LAST week Britain witnessed an extraordinary political divergence. While Scottish voters united as never before behind a nationalist cause, the rest of the UK opted for stability and the status quo.
FRIDAY, 10am. Bleary-eyed commentators grappling for fresh words to describe the revolution that has just taken place are grateful for the brief hiatus afforded by the weather forecast. Once again a map of Britain appears on our screens, and once again it is split, the north suffused in yellow sunshine, while torrents of blue rain sweep up from the south. For the moment, it appears, there is to be no respite from the tempestuous events of the night before. Or from reminders that culturally, politically and even climatically, we now live in a country divided.
After all the speculation, confusion and hype, 7/8 May, 2015 proved to be a tale of two elections, with Scotland delivering the greatest political upheaval in its recent history, while England opted for a more concentrated version of the status quo. Where Scotland eschewed austerity, much of England welcomed it. Where Scotland spurned the establishment, much of England cleaved to it; though, obviously, the countries were united in their overall rejection of Labour, its leaders and its policies.
The weather forecast carries other echoes of “the night of the long skean dhus” too, the prevailing conditions as conflicted and changeable as the emotions it unleashed: hope tinged with dread, for some. Or the kind of excitement that tips into tears as weariness takes hold. For SNP supporters, the elation of winning seat after seat was tempered by the realisation that a Tory majority would mean five more years of cuts and lessen their influence at Westminster (while boosting the chances of a second referendum). And – though many had anticipated it with glee – it was a hard heart that wasn’t moved by the evisceration of a Labour Party forged in the country’s industrial heartlands. Or by the toppling of a succession of respected political figures such as Douglas Alexander, Tom Greatrex and Gregg McClymont.
In the end, the surprise for Scotland was that there was no surprise. The results north of the Border were almost exactly as the polls predicted: a landslide for the SNP, with the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats retaining one seat apiece. It’s just that we were incapable of believing such a thing could happen in our lifetime. Even the architect of the SNP’s surge, Nicola Sturgeon, couldn’t grasp the scale of her party’s momentum, playing down the exit poll which, it transpired, was only two seats out as far as Scotland was concerned. Nor could Labour conceive the magnitude of its impending defeat; it spent the last few days of the campaign in denial, but its faith in tactical voting, the incumbency factor and the enduring loyalty of its grass-roots all proved misplaced.
There was a fitting symmetry to Jim Murphy’s own fall from East Renfrewshire, a former Tory stronghold he made his own. The morning after the 1997 landslide, he was the fresh face of Labour’s triumph, on Friday, the worn face of its virtual obliteration. It was only when the returning officer at Williamwood High School in Clarkston declared Kirsten Oswald the victor by 3,718 votes that everything that had come before became seemed more than just some fevered reverie.
South of the Border, the result was equally shocking for the opposite reason. All those polls assuring us there was barely a ballot paper between the two main parties turned out to be red herrings, all those hours spent discussing coalitions, pacts and red lines, a waste of breath, as David Cameron gained a working parliamentary majority. In England too an astonishing night saw a succession of high-profile figures lose their seats, with Simon Hughes, Vince Cable and Ed Balls among the scalps claimed.
With none of the anticipated haggling now necessary, the parties have already started to take stock; to ask themselves what they did wrong or right, and how they can rebuild from the rubble or make the most of their success. Dawn brought a flurry of concession speeches from ex-Labour MPs – Douglas Alexander, Margaret Curran, Jim Murphy – who mustered more dignity in defeat than they did while campaigning. But, as yet, there is no sign Labour has any deep understanding of its own failures. Instead, it seems intent on blaming a post-referendum surge of nationalism for the historic swing. As he pledged to remain leader, Murphy talked of the way the Yes vote had coalesced in one party, while the No vote split three ways, and said the SNP had “claimed our heritage and clothed itself in our values”, without acknowledging that it was only possible for it to do so, because Labour had abandoned them.
Yes, the referendum played its part; Labour’s decision to campaign with the Tories left an indelible mark. But while travelling round the country, it has been clear to me that the disaffection with the party did not come about – as Tom Harris suggested – because Labour-voting Yes voters’ desire for independence overrode all other considerations, but because ordinary people, especially in areas of chronic deprivation, saw in the SNP the promise of the more equal society Labour once fought for. This disaffection didn’t begin in the run-up to 18 September, but more than a decade ago and, was most pronounced in the constituencies with the largest majorities where voters felt they had been taken for granted.
The detachment from its own grass-roots is Labour’s long-term problem. But how much is Murphy to blame for the party’s failure to bring defectors back into the fold? There is no doubt that he is a divisive figure, unable to throw off his Blairite past and loathed for his high profile role in the No campaign. But his real issue is that – like Miliband – he is afflicted with the inverse Midas touch. Perceived as shallow and populist, everything he did, from unveiling new policies on social justice to confronting Sturgeon on oil prices, was seen as further evidence of his insincerity. Stripped of tens of thousands of its members, Labour’s campaign seemed a shadow of the SNP’s, a problem Murphy compounded by surrounding himself by veterans of Better Together. It didn’t help that he couldn’t seem to stop himself exploiting his impoverished childhood, or that he was effectively hung out to dry by Miliband who failed to back him on cuts.
But given the SNP’s momentum, would either of Murphy’s leadership rivals, Neil Findlay or Sarah Boyack, have fared any better? “Even if we’d had Gandhi, we were going to get horsed,” one Labour councillor is reported to have said. In the end, it didn’t matter whether Murphy was positive or negative, authentic or fake, he couldn’t make himself heard over the joyous clamjamfrie of the SNP. Or, if he could, everyone had stopped listening.
As in all tragedies, Labour played a part in its own downfall, but its fate was also the inevitable outcome of a moveable object meeting an irresistible force. In the wake of the referendum, the SNP became a giant snowball, gathering mass and speed as it rolled, and crushing everything – Liberal Democrats as well as Labour – that lay in its path. Much of the credit for this lies with Sturgeon, whose ability to communicate with voters is unsurpassed in modern-day politics. More left-wing and likeable than Salmond, she quickly attracted a cult following, while successfully dissociating herself from its wilder fringes.
She was funny, brilliant on Twitter, polished in the leaders’ debates and a natural with babies. And if she didn’t quite convince the public she wasn’t looking for a mandate for a another referendum, well that was what many of her supporters were secretly hoping for anyway. The party waged a brilliant campaign, both in the way it mobilised its supporters and from a PR perspective. Somehow it succeeded in patenting hope, so that to be Scottish and desiring of social change became synonymous with voting SNP.
Just as Murphy could do no right, Sturgeon could do no wrong. Criticism bounced off her. Even when (especially when) she was behaving like a rock star or hedging her bets on full fiscal autonomy, she was untouchable. To test this out you only have to ask yourself what the reaction would have been if Murphy had taken to the skies in a helicopter plastered with a super-sized image of himself. It must have been frustrating for Labour to watch the SNP appropriate its policies and be praised for its “progressiveness” while Labour itself couldn’t escape the Red Tories tag. In that sense, Murphy’s claim that Scottish party was “overwhelmed by history and by circumstance” is not so wide of the mark.
Of course, the SNP was also aided by developments down south. Though she wasn’t standing, Sturgeon’s positivity played well with those English voters who were fed up with the Westminster boys’ club and wished they could get a piece of Scotland’s action. Soon a flurry of left-wing London commentators had joined her fan club.
Meanwhile, Cameron’s decision to demonise the First Minister, while stoking an English nationalism, played well for the SNP and badly for Labour who, in the event of a minority government, would rely on these dangerous separatists for support – or so the narrative went.
Miliband’s counter-attack – to say he’d rather let in a Tory government than do a deal with the SNP, made him appear spiteful and unprincipled, while both parties’ questioning of the legitimacy of SNP MPs influencing government gave the SNP a boost by justifying its sense of victimisation.
Ironically, though Scotland played a dominant role in shaping the general election campaign, its virtual clean sweep had little influence on the eventual result. Though Labour north and south of the Border said a vote for the SNP would ease the Conservatives back into power (and kept saying it, even once it was demonstrably untrue), the Tories finished with 331 seats, making the hue of the 59 Scottish MPs irrelevant to Labour’s fate nationally (and reinforcing the SNP’s claims of a democratic deficit).
Down south, one of the biggest factors was the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats were expected to get their electoral comeuppance for joining the coalition and for breaking their word on tuition fees. The collapse in their support came, but, in one of those anomalies it is difficult to explain, it was the Tories not Labour who benefited the most (with the former taking around twice the number of Lib Dem seats than the latter).
Another important factor was the public perception of Ed Miliband as not up to the job. Cameron said he was weak on the economy and the right-wing press piled on. From the infamous bacon sandwich to Jeremy Paxman’s “people see you as a north London geek” remark, he found it impossible to escape his image as socially awkward and ineffectual: he was, the consensus seemed to be, the wrong brother.
On Friday, the leaders of those parties that failed to deliver – Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage – fell on their swords. The hunt for a new leader who can revitalise the Labour Party is already under way, with Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis apparently in the running. The right brother – David Miliband – has called for a time of “deep and honest thinking to rebuild progressive politics”.
In Scotland, however, Murphy seems determined to stay on, despite calls for his resignation. He admits the party lacked “a clear message, a clear offer and a continuity of leadership”, but says a year before the Scottish parliamentary elections is not the time for another period of introspection.
Others, however, see his continued leadership as a gift to the nationalists. And what message would it send out to those supporters who have lost faith in Scottish Labour? Perhaps five months was too short a time to turn things around; but if the party isn’t willing to confront its flaws, then what else can it expect at Holyrood than a repeat of Thursday’s rout?
Last week, Maureen Pollock, the chair of the Paisley branch, told me that if the worst came to the worst, “we would have to pick ourselves up and start again, have a look at what happened and why, and have a good strong talk within ourselves”. If, both nationally and in Scotland, Labour is to salvage something from the wreckage of its election defeat, then that painful process has to be undertaken. And the sooner it starts, the better.