Andrew Smith: Why only independence from London can save the Scottish Labour Party

15/05/2015
CommonWeal

Andrew Smith, an Edinburgh-born Labour party member now living in London, explores the challenges ahead for Scottish Labour

LAST Thursday may have a terrible night for Labour Party members all across the UK, but for our Scottish colleagues things are only getting worse. There is an internal battle going on, and the splits are clear and obvious for all to see.

Two MSPs, Elaine Smith and Alex Rowley, have joined former MP Ian Davidson and the Unite and Aslef unions in calling on the embattled leader Jim Murphy to stand down.

With no seat in either parliament, and with his personal ratings in steady decline, it is unclear how much longer he can stay in position. He may only have been there for six months, but this Saturday he will be facing a potential vote of no confidence at the party’s Scottish Executive Committee meeting.

Better Together was characterised by negativity and saw the party campaigning hand in glove with the Tories.

It was all meant to be so simple. When he took to the job he quickly stamped some much needed authority over the party and boldly insisted that despite the dire polls he wouldn’t lose a single seat to the SNP.

His confident pitch was complemented by a whirlwind media campaign, a number of high profile policy launches and cocksure assertions about how ‘easy’ it was to outwit his opponents. None of it worked.

Some of the reasons lie in the referendum. Better Together was characterised by negativity and saw the party campaigning hand in glove with the Tories. The last few months saw Murphy as the frontman for a campaign that half the country saw as fundamentally dishonest.

One third of Labour voters supported independence (myself included), but, aside from a symbolic decision to change the constitution to include a new clause on patriotism, little has been done to build bridges with them. Even then, that misinterprets the reason many voted for independence.

It’s an odd quirk of the Scottish debate that it is predominantly the pro-union side that routinely stresses its ‘Scottishness’ and ‘patriotism’ while the Yes side talks about how to transform society and end austerity.

Part of the problem is that there is a tension at the heart of Scottish Labour’s electoral strategy. Who is it trying to appeal to?

This was obvious throughout the General Election campaign, which simultaneously urged those that had switched to the SNP to back Labour to keep out the Tories, all the while appealing to Tory voters by talking up the prospect of another independence vote.

The referendum may have sped up the decline, but the rot set in a long time ago.

It was a contradictory and strangely technical campaign that meant the focus would inevitably be on party-politicking and coalitions rather than policy. However, to view the last nine months in isolation is to miss the wider point.

The referendum may have sped up the decline, but the rot set in a long time ago. The Labour vote has fallen in every Scottish Parliament election since its founding and – aside from 2010 – it has lost every national election since 2007.

The warning signs have been there for some time – the seats that were lost last week are very similar to the ones that were lost in the Scottish elections in 2011 – but not enough people were listening.

It is easy to pile in with criticisms, but what is the way forward? How do you solve a problem like Scottish Labour?

First of all, it needs to be a fully functioning independent party with a relationship to the central party that is more akin to that of the SDLP rather than a ‘branch office’. It could still run in UK-wide elections and back up the Labour Party in parliament, but would be far freer to diverge on policy, priorities and political culture whenever it saw fit.

Not only would this be a good symbolic move, it would also be smart politics. It would recognise the new political landscape of the UK and allow it to take more tailored and unique positions while avoiding any ‘rightward lurch’ that may be made in order to win over Middle England.

Then there is the question of leadership. I don’t actually think Murphy can be blamed for a great deal of the current problems, but, regardless of Saturday’s vote, it is becoming increasingly hard to see how he can stay.

It needs to be a fully functioning independent party with a relationship to the central party that is more akin to that of the SDLP rather than a ‘branch office’.

Perhaps the best argument is so that he can act as a human shield, leading the party to defeat and giving a new leader a clean break and a fresh start in 2016. For those that are feeling particularly optimistic the lack of political office could even be seen as an advantage.

With more time on his hands he could lay the groundwork of long term recovery by embarking on yet another tour of Scotland; a listening one in which he could hold low-key town hall meetings and speak to real people in every community.

The other argument is surely that there is no obvious replacement. Kezia Dugdale is doing a good job at First Minister’s Questions, but she’s not ready yet and there’s no-one else who comes to mind.

Of course, the obvious danger is that keeping him in place could make matters even worse. Put simply, after almost 20 years on the green benches he is too associated with Westminster and the toxic referendum campaign.

He generates an unparalleled level of anger among nationalists and the massive swing away from him in his own constituency suggests there is a strong personal vote against him among former Labour voters.

The challenge facing the party is hard to overstate – these were the worst results in the party’s history – some argue that now is not the time for ‘navel-gazing’, but if this level of beating doesn’t require some introspection then what does? The SNP has 10 times the membership, significantly more money and almost all of the momentum.

Scottish politics is undergoing a sea-change, and, unfortunately, with the next election only 12 months away, Scottish Labour is nowhere near ready for it.

Picture courtesy of Jack Donaghy