openDemocracyUK

The Slow Hollowing Out of Scottish Labour

The era of Scottish Labour influence at Westminster is coming to an end.
Gerry Hassan
11 October 2010

The self-styled most sophisticated electorate in the world has spoken: the election of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet by Labour MPs. It has resulted in fewer Scots, no Welsh and lots more women.

These are the first elections to Labour’s Shadow Cabinet since 1996 and show many changes since the days of Blair’s first Cabinet in 1997 which was stacked with talented Scots: Brown, Cook, Dewar, Robertson, Darling and Strang.

The decline of Scottish Labour is marked from the onset of New Labour to today. In the 1994 Shadow Cabinet elections, the first under Blair’s leadership, there were fourteen Scots Labour MPs standing out of 52 candidates; whereas now a mere five Scots stood out of 49.

Then five were elected, now three, but the bigger difference is quality. Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander who both polled 160 votes and finished joint seventh would have done well in an earlier age, but Ann McKechin who won 117 votes and came in fifteen place has never widely impressed or shown she can muster a ministerial brief. And as for Tom ‘blogger’ Harris and Eric Joyce, neither were serious candidates with the latter finishing last out of 49 with a mere ten votes.

Scottish Labour was one of the pivotal crucibles which gave birth to British Labour. Keir Hardie’s candidature in the Mid-Lanark by-election of 1888 saw the banner of the Scottish Labour Party emerge and is one of the central moments in Labour history, which led to the Independent Labour Party and the official creation of Labour in 1900.

Over the coming decades a rich cast of stars and talent came from Scottish Labour. There was Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first Prime Minister who if he hadn’t gone off and supported the Tories in 1931 would still be lauded today, John Wheatley, James Maxton, Tom Johnston and Willie Ross. Then came the golden generation of recent decades from John Smith to Gordon Brown.

The era of Scottish Labour influence at Westminster is coming to an end. The Scottish party played a crucial role in providing the resources and ballast in 1983 which allowed the party to fight back against the ultra-leftists in the party and survive to fight another day. All of that seems a different political world and era.

This is a bigger political change than devolution. The 1970s and 1980s saw two successive waves of talent flow into Scottish Labour. The first was a very Scots middle class tradition of public service: Dewar, Smith, Brown. This was followed by the emergence of the new left polyocracy which in the SNP coalesced around the ’79 Group and the likes of Alex Salmond, and in Labour produced Scottish Labour Action and Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander and others.

Both of these traditions are now exhausted, the first by age and the second by the unpractical nature of their earlier student-influenced politics.

In England, the political classes now draw their new talent from the nursery ground of think tanks and special advisers which give us skilled, technocratic politicians who have no vision and no ability to question the economic and political system and vested interests which have aided their rise.

Modern politics have a faint whiff of the aristocratic court; the politics of nepotism, of the Miliband brothers and now the Eagle sisters (Angela and Maria), of everything being about how you know and working the channels of access and power.

In Scotland the situation is actually much worse. Without the new nursery grounds of the new political elite, Scottish Labour is left drawing on threadbare resources to produce dull, risk averse semi-competent politicians who rose to the starry heights of MPs' researchers and organisers. The last UK election saw a significant diminution of Scottish Labour’s ranks; out went John McFall and John Reid, and in came the likes of Gemma Doyle, MP for West Dunbartonshire, another young, bland, identikit politician who is unlikely to ruffle feathers or challenge the system.

Scottish Labour cannot pass off these changes as being the result of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. The talent hasn’t gone elsewhere, it has just gone.

Look at the potential packed into Donald Dewar’s first Cabinet in Labour ministers: McConnell, McCabe, Alexander, Deacon, and then look at Iain Gray’s prospective team which could be the Cabinet next May. It is a spine-chilling prospect with Gray’s team having a quality which would not look out of place running a small to medium ranking council. Not Glasgow or Edinburgh mind you, but maybe a Dundee or Stirling.

The sole modus operandi of the whole enterprise is now shaped by partisan point scoring and tribal detestation of the SNP. No thought is given to the wider, noble cause of speaking for Scotland or a wider national interest.

The Scottish Labour leadership feels the exact opposite. It believes it has the wind in its sails, buoyed by the May UK election result north of the border, and what the opinion polls are saying about the likely result of next May’s Scottish elections.

Yet, the hollowing out of Scottish Labour is a much more deep and complex story, than about one or even two election results.

Once upon a time Scottish Labour saw itself as the crucial bridge building coalition between Scotland and Westminster. The party stood up for Scotland at Westminster, and sold the benefits of Britain in Scotland. This politics was done adeptly by Tom Johnston and Willie Ross, often using the Nationalist threat to extract more money out of Westminster, while having little interest in democratic politics, being more motivated by results and getting things done. It is no longer a viable politics.

Now Scottish Labour no longer counts to the same degree at Westminster, and it is going to have to chart its own course north of the border: unreformed, unapologetic for decades of Labour arrogance and misrule, and bereft of new ideas.

It sets out on this feeling rather good about itself, smug and self-satisfied that it is again the people’s party. This is the traditional Labour feeling of self-righteousness and sentimentality which New Labour set out to destroy and failed to do.

Normal service has been resumed for some. ‘We have got our party back’ crowed the complacent twice loser Neil Kinnock. Scottish Labour is heading for the victory it thinks is rightfully its entitlement, and as things stands, steaming straight into stormy waters and the rocks. 

Gerry Hassan is now a regular columnist for the Scotsman on Saturday. We will be re-publishing his column here on Mondays.

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