Robin McAlpine: Labour: Out of power; out of touch

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Neil Hanna

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Neil Hanna

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Leadership’s refusal to let Scottish party offer the people what they want puts its future in question, writes Robin McAlpine

When I was just a year or two out of university I worked for the leader of the Scottish Labour Party at Westminster. This Thursday, I was back in Westminster for the first time in quite a few years. Nostalgia came easily but strangely – I remembered when Scottish politics happened in London. Scottish Questions in the chamber was the focal point and much of the rest of the time the governance of Scotland was debated via press releases.

So as I sat in my meeting with a group of mainly English-based social campaigners, the difference between Scotland and England kept startling me. “How do you campaign against privatisation?” “Eh, we don’t have to because no-one is proposing it” “What do you do to change the anti-welfare rhetoric?” “Eh, we don’t have anti-welfare rhetoric.”

It may just be my political perspective or the aftermath of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral but, on Thursday, London felt not just like another country, but like a strange approximation of the country it used to be, mounted in a snowglobe for display. It seemed to want to say “forget the IMF and triple-dip recessions, everything is just fine”.

And there, trapped, waving futilely from behind the little approximation of Big Ben, were the 40 Scottish Labour MPs. I can’t quite make out what they are saying but it sounds something like, “we’re very important, don’t you know?”

I’ve been pretty critical of Scottish Labour of late, so I am happy to write that its devolution commission is showing some signs of wanting to fight for life again. I have never felt that Labour accepted what happened in 2011, which in turn comes from not accepting what happened in 2007. In 2007, Labour said: “See, we did less, better.” The Scottish voters said: “Fine, but we don’t elect you to do less – and we’re not convinced it was better.”

Scottish Labour responded by pretending it didn’t happen. Then, in 2011, it said: “Come on, you want us back now, don’t you?” The Scottish voters replied: “You just don’t get it, do you?” The more time that passes since 2011 the more convinced I am that Scotland stopped voting tactically against the Tories and started to vote tactically against Labour. People do not like being taken for granted.

What they do like is a decent story. The referendum campaign is failing to inspire because it is all analysis and no vision – which is a clever tactic by the No campaign. People don’t respond to analysis, they respond to stories about the future being better than the present. They want to hear the best ideas of the day and follow the one that moves them most.

So what story is Scottish Labour telling? Of late it has sounded a lot like “things are basically fine so why take a risk?” That might well win a referendum, but it might very well kill the party stone dead after that. In 2015, if Scotland has voted No, the party is going to be on a hangover from the giddy days when it got to talk about big ideas. “Told you so”, would be a suicidal pitch in that context.

And that would apply even if Scottish Labour were in rude health. The truth is that outside the centralised party structure and its elected politicians, the party is barely there any more. There is little fresh blood and the relationship with the trade unions has been stretched to breaking point.

Many in the party believe that, once the constitutional debate is over, “its people” who have strayed to the SNP will come back. I was at an event recently where 12 leading Scottish figures were on a pro-independence panel. All but one had formerly been in Labour. I doubt any will ever go back, and I doubt how many of “its people” Labour has left. Scottish politics has changed.

After the referendum there is going to be a fight for the meaning and purpose of the SNP, irrespective of what happens. The smart money is on it emerging as a solidly left-of-centre party under Nicola Sturgeon. Scottish Labour (London Division) seems determined to strip Scottish Labour (the bit actually in Scotland) of anything to say in response.

That the thing it doesn’t want Scottish Labour to say is the thing the Scottish people say they want makes it crazier still. Most of the polls suggest that Scotland basically wants independence in everything but name (leaving only defence and foreign policy as issues they’d rather London handled).

I am not sure a promise of more devolution alone is enough. The decay in the Scottish Labour movement will not quickly be reversed. To really revitalise the party I believe it should have started with a big vision for Scotland. It would then have chosen its devolution on the basis of “this is the kind of Scotland we want to work towards and here are the powers we’re going to need to do it”, not via two columns on a blank sheet of paper reading “we can live with that” or “no way”. And even if it offers more powers, it is almost certainly going to be “out-bid” by the SNP, the Greens and probably the Liberal Democrats.

But I don’t think it is capable of being saved if it clings to the status quo, if it repeats the same behaviours that took it from dominance to afterthought in under ten years. Labour’s proposals for more devolution are not strong enough, yet Scottish Labour MPs want them to be weaker still?

If Scottish Labour was a prisoner it would be on suicide watch. If it was a dog, you’d put one of those cones on its head to stop it worrying its wounds.

If those unnamed Labour figures succeed in taming even this modest devolutionary spirit in Scottish Labour, it will probably sign their own death warrant. Westminster does funny things to people …

• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation

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