OUTSIDERS TO SCOTLAND could easily be baffled at Scottish Labour’s electoral struggles. Recent events appear to be auspicious. They’ve elected an affable new leader. They’ve focused on covid recovery rather than the constitution – theoretically, that’s what the aggregate voter demands. And rivals are in turmoil: the Conservatives embroiled in corruption scandals; pro-independence parties suffering an acute identity crisis. Everything should add up to Scottish Labour success.
However, the data is stubborn. Despite favourable views of Sarwar personally, Scottish Labour is scheduled to lose seats, possibly as many as five. At best, they remain an outside bet for second place: Conservative leaders in Edinburgh and London are deeply unpopular, which counts in Labour’s favour; with a fair wind, they might emerge as the pick of the unionist bunch. But favourable weather is temporary, and cannot disguise structural weaknesses. Scottish Labour’s inoffensiveness testifies to a lack of edge. The party has lost an empire and is yet to find a role.
Labour has been accumulating problems in its former heartlands for decades. But the eruptions of 2014-15 were the tipping point, after which Labour could no longer discipline its working-class supporters to the status quo. That fact precipitated a crisis across British politics: David Cameron trounced Ed Miliband by talking up the prospect of a “coalition of chaos” with Scottish nationalists; resulting in Brexit; which further reinforced the divided nature of UK politics.
Despite a jump to the left, and a step to the right, Labour simply cannot articulate a majority in these circumstances. Fainthearted proposals for “progressive federalism” only serve to reinforce the gulf separating Labour from the electorate.
In this new environment, Scottish Labour’s customary superiority complex has been replaced by a pleading, apologetic tone. I used to rub shoulders with student Labour activists who insisted that, while the party had invaded Iraq, imposed private finance initiatives and generally disgraced its legacy, it nonetheless remained the party of “the communities”, and was thus entitled to cock a snoot at other leftists, most of all Scottish nationalists, as middle-class hobbyists.
Scottish Labour’s recent manifesto launch highlighted a party suffering the opposite predicament. Anas Sarwar was asked about the conflict between his party’s professed opposition to private education and his own decision to send his children to fee-paying schools. His reply was bashful and apologetic: yes, it was a “fair criticism”; no, he didn’t have a good explanation; but deep down, he’s a pretty straight guy.
There is no need to moralise about Sarwar’s personal decisions, or his upbringing. But the problem it highlights is a party that no longer possesses the role of representing a part of Scottish society. A well-off public sector professional (trained as a dentist), with a private education and a do-gooder complex, Sarwar isn’t the exception but the norm. He represents the truth of what Labour is.
This is not the reforming arm of union militants or even “the communities”. It’s another cartel party, with a worthy list of policy promises which look broadly similar to the prospectuses of the Greens, the SNP and even the Conservatives.
For all that Labour has the distinct aura of beige, Sarwar’s manifesto has incurred the wrath of the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) for its un-costed “largesse”. IFS also made similar critiques of the SNP. Neither party is willing to talk about serious tax rises, and it’s unclear whether it all adds up. The likelihood is that both are banking on Barnett Consequentials stemming from further Sunak largesse, and meanwhile vying in a policy arms race. If the money runs dry, both have the option of blaming Tory austerity.
Many will see this as a welcome move away from neoliberalism. But look beneath the gloss and the rot remain. Given the absence of new political and industrial organisation, there’s still little sign of a sustained, structural move away from decades of inequality. Both Sturgeon’s SNP and Labour are banking on being able to spend without panicking their natural social base among the upper middle class.
Stylistically, we are entering a kinder phase of politics. Blairism and Thatcherism are behind us. But without a shift in wealth and power, worthy policies and empathetic rhetoric won’t be enough to reverse decades of regression.