Monday, 16 February 2015

Should Scottish Labour dial M for Murdo?

Scottish Labour, at this particular moment, resemble a seagull trapped in a bin bag as they lurch from fiasco to disaster, panicked, and desperately trying to get back to "normal".

Since the partial establishment of democracy in 1999, the party has suffered the loss of a third of its voters in Scottish Parliament elections, and has lost power to the National party eight years ago. Nobody much would give them a chance of getting back into government next year, meaning that it's likely that by the time the 2020 elections come round, they'll have been out of power for thirteen years, having not won an election for seventeen years - a political generation. Imagine an eighteen year old woman, casting her victorious first-ever vote on the day of her birthday at the end of the school day, for Jack McConnell as First Minister. She will be thirty-five years old the next time she casts a vote to return a Labour First Minister. She could easily be a grandmother. 

In local government, the picture isn't much better: Labour have lost most of their strongholds in local authorities, and again, the direction of travel in terms of votes is downwards from election to election. In 2003, they scored 611.843 votes, coming first, with almost half as many votes again as the second-placed Nationalists. By 2012, they had completely lost that advantage, coming a poor second, with only 488.703 first preferences.

Only in elections to the Westminster parliament did their vote hold up: and they believed that would always be the case. Scotland is sound, they thought. Scots will see a binary contest and choose a Labour government over a Conservative one, they assured themselves. 


The referendum in 2014 changed Scottish politics forever. Polls suggest that Labour will lose between three-quarters and all of their seats in Scotland, as voters, repulsed by their alliance with the Conservatives in the referendum, turn away to a better anti-Conservative option.   

Scottish Labour's only hope of recovery, perversely, is that they are destroyed in the general election, and that a Conservative government is returned. This will allow them to peddle the pathetic myth that a vote for anyone other than Labour is a vote for a Tory government (neatly avoiding the inconvenient fact that they've just spend two years in a coalition with the Tories, arguing for the principle that a Labour-voting Scotland should be governed by the Conservatives for vast swathes of our existence).

The nightmare scenario for Scottish Labour is a wipeout in Scotland, and Ed Miliband falling short enough of a governing majority to require Nationalist support. Scottish Labour breathlessly tell us that of course Miliband won't deal with the SNP.

Do we really fall for that? Sure, a Gordon Brown-controlled party didn't. But let's take a look at Labour's proposed government. The only two Slabbers in the proposed government are Maggie Curran - who has as junior a post as possible while still being in the Shadow Cabinet and in any case looks likely to lose her seat - and Douglas Alexander. 

Are we really to believe that every single senior Labour MP is going to sacrifice their chance of governing - their crowning glory in their careers - to keep Douglas Alexander (who will have failed in his campaign management role) content? Are we really to believe that Ed Miliband will give up the chance of replacing Cameron and being the most Left-wing premier since Wilson to placate a Scottish Labour party which will have let UK Labour down so badly?

Is it not more likely, do you not think, that Ed Miliband's attitude to the Scottish branch office will not be closer to the Gareth Southgate approach: "you had your chance, and you fucked it up"?

If he does do that, and the National party proves a harmonious partner to Miliband and the Left of the Labour party, helping him fend off attacks from the Right of the party as the Liberal human shield did for Cameron, why wouldn't Scotland repeat the trick in the next election?

And whither Scottish Labour, then, if Miliband gives a tacit admission that the Nationalists would be a preferred partner?

In my opinion, their best option would be to dial M for Murdo and activate the Fraser Plan. 

Autonomy for Scottish Labour probably isn't enough. The veneer of autonomy they have gained since September has caused them to be even more of a laughing-stock. 

Their best option, in my opinion, would be to be a completely autonomous party in Scotland. Not a branch office, nor a sub-unit. Not the Scottish Labour to UK Labour, but the SDLP to UK Labour. 

To select their own MPs and candidates - Ed Miliband, not Jim Murphy, chooses which, if any, Scottish MP joins the Shadow Cabinet - and follow their own policies, whilst making it clear that they will generally support Labour in the Commons.

I think the best thing for Labour would be to start again. A brand-new party of the Left and centre-Left in Scotland, a Caledocentric workers' party, but always with the aim of propping up a Labour government in the UK Parliament. The CDU to UK Labour's CSU. Sure, they'd be the yin to UK Labour's yang, but isn't that better than being the Sooty to UK Labour's Matthew Corbett?

If the Conservatives in Scotland had adopted Plan Murdo in 1997 instead of pussyfooting about and then sort-of adopting it in 2014, would they be further along the road to recovery? Probably.

The Labour "brand" is now as toxic as the Conservative one in Scotland. If the Tories had rebranded themselves as the Progressive Democrats or whatever, they'd have lanced that boil in an instant, and attracted the votes of thousands of centre-right Scots who despised Thatcherism but are innately conservative and who now vote SNP.

If Scottish Labour act quickly, they can avoid the Tories' fate. Not just a rebrand, not just a restructuring, but a renewal - taking the history of Scottish Labour and the many great things they did, but leaving behind the mistakes of the past and the permanent, indelible stain of collaboration with the Tories. 

A workers' movement which wasn't so tainted by New Labour and the Iraq War, and one which - no matter the feeble protestations that they've "reset politics" - is never, ever going to attract Yes voters in any significant numbers again would be a solid and formidable force in Scottish politics. 

Who knows - if the new party as a whole was to take a neutral position on the constitution and let its members act according to their consciences on the matter as the old Labour party did on the EEC, they might find they had much more in common with the National party than they thought. And that would be an unstoppable centre-Left force. 

A Labour-supporting friend asked me on Friday if I've ever voted Labour. I admitted I had, in English local elections. They then asked if I'd ever join. I demurred, citing the referendum and the Iraq War. A new party, with a new generation, would avoid that.

Scottish Labour probably can't survive. History is littered with PA.SO.Ks, Progressive Democrats, and Progressive Conservatives who governed, and then suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of history. 

But a new, mass-movement party for workers, which didn't have Unionism as its sole aim? i'd vote for that.

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