Tom Peterkin: Scottish Labour left pondering future

Candidate for the Scottish Labour leadership, Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Candidate for the Scottish Labour leadership, Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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SCOTTISH Labour’s past explains its problems, writes Tom Peterkin

As the Labour Party in Scotland ponders some difficult questions about its future, BBC viewers were treated to an interesting glimpse into its past this week. A documentary hosted by Jackie Bird attempted to shed some light on the events that have led to Labour’s astonishing descent from power and the parlous state it now finds itself in.

The Fall of Labour, broadcast on Monday night, chronicled the party’s failure to deal with the rise of the SNP.

It harked back to a time when Labour’s dominance of Scotland was unchallenged and the SNP had yet to emerge from the political fringes.

Footage of that redoubtable Scottish secretary Willie Ross reminded viewers of just how far the balance of power has shifted. With contempt dripping from his voice, a clip of a grainy archive film saw Ross delivering a withering verdict on the SNP of several decades ago.

“It is the irrelevance of that shoddy party that to my mind disgraces the name of Scotland with its cheapness of slogans, dividing this nation,” Ross thundered. It was a vignette that not only illustrated Labour’s hostility to the SNP but also just how far Nicola Sturgeon’s party has come. No longer can the party be dismissed as an irrelevance. As the programme attempted to explain how the SNP came to usurp Labour as the pre-eminent political party in Scotland, there was a more telling vignette that spoke volumes about the confused nature of the party’s leadership in Scotland.

Donald Dewar’s former spindoctor and the former Labour MSP David Whitton was asked about the extent that Gordon Brown interfered with the affairs of the Scottish party. It was a question asked by Bird in the knowledge that little was done in Scottish Labour without the say-so of Brown – encouraging suggestions that the Scottish arm of the party was in thrall to London.

“Gosh,” exclaimed the normally unflappable Whitton before dissolving into nervous laughter and side-stepping the question.

There is little doubt this command structure damaged Labour’s attempts to carve out a distinct position in Scotland.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Brown’s influence on Scottish politics was when the then prime minister put the kybosh on then Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s bold proposal to hold an independence referendum back in 2008.

With the benefit of hindsight, there can be few within Labour who do not now wish that Alexander’s plan to “bring it on” had come to fruition. Had Labour grasped the initiative, the SNP would have been denied six years of referendum preparation. The No vote may have been more decisive and Labour might not have taken the SNP’s place as the party of irrelevance.