LAST week was supposed to be as bad as it could get for the Labour Party and, at the current rate of play, this week could end up not much better.
The resounding general election defeat sees Labour looking for a new leader, having paid the price of a flawed choice last time around. Strategy is also under heavy fire. Yesterday, even David Miliband joined former chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling in criticising the direction of the party, just a day after Lord Mandelson and Lord Prescott gave scathing assessments of where Labour had gone wrong.
Here in Scotland, where the party’s MPs were all but wiped out by the SNP’s extraordinary surge in the polls, recriminations fly over the reasons for such a desperate demise. Lord McConnell has said Jim Murphy should stay “for now” as leader in Scotland, hardly a ringing endorsement from the former first minister. Although Mr Murphy was quick to say he will not quit, he is not out of the woods yet. There have been strong calls for his resignation, and it remains possible he will be replaced. There have also been demands for the party in Scotland to separate from the UK organisation, to allow it to deviate from the London script while remaining a sister party.
It is all a sorry mess.
Apart from the blame game, a question of demographics should be considered: has the UK become too affluent for Labour to succeed? The gap between rich and poor appears to be increasing but there is grave danger for Labour that the middle class has become so big that it no longer feels represented by the party. At UK level, much has been made of the trust the electorate has put in the Tories to run the economy. Or looked at the other way, the trust that voters didn’t have in Labour.
Has Labour missed a societal change? That would be a difficult accusation to make stick, because the New Labour years under Tony Blair directed the party away from its traditional path to make it electable again. But this departure has left Labour in no man’s land, having now been rejected by the new and abandoned by the old.
The UK leadership battle will determine future strategy, but will that be appropriate for Scotland? What achieves political recovery in England will not necessarily be effective north of the Border. This is why autonomy for the party in Scotland would be advantageous, both in terms of policy and perception. To repair the damage that has been done, a genuinely fresh start would go a long way towards convincing that a vote for Labour can be relevant again.
That means change at the top as well. The process has begun at UK level to find a leader who has the charisma, appeal and drive to succeed. If Labour is to reinvent itself in Scotland, it will also have to bring in a new, galvanising figurehead.
Time for Sturgeon to come clean
NICOLA Sturgeon barely put a foot wrong during the general election campaign, and when she did, few seemed to care.
She found it difficult to deal convincingly with the question of whether a commitment to a second referendum will be included in the SNP manifesto for next year’s Holyrood elections, and she came under effective criticism on full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. On the latter, she appears to have developed a more cautious outlook over the past few days, stating that such an arrangement would take years to set up. She may recognise that her political opponents are pursuing a legitimate line of attack.
The matter has become the main front in Scotland under the re-drawn battle lines following last week’s election. Yesterday, former Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth said fiscal autonomy would leave a black hole of up to £9 billion in Scotland’s finances, depending on the oil price. He wants Prime Minister David Cameron to produce a White Paper setting out the economic risks.
Lord Forsyth should not expect to win this fight by simply enlisting the support of colleagues in Whitehall, who will deliver an analysis we can guess right now. It is the Scottish Government which should be required to deliver the pros and cons of fiscal autonomy. If it is serious about this ambition, it has to spell out what fiscal autonomy means. How much will it cost? Will it be possible to maintain services which opponents say would have to be cut? Borrowing has been mentioned, but that comes at a cost.
With power comes responsibility. That includes an open and honest assessment of the economic risks of what would be fundamental change.