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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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue