Brian Wilson: Slaying one dragon is not enough

Johann Lamont: needs to match impressive Holyrood performances on doorsteps. Picture: Neil Hanna
Johann Lamont: needs to match impressive Holyrood performances on doorsteps. Picture: Neil Hanna
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HAVING maintained popular support, Scottish Labour must take more aggressive steps to seize power.

On current trends, the Labour Party in Scotland may be destined to win the war and lose the battle. The dragon of separatism will be slain, while the devolved aspects of Scotland’s government will continue to be administered according to Nationalist precepts.

There is, of course, no inherent contradiction between these two outcomes. It is pretty much what I have long predicted as the post-devolution norm, drawing on experience from other domains which have both two-tier government and nationalist movements. Quebec and Catalonia are obvious examples. In each case, the majority continues to oppose separation while playing the Nationalist card in order to maximise what it can extract from the centre.

In our case, this translates into the SNP being seen as most likely to “stand up for Scotland”. Whether true or false, it is a powerful perception – and difficult to challenge with arguments about minutiae of policy. Perhaps because they paid too little attention to abroad, Scottish devolution’s founding fathers thought they could defy precedent and secure a more or less permanent Lab-Lib hegemony. It was a delusion which survived for less than a decade, partly due to the arrogance of the assumption. If an electorate wants change, it will find a way of making that known.

Last week’s Fabian survey of Scottish Labour made for unflattering headlines but acted as a reminder that opposition to independence does not equate to support for them. Again, there is no true dichotomy for there has never been much evidence of a separatist plurality. Even in last year’s Holyrood elections, the SNP only hit 40-odd per cent on a 50 per cent turn-out. And 28 per cent of those who voted for them now say they did not want independence.

In other words, the independence movement is what it has always been – a noisy minority. The difference is that devolution has given it a parliament to run, 
£30 billion a year to play politics with and the right to hold an independence referendum. There is a plausible view that the SNP leadership would still settle cheerfully for the first two and sideline the third, which is what the “second question” diversion is all about.

The better news for Labour in Scotland is that people haven’t stopped voting for them – they are just more selective. Labour had superb Scottish results in the 2010 general election and appear to retain that support in Westminster voting intentions. More recently, the party proved pretty resilient in the local elections where the pre-advertised march of nationalism simply did not happen.

So Labour’s Scottish problem is very much Holyrood-related. Around one in five of those who will go to the polls for them in other contests decide not to do so when it comes to voting for MSPs. That is the challenge which Johann Lamont has to address in a much more comprehensive way than has so far been evident. I am sure she is well aware of that. Ms Lamont’s personal performance as Scottish leader has been admirable and that is an essential prerequisite for a fightback. But it is only the starting point.

As the Fabian polling confirmed, Holyrood Labour has become victim of an identity crisis which is almost entirely of its own making. The recovery process will be correspondingly lengthy and has to start somewhere. Prior to the last Holyrood election, Labour ran a bizarre strategy of closing down all policy differences with the SNP, other than the constitutional one. It has never quite been explained why anyone thought that reducing the choice to a leadership contest or a judgment on managerial competence was a masterstroke that would work in Labour’s favour. Suffice to say that it did not.

However, the legacy lives on. Hardly anyone can name a devolved Labour policy which is distinguishable from those being pursued, at least nominally, by the current Scottish Government. Everyone is in favour of the National Health Service, opportunities for all and better weather. The differences, we are invited to believe, are purely about who is better equipped to administer them.

If Labour is going to break free from that trap, it has to come up with some interesting, radical policies which people can identify with. When last was there one of these? But even more urgently, it has to develop a far more effective critique of what the SNP administration is actually about. If there is no effective indictment, there will be no case for change.

My advice is that Labour should concentrate on two key areas of attack – cuts and centralisation. The reality of SNP government is that it is reasonably competent, tightly disciplined, centre-right and intensely centralist. It has delivered nothing remotely redistributionist. Its legislative programmes are as dull as ditch water. That is a decent target for Labour to aim at.

But it first must make its own clear policy choices – starting with a review of every “free” scheme for the better-off at a time of limited budgets. Only then can there be credible campaigns against cuts at local level. Local government has never been so tightly controlled. Quango appointments are geared to finding reliable nonentities. Every agency is seeing powers transferred to Edinburgh in order to bring them under ministerial control. Local accountability on key services, including police and fire, is being removed. Labour should stand out against this unpopular centralising agenda – but first it has to do the hard work of pulling the case together and turning it into a theme.

Now is also the time to address the issue of candidates. In retrospect, it seems even more incredible that at the outset of Holyrood, Scottish Labour went to such lengths to avoid having MSPs whom people might actually recognise, like Donnie Munro, Richard Holloway and Denis Canavan. Death, exile and the House of Lords have taken away most of devolution’s early panjandrums. Surely the need is recognised to introduce some fresh faces? Labour now has a large group of list MSPs, some of them very good. They should be building bases in constituencies, rather than manning Holyrood’s pointless committees. Every penny of staff budgets should be deployed in local offices instead of creating another generation of parliamentary researchers.

There is a lot to be learned from how the Nationalists deployed their parliamentary resources in opposition – one wonders how much of it has been acted on? Much of this work has to be done at local level.

Labour itself is not immune from centralising tendencies, yet each part of Scotland needs distinct policies and campaigns geared to the ubiquity of Edinburgh’s influence and how it is being locally applied.

It will matter little how well Johann Lamont does at Holyrood once or twice a week if local campaigns on local issues are not demonstrating a Labour alternative.

In short, the challenge for Scottish Labour is to rediscover a role as a creative, campaigning party with an eye for the real issues that affect people’s lives and could make Scotland a better place.

The alternative is to become an institutionalised Holyrood opposition clinging to the good old days when devolution seemed like an end in itself.