Published in the Scotsman, 18/5/2011
Although a surprise to most, the election result was inevitable. Ok, the scale of the SNP victory was a shock, but beating Labour was entirely predictable. This wasn’t a political tsunami, suddenly rearing up from an electoral earthquake. This defeat was a long slow burn that began at the very dawn of devolution.
It is one of the great ironies of our time that Labour led the mass civic movement that campaigned for and designed devolution, then showed little sense of political purpose, once in power. What difference, exactly, did any of the Labour led Administrations really make to Scotland, when splashing the huge amounts of cash granted them by GB’s Treasury?
No big policy ideas. No coherent policy programme. No examples of real, sustained public service or societal change. Ok, No Smoking, but that was the whole Scottish Parliament working together to deliver a cultural change. That policy caught the mood of the Nation. It may even have led it. It was, sadly, an isolated example.
The Labour-led “Executives” wrote no exciting new policy chapters into the post devolution story of Scotland. Sure, they had some solid achievements; democratisation of the old Scottish Office functions, keeping the ship of state steady as power was transferred from Westminster. But what then? Nothing.
No clear message. No policy direction. No Vision of a new Scotland, different due to the power of devolution. “Scottish solutions to Scottish problems”, where? The lack of inspiration was breathtaking. After being carried into the courtyard of the temporary home of the Parliament, the Scottish Labour Leadership began to fail before it even got started.
It didn’t lead. It wasn’t Scottish. It couldn’t even call itself Labour, as it hadn’t worked out quite what that meant in the post devolution context. It now clearly needs, as it did then, a fundamental, root and branch review to determine not only policy purpose and political direction, but also crucially, its character. Scottish Labour has lost its soul, and with it the trust of the Scottish people.
That bond of trust, painfully built up throughout the Thatcher years, was broken a little more by each successive Scottish Labour Leader in key decisions, culminating in Labour’s catastrophe of Gray’s crushing defeat. Each time the increasingly sophisticated Scottish electorate signposted its chosen political direction, either at a Holyrood, Council or Westminster election, the Scottish Labour leadership couldn’t, or wouldn’t read the runes. The case for the prosecution is easily made.
After the first election, Donald Dewar missed the moment to completely reshape Scottish politics, by not including the UK's first Green Parliamentarian, Robin Harper, in his team. An even bigger symbolic change away from the much criticised control-freak political management of the time would have been to reward that election's biggest winner, Denis Canavan, with the power to actually achieve something. Donald didn’t.
Leave aside the missed opportunity to bring together a ‘parliament of all the talents’ when the much promised sprinkling of celebrity, business voice and key characters from civic Scotland were shut out of the party’s selection process alongside some of Scottish Labour’s brightest talent, left wondering what they had to do to secure even a run at election.
Henry McLeish missed the next chance to embrace the emerging politics when a red-green advance ushered in over a dozen colourful MSPs. The opportunity to do things differently was ignored in favour of the continuation of the monochromatic managerial politics so beloved of the Scottish Labour Leaderships of the time.
Then, worst of all, following the “muddle, not a fiddle” demise of his predecessor, who had been sucked into the Westminster expenses scandal that continues to outrage the electorate, Jack McConnell ignored the democratic desire of the people, to see the promised new cross-party, participative politics finally emerge.
Not only that, he also went out of his way to carve out much of the remaining talent from his own Labour team in a classic night of the long knives. This lowest common denominator, machine approach to politics was only ever going to end in one place, destructive defeat at the ballot box. First, at Westminster and then here at Holyrood.
In Scotland, the date of destiny arrived on 5th May 2011. After a campaign so devoid of purpose, other than to stick it to the Tories one more time, the Scottish people voted, overwhelmingly, for real change. Scottish Labour lost, all across the country. The sheer scale of the defeat means that there is now no such thing as a safe Labour seat in Scotland. Middle Scotland wreaked havoc for Labour.
It is all too easy to characterise the Labour defeat as a simple swing from the UK coalition partners, especially the Lib Dems, straight to the SNP. Just as many of them did after the first defeat in 2007, some Labour MSPs have tried to argue that this is an aberration, and that the party’s vote held up. Perhaps, but it held up to a level that saw the first Labour defeat, back in 2007. Labour lost then, and lost again this time. The democratic disconnect looks set to continue awhile.
So how can Scottish Labour turn the tide of public opinion? Firstly, by practicing what it preaches. As it chooses its new Leader, it must show by its own internal actions that it is in tune with the mood of the electorate. It’s time to put its organisation where its mouth is, and demonstrate what “devolution-max” actually means, starting with the Labour Party itself.
Just as Kinnock, then Smith and finally Blair did, turning around the UK Labour Party before seeking to turn around the country, so must Scottish Labour demonstrate the next steps for devolution within the party, before presenting that as a way forward for Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party must be all three of these things: Scottish, Labour and a proper political Party.
That means, as a democratic de-minimis; one-member-one-vote, complete control over devolved policy, relocating its party HQ, with a new team of politically savvy staffers, close to the Scottish Parliament to demonstrate real change. Oh yes, replacing the red English rose is a pre-requisite too. The Scottish Labour Leader must be what it says on the tin. Then, and only then, can their policy debate begin.
It is crystal clear from the election result that the “Devolution Default” position of the electorate is the opposite of that enshrined in the Scotland Act. The Scottish people want all policy devolved, unless there’s a very good reason not to, rather than the reverse which currently persists. The new Scotland Act must right this fundamental wrong, before any debate about Independence-Lite or Devolution-Max can seriously begin.
One potential route for Scottish Labour, and indeed all other parties, defeated or not, is to develop place-based policy that really matters to people, connecting to communities all across Scotland.
In the places people live and work; in our Cities, where Labour has lost control, in all but Glasgow, in our Towns, where the regional electoral battle was won and lost, and in the workplace, or at least where the majority of many communities still earn their wage, Scotland’s Public Services. In all these places, Labour desperately needs a new narrative.
In our Cities, Labour needs to have big ideas and bold policy initiatives. The other parties are engaging with the development of the Cities agenda, as are Labour at the local level, but the Scottish leadership simply doesn’t get it.
For example, it was under Labour that we saw the congestion charging ballot hit the buffers in Edinburgh, the Aberdeen Bypass stalled in a procedural traffic-jam and the modernisation of the Subway in Glasgow delayed. These economically essential items of transport infrastructure should all have been completed in those first two terms. They weren’t even started.
And what about the Trams, started but not finished? Well, that’s an all-party story for another day.
Across our Towns, if we had seen a Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF) that matched, say, the ballooning spend on the Holyrood building project, pound for pound, it would have developed the physical fabric of Scottish life. Not only would this have prepared our town centres for the economic shocks to come, but may well have saved Labour from the electoral shocks that ripped through many of them.
One real positive from the dying days of the old Executive was the legislative framework for Business Improvement Districts, but again, like the creation of the TCRF, this was an initiative that required genuine cross-party continuity. The Bill began life in 2006 and was then implemented by the SNP Government after the 2007 election.
When Scotland voted decisively for not only the return of the Scottish Parliament but also, significantly, in favour of conferring upon it some measure of tax-raising power, the signal was clear; power with a purpose. The problem was the Scottish Labour leadership had no narrative, no route map, no real idea of what to use the power of the parliament for.
Ross Martin is the Policy Director for the CSPP and a former Labour councillor