Saturday, May 07, 2011

#SP11 The fallout

I'm increasingly of the view that the notion of a 'progressive' or centre-left majority amongst the British electorate is a dangerous myth but in any event what is beyond question is that the centre-left unionist parties in Scotland were dealt a crushing blow in the Holyrood elections.

Naturally both parties will need to ask themselves what went wrong and I see the leaders of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have decided to quit. Given that no-one believes that this in itself is going to be enough, there remains the question of what to do next?

A number of possibilities will present themselves to both parties. Some of these will be more sensible than others but for Labour there's one I sincerely hope they immediately reject as absurd, which is to simply pretend that it hasn't happened.

I doubt they will, doubt they can - but there's enough rumblings from Labour supporters that are indicative of a failure to grasp the scale of what has happened here. Such as protesting that the Labour vote didn't fall that much from the last election. You wouldn't have thought it needed pointing out but apparently it does: Labour lost the last election and has now lost this one more spectacularly than anyone imagined possible. Salmond's party has won an overall majority within an electoral system that was specifically designed to avoid one party dominating the legislature.

Labour has failed to improve on its already inadequate share of the national vote and crucially has failed to win over disgruntled Lib Dems who seem to have transferred their support to the SNP almost wholesale.

I'm concerned about the manner in which commentators treat Labour and Liberal Democrat voters as a near homogeneous block because it should be clear by now that people vote for these parties for different reasons and when they switch, or stay at home, this is for different reasons also.

Having said that, while both unionist centre-left parties have different problems, many of them are attributable to the fact that they are unionists. I don't mean this in the way a nationalist would. All the evidence thus far would suggest that while the SNP won the election, most Scots do not favour independence. Rather it is the way their experience as unionist parties has influenced their structure and dynamic.

This is obviously easier to explain in relation to the Liberal Democrats. Their near annihilation on Thursday is largely on account of the national party entering into coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster - a party never popular in Scotland at the best of times and even less now.

It is unfair in as far as it has not been the Scottish Lib Dems MSPs who have done this. In Scotland they have stuck to their policy on no tuition fees for students, for example, and have been in coalition with Labour twice.

But they can't be cast as victims entirely. In the unforgiving world of electoral politics it would have been strategically wise for them to distance themselves from Westminster Liberal Democrats and their official policy on the constitution of the UK should have provided them a context in which to do so: they are supposed to be a federal party; they should have cast themselves as the Scottish alternative to the Westminster Yes-men to whom so many voters have said no.

Labour's problems as a unionist entity have a longer history and deeper structural roots. Where to begin? The Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray during the election campaign bleated that it should be about 'policies and not personalities'. Unfortunately, Labour in Scotland has a poverty in both of these rather useful electoral commodities. It is certainly true that the SNP ran an unashamedly presidential campaign; the list entry on the ballot invited electors to vote for "SNP: Alec Salmond for First Minister".

Here it is important for opponents of the SNP to take account of just what a substantial politician Alec Salmond is. Jeff from Better Nation reminds us that as a party leader he has out-lasted Thatcher, Ashdown, Major, Blair, Brown... And now he has a parliamentary majority. If he's feeling a little like Moses today, who could blame him?

But Scottish Labour would be unwise to listen to the likes of Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian who while rightly identifying personality as something of increasing importance in politics, rather overstates his case, at least with regards to Scotland. If personality is so important, why didn't the Greens do better? Pat Harvie is an attractive personality who has performed well. So is Anabel Goldie - but the Tories did badly on Thursday too. Or if you were feeling cruel you could ask: if personality matters so much, why did Labour do so well?

Because Gray was a disaster but here's the problem Labour needs to address itself to: they were unable to do much better than him because of the historic path of ambition taken by people within the Scottish Labour movement. Pre-devolution the brightest and the best went to Westminster, the also-rans ended up in Strathclyde Regional Council.

Strathclyde is no longer with us and now we have a parliament in Edinburgh but with the notable exception of the late Donald Dewar, Scottish Labour politicians have behaved pretty much as if nothing has changed.

And as for policy? Dear Lord. I hope there is as we speak a few standard textbooks being revised with footnotes. FPTP leads to coalition government while one elected under AMS gives the first party an overall majority. As for the stuff about campaigns not affecting the outcome of elections that much; Labour were slightly ahead when it started but lost because said campaign was largely a disgrace.

Let me give you a personal example. Mandatory jail terms for people carrying knives is not doable. No need to take my word for it; according to my colleague, Frank McAveety MSP said the same to a class when he was invited to speak to students at the school where I teach in the East End of Glasgow.

Whether the class remembered the lesson I can't say but I do know the Labour party did not because I received through my door a leaflet with this given as the sole reason why I should vote Labour and not SNP.

When you combine this with the other more general constitutional scare-mongering, I think it would be fair to summarise Labour's 2011 Holyrood campaign as follows: vote SNP and your granny will need a passport to travel to England and in the interregnum if you vote SNP, it's much more likely your granny will be stabbed.

To describe Labour's campaign as 'lacklustre', as some have, is too generous. I think lazy, nasty, mean-spirited and just downright stupid would be better terms. I have to be perfectly honest and tell you that while I voted Labour - in the constituency vote only - I'm slightly embarrassed about it.

Labour have promised to 'listen'. They said that the last time they lost. I'd rather they do some arithmetic and worked out that they have never had, nor are ever likely to have in the future, what they assume they should have, which is the support of the majority of the Scottish people.

This assumption of the right to rule is Scottish Labour's problem. It is this, the Scottish contagion, incubated under the long years of opposition to the Conservatives in the eighties and nineties, that Brown imported into the Westminster situation and lead ultimately to the downfall of Labour at the last election. I'm wondering if there isn't some of this behind Labour's interest in constitutional reform? This never used to concern the party - until they started losing elections. Rather than addressing the problem, they played the nationalist card with a small 'n'. It's a matter for another post entirely but those who support voting reform because they prefer to imagine that the constitutional arrangement is somehow fixed against them, rather than confronting the simple fact that they're just not that popular, play this game at their peril. Labour did it in the long years of opposition to Conservative rule and now the chickens have well and truly come home to roost. Scottish Labour needs to address themselves to this or face a slow grinding decline into electoral oblivion.
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