Joyce McMillan: Tone-deaf Labour stopped listening

TALK of a grand coalition of Miliband and Cameron shows how removed the UK elites are from reality, says Joyce McMillan

David Blunkett has been questioning Scottish voters' sanity while on the campaign trail. Picture: Getty
David Blunkett has been questioning Scottish voters' sanity while on the campaign trail. Picture: Getty

Thursday lunchtime, just a week before the general election, and as May Day approaches the former home secretary David Blunkett – about to step down as an MP after 28 years – is reflecting on his life in politics, in a mood of some sorrow. What is weighing on his mind is the situation in Scotland; and like most Westminster insiders, Blunkett cannot forbear a brief swipe at the sanity of Scottish voters, as a “tsunami” of support for the SNP threatens dozens of once-safe Labour seats. They have stopped listening to rational argument, he says, and will not even accept Labour leaflets.

He also seems to understand, though, that there is real politics behind that angry mood: both a rejection of austerity, more clearly articulated by the SNP than by Labour, and a feeling that Labour has betrayed the people of Scotland over the past two decades, in ways that made last year’s referendum spectacle of Labour politicians campaigning alongside the Tories into a decisive final straw. And Blunkett warns that whatever the outcome of next week’s election, this rebellion will need careful and intelligent handling, if the Union is to survive.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

All of which makes a refreshing change from most of the recent contributions to the debate by Westminster grandees. For if Lords Tebbit and Forsyth have shown some common sense in warning David Cameron against his current tactic of stirring up anti-Scottish sentiment, there are others, led by the former Tory education secretary Lord Baker, who have been indulging in wild talk of a grand coalition between Conservatives and Labour, designed to keep the dangerous forces of “extremism” out of government.

Now it has to be said that there is little or no chance of a “grand coalition” emerging from the new parliament elected next week. While the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has been the most right-wing UK government of the post-war era, Labour under Ed Miliband has been inching to the left, so that the gap between the two parties is now wider than for 20 years; the idea of the Labour leader signing up to be Deputy Prime Minister in a government led by David Cameron, or vice versa, is far-fetched even amid the current frenzy of pre-election speculation.

What is interesting about the proposal, though, is that it reveals the lengths to which some British establishment figures are prepared to go, to avoid confronting the failures that have led British politics to its present impasse. Their argument seems to run something like this: that if our two main parties have become so unpopular that neither of them can win an election, then we should just stick them together, in the interests of ensuring that the present system continues unchallenged. They quote the figures which show that two parties which once commanded more than 90 per cent of the UK-wide vote between them are now falling well short of 70 per cent; but they fail to ask why these once-mighty movements are now so hollowed-out, and so much like sleek, over-centralised PR operations, rather than living political parties.

And instead of seeking to understand the recent remarkable reversal of this trend in Scotland – where the SNP now has almost ten times as many members per head of population as any other UK party – their first impulse is to form the two traditional Westminster parties into a rigid defensive phalanx across the centre of UK politics, in order to block any possibility of change. It’s the response not of a group of democrats, in other words, but of an elite system seeking to defend itself, at all costs; and just one more example of the outrageous sense of entitlement that now has so many Scots telling all three main Westminster parties that they might as well talk to the hand, because – for the moment – the face just isn’t listening. Now of course, this period in British politics is bound to pass. Thanks to the coming of the Scottish Parliament, and some deft footwork by the SNP, history has presented Scottish voters with an alternative to the two main UK parties that is obviously not “extreme”; and as support for the SNP in Scotland has moved up towards the 50 per cent mark, it has passed the point where Westminster’s first-past-the-post system begins to offer the illusion of overwhelming victory.

What that temporary conjunction of forces does, though, is to face Westminster with a situation unprecedented in the last century, a clear signal that large parts of Scotland are no longer willing to tolerate the status quo, and that only radical reform stands a chance of holding the UK together. Nor can Westminster comfort itself with the thought that a little more constitutional reform will do the trick. Scotland already has a reasonably powerful devolved parliament; and at this stage of the game, the argument is not primarily about the constitution, but about the whole character of the UK – about whether we want to be a north European social democracy, or a kind of latterday Airstrip One, and a mid-Atlantic tax haven for every money-shifter and shyster in the firmament of global finance.

For when I think about the sorrow in David Blunkett’s voice, and the idea of people in British politics “just not listening”, it’s not only angry ex-Labour voters in Paisley or Kirkcaldy that come to mind. I also think of the day in 2003 when 100,000 people marched in Glasgow against the looming Iraq War, the flags and banners stretching into the distance from Glasgow Green to the SECC, and everyone aware that a million were marching in London at the same time. I remember Tony Blair changing the time of his speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference at the SECC so that he would not even have to see us, and arriving and leaving by helicopter, so as to avoid any encounter with demonstrators. And I reflect that if there is an uncivil impulse not to listen now abroad in British politics, then it began not at the grassroots, among ordinary voters, but at the moment when those at the top of what was once the People’s Party decided that they knew best – and that there was no real need to listen to the people, any more.