A Westminster Labour front-bench politician asked me last week at his party conference in Perth how I felt the polls were looking for 2016. “Didn’t he mean 2014?” I asked before realising that for him, the referendum was all but won.
And worse, he had already bought into the belief that with the SNP soundly thumped at the ballot box, his party would rise, phoenix like, to assume power 18 months on.
I’m not saying that Scots will vote for independence in September but for Labour to believe that the battle is already won reveals an arrogance and a complacency that puts at risk them ever getting the keys to the Bute House door.
It’s true, the polls are slowly moving in favour of ‘Yes’ and while that is still quite firmly a long way off from a victory, it does raise the spectre of what happens after the referendum in the event of a ‘No’ vote – but by a slim majority. In that scenario, there won’t be room for celebration and I agree with the Daily Record’s political editor, David Clegg, when he says he believes there will be many Scots who will vote ‘No’ with a heavy heart. And that matters because a victory for Better Together will be a hollow win indeed for Labour if it believes that ‘No’ means anything close to resembling an endorsement of them.
I hate to say it, but Labour feels toxic right now. Its spring conference was less a rally than a rammy. There was the muddle over what they actually meant by their tax plans, with the long-awaited findings of their devolution commission seemingly saying one thing and the Red Paper another. At one point, journalists even questioned whether Labour was suggesting the introduction of a negative 5p tax band and the spinners became unspun. Johann Lamont’s conference speech, normally a spine-tingling, tub-thumping kind of affair, was subdued – who has taken the edge off her? And with every second word starting with an ‘S’ and ending with a ‘P’, her speech made more references to Salmond and the Nationalists than his own diary. Her promise to explain what Labour actually stood for felt more like sorry than an excuse. She said a lot but explained very little. She was a socialist, she doesn’t like Salmond, she wants to tax the rich and help the poor. She wants to take power and devolve it down and the council tax…oh, well, that’s just bad and something we need to consider.
There is no excuse. Lamont has had a long time to formulate what she thinks. She’s been in the Labour Party since her teens, been an MSP since the inception of the parliament, been a minister, the deputy party leader and has been talking about the need for change around things like local government funding, taxation and universal provision now for years, so to find her speech threadbare when it comes to policy but full of platitudes is a dereliction of her duty as leader of Scottish Labour. People are desperate for Labour to engage, reconnect and recapture the heart and soul of Scottish politics but they are left wanting.
The newspaper headlines claimed Lamont had lunged to the left but her reaffirmation of the party’s socialism appeared fugacious. It was done within the paradigm of what the SNP stood for – cutting corporation tax, race to the bottom, helping the rich, depriving the poor – rather than what Labour was about and more importantly, what it would do. And having moved from a position of defending Standard Life the week before, so she could claim Salmond was frightening them away with independence, she then threatened to tax the rich until the pips squeak, which might well have those same bankers running for Hadrian’s Wall. It revealed the danger in Scottish Labour trying to defend the Union while at the same time trying to defend Scotland’s poor. Redistribution will mean nothing if there is nothing left to share.
What has happened to Scottish Labour? It seems hope has been replaced by hate. It used to be a party of inclusivity but now it condemns its critics and isolates dissenters who question whether it is right to simply oppose independence without offering a solution to Scotland’s ills.
The SNP has shifted the parameters of normality. The Union is not what it was or indeed what it needs to be. And as I told the House of Lords select committee examining Scottish independence, the vitriol, the febrile nature of this debate, is because the ‘No’ side, predominantly Labour, has been gazumped. The SNP has slowly but successfully shifted what is known as the Overton Window – it has made the ridiculous a reality – independence an acceptable norm. Labour was outplayed and because that hurts they are defensive. The animosity towards Salmond and his party is palpable but in the end, it is also destructive.
At a fringe event at the Labour conference in Perth, Margaret Curran, the shadow secretary of state, wore her longevity as a party activist as proof that she could lambast people whom she said had no track record – people like Allan Grogan of Labour for Independence. She doesn’t know him so therefore, he is a fraud. And Henry McLeish, the former Labour First Minister who tries to inject some balance into the one-dimensional internal debate that Labour has about the referendum. He is a traitor. It made for uncomfortable listening. It was ugly but more tellingly, it was indicative of Scottish Labour still being way behind the curve.
With just six months to go to the referendum, Scottish Labour seems moribund. The vote on the welfare cap reveals the inherent flaw because this is a party still ruled by Westminster and it has its eye on the Tory marginals in 2015, not on the housing estates of Scotland where the SNP is meanwhile fighting for independence in 2014. Nationalists made the right strategic decision in opposing the cap – standing up for the disadvantaged, standing up for Scotland. Lamont, unfortunately, is tied to a UK party that still calls the shots and is working to a different electoral timetable.
Jim Murphy told me in 2011, after his party had been defeated for the second time at Holyrood, that people asked themselves ‘what does Labour stand for?’ and they were unable to answer. I fear nothing has changed and time is running out.