When Scottish Labour’s walls come tumbling down

Scottish Labour needs to work out what kind of Scotland it wants to champion and bring about.

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Labour is not in a good state or place anywhere in the UK – from Westminster, to Wales, the north of England and Scotland.

The sad state of Scottish Labour is part of this wider malaise – of what British Labour stands for and to whom it gives voice, and the even bigger plight and set of problems faced by the European centre-left mainstream social democratic parties.

To some observers all of this has come about very quickly. Scottish Labour was seen by many Labour and Westminster watchers as a bastion of stability, sensibility and, most importantly, providing a surefire 40-50 Labour MPs to Westminster.

Now it is facing an electoral meltdown in May; as national polls have shown since the September independence referendum, the SNP is ahead of Labour by huge margins. And Lord Ashcroft’s most recent constituency polls in Scotland give a detailed picture of the dire state of what used to be called Labour’s heartlands.

One explanation blames most of this on the indyref. It is either all the product of that political genius Alex Salmond, mobilising hundreds of thousands of Scots to vote and tempting away Labour voters to support Yes. Or it is the product of Labour’s toxic alliance with the Tories in Better Together, which has tainted and damaged the party.

Yet, the indyref campaign has to be seen as only one part of a complicated jigsaw, and the most recent in a number of factors that have contributed to the plight of Scottish Labour.

There is a long story behind what is happening and what may or may not transpire in May. In summary, Scottish Labour learned to govern the country by an unattractive, unimaginative administrative politics of cronyism, patronage and self-interest.

Scotland might like to see itself as a radical country, and Labour north of the border has always liked to invoke this and to imagine itself as the latest exponent of this tradition. Yet, the party became the political establishment, deeply embedded in a politics that was less “Red Clydeside” and more a sort of “Stabinism”, meaning a mixture of Stalinism and Fabianism whereby left-wing rhetoric, symbolism and ruthlessness combined with right-wing Labour politics.

In truth, the Scottish party was never that popular in votes or membership. It never in its history won a majority of the popular vote. This meant that anti-Labour Scotland has always been bigger than Labour Scotland. Yet, the Westminster electoral system meant that when Labour won 45.6 per cent of the vote in 1997, it won 78 per cent of the seats (the Tories won none of 72 seats in that election). Little wonder that Labour MPs didn’t understand the motivations of non-Labour Scotland; they had little incentive to care or try. Even a proportionately elected Scottish parliament did not provide the conditions to change this.

Very few Scottish Labour politicians of the last 20 or so years had any great insight into this state of affairs. What drove them publically and privately was the desire and belief that Labour’s seemingly permanent grip on Scotland should and could continue. 

In the aftermath of the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999, I had numerous conversations with senior Scottish Labour ministers about how the party would adapt to the new competitive political landscape. In those discussions I would suggest that Labour needed to adapt to new pressures and opposition from a more mature SNP, which would one day lead to Labour losing an election. They would shake their heads, and deny that this could happen. There was in the party - from top to bottom - a collective denial, evident in how it responded to its narrow defeat in the 2007 Scottish election and mauling in 2011.

Labour election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander, one of the talents of the party, even showed this in a review of my book The Strange Death of Labour Scotland in the New Statesman magazine, when he failed to differentiate between the idea of Scottish Labour and “Labour Scotland”. The thesis was that the party dominated society via a series of networks ranging from trade unions to local government and the provision of council housing; that these three pillars amounted to a “Labour Scotland”, and that each one of them had now been removed. That change required a different Labour politics, and still does. But it was a challenge that even Alexander seemed to want to avoid the consequences of understanding.

The problem is, Scottish Labour became the party of the fix, of doing deals, insider political trading, and of losing sight of its founding principles. It became a self-preservation society.

It is not an accident that the defining Scottish Labour politician of the past generation has been Gordon Brown. Whatever one thinks of Brown, he is a politician of immense gifts and talents, but chose to embody a politics of treating Scottish Labour as his personal fiefdom and practising on every occasion possible the politics of the fix and stitch up.

More seriously, Brown’s odyssey, from 1970s supposed radical to 1980s Kinnockite and then 1990s New Labourite, is one that the Scottish party has travelled as well, even if it never embraced the full Blair-Brown vision. Brown’s journey and that of Scottish Labour is of a person and party that has lost its anchor points, sense of self, and ended up advocating a politics deeply compromised and empty of a radicalism relevant to the early 21st century.

Labour still has a slender chance of turning things around before May. The SNP faces such an electoral uphill task that it could easily win the vote, while Labour march off with the most seats. If that happens, it would be a hollow victory, and only offer at best a breathing space for the party to confront the big questions it has failed to throughout most of the last 30 years. Namely, what actually is the point of Scottish Labour? What Scotland does it speak for? And what kind of Scotland does it want to champion and bring about?

The old Labour clichés will not do any more.

Gerry Hassan is co-author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (Edinburgh University Press) and the just published Independence of the Scottish Mind (Palgrave Macmillan)