Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Ross Martin: The red rose has to go, for starters

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


  1. Ross,
    The extent of the Labour meltdown was a surprise, but the actual result was becoming more and more predictable in the last couple of weeks of the campaign. I know someone who was working for the SNP in one of the Glasgow seats that it took from Labour. Doorstep polling was so pro-SNP that the local party was discounting the predictions - the Nats were getting pledges from Labour and Tory voters in Glasgow's southside to the extent that Charlie Gordon was going to be history.
    Of course, that's how it turned out on the night in 5 of the 9 seats.
    I agree with most of your analysis especially about our cities and I definitely agree with the potential symbolism of moving the Labour Party HQ to Edinburgh.
    However, the unreconstructed Labour party is not dead yet, especially in the west of Scotland, where Labour remains 'The Establishment' despite the election results. I don't know if one year is enough for Labour to reinvent itself, but the Council elections in May 2012 will tell us.
    Meantime, who will provide the constrcutive opposition to the SNP in the Parliament Chamber and, more importantly, in the majority-SNP Committees? With 68 other SNP MSPs to keep happy, the strongest opposition to Alex Salmond may start to come form within.
    Should be an interesting year.
    Derek Elder

  2. "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"

    Ross I agree with your comment there (although I'd condition that with doubts about how far the SNP has gone on cities). I think that the Scottish and Scottish/Westminster labour leadership has almost no handle on the whole creativity and entrepreneurship 'thing'.

    Derek I appreciate where you are coming from on Labour still being strong in Glasgow. My thinking is that Scottish Labour campaign strategy and management in the recent election was so awful that even the most basic competence next time around will help them significantly.

    But on your "I don't know if one year is enough for Labour to reinvent itself"; I think they may have already failed on the reinvention front, because the real culture shock ought to have been when the SNP were elected into Scottish Government first time around. I warned Labour friends at that time that a huge shift in the tribal base may be under way and that every day that went by under an SNP government without the Scottish roof falling in was another day’s move away from Labour’s tribal lock on Scotland.

    I found Labour folk unaccepting and uncomprehending at that time. The belief that they were the establishment in Scotland was deeply ingrained (in a cruel irony it was the recently deceased Labour MP David Cairns who pointed this up at that time).

    In a possibly particularly instructive coincidence, we had then, and again now, cries from the likes of Tom Harris for 'a closer relationship' between Scottish Westminster MPs and Scottish Labour (i.e. Westminster heavy control reinforced)... and of course the presence of Jim Murphy as Westminster Viceroy is again re-run. Nothing there to indicate any commitment to reinvention.

  3. Ross makes a number of valid points but his natural support for Labour shines through and understandably so. I think the real question for Scottish people has been "Do we need three centre left parties to represent our interests?" The short answer is one will do and its not Labour and not the Liberal Democrats, so a reasonably competent government team deserves another chance. The huge danger over the next five years is that Parliament and relations with Westminster and Europe aee dominated by an idealogical debate about the degree of independence that the Scottish people want, fuelled by a few party activists who want greater or lesser autonomy within the United Kingdom. In truth the people voted for a strong leader who can deliver on jobs, education and health in a very tough climate. The rest is a sideshow and Labour will have no part to play in the main performance having faileed to turn up for the rehearsals for the last four years. And by the way its not Labour's script anymore. Ironically for Labour its likely to be the Conservatives, with significant resource to call on, who will likely provide an effective, questioning opposition as the economic case for Union or no Union is debated.

  4. Scottish Labour's problem is the two iron balls shackled to its ankles - one labelled U and the other K. 'Scottish' Labour has only one purpose - to keep Westminster Labour in power in the UK.

    Ross Martin says "The Scottish Labour Party must be all three of these things: Scottish, Labour and a proper political Party." It can be none of these things while Scotland remains in the UK and Labour is a unionist party. There was no "mass civic movement that campaigned for and designed devolution" - it was a Blair/New Labour sitch up designed to draw the teeth of Scottish Nationalism, as George Robertson so clearly stated, and was so badly wrong about.

    The Scottish independence movement is committed to a constitutional monarchy, sensible shared arrangements on defence - excluding the obscenity of nuclear weapons and WMDs in Scottish waters - and an intelligent, sophisiticated relationship of friendship and trust with the residual United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland - UK Minus.

    What ragged standards have Scottish Unionist Labour got left to cling to?

    The outmoded and lethal doctrine of nuclear deterrence?

    The right of a Westminster Parliament, dominated by a south east power bloc of money, privilege and corruption to decide when the flower of Scottish youth is sent to die in foreign adventures at the dictat of US foreign policy, which at any time could fall back into the suicidal lunacies of the Bush era?

    To almost 1000 unelected Lords in a second chamber that is always destined for reform but never will be while the UK lives?

    Scottish Labour must indeed do three things to survive and regenerate - embrace Scottish independence, reject the nuclear deterrent and perform an act of public contrition for the egregious crime against humanity that was the Iraq war. Then, and only then, the party might rediscover its values, its identity - and its soul.

  5. Ross is spot on in most of his analysis . Some additional points may have been worth considering ." It is one of the great ironies of our time that Labour led the mass civic movement that campaigned for and designed devolution" Ross, actually they didn't. NEW labour responded in a blind panic to the Scottish electorate who even then were swinging away from centralised manipulative Party machine politics. NEW Labour did however design it .Devolution was intended to exercise control over Scotland.It was old style colonialism with a modern face. The absurd undemocratic electoral system was meant to ensure no overall control.The lack of leadership and general political nous ensured it eventually
    blew up in their faces.They did not even have the brains to PRETEND to be independent of Westminster.As for policy direction Labour in Holyrood contented themselves with being against the SNP on absolutely everything (to the point of stupidity)but couldn't say what they were for.The SNP had the courage to form a minority Government and whether we like it or not the consensus is they did well.The Lib Dems,being political whores, would have jumped into bed with Labour again despite being in Coalition in Westminster. Many people including Labour voters clearly preferred another minority SNP to that scenario. Labour continues to blames a swing of Lib Dem votes to the SNP for the massacre at the polls. Another hypothesis is that the Lib Dems actually swung to Labour(Labour's vote went up in percentage points in some very safe constituencies which would support that theory)However Labour voters wiped out the swing by simultaneously going to the SNP .Labour have the Lib Dems to thank for preventing an even bigger wipe out . Have lessons been learned ? Doubt it .Last I heard Jim Murphy et al were taking advice from an Obama strategist!! Labour would do well to pay attention to someone closer to home " I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?" Benjamin Disraeli

    Danny McCafferty Clydebank

  6. Nothing points up Scotland's situation in relation to the UK more than the nature of the present government - a Tory government, when the Tories were decisively rejected in May 2010 by the Scottish electorate, a Coalition deal negotiated by Danny Alexander, a LibDem who would have been thrown out of office had he stood for the Scottish Parliament.

    The LibDem have provided two Scottish Secretaries to replace the awful Jim Murphy - Alexander briefly, and now Michael Moore, both representatives of a party that has been humiliatingly rejected by the Scottish people, and would be destroyed at the UK ballot box in a general election if one were called tomorrow.

    These latter-day colonial governors had and have no real mandate of any kind, even in their non-role, yet the lugubrious Moore pontificates on matters fundamental to Scotland's economic recovery.

    When the great divide between the Scottish electorate's verdict in May 2010 and the rest of the UK became known, worried Westminster media pundits commented that "it made us look as if there were two nations". There are - that's the whole point, and the point will soon be made even more forcibly.

  7. Scottish republic26 May 2011 at 20:58

    Really, he's missing the point.

    The truth is, if Westminster Labour was tired, out of ideas and battle fatigued and economically reaping the harvest of Gordon Brown's ill thought out spending, then Labour in Scotland is infinitely more diseased.

    The hegemonic empire that is Labourvin Scotland exists to simply feed itself. The cronyism is not a symptom to be treated but is the actual state of affairs. The cronyism is just a manifestation of the empire that is Labour's view ofa stagnant Scottish society that should not be a boat to be rocked. For that, Westminster Labour looks positively sparkling compared to Labour in Scotland but it isn't (see the state of the economy).

    Labour in Scotland have been rumbled by the voters. It's not just some grass roots changes that need to be made, it's a party political cahnge that needs to be made, and guess what it has been.

    May 5th 2011.