Brown's Scottish play

For 50 years, Scotland was unshakeably Labour. But a string of party blunders has lost it - and the

For someone so intelligent, it was a pretty dumb way to lose your job. The Sorbonne-educated Wendy Alexander was feted as the brightest and the best the Scottish Labour Party had to offer. Yet she was forced to resign as leader because of her failure to register a few hundred pounds' worth of donations to a leadership election campaign that never actually happened. The Scottish Labour Party has an almost North Korean pre dilection for uncontested elections, and Alexander was elected leader last August unopposed.

This really looks like carelessness. Alexander is the second Scottish Labour leader to resign over an expenses scandal in the short life of the Scottish Parliament. The Labour first minister Henry McLeish was forced to resign in 2001 over his failure to declare funds raised by subletting his Fife constituency office. He said it was a "muddle not a fiddle" - but went anyway.

Perhaps Scottish Labour politicians have some genetic propensity to resign. But with the Nat ionalists in government, and the Tories getting their act together with the Clarke report on the constitution, Labour can no longer afford to indulge its addiction to defenestration.

In May 2007, Labour gave up its 50-year hegemony over Scottish politics when it lost the Holyrood election and allowed Alex Salmond to form the first Scottish National Party (SNP) administration in Scottish history. Mind you, at first Labour insisted that coming second by only one seat represented a great moral victory. Gordon Brown wanted his party to remain in office by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but they wouldn't play.

Alexander's historic mission was to wake the party up to the reality of defeat, to lead Labour out of its male-dominated, post-industrial west Scotland ghetto and into the modern age of new Labour diversity. A protégée of the PM, and sister to Douglas Alexander, the UK Development Sec retary, she seemed to have everything going for her - even widespread respect in the often curmudgeonly Scottish press.

However, she took a rather unexpected turn soon after she was installed and began arguing for a referendum on independence - the policy of the SNP. Labour has steadfastly opposed a referendum on the grounds that it would endanger the integrity of the Union. Her logic was that there is still a majority in Scotland for staying in the UK and that by calling Salmond's bluff, they could deliver a stunning blow to the fledgling Nationalist government. Brown didn't buy it.

He still didn't buy it in May when Alexander went ahead and announced the new policy anyway, to the fury of the Scottish Labour group of MPs in Westminster. When challenged by David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, Brown denied that his Scottish leader had actually endorsed the policy - which she manifestly had. She told me a week before her departure that she regarded "giving Scots the right to choose" as one of her greatest achievements in office. The others were setting up the Calman Commission on constitutional change and pre paring the intellectual case for more tax powers for Holyrood. David Cairns, Labour's Scottish Office minister, has dismissed these as preoccupations of the "McChattering classes".

Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Labour MPs didn't exactly leap to Alexander's defence when the Scottish Parliament's standards committee moved to suspend her for one day for failing to register campaign donations within the required 30 days. A faintly ridiculous misdemeanour, and a token punishment. She could have remained in office, as the verdict had to be ratified by the full parliament in the autumn. But she had clearly decided that she'd had enough, and most of her party agreed.

Anyway, as we know, Scottish Labour leaders have a low resignation threshold. Alexander herself had resigned once before, in 2002, when she was a Scottish Executive minister and fell out with her civil servants. It's what they do.

These Scottish antics may seem risible, but Alexander's departure is a severe blow to Brown, already shattered by Crewe and Nantwich and humiliated by the BNP in Henley. After Alexander's fall, no seat in Scotland is safe. The SNP is now expected to win the ultra-safe Glasgow East by-election, caused by the resig nation (another one) of the veteran Labour MP David Marshall, even though it requires a 22 per cent swing.

The Tories are determined to curb the voting rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster, but soon they may not have to bother. Even in its darkest days in the 1980s, Labour could always depend on Scotland to deliver a block of MPs - it's why so many cabinet members are Scots. Brown has depended on his loyal contingent of Scots to secure his majority in the Commons, but not, perhaps, for very much longer.

With a lacklustre Labour front bench in Holyrood and no inspiring replacement for Alexander, Labour is looking into a Scottish abyss. There is now no credible challenge to the immensely popular SNP government. Labour, through its incompetence and infirmity of purpose, has handed Scotland to Alex Salmond on a plate and hastened the break-up of Britain.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times