Malcolm Chisholm’s killer question

Observing the opening gambits of the Yes and No camps in the New Year is fascinating. Who and what is shaping the narratives? Where are the central threads? What insight might we glean from speeches on strategy and tactics? Who is laying a breadcrumb trail on the nature of the debate to come?

Looking at speeches made and articles written by big beasts on both sides in the last week, they appear to share a common focus: Labour.

Despite recent Scottish election results, Scotland is predominantly a Labour-leaning country. More people identify themselves with Labour than any other party, though those old hegemonies in terms of party politics are weakening. Folk increasingly are prepared to switch their votes around according to circumstance and consequence, in electoral terms. But in the battle for votes in the referendum, those who would still identify themselves as predominantly Labour voters form a significant constituency. The focus on all things Labour would suggest that private polling in both camps indicates it’s soft in terms of yes/no intentions. For yes, these votes are persuadable; for no, these votes must be shored up.

Hence, we’ve had an appeal from Nicola Sturgeon to Labour supporters to discard party jackets. And a riposte from Anas Sarwar in his adjunct to Gordon Brown’s speech in Fife last week. He said: “There are those whose talents lie in re-writing history, where for them airbrushing the successes of the Labour movement across the UK is an everyday ambition. Quite happy to say in one breath that the UK has never helped to achieve social justice then on the other saying we need independence to protect the NHS and the Welfare State. Institutions thought up by, created by and delivered by the Labour movement right across the UK. And there is a reason for that. It’s a deliberate attempt to con Labour voters into thinking that no change, or no good, can ever come through a Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK and that only a vote for independence can bring change. Well, they’re wrong.”

Sarwar’s theme is continued by Jim Murphy in his essay for Scotland on Sunday today. Urging Scotland to change governments, not passports, Murphy suggests that one of the central arguments proposed by those arguing for independence is that voting yes allows Scotland to rid itself of Tory governments forever. His thrust, though, is that we can change governments without constitutional reform and achieve the Scotland we want. “What holds us back has never been the United Kingdom, it has only ever been the type of government in the United Kingdom. But they’ve always been chucked out; as Cameron and Clegg’s coalition can be just months after the referendum. The things that Scots have demanded – jobs, homes, devolution, a health service and so much more – have always been delivered by ambitious Labour governments. And those achievements have been irreversible.”

We’ll return to the historical revisionism in both statements, but clearly Labour thinks it’s on to something. And there’s a kernel of truth in all this. Yes Scotland and the SNP in particular, have and continue to highlight the impact of this Conservative led government on the lives of ordinary Scots to appeal to undecideds. And at various points, they have explicitly suggested that voting yes allows Scotland to divest itself of the risk of governments we did not vote for imposing its values on us anyway.

Which is why Malcolm Chisholm asked what I reckon is a killer question for Yes at First Minister’s Questions this week. “Given that the First Minister’s whole referendum strategy is based on having a Tory Government in London, how will he scare the Scottish people when they are faced with the prospect of a Labour Government that will boost employment, freeze energy prices and provide the resources for a massive expansion of childcare?”

Leaving aside the hyperbole, the question amounts to this: if, as polls are beginning to suggest, it appears that Labour will win the next UK General Election and not the Conservatives, what then? If the threat of continued Conservative rule is weakened the closer we get to the referendum, how will Yes respond?

It is a crucial question for the yes camp and clearly one which they have begun to wake up to. Labour is still leading in UK polls; it’s not a dramatic lead but a consistent one, and would be enough to deliver at least a minority Labour government. Overtures are already being made to the Liberal Democrats about the possibility of working together in coalition.

There are ways to address this. The Scottish people are not fools but pointing up the shockingly arrogant and misleading revisionism currently being bandied about by leading Labour figures needs to happen. I’m no torch bearer for the Liberals but as a historian, I’m affronted that their role in delivering key planks of our welfare state – state pensions for one – is being airbrushed. Scottish Labour’s track record on social housing also bears repeating, ad nauseam.

And as some of the rebuttal statements already suggest, seeds of doubt need to be sown as to whether things, particularly on welfare reform and economic policy, would be any better in the short and medium term under a UK Labour government.

But if Yes is to successfully shift this narrative, its chief proponents might need to make the ultimate sacrifice and discard their own party clothes. Effectively it comes down to positing that Labour’s charm offensive is entirely self-seeking. Labour wants Scotland to vote no in order to vote Labour into power in 2015. But how to counter that? By suggesting that by voting yes in 2015, Scotland can vote for the Labour Party it wants – or at least the sort of old Labour values many still hold dear – in 2016.

Taking such an approach will be discomfiting to many in the SNP, particularly those elected representatives, activists and supporters who are as capable of displaying as irrational hatred of all things Labour, as many in Labour demonstrate towards the SNP.

But it might be a necessary evil. The question is can they do it, if the need arises? For so many years, cause and party have been intertwined but if needs must, will the SNP be prepared to separate its loyalties and argue that only independence offers Scotland the opportunity to vote for the sort of Labour government and values many still identify with? In short, if required to do so, will the party be able and willing to put cause first?

*I apologise for the lack of italics and more especially, links in recent posts. I am blogging currently from the wordpress app on the iPad and cutting and pasting from articles and inserting links is clunky and beyond my limited skills. The speeches and articles referred to above are all readily searchable.

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About burdzeyeview

A Scottish burd casting a beady eye over political, topical, economic and social issues that ruffle my feathers.

Posted on January 12, 2014, in Constitutional corner and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Puzzling that you think Malcolm Chisholm’s question is so original, as it’s one Labour are always asking. There’s many obvious ways to answer it. The one that most quickly springs to mind is that, even if Labour were to win in 2015, the Tories will still get back in. Remaining in the UK means we will periodically (and judging by history, most of the time) be governed by the Tories.

  2. Thomas William Dunlop

    My prediction that Labour constitution commission will come up with some cack-handed way to neuter Scottish parliament (powers clawed back) and hand more power to their buddies in local government (powers devolved). This will be so transparent in intent to destroy nationalist power, that there will be an overnight tidal surge to the YES camp.
    Further if there is a NO vote, in a generation the nationalists will govern all tiers of government, making Scotland ungovernable & independence will come about

  3. Labour has had 50 years of ruling Scotland and poverty is worse now than when they started out.Can there be a Scotsman/woman who can look at the unionist camp and think there is our ally ,there is our friend,there is our fellow citizen? What is good for Scotland is not on the agenda of Westminster,only making the people subservient to the self-styled aristocrats of the political class.Make no mistake the class system is there to keep you and I down,not for our betterment but for the betterment of the few.

  4. Two points.

    Firstly, the polls do not point to the likelyhood of a Milliband win come 2015 (as James Kelly has highlighted). According to UK Polling Report, the current average Labour lead is 5%, this time last year the average was about 10%. It is more likely that the Tories will gain the 3.6% swing they require for an overall majority than Labour gain the 9%+ that they need (we are talking 1997 proportions here).

    Secondly, there’s another tactic that could be adopted. By highlighting the policy similarities between the Tories & Labour (both are pro-Privatisation, indeed the Compass group within Labour are partly funded by venture capitalists, both were vague to say the least over which cuts they would make at the last Westminster Election – the only difference that came out of the campaign was Labours policy of raising NI by 1%) “Yes” could open another front up.

  5. Dave McEwan Hill

    I am glad that you have pointed out that continually concentrating on the dangers of another Tory government implies that a vote for Labour has some merit for Scotland.
    Nothing could be further from the truth. A UK Labour government in thrall to a south of England support will do nothing for Scotland but its being in power will silence for some time a significant degree of Scottish dissent about the direction of UK politics.

    We might pay more attention to John Ruddy’s point if he could explain to us why Labour didn’t do this sort of stuff especially as under “Lord “Jack they actually sent money back to London each year (presumably as part of the grand secret plan to undermine and abandon the Barnett Formula)

  6. Charles Kearney

    Mr. Chisholm reminds me of the STV Reporter on their ‘News’ recently who said that the SNP asking Better Together to lay out a Pro Union White Paper, was, “An attempt to use negative tactics against ‘BT.” These Folks have lost all touch with reality and are making Fools of themselves, unfortunately for them the People of Scotland are seeing through them day and daily! We are not as ‘thick’ as they seem to believe!

  7. The reality is that the polls point to the likelihood of a Tory victory at the next general election. It would be different if Labour held their current small lead with only a few weeks to go until election day, but at this stage of the electoral cycle it can normally be expected that there will be a swing back to the incumbent government. An opposition party expecting to win should be much further ahead at this stage, and as we saw at the last Holyrood election, leadership ratings are often a far better early predictor of the eventual outcome. Middle England just doesn’t have confidence in Ed Miliband.

    YouGov’s ratings for who would make the best Prime Minister -

    David Cameron 33%
    Ed Miliband 20%
    Nick Clegg 5%

  8. I don’t see how Malcolm Chisholm’s question can be the “killer” that it’s made out to be when it is based on a fallacy. The idea that the “whole referendum strategy is based on having a Tory Government in London” is a nonsense unworthy of such a fine parliamentarian.

    The reality is that the case for independence has many facets and the campaign has multiple strands. The democratic argument that Scotland should only and always get the government which the people of Scotland vote for holds true regardless of what party is in power at Westminster. Likewise the argument that Scotland should not be subject to policies that are anathema to our people and opposed by our elected representatives. That applies to illegal foreign wars every bit as much as the bedroom tax.

    There is a future beyond 2015. Regardless of the result in the UK general election Scotland will continue to be subject to the whims of voters in England and more likely than not be subject to government by parties which we have rejected at the polls.

    Chisholn is wrong. Foolishly wrong. Independence is not exclusively about addressing the issue of the current UK government. That is a trivial matter compared to the issue of ensuring democracy for future generations of Scotland’s people.

  9. So, whe a Labour Government introduces free childcare south of the border, presumably a sum of money equal to implement that policy north of the border will come to Holyrood.

    So presumably we dont need independence to implement free childcare, just a labour government (as you say,increasingly likely) and a party at Holyrood willing to do it under devolution (which doesnt appear to be the SNP).

    • John, a little bit more complicated than that. If a possible Labour Government does implement childcare south of the border it will have to do that by increasing the budget available to fund public services before it has any effect on the Barnett consequentials.

      If it simply shuffles money and cuts some other public services to fund the childcare in England then Scotland will get no more money than it has now and just as now it will not have the money to implement increased childcare.

      There is also the question of what funding the Barnett formula will provide in the future. The All-Party Parliamentary Taxation Group (50% Labour members) has already called for a replacement of the Barnett formula by a needs based formula which would result in a £4 Billion pound cut for Scotland.

      In fact this makes Malcolm Chisolm’s “Killer Question” just a reflection of the fact that he can’t see beyond Labour vs. Tory politics in the UK as Scotland will suffer whatever political party gets into power in Westminster as all agree on a Barnett formula cut.

      Certainly the SNP has the power to provide increased childcare now but perhaps you could suggest which services you (the Labour party) will cut to provide the money to pay for it out of an already allocated fixed block grant. There seems to be some confusion about what Labour will cut to fund the increased childcare they want.

    • Charles Kearney

      So your suggestion seems to be that in Scotland we sit and Twiddle our Thumbs until the UK Gov. implements some Policy which suits them and this Country waits to see if they are doled out, however grudgingly, a bit of Benefit?

      We do need Independence, it is you and your likes we don’t need John, Forelock Tugging, ‘Wee’ Men snuffling up the Crumbs from their Masters Table. Have you no pride?

  10. Chisholm didn’t ask a ‘killer question’, he simply indulged in a fantasy. Labour cannot win a UK election without carrying the South of England and it cannot win in the South of England without offering Tory policies. This is the simple electoral arithmetic behind New Labour and it holds true now just as it did in the 1990s. As regards SNP figures acknowledging the possibility of an ‘Old Labour’ resurrection, they all regularly point out that one of the ‘benefits’ of independence is that very possibility.

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