Lesley Riddoch: Labour should be worried about May

LABOUR could pay a high price for having no specific message in the run-up to the general election, says Lesley Riddoch.
Ed Miliband was in Scotland at the weekend attempting to rally his troops. Picture: Andrew MilliganEd Miliband was in Scotland at the weekend attempting to rally his troops. Picture: Andrew Milligan
Ed Miliband was in Scotland at the weekend attempting to rally his troops. Picture: Andrew Milligan

What can Labour do to avoid a wipeout on 7 May? It is the question of the hour.

Should Jim Murphy offer £1600 to everyone who missed a university education – not just 18 year-olds? Should he promise to axe the smoking ban so drink-fuelled footie matches take on a completely authentic 70s vibe? Should Ed Miliband promise no deal with the SNP – knowing he can change his mind if the election result requires it? Should the entire British Labour party head north to love-bomb Glasgow voters, hoping the “Imperial Master’s” rickshaw is getting serviced?

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Unfortunately for the Labour Party, business is highly unusual this election – in Scotland at least.

Cynical vote buying has had little traction with a focused, savvy electorate. Scaremongering about the damage of a resurgent SNP doesn’t strike fear and the warning that five more Tory years will destroy the Scottish NHS only reminds voters that Labour so recently said it wouldn’t.

Commentators suggest the latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures will give Jim Murphy a boost, backing his contention that the SNP’s preferred constitutional option within the UK of full fiscal autonomy, would leave Scotland as dangerously oil-revenue-dependent as independence. Murphy will argue that devolving all tax and spending to Scotland would end the income boost from the Barnett Formula, just as the income from oil revenues is falling. That argument may have clout.

Mind you, the logic of this “ultimate scare” is highly questionable. Labour is trying to persuade Scots that unionist mismanagement of the oil resource means unionists should stay in charge of it. That wonky argument may have persuaded some swithering voters on 18 September, but it may not work now.

Voting for independence promised immediate change. Voting for a party that seeks Devo Max within the slippery quagmire of Westminster, evidently doesn’t. By the time control over oil and gas resources is finally wrested from an implacably opposed Establishment, voters may reckon, oil prices will probably have risen. Even if they haven’t, Scots know they can’t escape the long-term downsides of oil-dependence by letting Westminster stay in charge. The proportion of renewable energy in the British energy mix is currently a woeful 4.2 per cent – only Malta and Luxembourg are worse. That shameful inability to exploit Europe’s richest assortment of renewable resources has happened on the UK’s watch. Energy policy is reserved to Westminster and Lord Smith’s proposals recommend no real change to that. The Scottish and British economies are unquestionably, unhealthily oil-dependent.

The real question is whether Scottish voters prefer a short-term fix or a long-term solution to that problem.

As Aileen McHarg, Strathclyde’s professor of public law, recently observed; “The Scottish Government’s inability to control electricity grid access and pricing rules has been (they would argue) an obstacle to the achievement of their renewable generation targets.” I’d guess, most would back Nicola Sturgeon on this one.

There’s more. After Scots voted SNP at successive Scottish elections, none of the predicted calamities came to pass. But after voting No last September, the promised New Deal failed to materialise.

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Labour leaders north and south of the Border dusted themselves down after 18 September and refocused their energies on their primary goal – winning power at Westminster. But the majority of Scots didn’t – for several reasons. Firstly, Westminster hasn’t been a primary focus for Scots voters since devolution.

Secondly, Scots are still waiting to see how “The Vow” pans out. So far, it hasn’t been impressive. The process of devolving powers has been churlish, conditional, grudging, illogical, messy and certain to guarantee further years, even decades of squabbling. The Westminster veto over new welfare proposals is ominous. In any case, the ability to deviate from austerity by topping up benefits looks very limited since Scots will not have the levers to create more cash through job creation. Market uncertainty in key sectors like energy, will continue.

Can the bulk of Scottish voters watch this bad-natured, dangerously ad-hoc and unprincipled process, and say it reflects well on British democracy?

Ironically Labour may lose some votes but almost all their seats – thanks to their unwillingness to introduce a viable form of PR when they were in office. Content to live by the maxim that might is right, Labour’s re-election hopes may now die because of it.

Thirdly, the SNP has done a McVaroufakis and is challenging a shared and failed ConLabDem economic wisdom with a convincing, anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform delivered by fresh-faced, feminine leadership.

And that touches on the final reason political business isn’t working as usual.

The independence referendum didn’t just produce a majority against independence. It also produced a landslide against negative campaigning. Sixty per cent of Scots (thus many No voters) considered the Yes campaign more positive than negative. Their verdict on the No campaign was precisely the opposite. Labour is now reaping the negative, vision-free harvest it has sown.

It may have taken some time, but the Scottish electorate finally gets it. Labour has no distinctive message. No credo. No policies which are not just “me too” versions of SNP policy.

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Of course, that was also basically true last September. But that was then. This is now. Scots expect something new – but Labour is reheating leftovers. Again. That’s not to say the SNP is invulnerable.

Scottish democracy needs political pluralism and diversity, but a new force to challenge the SNP is not likely to appear during this Westminster election or from the remnants of Scottish Labour.

Last week, Uffe Elbaek MP spoke in the Scottish Parliament about a new Danish party, based on courage, generosity, transparency, humility, empathy and humour. His “Alternative Party” won’t head-hunt existing MPs or seek VIP backing. It believes Europe is gripped by an ecology crisis, a lack of empathy crisis and a systems crisis and suggests these cannot be tackled without the involvement of social entrepreneurs motivated by creativity, idealism, survival, curiosity, talent and interest.

There was spontaneous applause when Elbaek concluded “The Alternative is not a party of protest - it’s a party of longing.”

Scotland awaits something similar – and if Labour cannot deliver on 7 May, others will.