Failure of Miliband leadership and scaffold of the Scottish Parliament sowed seeds of party’s implosion, writes Brian Wilson
So there we have it. The Tories are in power for five untrammelled years. The SNP have swept all before them and Scottish votes are divided down the middle between pro- and anti-independence parties.
Nationalists and Tories fulfilled their dreams. The Liberal Democrats learned the brutal lesson that junior partners in coalitions attract all the opprobrium and none of the credit. Labour suffered a devastating defeat, devoid of consolation or alibi.
If this constituted a surprise, it was because we had been talked into expecting something different. However, nobody can vote for hung parliaments and in a first-past-the-post system, they happen as accidents rather than designs, no matter how much they are speculated upon in advance.
The alternative version, to which I subscribe, is that the die was cast on 25 September 2010, the day Ed Miliband was elected leader of the Labour Party. To many, it appeared that Labour had rejected an electable leader and, through the machinations of union barons, chosen an unelectable one instead. And so it proved.
A suspension of disbelief was encouraged by Labour never falling behind in opinion polls, which was a bit puzzling given the other indicators.
Latterly, Mr Miliband’s personal standings improved from terrible to poor, which again acted as a decoy. But the underlying truth remained that, even at his best, he was never better than adequate – and that is not good enough.
It is customary to speak no ill of the departed. David Cameron was generous yesterday in praise of Mr Miliband, as well he might be. Those who desperately needed a Labour government and have been so miserably failed are entitled to a different view. Seldom in the field of political conflict have so many paid such a high price for the self-indulgence of the few.
Almost two years ago, while there was still time to do something about it, I wrote that, “I have never been quite clear why Ed Miliband wanted to be leader of the Labour Party or thought he should be”. Now, with the election over and Labour devastated, I am no clearer. Where was the compelling philosophy or charismatic personality to justify that claim of entitlement?
At that time, I suggested that every leader was obliged to occasionally look in the mirror and ask: “Will the electorate ever assent to me being prime minister?” If the honest answer was “no”, then get out before further damage was done. I naively suggested that: “As an intelligent man with a great hinterland of Labour tradition, Mr Miliband should not flinch from answering that question.”
Fat chance, and insofar as a USP [unique selling point] was constructed for Ed, it was his impervious disdain for criticism and dire poll ratings, such was his self-belief. That is a pity, since it was then left to the electorate to finally answer the question for him. Perhaps what happened in Scotland would have happened anyway, but it scarcely helped that the Labour leader and potential prime minister was universally regarded as a liability, best kept away from the place.
In the short view of history, the other key date in determining Thursday’s outcome was 18 September, 2014. Independence was defeated but a continuing movement was created and it had no interest in distinguishing between the nature of the two events. The general election became the next staging post for the “45” with a few per cent added along the way.
Those who have lived by “first past the post” have no right to complain when they die by it. Some excellent MPs who lost might come to regard it as a mercy in disguise since another five years of impotent opposition is not a happy lot. That role now rests with the Nationalist cohort, whose fate it will be to make a lot of noise, perform the occasional stunt and influence nothing.
In truth, however, there has been a long Labour road leading to Thursday. My view is from the perspective of having opposed unilateral devolution precisely because I believed that its logical course would be to create a platform for the independence movement rather than act as a brake upon it. In other words, to take us pretty much to where we now are.
I subsequently accepted that the Thatcher years made that position untenable. But that did not remove the logical difficulty of establishing a parliament based on national identity and then saying “so far but no further”. There was always going to be an ongoing political and intellectual battle to hold that line and it would require the best generals to fight it.
Instead, Labour established the parliament with precious little idea what to do next. The early death of Donald Dewar robbed it of the only first-rank Labour politician to lead it.
Subsequently, while the big boys who had been super-enthusiasts for devolution continued to prefer the Westminster stage, Labour went into a downward spiral at Holyrood and still the dangers were not taken seriously.
In 2010, Scottish Labour got a freakish general election result, partly because of Gordon Brown’s leadership and also due to the SNP not fighting very hard. In these days, they did not have unlimited resources and their focus was on Holyrood. The vast swings reported yesterday were compared to 2010 but even by the following year, a new reality existed which still failed to alert Labour to the fragility of its support and need for reinforcements.
Now, in some ways, everything has changed and in others much has stayed the same. There is still a Tory government and there is still, probably, an anti-independence majority within Scotland.
The SNP will have to decide in due course whether to gamble next year on that balance changing. But the biggest immediate challenge is for Scottish Labour, and the next year will be critical to its very existence. It must finally recognise that in creating the Scottish Parliament, it also built its own scaffold for future potential use.
In order to avoid that fate, it has to re-establish leadership, relevance and competence – all of which have been allowed to dissipate over the past decade.
It is a tall order but it is not an impossible one. At least there is now no shortage of experienced parliamentarians available to assist.