Ian Dunn: The necessary death of Scottish Labour


Kicking off a new regular Thursday column on CommonSpace covering developments in the General Election campaign, journalist Ian Dunn takes a look at the dramatic drop in Scottish Labour support in Scotland and fires a warning shot to the SNP about how the mighty can fall so quickly

FOR ALL the talk of coalitions and polls, the real story of the General Election in Scotland is the looming annihilation of one of the most successful political parties in post-war Europe: Scottish Labour.

This is the party that has won the most votes in Scotland at the last 14 General Elections, the last five by an average of more than 20 points. Yet in a few months it could be reduced to a tiny smattering of MPs, a 50-year streak ended in devastating style.

There’s a natural human tendency to assume recent events are the most consequential. Hence much talk about May’s vote being a rerun of the referendum and Labour’s lowly position in the polls a punishment for campaigning alongside the Tories.

The only adamantine rule of politics is that power corrupts.

But this is just a final chapter in a very lengthy history of decline and fall. What underpins all of their troubles is that they were too successful for too long. The only adamantine rule of politics is that power corrupts.

Scottish Labour may not always have had a lot of power, but what they had they hoarded, and they had it for a very long time. Without a real challenge from outside the party, much of their politics became internal. Jostling and scrapping for whatever scraps of authority they could get their hands on.

If you doubt how deep their addiction to infighting has become, consider that even now, facing obliteration, they can’t stop backbiting and scratching at each other. In that environment, patronage becomes extremely important.

A fifth of current Scottish Labour MSPs are related or married to a past or present Labour representative. The most common previous job of new Scottish Labour MPs elected in the past decade is working in the office of a Scottish Labour MP.

No party can survive constantly winning elections. They became sloppy, complacent, and unresponsive to the needs of the people they are meant to represent. The problem for Scottish Labour is that it won for so long, the damage looks irreversible.

Good people and good ideas can’t make a difference if the machine is broken. That, as much as anything, explains the rise of the SNP.

To a certain extent this is old news. Labour got hammered at Holyrood in the past two Scottish elections. The reasons given those failures, that their best people had gone to Westminster and their policies were no longer appealing to Scottish voters, only told small parts of the story and helped disguise the true extent of the rot.

After all, those able men and women who went to London were only a train ride away, not on the moon. They could have still steered the party, if it was steerable. Similarly the idea that Labour’s policies lurched to the right or left and alienated Scottish voters doesn’t really jib with the fact the SNP is doing rather well sitting on near identical ground.

The reason Scottish Labour is about to take a near fatal beating, is because it became institutionally rotten and the voters could smell it. Good people and good ideas can’t make a difference if the machine is broken. That, as much as anything, explains the rise of the SNP.

Having a romantic cause many Scots were amenable to was a boost, as was effective leadership but what helped them most was having a vacuum to fill. A great many Scots had simply had all they wanted from Labour. When an alternative emerged that could defeat them, they embraced it.

Already some of the smarter voices within Labour have read the entrails and suggested drastic change to save the party, whether it be separating from English Labour or even embracing independence.

Even such radical proposals may not be enough for them to survive as a political force and doubtless many would celebrate that.

But they should bear a question in mind, as Scotland swaps a Labourite God for a nationalist one. How long before the SNP, having crushed its opposition, falls into the same infighting and self-obsession as Scottish Labour did?

Picture courtesy of Anthony Mckeown