Deliver us from EVEL
Scottish Labour has been on the wrong side of electoral history now for well over eight years and the mystery of the referendum is that even when they win they act like losers.
I remember looking at the then Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, with his head in his hands at the Labour conference in Oban in 2006, when his attempts to keep the argument against the SNP a positive one in the run-up to the 2007 Holyrood election were all but swept away by his Westminster colleagues.
Tony Blair had done the right thing and despite anything that was going on behind the scenes in terms of resisting the posturing for more autonomy for the Scottish arm of the party, he’d come to Scotland and kept it positive. There wasn’t a cigarette paper between him and his Scottish leader as one praised the other and kept devolution, positivity and the party’s successes to the fore. But when John Reid and Douglas Alexander, who ironically was running the election campaign, got up on that little stage in the Corran Halls and fell into rant mode with talk of passports, foreigners and border controls, should ever the SNP darken Bute House’s door, the game became a bogey.
Up until that point, Labour had been ahead in the polls. But six months later, Salmond was First Minister, McConnell was on his way out, and Wendy Alexander was on her ill-fated way in, with Labour pushed into a surly sulk of an opposition that has continued for years.
McConnell told me then that Westminster just didn’t get Scotland. And he meant his Scottish MPs. He had good reason to feel aggrieved. In the final days of that election, McConnell beat Salmond hands down in a televised debate when he revealed Labour’s plans to reform council tax. Lucky Jack outsmarted smart Alex and put the SNP on the back foot.
“I don’t think there is anything patriotic about making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK,” said McConnell, and up went the polls.
The mystery of the referendum is not why No succeeded but why Labour – the party that was on the winning side – has taken so long to see that it’s it and not the electorate that is out of kilter
Then just days before the vote, Gordon Brown, in his characteristically ill-thought-out and clunking attempts to wrestle unilateral glory while ignoring party collateral damage, gave an interview to Scottish Television in which he said he would not support or work with Alex Salmond should the SNP win. The balance swung back in the nationalists’ favour as Brown’s words were seen as anti-democratic and, crucially, anti-Scottish.
Seven years on and the SNP has been in power as both a minority government and as an historic majority one. It has forced a referendum, lost a vote for independence, changed a leader and it has undoubtedly changed a nation. The SNP lost and yet it feels like it won.
The mystery of the referendum is not why No succeeded but why Labour – the party that was on the winning side – has taken so long to see that it’s it and not the electorate that is out of kilter.
Labour was the first party of devolution and now it is the fourth. It rests on long past glories, even when on more powers for the Scottish Parliament it has been outstripped by the Tories.
And when the first meeting of the Smith Commission broke up last week with some sense of agreement between the parties present, Labour continued to act like the recalcitrant child refusing to share any of its hard-won toys. Its proposals for more powers for Holyrood are by far the weakest and more to do with retaining power than giving it away.
It is paralysed by its Westminster connections. From Gordon Brown’s vow to its timid submission to Smith, it ties itself in knots in an effort to retain influence at Westminster. It can’t argue the moral or democratic case for why ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) is not a good thing because it knows itself that that argument is paper thin.
Since the referendum, Scottish Labour’s position has felt increasingly untenable as party chiefs have had to tour newsrooms defending its position, its poll ratings and its current leader, but Johann is not the problem, she is simply a symptom of it. The success of the referendum campaign has simply shone a light on the party’s failings.
The SNP has stolen the big ticket policy agenda from Labour with free education, prescriptions and personal care. And while Labour continues to frames its arguments by the SNP’s then it stands for little else other than not being the SNP.
Scots have been desperate for Labour to reconnect – who can be happy with what feels like a one-party state – but they have been left wanting. Even in victory, this was a tired old party that couldn’t rise up from a self-inflicted torpor to give a positive argument for what it will now deliver for Scotland. Scottish Labour is still playing dead.
The party’s critics, of which there are many, have not held back and in recent days they have been joined by two former Labour First Ministers: McConnell and McLeish. And it will be harder to simply dismiss Lord McConnell as a closet Nat. In an interview last week, he said the party had lost its way. I suspect he’s not sure it can find its way back.
Within Labour, there are early signs of a schism, with calls ranging from a new leader to a fully independent Scottish party. The latest group to push for a more radical settlement is the Red Paper Collective, which counts among its members several seasoned and senior Labour figures.
The Collective argues that political parties and others should start from what it is they want to achieve and then consider what powers would be necessary to bring that about. That is sharply at odds with a Labour Party that appears to have a starting point of what powers it is prepared to relinquish from Westminster without relinquishing the potential for power.
Others within the party say it should change its name, back sweeping new powers for Holyrood, take a lurch to the Left and refuse to cooperate with the Conservatives in any future independence referendum. Unfortunately, for many, that may sound suspiciously like a party they could and do already vote for. It’s called the SNP. You know, the party that lost…