Euan McColm: Labour isn’t working – it will have to wait

Kezia Dugdale campaigns in Rutherglen, but she was powerless to stop Clare Haughey of the SNP becoming the first non-Labour MSP in the constituency. Picture: John Devlin
Kezia Dugdale campaigns in Rutherglen, but she was powerless to stop Clare Haughey of the SNP becoming the first non-Labour MSP in the constituency. Picture: John Devlin
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In the distant foreign country of 2010, when Labour dominated Scotland in the general election, I was asked by a newspaper to interview Jim Murphy.

In those days, Murphy was Scottish Secretary and MP for East Renfrewshire – then considered the safest Labour seat in Scotland – and generally thought of as a politician with a long career ahead of him.

As we travelled around his constituency, he spoke compellingly about his upbringing, about being born into poverty and his parents’ decision to move to South Africa to try to build a better life. I saw another side to the cocky Murphy and I liked it.

When the time came for us to part, he asked what I made of Scottish Labour’s campaign. I told him I found the party’s message pretty superficial. All he and his colleagues seemed to do was turn up in areas they ignored between elections, shout “the Tories are evil” and then bugger off again.

Murphy nodded, then, after a perfectly timed beat, said: “Aye. But it works.”

And the truth was that, even though it was a pitiful excuse for a political message, it did work. The Conservatives were utterly toxic in Scotland and Labour had played the leading role in creating that state of affairs. It had become the view of a great many Scots that to vote Tory was immoral.

But what goes around comes around. Now, thanks in no small part, to the efforts of the SNP, it is considered taboo to vote Labour in Scotland.

Of course, Labour swept almost all before them in Scotland in 2010 but lost across the UK. A year later, the SNP won the Holyrood landslide that showed Labour’s rule of Scotland was truly over.

Now Labour, once the swaggering alpha male of Scottish politics, is cowed and bewildered. The world around it has changed and left it behind.

The Holyrood election result, which saw Labour humiliated into third place, behind Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives, marked the lowest point in the party’s fortunes since 1910. And who’s to say Labour doesn’t yet have further to fall?

Over the past few years, Scottish Labour leader after Scottish Labour leader has collided with electoral defeat and then promised to learn lessons. We have heard the people’s verdict, they said, and we will regain their trust.

Unfortunately for Scottish Labour, the people have grown increasingly uninterested in what the party’s saying. Voters are screening their calls and, when they see it’s Labour on the line, they don’t pick up.

The current leader, Kezia Dugdale, is a decent sort. She’s not the sort of “career politician” so deeply disdained by so many (though, I should say that I’ve no problem with career politicians. Just as I would prefer a career surgeon should I require emergency medical treatment, I’m very much in favour of governments being full of people who know what they’re doing), and frequently, during the last session of the Scottish Parliament, she gave a good account of herself during clashes with the vastly more experienced SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

But Dugdale’s qualities – both personal and political – matter not a jot right now. Labour’s “traditional” support is decimated. A great many who once backed the party voted Yes in 2014’s independence referendum and then lined up behind the SNP. And on Thursday, a great many of those who had remained gave up on Labour and backed the Tories.

Inevitably, Labour politicians will panic. Already, there are suggestions that the party should reconsider its position on the constitution. Perhaps Labour, say some of those who remain, should open its mind to independence. Surely that will bring the old supporters back.

Those who suggest this course are fools. Voters who’ve turned their backs on Scottish Labour over the independence issue are not waiting by the phone. They’ve moved on and would treat with contempt rather than glee any attempt by Labour to rebrand itself as a pro-independence party. “Look at the state of you,” they would say. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”

But though I am clear about what Labour shouldn’t do, I am less certain about what it should.

Davidson’s campaign message – that only she could provide serious opposition to the SNP and any plans it might have for a second independence referendum – was clearly compelling to many who had previously backed the Labour Party. Should Davidson impress those voters in the years ahead, perhaps they will stick around. Perhaps Labour has lost them forever. To the Tories. Imagine.

Not so long ago, I was dining with a former member of the last Labour Westminster government and I asked what his party might do to change its fortunes. Freed from the restrictions of office, he confessed that he had no idea. The damage was, he said, already done. Labour’s decline might well be terminal.

But assuming that Dugdale and her remaining colleagues are not content to do nothing while their party withers, they will have to do something.

Labour’s decision to campaign on a policy of tax increases was a mistake – voters never choose the party that wants to take from them. For a start, Dugdale should ditch that idea. It might make Labour foot soldiers feel good about themselves but smugness doesn’t win elections, does it?

The SNP’s centrist policy platform was inspired by the New Labour project. Dugdale and company should remember that and move back to the place where mainstream voters live.

And then… well, then they must hope that the SNP screws up. They must hope a party that has, for some time, got away with doing very little is caught out.

This is how bad things are for Labour. Voters aren’t interested and all the party can try to do is get itself in fighting shape on the off chance that the nationalists lose their bloom.

Scottish Labour’s best – perhaps its only – chance of survival is to be ready to capitalise on an SNP slump that might never come.

But if the party dies waiting for it, we shouldn’t be surprised.