What hope for Labour in Scotland?
The best thing the Scottish National Party can do at its annual conference is listen in awe to the Glorious Leaderene’s speech, give her the obligatory standing ovation, then close the conference and adjourn to the bars and restaurants of Aberdeen.
The less the Nats do, the better. Their job is being done for them by the other parties: Labour are on a self-destruct mission, the Tories are becoming more unpopular in Scotland by the day, and the Lib Dems are, well, the same old bed-hopping (politically speaking, of course) Lib Dems.
The last thing the SNP need is a typical rabble-rousing conference with ritual anti-Union rants and bogus Bravehearts and their ‘Freedum now!’ war cries. Demonstrations of the cruder forms of Nattery are likely to turn off those post-referendum recruits who actually thought about their political beliefs before joining the party.
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Nor does it need self-justifying speeches from those underperforming and hapless Scottish Government ministers making unconvincing excuses for their failures on a growing number of fronts, especially law and order, education and health. Or, for that matter, scandals with the odour of cronyism and improper business dealings, which give the lie to the promise of ‘straight-talking, honest politics’.
The SNP need only survey the current Scottish political landscape to realise everything’s going its way and its best tactic is not to draw too much attention to its own defects.
Realists in Scottish Labour will admit privately that their meagre hope in the Scottish Parliament election in six months is to hang on by the skin of their teeth. May 2015 may have been a UK election but the real damage to Labour was done in Scotland – and no party has ever bounced back from that kind of drubbing.
An electoral massacre next May on the scale of the Westminster election – near-annihilation, reducing 41 seats to just one and wiping out a generation of would-be Labour ‘stars’ – is not impossible. One pessimistic prediction within the party is that Labour’s current 37 MSPs could be reduced to something like a dozen.
Finding Labour candidates is a real problem while local activists to turn out, knock on doors and distribute election addresses have melted away. The best chance of becoming a Labour MSP may not be by winning enough votes but via the unelected Additional Member System; getting high enough on the party list is the real behind-the-scenes struggle.
Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale (herself not a constituency MSP but a list member for the Lothians region) could find herself leading a reduced opposition rump in the next Holyrood parliament.
Significantly, she is not claiming her party has any chance of regaining power at Holyrood in the foreseeable future, talking in her Brighton conference speech of more limited ambitions: “trying to move on from an awful outcome not just in Scotland but in most parts of the UK”; providing “a strong opposition to the Scottish Government”; and “I will always question those in power”, accepting that she will not herself be in power.
How did the once-dominant Scottish Labour Party come to such a second-rate state? Dugdale herself provided part of the answer: “We heard the message the Scottish people were giving us – and in the past few years we heard it repeatedly. But we didn’t do enough to change it.”
Complacency caused the relentless decline of Scottish Labour. For decades, the massive majorities in so-called Labour strongholds were taken for granted and there was a failure to realise that the ‘working class’ had become middle class as they acquired their own homes, cars, luxuries and foreign holidays.
Most unforgiveable of all, nothing was done for an ever-growing underclass in Scotland, the people living in wilderness ghetto estates on the outskirts of our towns and cities on benefits and rent subsidies. The message to them was that existence was enough. And without jobs and without real hope of advancement for their sons and daughters.
They are still there in unattractive, drug-ridden, crime-blighted estates – a festering indictment of all the political parties in Scotland. Their creation started under Labour administrations and they have continued under SNP governments.
For too long, Labour leaderships north and south of the border were middle class, and in Scotland usually belonged to a clique of university-educated intellectual snobs for whom ‘socialism’ was not so much an ideal as a means of personal career advancement.
I am still shocked when I recall one of them, a very senior Labour figure, on the overnight sleeper from London, well-filled glass in hand, talking about going back to “the great unwashed” in his constituency. They were hardly men of the people and, despite the efforts of their local councillors and trade unionists, they lost touch with ordinary Scots – if they ever were in touch.
So they should not have been surprised that when a more radical, almost revolutionary, party came along in the shape of the SNP, promising a break from the bad old ways, so many flocked to join.
The irony is that when a more modern and in-touch breed of Scottish Labour leaders and first ministers took over – Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Johann Lamont – they crashed and burned because of personal failings or other shortcomings.
And, as if things were not bad enough for Scottish Labour, along comes Jeremy Corbyn, the guarantor of Labour’s unelectability.
His shadow cabinet was not so much chosen as a ragbag of left-overs, once the real talent and experience refused to serve under him and moved to the backbenches. There is a clandestinely organised group of 20-23 Labour MPs waiting and plotting for when Corbyn’s leadership implodes, and they are already privately challenging the ambiguous rules for dumping a leader. Some hope.
For me, the final straw was his appointment of disgraced Scot ‘Lord’ Mike Watson, time-served arsonist, to his team. I took dog’s abuse for venting my disgust online: “If I were still writing headlines, it would be ‘Corbyn’s Cabinet of Crackpots’.”
I now admit that was a bit harsh, since some of them are making a fair fist of responsible opposition – not least, shadow chancellor and former firebrand, John McDonnell. His problems will come when he has to spell out where the money is coming from for his neo-Marxist analysis of Britain’s economy.
Far more serious is that Corbyn and Co are shunting the Labour Party to the Left and presenting a muddled and incoherent agenda. How can voters have respect for, or loyalty to, a party with a pick-and-mix, please-yourself policy platform designed to divert attention from the fact that it is now more extreme?
The facing-both-ways position over the nuclear deterrent, a major issue in Scotland because of Trident, is typical. Corbyn has aligned himself with the SNP in opposing it, yet his shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, defiantly made clear she supports it while the Brighton conference quietly approved the Britain in the World report which reaffirmed support for Trident’s renewal.
So Labour’s official position is to have a new generation of nuclear subs based in Scottish waters while the Labour leader’s position is ‘No, I’m with the Nats...’
Dugdale compounded the confusion by saying she would not stop MPs and MSPs campaigning for independence if there was another referendum, that the party should have a free vote, and Yes supporters could have a home in the Scottish Labour Party.
What is Dugdale’s position? Is she, as elected, the Scottish leader of a ‘Better Together’ UK party? Is she happy to become a centre-left subsidiary of the SNP? Why should voters bother with a party that can’t make up its own mind on such a vital issue?
With Corbyn and Dugdale happy to shepherd potential voters into the SNP fold, the result of next May’s Scottish election is a foregone conclusion. And the effects of another Labour rout in the 2020 Westminster election will be even more seismic for Scotland and the Union.
With the prospect of five more years of Tory government under George Osborne or – even worse, if that were possible – Boris Johnson, there would be no need for an independence referendum. Scots would simply walk out of the Union.
Scottish Nationalists are an impatient, hot-headed lot, but even they should see the benefits of biding their time and doing nothing to scare the virgin voters who have joined their cause.
The string-pullers have tried to present a sanitised agenda, nudging the hotheads onto the conference fringe. With typical SNP control-freakery, over 100 resolutions have been vetted and reduced to 25, nine of which obsequiously welcome the success of existing policy initiatives by the Scottish Government.
Only three resolutions call for a specific change to SNP policy and these are on relatively non-controversial subjects – autism and the justice system, TTIP and fracking. Fourteen resolutions criticise other parties and the Westminster government, calling for greater resistance to Tory policies.
The SNP leadership wants the conference mood to be one of celebration and self-congratulation.
Their message to members is: “It’s been an amazing few months for the SNP, with our membership increasing by over 300 per cent since the referendum and a record number of SNP MPs returned at the General Election.”
They expect to see many new faces and make it a ‘getting to know you’ conference. Forget the politics, which can only cause trouble for you, the best way to do that is down the pub.