Fraser Stewart: Scottish Labour and the never-ending omnishambles

09/02/2016
CommonWeal

CommonSpace columnist Fraser Stewart says Scottish Labour’s current strategy is keeping the party on the road to political irrelevance

I WORKED in the building industry very fleetingly when I left school, helping out on various sites here and there with an uncle of mine as a means to making some pocket money and learning about the world of work.

I hated almost every second of it – mainly because they make the new guy do all the terrible jobs; partly because I was a teenage sloth in human skin. Despite this discontent, the experience taught me two valuable lessons: that glasswool insulation is the devil, and that sometimes you have to know when to demolish and rebuild.

Some things just aren’t salvageable, no matter how much sentiment you attach to them. If there’s rot in the rafters or your foundations are sinking, it’s probably time to start again.

Jackie Baillie, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont, Anas Sarwar et al – the old guard all present and correct, ready to fight the third consecutive Holyrood election in which Labour are all but guaranteed to lose seats.

Scottish Labour, it would seem, has yet to learn this lesson. The Labour list for Holyrood reads largely like a who’s who of political asbestos; at least among those with a snowball’s chance of getting elected.

Jackie Baillie, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont, Anas Sarwar et al – the old guard all present and correct, ready to fight the third consecutive Holyrood election in which Labour are all but guaranteed to lose seats. There’s a pattern emerging here, and I can’t be the only one who sees it.

What Labour has tried and tried and tried to do since losing power is open the door to Bute House by forcing a rusty old key into a lock that was changed in 2007; what it lacks is the political ingenuity to carefully pick it open, or the fundamental ambition to kick it off the hinges altogether.

How many times does a strategy have to fail before you acknowledge that it just doesn’t work? Sure enough, Labour is making something of an effort to push forward with not-completely-shit ideas such as the penny tax .

But this will make not a blind bit of difference, because it is missing the crucial and terminal truth – that the messengers, rather than the message itself, is where the problem lies.

Labour continues to package everything it does in a big old #SNPbad ribbon and, frankly, nobody wants to hear it anymore.

We are at a stage in Scottish politics now whereby Scottish Labour could quite literally promise free holidays to the moon and still find itself as irrelevant as it was the day before. This is not the fault of a cult led by Nicola Sturgeon, and nor is it down even to the residual curse of Better Together.

It is because Labour continues to package everything it does in a big old #SNPbad ribbon and, frankly, nobody wants to hear it anymore – especially from those who have been screaming it relentlessly for the best part of a decade.

It offers little in the way of vision and all in the way of petulant finger-pointing. So long as those delivering this message remain, the stigma remains with it.

Of course, that much has been painfully obvious to most of us for some time now. The difference in this case, then, is the stark realisation that Labour has not only hemorrhaged swathes of its traditional vote to the nationalists: this complete dereliction of purpose is causing it to lose what little it had left to the Tories as well.

The SNP is far from without fault, of course, but its vision is distinct and effective. It knows how to run a campaign and how to make an impact.

A woeful state of affairs, indeed. But how have the Tories, once so definitively consigned to the electoral abyss in Scotland, managed to creep back into genuine contention? Because there is no other unionist outfit capable of providing any inkling of meaningful opposition to a powerhouse SNP, that’s why.

Labour can no longer be trusted to do it, because it has nothing of substance left to offer and hasn’t done for some time. Any bright ideas it has had (for there are some) have been painstakingly overshadowed by its uncontainable spite towards an SNP government which, rather sensibly, prefers to do a little more in the way of presenting itself as a grown up party of government than obsessively nipping its opposite numbers like a kid with a crush.

The SNP is far from without fault, of course, but its vision is distinct and effective. It knows how to run a campaign and how to make an impact, with 2016 thus far proving no different. Astonishingly enough, the biggest Labour legacy of this election could very well be allowing the Tories a place in a Scottish political conversation they haven’t been part of since the 1960s.

The biggest Labour legacy of this election could very well be allowing the Tories a place in a Scottish political conversation they haven’t been part of since the 1960s.

The first step to dealing with any problem is admitting you have one. When you can make a party once widely accepted as toxic in Scotland seem desirable by comparison, you are doing something horrendously wrong.

There comes a time where a lick of paint is simply not enough. Scottish Labour must realise by now that it is well beyond that; it is a party too busy sneering over the garden fence at the SNP to see the supporting wall collapsing in the decrepit old house behind it – a collapse the rest of us saw coming from a royal mile away.

Picture courtesy of Fraser Stewart