A race to the bottom

Labour has to stop hating the SNP and start to defeat them with arguments and ideas

by Dec 02, 2012 No Comments

When I left Westminster, after 14 years of being in a great political place, I expected the new Scottish Parliament to be different and more modern than the mother of Parliaments.

The Scottish Parliament has been an outstanding success, largely, and very progressive and innovative. New procedures, operational innovation, groundbreaking legislation and new personalities have all contributed to creating an iconic Parliament at Holyrood. However, recent events have earmarked some matters outstanding; and for all the wrong reasons. First, excessive tribalism and partisanship and a focus on personalities not policies. Second, there is an obvious disrespect and intolerance between the warring factions.

Finally, there is the deep and tangible hatred between the SNP and Labour, where longstanding enmities have worsened and now impact on the work of the Parliament.

Politics is a rough old trade where passions, emotions, humour, competition, anger and more, influence the debate, but all forms of discursive engagement need rules of conduct that all sides should respect and this is not happening. Our politicians care deeply about their values and principles but much is lost if anger and intolerance take over. Of real concern is the hatred issue. Labour has to come to terms with the fact that the SNP is the majority governing party of the Parliament, its credibility and legitimacy is based on electoral choices made in 2007 and 2011.

Labour’s challenge is not to hate Alex Salmond, the SNP or independence but to develop a progressive policy platform, a serious position on the constitutional future of Scotland and start to make inroads into the SNP’s dominance in politics. Policies matter more than personalities. Labour has to recognise the reality that old certainties are disappearing and that no one owes them a vote. There is no substitute for the hard grind of opposition politics. This cannot be achieved by name calling, cheap jibes and intemperate language. This turns the public off, cheapens debates, undermines our Parliament and eventually devalues our democracy: low electoral turnouts are a constant reminder of the public’s growing disenchantment.

Labour has to stop hating the SNP and start to defeat them with arguments and ideas. For the SNP there are also lessons to be learned.

They were probably better as a minority government between 2007 and 2011. A tendency towards centralisation, examples of arrogance and indifference towards opposition parties in the Parliament and more than a hint of complacency have become worrying features of their approach to government. This is often reflected in the work of committees where relevance and usefulness are both being threatened by built in majorities. While the attitude of the opposition parties can, sometimes, be unhelpful, there are signs that the SNP is making less of an effort to reach out beyond their party boundaries to find consensus or bi-partisanship on a range of issues.

Frustration frays tempers and heightens the sense of disappointment felt by the opposition parties and this leads to the bad tempered exchanges which are now too often a feature of our Parliament. However, the volatile exchanges between the SNP and Labour are not confined to the Parliament!

So why is any of this important? Trust is an area where politicians and politics are losing the public’s confidence. Many people believe that issues are moving beyond the control of politics.

As new challenges emerge, politics will become an increasingly tough business and will face demands for a different and more intelligent kind of approach. For many people, politics has lost its grip and that is why they question its relevance. If that growing disenchantment is to be reversed then we need a radical reappraisal of how politics should work.

We must rediscover our faith in the system and our ability to change it. The public are not too blame. Politics and politicians are letting people down. People are increasingly disconnected from behaviour which seems remote and irrelevant to their needs. They are questioning the relevance of what parties and politicians are supposed to be doing on their behalf.

Our politics must inspire and enthuse and be relevant to people’s needs and aspirations.

Mindless tribalism must be abandoned and the partisanship that so often disfigures our politics and dominates what passes for political debate.

Labour and the SNP must assume a degree of responsibility for the conduct of business in the Parliament and work to eliminate hate-based politics. Parliamentary sitting times should be extended so back benchers and shadow ministers have more time to make speeches; the committees need to be overhauled so there is more scrutiny and less partisanship; and MSPs and political parties need to assume more responsibility for their conduct and behaviour.

Tony Blair, in his final question time in the House of Commons, said some people described the House as a place for “low skulduggery” but he liked to think that it was a place for pursuing “noble virtues”.

For Holyrood, we too must make choices in pursuit of ‘noble virtues’ as we work to recover people’s faith in the importance of politics and rediscover its potential to resolve the wideranging matters that we face in 21st-century Scotland.

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