“New brooms sweep clean” or so they say. On the other hand, what do “they” know anyway?
Labour’s Relationship with Scotland – It’s Complicated
The “Scottish” Labour Party will certainly be hoping to make a clean sweep of the 2015 General Election in Scotland, anyway, so perhaps that’s why it’s no coincidence that the “leader” and “deputy leader” of “Scottish” Labour have both stepped down this week, giving a full six months for whoever is elected to the roles to shake hands and kiss babies. Six months is, of course, long enough to do a lot of smiling, and get a lot of column inches written about you, but unless you’re completely incompetent, it’s too short a time to really stuff anything up too badly, especially if you’re not in government… isn’t it?
I believe that “Scottish” Labour (who are not actually a political party, never having been registered with the Electoral Commission, but are simply an “accounting unit” of the UK Labour Party) has always been run from London, and that the two “leaders” of “Scottish” Labour were actually told to stand down following the independence referendum, to allow some new brooms to sweep clean for Labour in the run up to the next General Election. But “leader” Johann Lamont, believing herself to have done an excellent job and to have helped Labour “win” the independence referendum, diverted from the script and threw her toys out of the pram. She accused UK Labour of not giving Scottish Labour enough independence and treating her party as a “branch office”. Needless to say this has been viewed with great irony across Scotland, especially in light of her having just spent two years campaigning for Westminster rule over Scotland.
And what’s Labour’s response? In deciding who to replace Ms Lamont, it turns out pretty much all the eligible candidates are Westminster MPs! This presents two problems, firstly it’s a laughable endorsement of Ms Lamont’s criticisms, and secondly, it presents an enormous problem for Labour, in that if “Scottish” Labour has a “leader” who is an MP, they cannot also be an MSP, and participate at Holyrood, even then, to become an MSP, a fair amount of hoop jumping would be needed, probably a bi-election would need to be forced, or two actually, since an MP would have to stand down, and an MSP also, in order to allow the former MP to run for election in the newly vacated Scottish seat. It’s not even guaranteed that the former MP would win that seat! Nevertheless, that’s what Jim Murphy, MP, intends to try and do…
A Bit of History
For many decades Labour have enjoyed a huge amount of support in Scotland, and the UK “First Past The Post” system has amplified that, since it favours parties with geographically concentrated regions of support as well as parties with incumbency. Labour fits both categories in Scotland. After so many decades of unquestioned support it is my feeling that the Labour party have come to the belief that they have almost a divine right to Scotland’s support. At present they have 41 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats (the SNP have only six, and the Conservatives only one). Since the establishment of the Scottish parliament, however, Labour have found themselves with a decreasing number of MSPs, and since 2007 they have had fewer MSPs than the SNP at Holyrood, and since Labour haven’t apparently come to terms with this, still behaving as though they represent Scotland’s best interests in the face of the pesky SNP (who in actual fact are running a proper majority government and doing a pretty good job of it), it means Labour are still losing support hand over fist. I believe this is in no small part because the Labour Party still don’t take the Scottish Parliament seriously, with their heavy hitters, as it were, all still interested primarily in a seat at Westminster, with Holyrood seats seen very much as consolation prizes within the party.
The final straw came, i think, during the independence referendum campaign. The Labour party not only campaigned with the Tories, who only enjoy about 10% voter support in Scotland, and are despised by a good proportion of Scots due mainly to the dismantlement of the Scottish economy during former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s administration, but Labour actually stepped up and acted as the ambassadors of the UK, currently governed by a Tory led coalition, in a very unashamed, and some might even say threatening, way. To put it another way, the Labour Party spoke for the Conservative UK government without consideration of how that might look to the voters, that’s how confident they were. With an 85% turnout in the referendum, 45% of which voted to leave the UK, and that 45% including 35% of Labour’s traditional voters, it meant that Labour’s support was not now just dwindling, it was draining out like water through a sieve, and still is.
The UK parliament, including the Labour Party, had expected the referendum result to be “decisive”. They had always planned for the result to be something like 25-30% Yes, and 70-75% No. That’s what they expected. They didn’t have much time to plan for a large Yes vote. In the final week of the campaign it looked like Yes might even win, so all three “main” UK parties promised Scotland the earth. “Near federalism” within two years was one of the much publicised promises. Voting “No” was now supposed to be understood as a vote for “devo max”, an option the UK had condescendingly refused to include on the ballot paper in the first place. Only now, when Scottish independence threatened would the UK consider this option, and only as a way of splitting the independence vote.
It worked, apparently, however i don’t think Westminster expected the inevitable ramifications. There were a couple of days of Commons debate on the subject of “Further Devolution” for Scotland, and in the first day, a six hour debate was held where the total time allowed for the SNP to speak was six minutes. All of the rest of the debate was filled with pro-UK union MPs, mainly speaking about either empowering English MPs, or decreasing the voting power of Scottish MPs. It didn’t seem to dawn on Westminster that there might be a lot of people in Scotland who saw that as a little bit insulting.
Labour backbench MP Gordon Brown, who had been acknowledged as a key figure in convincing some Scots to vote No, was then seen in the Commons the following day arguing AGAINST the full devolution of income tax. Labour’s devolution proposals in the “Command Paper” were notably weaker than even the Conservatives’ or the Liberal Democrats’ which didn’t look so good for the self styled “party of devolution”, and Gordon Brown appeared to be toeing the party line!
Did they just think Scottish voters wouldn’t notice? That we had all just shuffled back to our hovels waiting to vote Labour again in the 2015 General Election to try, once again in vain, to “keep the Tories out”?
So Where Are We Now?
The Smith Commission exists, of course, to recommend what additional devolution to Scotland should look like. A Commission run by an unelected member of the House of Lords, hand picked by the UK Prime Minister, writing a report which the UK government has no obligation to heed, and which will be considered by whatever government finds itself in power at Westminster following the 2015 general election seems unlikely to convince the Scottish people that Labour’s promises are something to be relied upon.
In short, Labour have shot themselves in both feet and at least one hand by allowing themselves to be the public face of unionism in Scotland, and then behaving in an atrocious and self serving way, lying to us as though we are stupid, and basically assuming that Scotland will keep supporting Labour no matter what. In their view it’s them or the Tories, and Scotland won’t vote Tory. That’s the line the UK media will be spouting in the run up to the 2015 election anyway, both UK Conservative and Labour leaders have already stated this outright. it’s us or them they trumpet! In my view, it’s a scare story to stop the voters voting for any of those pesky “minority” parties. Never mind that the SNP are now the UK’s third biggest political party, well ahead of UKIP or the Liberal Democrats in terms of membership (and well ahead of UKIP in terms of Westminster seats, of course, too).
The Axis of EVEL
The Labour Party have been staunch in their rejection of the UK Prime Minister’s proposals to push through an “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL) proposal too, on the back of the independence referendum. This is basically a move to push the “West Lothian Question” into the mainstream, following years of it being only a marginal interest. In essence the argument goes that if certain issues are devolved to the Scottish parliament, then Westminster MPs from Scottish seats shouldn’t get to vote on those issues since the decision ultimately won’t affect their constituents. There is an argument (largely ignored) for this not being strictly true, though, since all the funding for devolved issues is decided at Westminster, as a proportion of whatever funding the equivalent English department gets. Nevertheless, the SNP MPs already voluntarily abstain from issues they identify as being English only concerns. Labour, however, use their 41 Labour MPs in Scotland to bulk up their vote on every issue they want in Westminster, whether it affects Scotland or not, and that’s why they are so dead against the EVEL idea.
EVEL is actually a perfectly fair and sensible idea, why should Scottish MPs get to decide things that don’t affect their constituents? Labour has tried to dress this up as the Conservatives pulling a fast one but actually, Labour are just scared they will lose some of their voting power in the Commons, and they are determined to keep it by hook or by crook. HOWEVER, and i haven’t seen this mentioned in the press yet, not explicitly anyway, but Labour haven’t really given any thought, i don’t think, to what happens if they lose all those seats in Scotland.
A poll commissioned by STV and carried out by IPSOS MORI shows that support for Labour in Scotland has dropped so much that if a General Election were held today, Labour would only win FOUR seats in Scotland. Just think about that, because as i say i don’t think the Labour Party have thought about it properly. They still seem to believe they will be winning about 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, and that’s why they are campaigning so ruthlessly against the EVEL concept, and yet if they lose most of their Scottish seats, they may as well have backed EVEL in the first place. Many Scots support EVEL anyway, i would imagine. Interestingly, i was not able to find any poll data to confirm or deny this, however considering the SNP support the concept, and there has been a massive surge in popularity for the SNP within Scotland it’s logical to assume that a good number of those supporters will be sympathetic to the idea that MPs should only vote on issues affecting their constituents.
In any case, that’s where we are now. The “Scottish” Labour party leader and deputy leader have both stood down (from those positions, but not from their high paying jobs as MSP and MP, respectively, oh no, heavens no!), and another Westminster MP, Jim Murphy, appears to be being groomed by the party as a great ambassador of change in his next role as “leader” of the Scottish branch of the party, despite the fact that Westminster are as popular in Scotland as a dead squirrel in a shoebox, and the UK Labour Party, including Gordon Brown, who all the devo maxers trusted implicitly, are arguing tooth and nail that their 41 Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on issues that don’t concern their constituents, seemingly oblivious to how ridiculous and power hungry it makes them look, as well as to the real possibility that they might be about to lose most of those MPs anyway.
What The Papers Say
Many, many people only get their news from the BBC, and/or one or two newspapers that they trust. Maybe the occasional STV news programme, and that’s it. You’re reading this on the internet, so you may not believe this, but even if they are internet users, the majority of Scotland’s population don’t use the internet to find out the news, certainly not as their main source of news, and even those who do sometimes read news articles on the internet are mainly seeing content from the BBC, the newspapers, maybe a bit of STV content… you get the picture. Very few people read Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia, Newsnet Scotland and so on unless they already believe the mainstream media can’t be trusted. In fact, many people actually believe the alternative media can’t be trusted. That’s the power of the press.
There’s six months till the UK general election as i write this. Scotland is still in the UK, so the mainstream news will mainly (ie: exclusively) be focusing on UK issues and priorities, like immigration and so on, however the overarching item of importance for Scotland will be the basic ideology that both “main” UK parties will hold to viciously, and that’s that you MUST vote for either the Tories or Labour, or it’s a wasted vote. You will hear the Green Party and the SNP referred to time and again (if they are mentioned at all) as minority parties, and covered in such a way as to make them seem like fringe outliers with little hope of challenging the giants of politics. The BBC are experts at this, in particular. Their interview techniques are masterful (the timing, the choice of questions, the order and length of items within each programme, even the camera angles used, are all carefully managed to give a particular effect), and their coverage is consumed by a greater breadth and number of voters than any other media outlet, i would guess. Newspapers pick sides, of course, usually Tory or Labour, and people who have made their minds up already cheer for that side. It’s like football. A diversion from the real issues.
That’s my only worry about Scottish politics, that it is much easier to go back to ignoring politics, or worse, treating it like a game. We can’t affect whether Hearts or Hibs win, but we’ll shout ourselves hoarse cheering for our side, whatever side that is, and in the football game of politics, Scotland has always cheered itself hoarse for Labour, regardless of the issues, or the corruption, or the expenses scandals, or the hypocrisy. It will take courage and determination for Scots to reject that easy option and stand on their principles right up to polling day and beyond.
There’s a movement going on in Scotland right now and i really hope it can keep moving. A revolution isn’t something that happens and then stops. For social change to happen we all must keep working towards it, educating people and talking about the possibilities. We can see things getting worse, for those in poverty, many of whom aren’t even unemployed now, we have a new class of “working poor” in our country, and for those who are disabled, having their very means of financial support cut from under them, for those reliant on the Health and Education systems, again facing cuts from the Westminster budget, and there’s only so much the Scottish parliament at Holyrood can do to mitigate against that. Ultimately, it’s we the people who must make our country a better place, a fairer and more equal society.
Independence was never about “freedom”, it was about social justice, and setting an example to the countries around us. And that’s what the Yes movement will continue to be about, and it’s what the Labour Party have so vehemently set themselves against. No longer are they the party of the people, if ever they were. Now they are the party of the highest expense claims, and second home fiddles, the party of underhanded voting at Westminster to try to gain an advantage for their party rather than for their constituents, the party of career politicians that seem to believe the world owes them a living, and more. They are the party who, just this week, organised a £100 a plate dinner, taking place in Glasgow, until recently a Labour “heartland” and one of the areas where poverty is at its most extreme and on the rise.
I only hope the Labour Party stay as out of touch with the electorate as they are now right up to polling day, and i hope the voters can see through the lies and spin that we will all be spoon fed daily and actually vote for a better future in May 2015. We nearly did it on 18th of September, after all, and practice makes perfect.
(see also “The Future of the Labour Party in Scotland“)