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Labour's problems in Scotland go well beyond Jim Murphy

Labour's troubles in Scotland go beyond left and right, and there's blame to be shared on both sides of the border. 

The election result in Scotland was for us in the Labour Party nothing short of cataclysmic.

For those of us who spent our evenings and weekends knocking on doors for our party, being on the receiving end of abuse by Cybernats on twitter, and having cameras shoved in our face by angry nationalists trying to shame us from participating in democracy, it was a bitter blow.  A bitter blow that is all the more painful for the ill-informed backbiting that has followed.

In the past week we’ve seen blame being heaped on the Scottish Labour Party, the UK Labour Party, Jim Murphy, ‘Red Tories’, ‘Tartan Tories’ and everyone else on the political spectrum.  They braying mob may have Jim’s head but –whether you agree with his politics or not - it is a gross misunderstanding of Scottish politics to lay all the blame at his door. The scrum for short term political advantage risks obscuring the real, deeply embedded reasons for the defeat.

The truth is the SNP’s rise, and our fall, is not the fault of one leader, one policy issue or one election campaign.  It was not a direct result of the referendum (though that had a role in the SNP’s long term strategy) and didn’t happen just over the last five years (as one senior MP said to me just the other day). 

Our difficulties in Scotland run much deeper than that and there is fault on both sides of the border.

Labour lost Scotland in 2007.  In that Scottish Parliamentary election the SNP took control of Holyrood by one seat.  Labour lost one seat – my home constituency of Cunningham North in Ayrshire – by 48 votes (a far smaller number than the 1,000+ rejected ballots in that constituency).   

What happened there is symptomatic of the problems we faced.  Our vote share in that seat alone - previously a Labour stronghold - had dropped 8 percentage points since the 2003 election.  The electorate had fired a warning shot across our bows and alarm bells should have been ringing throughout the Party.

At the 2010 general election we increased our share of the vote in Scotland.  This result was banked as a sign that Scotland had returned to the fold.  But there was a failure to recognise the positive impact Gordon Brown had on results north of the border.

In 2011 the SNP secured an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament (and increased their majority in Cunninghame North from 48 to 6,117).  The electorate had fired anther warning shot across our bows, this time of gigantean proportions.

Was that a reflection of support for independence?  The outcome of the referendum would suggest not, certainly not at the time – many areas that voted SNP in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections did not vote for independence in the referendum, including in Ayrshire.  But look beyond the headline figures to the ward by ward results and the picture shows worryingly high Yes votes in many previously ‘Labour’ areas.  The electorate had sent another warning, but again it was banked as a win.

Over the course of these elections our membership in Scotland fell and with it our activist base.  Whilst some areas fought the good fight with every fibre of their being in too many parts of the country active campaigning was viewed with suspicion - people weren't brought up on the doorstep, activists weren’t accustomed to talking to voters and didn't see the benefit.  Local representatives (with notable exceptions) didn’t lead from the front and weren't challenged sufficiently to do so.  Many councillors just didn’t see it as part of their role.  Some MPs seemed to hold voters in contempt. People did not always work together well or welcome help.

Is it any wonder then that we lost so badly last week?  Is it any wonder then that when tried to warn Scots about the risks of independence, the risks posed by the politics of division that they had actually stopped listening?  It’s clear to anyone who has spent any time campaigning in Scotland that the electorate there has been angry at us for a long time.  The wonderful John Smith could have been leader of the Scottish Labour Party last week and we would still have lost.  It didn’t matter what our policy platform was because everyone had stopped listening. That anger was palpable on the doorstep - when we weren’t being sworn at, we were being laughed at.

As the only Scot representing Labour members on the National Executive Committee I have been warning about the threats posed by nationalism for years.

I argued that the NEC should meet and campaign in Scotland regularly; I argued for more funds for the Scottish Party to aid the referendum campaign; I asked repeatedly to see the contact rates for all Scottish constituencies early on so they could be monitored and improved;  I’ve argued that we need to offer a vision of hope and reconnect with Scottish voters. Too often my pleas fell on deaf ears.  And, in January, when I asked that we rule out a coalition with the SNP the suggestion was met with derision – when we eventually did so, it came too late. 

As an organisation we struggled to adapt to the devolved settlement.  Our Scottish Party became too insular and our UK Party too frightened of accusations of interference to provide the support and solidarity Scottish Labour so desperately needed.  We now have a generation of MPs at Westminster who have never stepped foot in Scotland for fear of being accused of starting a turf war and a group of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament that few outside Scotland recognise.

In this context the SNP haven’t needed to win the argument about independence.  They simply needed to convince the electorate they were a better alternative to us.  More socialist.  More radical. The fact that they are neither of those things was immaterial – all they had to do was provide more hope.

They conflated nationalism with patriotism whilst we struggled to fight flags with facts.  All the while the national media has played along – look at all the articles recently about ‘the arrival of the Scots in Westminster’.  The same number of Scottish MPs were elected this time as last – Scottish representatives are not new, they’ve just had different values.

A toxic mix of complacency, contempt, disillusionment and crippling austerity sowed the seeds for the politics of division.  There are lessons here for the rest of the UK – UKIP are now in second place in 100 constituencies – and a new Leader that doesn’t understand Scotland won’t win for us in the rest of the UK.

In the months ahead people will try to turn this into a battle between left and right.  It’s bigger than that.  Unless we face up to that and what’s happened in the past, change, start listening to the people and giving them hope, our Union will fracture even further than it already has. 

A separate Scottish Labour Party, as some have suggested, is not the answer – that would concede the argument on independence and would be a betrayal of our values.  We may have to think of a changed, more federal structure, as does the UK as a whole but separation will never provide the solutions to those most in need and would cost us a country and a union that benefits both sides of the border.  

We achieve more together than we do alone – those are our values.  Values of solidarity.  We fight for them or our whole movement dies.  Like the canary in the mine – if Scotland falls, we all fall.


Johanna Baxter is a member of Labour’s NEC.

Johanna Baxter is a CLP representative on Labour's NEC and Chair of the Southwark Labour Campaign Forum

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage