Labour’s burning questions

The review is underway but symptomatic of Labour’s current difficulties, it is not quite clear who is reviewing what.  First, we were told three Scottish MPs were being dispatched to rescue the Scottish party; the next day it was reported that Jim Murphy MP and Sarah Boyack MSP would lead the review.  If the basics are not clear, what hope for the rest of it?

There is no shortage of advice coming from current and retired Labour politicians, bloggers and commentators.  A lot of it is contradictory:  Labour in Scotland, Scottish Labour or Labour and Unionist;  Scottish MPs – in or out of the leadership process;  not enough opposition/Nat-baiting or too much;  the need to oppose and the need to be more positive.  Aye, good luck making sense of that little lot.  Rumours suggest the review is being steam-rollered through, yet these knotty problems and issues need time and proper deliberation.

So what can the burd offer the Labour party in its time of trouble, without appearing to tread on private grief?  I’ve been cogitating and digesting some of the contributions.  There are many thoughtful ones out there – Tom Harris MP in particular has been doing the rounds and talking a lot of sense;  there are also a number of Labour MPs who might do better to keep schtum or actually venture north of the border to be educated on just how different the political climate and landscape is.  Few have all the answers;  indeed, some have rushed to provide the answers without actually considering the questions.  Allow me to fill that gap.

  • If, as Labour maintains, independence and Scotland’s constitutional future is way down the list of voters’ priorities, why then does it dominate so much of Labour’s political engagement?

Take the 2011 election:  independence wasn’t on anyone’s lips, least of all the SNP’s, until Labour in desperation, trotted out some of the very old, very tired scare stories.   The narrative shifted on to the SNP’s territory and while they were, for all of a moment, put on the back foot, it simply does not make any sense to enable the political discourse to be dominated by what the SNP wants to talk about.  Particularly if when push comes to shove, the fear of allowing the question to be put simply engenders debate without end.  Iain Gray managed, at last, to come to terms with this old chestnut in his speech welcoming Alex Salmond as the new First Minister.  He dismissed the current chatter about independence – or 57 varieties as he termed it – in one sentence and focused on what he and Labour sees as the priority, jobs.  More of this is required frankly.  How many supporters/members/elected representatives chose/choose Labour because they are unionists above all else? Exactly.

  • Where have all of Labour’s people gone?

A shrinking membership, family dominance in some constituencies, less influence on people’s voting habits by trade unions, a distillation of the municipal power base all combine to create a pretty small base of candidates to choose from.  How to find new talent and encourage greater participation in all parts of the Labour movement by a much broader base?  Clearly success attracts successful people but for a long time, the SNP was very insular about its people but it learned and now has a much more welcoming, inclusive approach to candidates.  So learn from them.  Open up doors and processes;  encourage diversity of background and routes into candidacy.

  • Since when did Labour politicians wake up every morning with the avowed intention to stick it to the Nats?

The level of hatred evinced by Labour MSPs and MPs is truly eye-popping, though it is reciprocated by some SNP counterparts who also regularly define their views of various Labour politicians by the word “hate”.  How utterly stultifying and pointless.  We are moving to a politics in Scotland that is tribe-less.  People across the country have proven themselves capable of switching between one and the other for different elections.  They are less motivated by dislike of the alternatives and much more keen to weigh up the parties’ offerings in different electoral contexts.  Going to work everyday to stick it to the Nats is easy but ultimately self-defeating:  if the party can only define itself by its relationship with its main opponent, the game’s up.   Some delusionary souls have suggested that when the parliamentary group was dishing out unconstructive opposition daily in the Parliament, the polls were buoyant.  Carry on this tactic and electoral oblivion is all but guaranteed.

  • What can be done to replace a shrinking core vote?

Another straw being clutched at is that Labour’s constituency vote only went down by 0.5% on 2007, conveniently ignoring the fact that 2007 marked an already low point in Labour’s electoral fortunes in Scotland.  The core vote is shrinking fast.  In fact, see above – there is no real core vote anymore.  The old ties that bind have been broken for good.  Forget the numbers!  Focusing the review on processes and structures suggests this very narrow approach to the extent of the decay and malaise is still winning the day.  Voters will return only if the values, the narrative, the policies, the political strategy and the people are right.  Yes, there is still a core of people who will always vote Labour but it is diminishing either by choice or by natural decay.  It is no longer a sustainable electoral strategy to presume there is a core vote.

  • What does the Labour party want to believe in?

Other are already asking what is Labour for?  In truth, this is exercising the wider UK party,  as evidenced by the Blue/Purple/Red debate going on just now, and it’s all good.  But there is a deeper question to be asked and answered first – what does Labour in Scotland want to believe in?  From this, all else flows.  And it should spell an end to political expediency and pointless triangulation.  It should also create a much more meaningful and holistic narrative rather than the incoherent ragbag of policies in the most recent manifesto.  Which is not to criticise some of the very good ideas therein, but they were disjointed and without a common thread.  Indeed, some were more radical than the SNP was proposing;  the difference was that the SNP was able to present a much more coherent whole, informed by some central tenets.  Labour needs to get to such a place to have a chance of a comeback.  And it might even want to combine Blue, Purple and Red threads that meet Scottish needs to form a distinctly Tartan Labour.

17 thoughts on “Labour’s burning questions

  1. Pingback: Teaching our weans how to be Scottish « A Burdz Eye View

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  3. I actually believe the last big beast in political terms in Scottish Labour is Gordon Brown and even he malfunctions in political terms in so many ways. I do not rate Jim Murphy who has been given by the media the easiest ride I have ever seen given to a politician. He is an unsavoury conncotion of homespun cliche and patronising condescension who addresses us all as if we are about 12 year old or mentally deficient. He has probably identified Labour’s target audience. But he is also symptomatic of so many in Labour. Straight out of student politics into real politics he becomes Secretary of State for Scotland without having ever done a real job (and without getting his degree at University).

  4. 1) Because Independence is still not a popular option among Scottish people. “Scottish” Labour have made the calculation that people think that there are better priorities than whether Scotland should be independent or not. What hasn’t helped Labour is that the SNP have neutralised this issue in 2007 and this year.

    2) Hmmm, not sure about that one. Perhaps people are scunnered with the cliqie nature of Scottish Labour, or that people have realised that Scottish Labour no longer represent them. What incentive is there to join a party where your voice is not heard & is drowned out and dismissed by the Millibands, the Purnells and the Balls.

    3) 29th March 1979 would probably be the day that the brothers & sisters woke up to “stick it to the Nats” – the day after the SNP voted with Thatchers Conservitive party to bring down the Callaghan government. For many people – my Dad included – the SNP committed treachery that day. Of course it is a lot more complicated than that, but for many people the thought of Winnie Ewing claiming that Thatcher would be good for Scotland stuck in the craw of many Scottish Labour voters.

    4&5) Probably the best thing that Scottish Labour can do is go back to basics. Go back to trying to represent the normal hard working person. Scottish Labour have failed to do this in the devolution era.

    Can I also point out that the Labour vote in 2003 was also down from 1999. Many people who voted for Labvour & for Dewar in 1999 simply have not returned to vote Labour since then. Iraq maybe had an effect, possiably the McConnell years turned people off – he promoted supporters of his to the exclusion of everybody else.

    This is the legacy of Rosemary McKenna (who oversaw the seloection process for the first Scottish Parliament), and of Jack McConnell.

    • Allan you raise a salient point right at the end. Dewar stitched up the 99 selection process, using stalwart “modernisers” like McKenna and ensuring people like Canavan, Connarty and Davidson were not approved. Susan Deacon and several other new candidates were also not approved – Deacon was the only one to appeal and reverse the decision.

      If some of those many others who were kept out for being too bright/independent/from Scottish labour Action tradition had made it through we would have had a very different Labour party – who knows what might have happened as a result!

  5. Is it “Who are we going to burn first?”

    • Oh very funny. That is for them to resolve internally methinks – but think it is incumbent on us all to pay some attention to this issue. The SNP likes to think it will never end up here – so long as it watches and learns how not to do it, it shouldn’t do so.

  6. What is labour for?

    That is the question.

    They are but an obstacle to independence because the question ‘What isLabour for?’ is not a question but is a statement about Labour’s right-wing irrelevance in acountry that is social democratic, ven left-wing to a degree.

    Labour mouth left-wing concerns but that all stopped many moons ago.

    I remember when I was in Govan in the early 90s helping the Jim Sillars by-election (the one he lost unfortunately) seeing an open top van drive by filled with nice : shirt, tie, trousers, dresses well groomed boys and girls all together campaigning. I genuinely thought it was strange to see the Tories even bothering in Govan someone beside me said ‘No, that’s the Labourites’. I had sees the new Blairite Scottish mafia’s children and I was shocked. Since then of course we’ve had Blairism, Brownism and both went far right of Thatcher.

    To change Labour would require their DNA of expected privilege to be eliminated and repleaced with people who are genuinely talented and good at what they do. That means basically changing the entire party in Scotland.

    Guess what, that change has been made, it’s called the SNP. The people seem to like what they do.

    • With regard to Labour changing its DNA I think that is exactly what it has to do. It needs to examine how it got to this place and learn from that – so out with the expected priviilege and narrow base and yes to changing the entire party and how it behaves and what it offers. And that can only be a very good thing for Scottish politics.

  7. Good post,Garry. I concur with every word of it. As someone who was asked to contest council elections for Labour in Lanarkshire (a long time ago) there was something about the early signs of the demise of a once great movement even then which sent me into the SNP. Quite frankly such was the dominance of Labour at that level in central Scotland in those days that the certainty of easy election had made it, even then, a vehicle for the personally ambitious and loyal party yes men, very few indeed with any burning political vision or objective (or the calibre that usually accompanied such persons).

    • *personally ambitious and loyal party yes men*??? The SNP isn’t exactly a hotbed of vigorous internal debate these days…

      But I do get your point. Labour has a long way back and I have my doubts if it will survive in its current form. But a rebirth of a very different forward looking party with a relevance for 21st Century Scotland would be a good thing for politics all round.

      • The SNP is in dangerous territory at the moment – not for the short term but for what it might become in the longer term.

        It is great to win successive elections but that brings with it risks in terms of who it attracts as candidates of the future. Presently, there are very few among the MSP ranks who set out to make a career in politics – or, if they did, they least have had to have a real job while they pursued that.

        Now is the time to tighten up processes to ensure that real people and not the endless apparachiks that plague Labour’s ranks are selected for future contests.

        Without doing this, the SNP will end up where Labour is today. It might do so in an Independent Scotland right enough but the risk is very real.

      • Yep the future is fraught with risks and dangers but aren’t they better ones to have than the ones of say ten years ago?!

        As well as tightening processes, there is an over-riding need to broaden the routes and pathways that ensure a diverse and varied group of top class candidates with a real breadth and depth of life experience to offer. And to increase participation rather than narrow it.

        The other area I’d like to see lightened up is the attitude to diverse opinion and debate. And some real attempt to create fora inside or attached to the party – think tanks if you like – that enable wide policy discussion and an encouragement to think the unthinkable.

  8. Kate – one of your best posts I would say.

    As per the ‘Know thine enemy’ strategy I have been stalking various Labour online resources. My impression is that the voices who are prepared to undergo some honest introspection are being drowned out by two factions; 1 – those outside of Scotland who feel they are able to contribute although clearly do not have the first clue about Scottish politics, 2 – Nat-bashers who cannot bring themselves to contemplate the reality of what is happening and cling to arguements like Soutar’s dirty money, LibDem collapse, SNP/Tory plot to explain away their problems.

    But there is a third faction which, although the least visible at present, is easily the most powerful and influential. This faction is the ‘My Job and Career Preservation Society (Scottish Labour)’.

    It struck me a couple of months ago and I can’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me before. There was ‘Gorgeous’ George Robertson on his hind legs bumping his gums about something or other in the House of Lords. Sitting around him was, Helen Liddell, John Reid and Martin O’Neill all looking right at home, satisfied they had achieved their life’s ambition of being enobled and paid handsomely for simply sitting on a nice leather sofa a couple of days a week.

    Ultimately this is why nothing will change, these people and many more have invested their entire lives in obtaining this priviliged position. Many, many more are part way (some a long way) through the same process.

    To paraphrase the aforementioned gentleman, “Scottish Independence will kill these career prospects stone dead” and will put a few Lords and Ladies on the dole queue into the bargain. There is no way that these vested interests who, incidentally, have a vice-like grip on the Labour Party in Scotland will allow anyone to rock their boat.

    To them, the issue is not one of finding a positive narrative about preserving the Union it is about defending their personal position. I’m afraid that always results in the worst kind of politics because self-preservation is the ultimate defensive position.

    This means that their junior colleagues, and I genuinely think there are still many (although rapidly dwindling in number) whose primary purpose is to advance the interests of the Scottish people, will never be allowed the freedom to develop a political strategy fit for a 21st century Scotland.

    The irony of these Labour Party bosses sitting on their comfy sofas directing their underlings at the coalface to work even harder in worsening conditions simply to bolster their own personal interests is certainly not lost on me.

    • Great comment and I agree that the current party is thirled to dead weights who having made their living out of Labour and Scotland need the status quo to survive to protect those gains.

      As for Nat bashers, yep depressing number are but then a depressing number of the SNP are Labour bashers. I find it all extremely tedious especially when policy differences on a range of issues are minute.

  9. Insightful stuff. I believe that Labour in Scotland is a the end of a long road and there is no turning back. As a community organisation it has ceased to exist in many areas and it whole profile is supplied by a diminshing number of elected members and the patronage they can dispense in some areas and a supportive press.
    “The level of hatred evinced by Labour MSPs and MPs is truly eye-popping”. Indeed. I am a relic of the days in the early sixties when the SNP and Labour were on decent terms. This only changed as the SNP grew and started to take Labour’s power. The calibre of what is on offer from a Labour front bench in the Scottish Parliament is abominable. That Richard Baker can be a spokesman for anything for instance is eye popping and, unlike others, I don’t think there is any better at Westminster. The anodyne detachment at Westminster operating as Scottish Labour has mainly avoided scrutiny to date and they have very little to say in a Scottish domestic context.
    At this moment in time Labour is being replaced by the SNP and the more London metropolitan agencies come to its assistance the quicker will be this process.
    Euthanasia is the kindest option.

    • I think you are possibly right that the supposed Labour big guns and talent at Westminster are not all they are cracked up to be. But to suggest that Labour does not have any talent is egging it a bit. It clearly does – just as the SNP has some elected members whom are not quite up to the task of governing, however decent they might be.

      Labour’s biggest problem is the inexplicable divide between its MPs and MSPs and how it has failed in 12 years of devolution to resolve this. Or perhaps not biggest, but just another in a long list of issues to tackle.

      I don’t think euthanasia will be necessary – death by natural causes, schism and new parties emerging might be the best route. That would be interesting.

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