Leader: Labour must halt ‘calamitous slide’

Labour would have just 23 per cent of the Scottish vote according to a recent poll. Picture: Michael Gillen
Labour would have just 23 per cent of the Scottish vote according to a recent poll. Picture: Michael Gillen
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PARTY fund-­raising dinners are traditionally an excuse for politicians to encourage supporters, hail a promising future and enjoy themselves.

But good cheer will have been in short supply at the Scottish ­Labour dinner in Glasgow attended by the party leader Ed Miliband last night after a sensational poll suggesting the party is heading for a catastrophic meltdown in Scotland.

According to an Ipsos Mori poll for STV and undertaken as the first shockwaves of Johann Lamont’s resignation began to resonate, Labour would poll just 23 per cent of the Scottish vote, leaving it with just four seats in Scotland. Support for the SNP has surged to 52 per cent, a reading that would give it a projected 54 Westminster seats.

While this is only a poll and the general election is still six months away, even a much less dramatic collapse would be a catastrophe for the party in Scotland and could wreck Mr Miliband’s prospects of becoming prime minister. It would also tear open the most searching questions as to who actually won the referendum. Barely six weeks after a vote that appeared to secure victory for the Better Together campaign, it is astonishing that it is Labour, the largest single party on the winning side, that has since suffered a spectacular fall from favour.

Labour optimists will hope Jim Murphy, regarded as front-runner in the contest to succeed Ms Lamont as Scottish leader, can reverse the collapse in party fortunes. But to say he faces an uphill task against a rampant SNP would be akin to describing the ascent of Ben Nevis as a gentle incline. Ms Lamont’s fiery resignation opened up deep divisions within the party as to its constitution and autonomy in Scotland and the resulting feuding and fall-out has also cast doubt on the credibility of Mr Miliband’s claim on power, and Labour’s prospects as a government-in-waiting.

While the 18 September vote to remain within the UK ­appeared decisive, subsequent events suggest Scotland is heading for radical political change and that a return to the old days of Labour dominance have been swept from the board.

Party unity and discipline appears to have broken down, with rival factions battling for influence. Traditionalist Labour MPs have always resented the loss of influence and media attention to their counterparts in the Scottish Parliament while others have denounced the Scottish leadership row as a “Blairite plot”.

One course Mr Miliband could pursue to staunch this crushing loss of “heartland” support would be a bold and convincing offer of more powers at the Smith Commission. Substantial extra powers were urged by Ms Lamont but were rejected by the party’s London leadership. Now it must revisit this position – and urgently – if it is to halt and reverse a calamitous slide in its fortunes.

New lessons in stating the obvious

Research by “experts” at Durham University informs us of a new breakthrough in our understanding of teacher-pupil relationships: lavishing praise on pupils may be detrimental to learning. It has also been discovered that teachers with strong subject knowledge and understanding make a bigger impact on students’ learning, making this one of the key ways of improving results. Another is the quality of teaching, which includes good assessment of pupils’ work. The report found that praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective of low-achieving students can give a message of the teacher’s low expectations. The evidence also shows that “reverse psychology” may be at work: if children are criticised for doing badly in a project, they can take this as an indication that their teacher believes in their abilities.

Researchers also found there is little evidence that grouping students by ability, either by putting them in different classes, or separating them within lessons, makes much difference.

How will teachers respond to all this other than by emitting an exasperated sigh? Is it not obvious that teachers with strong subject knowledge improve student learning? It is hard not to have some sympathy with the teaching union leader who noted that his colleagues are “all too familiar with the fads and fashions regularly promoted as the latest ‘formula’ to improve teaching only to see them debunked and replaced by some other magic solution shortly afterwards”.

Marking work accurately and credibly, giving praise where praise is due and knowing your subject: the basic elements of what makes a good teacher never really change.

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