COMPLACENCY and post-devolution inertia have turned the party into a pale imitation of the SNP, writes Alex Massie
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, had a message for “the people of Scotland” yesterday: “Now’s the time to come home.” Well, that should do it. Scotland long ago ceased to be Labour’s “home” and anyone who thinks its woes began this year – or even last – is deluding themselves. Even so, and even after all the calamities which have befallen the party, the extent of Labour’s capacity for wishful thinking remains startling.
Mr McDonnell’s remarks were revealing, however, for they demonstrated both how the current Labour leadership is in no mood to compromise with the electorate and the manner in which Labour still hasn’t learned anything.
According to the far left, you see, the voters are wrong. If Labour erred at all, it was in straying from its roots. That’s all in the past, however, and now that Labour’s coming home, voters should, like dutiful sheep, return to the fold themselves. But Scottish Labour’s woes did not arise because voters felt “new” Labour sold out its principles. On the contrary, Labour’s defining flaw was its arrogance; the presumption that the Labour Party – and it alone – could, and always would, speak for the people of Scotland.
But what if the people decided that, actually, Labour didn’t deserve that trust? That was the question asked in 2011 when the opinion polls appeared to suggest Labour might return to power at that year’s Holyrood elections despite having done little to demonstrate it had earned the right to do so. The people saw that and thought, actually, perhaps the SNP might deserve another term in office after all. And that, reader, made all the difference.
For all that they despise Scottish Labour, the nationalists still learnt from their enemies. Like Labour, the SNP presents itself as the will of the Scottish people made flesh. Like Labour, the nationalists struggle to understand why anyone possessing either a heart or a brain could possibly imagine supporting any other party. Doing so is a kind of cognitive malfunction.
In time this will catch up with the nationalists but it cannot be denied that their claim to “speak for Scotland” is greater than Labour’s mandate even in the long years the people’s party was in the ascendancy.
That ascendancy corrupted Labour, of course. According to Joe Pike, author of a new book, Project Fear, detailing both the shambolic inner-workings of the Better Together campaign and Labour’s general election Götterdämmerung, some Labour MPs remained in denial right to the end. Tom Clarke, the soon to be defenestrated MP for Coatbridge, insisted, in all apparent seriousness: “It’s 1997 again. We’ll sweep the board.”
Complacency lies at the heart of Labour’s Caledonian apocalypse. One young candidate told Pike that “colleagues who had been MPs for more years than I have been alive were coming up to me asking how to run a campaign. It was anathema to them; they didn’t know what to do.” One such sitting MP “thought he was doing well because when he walked up the high street, the ratio of those smiling to him to ignoring him was seven to one.” This MP lost by just 18,000 votes.
Jeremy Corbyn has not yet, despite several indications he would do so, visited Scotland. It is already evident that Scotland is nowhere near the top of his list of priorities. Head office has little interest in what the branch office gets up to. It will just have to muddle on the best it can.
In one sense, this is welcome news for Kezia Dugdale. The only thing worse than being left alone by Mr Corbyn might be not being left alone. All the talk that his brand of left-wing politics can rehabilitate the party north of the Border is just that: talk.
Labour, as Mr McDonnell demonstrated yesterday, still seems to believe that the old-time religion can work again. This seems doubtful. The Scottish Labour Party has not been a laboratory for revolution in many years. Indeed, the last time the English party went bananas, Labour was in large part saved by the Scottish wing of the party.
Militant, which for a time threatened to destroy the party in England, never had any great purchase on Scottish Labour. Instead, men – and they were mostly men – of the calibre of John Smith, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, John Reid and others maintained control of the Scottish party. It offered a socialism of the manse, not Marx, and was all the better, if also more small-c conservative, for that. When English Labour lost its mind, Scottish Labour kept its head.
And yet that too sowed seeds that would be reaped one day. Because Labour seemed unassailable in Scotland, there seemed little reason to change the party in the ways Tony Blair deemed essential if Labour was to ever win again in England.
Devolution helped entrench a kind of managerial conservatism within Scottish Labour. “Scottish solutions for Scottish problems” meant that it became important to do things differently in Scotland because, well, that was the point of devolution wasn’t it? Not to do things better, but to do them differently.
And so because Mr Blair was impressed by the need for public sector reform in England, so it became important to resist that reform in Scotland.
Labour, it became clear, existed to be in power, not to actually do anything with that power. Now Kezia Dugdale says the party must offer solutions as well as criticisms. This is certainly true but it remains the case that Labour still seems bereft of ideas. It is so cautious that, on education for instance, Scottish Labour will not even demand the kinds of reforms that have worked wonders in parts of England. Reforms introduced by a Labour government, of course.
Indeed, the truth of the matter is that, apart from the constitutional question, there remains precious little difference between Labour and the SNP. Their differences on education, health, justice and energy are of mere degree, not kind. They share a statist, managerial, world view that sharply mistrusts individual or local initiative.
The difference is that the SNP wrap themselves in the flag. Now it is true, as Mr Corbyn says, that “flags don’t build houses” but given the choice between the saltire and the red banner, Scots will cheerfully choose the cross of St Andrew. Labour has been losing in Scotland because we are in the midst of a national awakening. Mr McDonnell, like his boss, doesn’t seem to understand that. Which is why his offer to “come home” cannot work. There is no home any more.