Labour taking fight to itself instead of to the country
With a global pandemic threatening our existence, the economy in meltdown and a population in the grip of fear, there was a welcome cessation in Punch and Judy party politics. But with eight months to go before the next election, and an SNP programme for government that all but promises a second independence referendum, the gloves are now off.
And as night follows day, the Scottish Labour Party responds to imminent annihilation via its curious in-fighting default, in what is becoming a tedious rerun of comedy gold.
And it’s been made even more farcical by a group of unelected peers calling for the elected leader of their party to stand down in the interests of democracy.
The demise of Scottish Labour’s hegemony is one of the most surreal events of Scotland’s recent political history and one that even we in the political bubble struggle to fully comprehend.
In 1999, Scottish Labour had more than 100 elected members in Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels combined. The party dominated local government, controlled most of the councils and, in one way or another, was writ large across our public sector. Being Scottish was being on the left, and being Labour was largely the norm.
You could joke that Labour votes needed to be weighed not counted and you could stick a red rosette on a pig and it would win an election.
Those heady days are long gone.
Today, Scottish Labour is a poor excuse for a party that was once a titan. It has one MP and just 23 MSPs. It sits in third place behind the Tories in a Scottish Parliament that it created. And its leadership contests are an almost biennial [non-]event.
Richard Leonard is the ninth leader of Scottish Labour in 20 years. And while he can now, remarkably, claim to be one of its longest-serving leaders, with a tenure lasting less than three years, the killing off of his party’s popularity is not down to him.
But with opinion polls showing Labour on just 14 per cent and Leonard’s biggest sin being not recognised, what does the party do but declare war, again, on its leader and thus focuses attention on why Labour is all but a spent force.
The only real nemesis for Labour is, as always, Labour itself.
You can look to 2007 when the party, led by Jack McConnell, lost by just one seat to the SNP. To 2011, under Iain Gray, when the SNP won its historic majority. Or to 2014, when Johann Lamont resigned following the independence referendum, blasting some of her own MPs as “dinosaurs” who had failed to see how “Scotland had changed forever”. And she threw red meat to the nationalists as she walked out the door with the claim that Scottish Labour was treated like a “branch office”.
Lamont called for her party to have a “real discussion” about its future. Instead, it elected Jim Murphy as its leader, one of the most divisive figures during the referendum, and who had conducted a lacklustre investigation into the party’s 2011 defeat. He then, counterintuitively, went on to manage Scotland from his seat at Westminster.
And then in 2015, with Murphy as leader, the party suffered one of its worst defeats ever when 40 of its 41 MPs, including Murphy, lost their seats to the SNP. The response was to hold yet another review – the second led by Murphy. It concluded that voters didn’t know what Labour stood for.
Murphy’s deputy, Kezia Dugdale, was elected as his successor and she led the party into the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, where it lost 13 of its 37 seats and, symbolically, found itself trailing behind the Tories. Dugdale then failed to engage with the Corbyn leadership and the internal hostilities went on.
Defeat after defeat and nothing learned.
So, what is the future for a once magnificent party of ideas, of intellect and of clear values? A party forged in the grit and sweat of Scotland’s industrial past and sprung from the forward-thinking minds of great intellects, men of vision who wanted a better future, a shared future rooted in collective responsibility and where nobody was left behind?
That was the dream, the glue, the fix, the hope that held generations of families close to Labour, even when times, and the party, had moved on. Labour support coasted for years on deep-seated emotion and an almost immovable view that Labour was the party of the people, and that voting Labour is what you did because that’s what your family had always done.
But that unthinking support hid a malaise and prevented the party from reacting swiftly when the constitutional tsunami came.
They didn’t believe in the SNP, so neither would you.
I’ve lost count of the Labour big-hitters who have cornered me at conference over the years to tell me I had it all wrong. And, ironically, accused me of being blinkered when I talked of the quiet rise of the SNP. The MPs, the MSPs, limited by their own sense of entitlement, who would tell me that the electorate had it wrong. That the SNP were hoodwinking Scots and that things would come right for them again.
They were wrong.
Each new party leader was as bad as the last in terms of taking the constitutional temperature and addressing what needed to be done in turning the party’s fortunes around. And now in Labour’s never-ending game of leadership musical chairs, Leonard is simply taking his turn.
Nicola Sturgeon has said that this coming election is the most important in Scotland’s history, a choice between the “progressive policy platform offered by the SNP and the utterly regressive agenda of the Conservatives”. She has already framed it as an election about independence, and with polls predicting yet another outright SNP majority, for a Scottish Labour Party that continues to oppose a second independence referendum and consumes itself instead in self-interest and a belief that the answer to its problems lies in a change of leader, this election could be its last.