voters are abandoning Labour for the SNP. Photo: Getty
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Scottish Labour abandoned social democracy to the SNP – and now it's paying the price

How the party is being "Pasokified".

Before last year's independence referendum, there was a broad consensus among unionists. A defeat for the Yes campaign would rob nationalism of its momentum. With the SNP humbled, Scottish politics could return to a more stable dynamic: Labour dominant at Westminster and – at the very least – competitive at Holyrood.

Jim Murphy's election as Scottish Labour leader was the first sign that normalcy was reasserting itself. In contrast to his underwhelming (and overwhelmed) predecessor, the East Renfrewshire MP was a substantial politician. As a member of the shadow cabinet and former minister in both the Blair and Brown governments, he had the experience to match Nicola Sturgeon.

Murphy himself encouraged this view. Despite a series of polls showing the SNP with an unprecedented double-digit lead in terms of Westminster voting intentions, he confidently predicted Labour would retain every one of its 40 Scottish seats at the general election in May. Indeed, as recently as two weeks ago, Murphy derided the nationalists for their apparent complacency. "I’m just astonished by how quickly they’ve run out of ideas", he told the website BuzzFeed. "[They are] sluggish, lethargic, and off the pace".

But any lingering hope that the old rules still apply in post-referendum Scotland evaporated last Wednesday with the publication of Lord Ashcroft's constituency surveys. Scottish Labour's urban fortresses are crumbling in the face of a sustained SNP surge. Dozens of once unassailable Labour seats now look set to switch from red to yellow in three months' time.

It's difficult to exaggerate the significance of Ashcroft's findings. The SNP's best result (so far) at a UK general election came in October 1974, when the party won 11 seats and 30 per cent of the vote. That was 41 years ago. Scotland was in the first blush of an oil revolution, its industrial economy was grinding to a halt and nationalism remained a relatively novel force. Since then, the SNP has been repeatedly squeezed at Westminster. In 2010, Alex Salmond set a target of 20 SNP MPs. He ended up with six. The fact that 20 now seems like a modest ambition for the former first minister illustrates how dramatically the Scottish political landscape has changed.

Some commentators think Scottish Labour's collapse is the result of a) its decision to cooperate with the Tories as part of Better Together during the referendum and/or b) its failure to stop the SNP positioning itself as an anti-Westminster insurgent. Others see it as symptomatic of Ed Miliband's weak leadership. "Labour’s credibility in Scotland rests on whether it is a plausible government in waiting", argues The Guardian's Martin Kettle. "If Scots believe that Labour will form a government, the Labour vote will remain reasonably solid".

All these things factor into the mix. But Scottish Labour is suffering from a much deeper – and to some extent self-inflicted – process of attrition. The process began in the mid-1990s, as Blair and Brown exchanged Labour's post-war interventionism for a programme of liberalised markets and finance-led growth. In response, Salmond carefully manoeuvred the SNP into the vacant left-of-centre space. The strategy worked. Research from the period confirms that Scots started to view the SNP as a progressive alternative to Blairism.

The first big break came at the 2003 Holyrood election: Labour lost 250,000 constituency and 225,000 list votes, the single biggest fall in its vote share at any point over the devolutionary era. Left-leaning voters – notably Catholics, trade unionists and public sectors – bled-away from Labour, moving first towards smaller, more radical parties such as the Greens and the SSP, and then towards the SNP, resulting in ever-larger electoral gains for Salmond.

The decisive rupture occurred last year, when traditional Labour strongholds such as Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and Dundee rejected the party line and voted in favour of independence. Appalled by the flaccid conservatism of the Better Together campaign, large numbers of working-class Scots (although by no means all) embraced constitutional radicalism. On 18 September, Scottish Labour won the referendum and saved the Union, but it did so at the cost of Labour Scotland.

The only appropriate term for what is happening to Scottish Labour is "Pasokification". Just as Greek voters abandoned PASOK, the established party of Greek social democracy, for Syriza, so Scottish voters are abandoning Labour for the SNP (albeit more gradually and under less acute conditions). Clearly, neither Salmond nor Sturgeon is Alexis Tsipras, and the current Scottish government can be frustratingly cautious in its approach to reform. But the overarching trend is unmistakable: in Scotland, the old left hegemony is breaking down and a new one forming in its place.

Murphy has a two part plan to tackle this crisis. First, he intends to strengthen Scottish Labour's patriotic and working-class identity, hence his headline-grabbing pledge to use the revenues generated by Miliband's proposed tax on mansions (the bulk of which are located in London and the south east) to hire 1000 more Scottish nurses. Second, he aims to remind people that the SNP is – and has been now for the best part of eight years – a party of government. "They’ve managed to have this kind of dual identity, of being the government and the opposition", he says. "But in the public’s mind I want to put the SNP where they’ve rarely been, which is responsible for their own mistakes."

The irony, however, is that Murphy himself embodies many of Scottish Labour's most egregious mistakes. Like other talented Labour Scots, he overlooked Holyrood in order to build a career at Westminster. Until late last year, he was a champion of Blairite modernisation. He is an outspoken Atlanticist who supported the Iraq war and wants Trident – the bête noire of progressive Scotland – renewed in full, whatever the cost. Worse yet, he campaigned alongside Tory activists at a grassroots level to deliver a No vote in September. One way or the other, Jim Murphy is tied to everything currently working against Scottish Labour's long-term chances of survival. That's not to say it won't survive the upcoming election. The polls will narrow between now and May, as the prospect of a Tory victory consolidates Labour's core vote. But beyond that, who knows? Scotland simply, almost dispassionately, seems to be moving on.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

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