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Raising the Blue Labour saltire on a sinking ship

Labour's crisis in Scotland requires more than a charismatic leader and some dusty ideas from north London.

Scottish Labour's new shadow cabinet

In 2006, at its annual conference, a student called Tim Cobbett was elected to the Executive Committee of NUS Scotland. That might seem an odd place to start a discussion of the astonishing decline in Scottish Labour. But consider this: it was, I think, the first time in the history of the organisation that someone had run against a Labour Student candidate, and won.

Now consider this: other than Neil Findlay, every single candidate for leader or deputy leader of Scottish Labour was at some point involved in student politics in Scotland. This isn't at all surprising: campus politics has long been a vital recruiting ground for the party, where it finds people and where it teaches them the art – or, perhaps more accurately, the sport – of political organising. As the unions and Labour's connection to them have corroded, this has become more important than ever.

In that context, finally, consider this: eight years after Tim Cobbett's victory, there is now not a single Labour Student on the executive committee of NUS Scotland. The president comes from the radical left, and campaigned openly for a yes vote. His only opponent when he was re-elected earlier this year is a member not of Labour, but of the SNP.

It's not just student politics. Estimates of its membership vary from 7,000 to 11,000. The former figure would mean it's smaller than the Scottish Greens. Even the latter put it as perhaps 1/9th of the size of a fast growing SNP - and the fact that it didn't publish how many people voted in the leadership election (unlike in 2010) implies they don't want us to know. I am told that, at their leader hustings in Glasgow, they had around 200 people: the previous day, just up the road, 12,000 SNP members had gone to see their new leader.

Those membership figures will have practical implications: money for the coffers, activists for the streets. The SNP now averages more than 1,500 per Westminster constituency – huge numbers of whom learnt their leaflet runs and canvass patter during the referendum, huge numbers of whom are chomping at the bit to erase Murphy's party from the Scottish electoral map.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the SNP trade union group now has more members than the Scottish Labour Party. The Scottish Left Project, the group set up by the socialists who organised the 3000 strong Radical Independence Conference, include among their ranks some relatively senior trade unionists. The day Murphy was elected, they launched a disaffiliation campaign. It's surely a matter of not if, but when: there are already rumours that senior TUC figures have left Labour in the wake of the Smith Commission, and I hear the Co-op Party is considering abandoning ship.

The final corner of Scottish Labour's base is its local councillors. And the cause of the decline there is perhaps different to that elsewhere. As a condition of coalition in 2003, the Lib Dems secured from Labour an agreement to introduce proportional representation for local government. And so since 2007, Scottish local authorities have voted using the Single Transferable Vote. Up against a fairer voting system, Labour lost about a third of its councillors. They went from outright control in 12 of Scotland's 32 local authorities to only two.

Although they experienced a small bounce-back in 2012 at the cost of the Lib Dems, the loss of their councillor base has removed organisers from communities across Scotland – for, often, it is councillors who do regular canvassing, organise leaflet runs and local fundraisers. It's councillors who channel information from doorsteps to the party HQ and it's councillors who recruit new members and make them feel welcome at their first meeting.

Opinion polls show what's happening on the surface of a sample of the sea, but they reflect the broader currents beneath. On the day the new leader was announced, a new survey came out giving the SNP 43% and Labour 27%. On a universal swing, that would give the SNP 47 seats and Labour 10 – compared to their current 6 and 40 respectively. But, remarkably, as Peter Kellner at YouGov points out, it is impossible for the 17% swing against Labour since 2010 to be universal: there are some seats in which they didn't get 17%, and though the electorate may sometimes want to, it cannot give parties negative scores. And so they must be losing a disproportionate share of their support in areas where they previously had more of it – meaning that it's possible they will lose more seats than the polls indicate.

The figures on trust are telling too. Half way through her second term in government, 48% of Scots say they trust Nicola Sturgeon. On his first day as Scottish Labour leader, only 24% said they trust Jim Murphy. Most remarkable of all, by 19% to 15%, David Cameron is more trusted north of the border than Ed Miliband.

It's no wonder. The decline of Scottish Labour has taken place over more than a decade. But over the last two years, the people of Scotland have taken a magnifying glass to their politics. Looking closely at the party that most had historically supported, they found it deeply wanting. The party which Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale have inherited once had deep roots across Scottish civil society. Now, it feels, it could blow over in the lightest of storms.

It isn't clear to me whether or not it would be possible for any leader to address the scale of this crisis – partly because there is only so much a leader can do in the face of the brutal force of history, and partly because any leader would have to emerge from the party, and in many ways, it's the party that's the problem. This latter conundrum was aptly demonstrated by Murphy's victory this weekend.

The first sign that he was the wrong choice is that he was the obvious one. A charismatic public speaker who enlivened the referendum campaign with his hundred towns tour, a man whose personal story reads like a “best of” history of the left over the last 25 years (fleeing apartheid South Africa, competing Scotland's purge of the Tories in 1997 by winning their safest seat north of the border) and “A Big Beast From The Real Parliament” (as they still seem to see it), it seemed clear from the outset that Murphy would see off his challengers.

There are, in fact, contexts in which Jim Murphy might have been exactly what Scottish Labour needed: a decade ago, back in the boom times, you can imagine him articulating a saltired Blairism from Bute House in a way Jack McConnell never quite could. But if the members of Scottish Labour believe that the laws of physics still bend to the rules of the Labour leadership ballot, they are sorely mistaken: Scotland isn't going back in time to 2004. When they needed someone not just to turn their ship around, but to completely re-build it, they have voted for a captain to rally the sailers and raise the flag as it sinks beneath the waves.

There are three problems with Jim Murphy. This first is that he is tied so inextricably to Labour's past decade. At a time when it's clear to everyone that Scottish Labour needs to dramatically break from Blairism, he is a well known supporter of the Iraq War, Trident and austerity. Whatever pretty words he uses to pitch himself to the left, he's got a voting record at Westminster going back 17 years showing otherwise. Labour's problem isn't so much that they say the wrong things, but that people have come to the conclusion that they don't really believe anything. It's not that they need better policies (though they do) it's that they have to actually believe in them.

The second is that he is inextricably tied to Labour's recent past. If the problem facing the party is that a significant portion of its base voted yes, then one of the most prominent and, in some ways, aggressive figures from the No campaign is perhaps not the person best placed to win them over.

The third is that he is tied to his own past. Scotland's a small country, and social media has shrunk it further. Whether or not the tales of bullying and nastiness dating back to his time in NUS are true, they keep appearing in my Facebook and Twitter feeds from disgruntled members of the Labour party whose dislike of him is more personal than political. They needed a unifying figure, and they got a man who seems to have spent a lifetime making enemies.

Neil Findlay offered solutions to at least some of these problems. One of the reasons for a lack of talent and experience in Scottish Labour is that, in Holyrood's AMS system, they didn't allow candidates (with exceptions for incumbent MSPs who had notionally lost their seats on boundary changes) to run both in a constituency and on the list. In 2011, significant numbers of now experienced SNP regional list MSPs unseated Labour constituency MSPs. But rather than some of these people returning through the proportional top-up system, those who replaced them were new to Parliament, and, often hadn't expected to be there.

For the most-part, there were good reasons they hadn't been selected in what were thought to be winnable positions. But, once in a while, they were people who the leadership had tried to shut out, because they were trouble-makers. Democracy has a habit of being chaotic enough to open up cracks for the light to get through. For Labour, Neil Findlay was just such a glimmer – a clear chance for the party to indicate that it had freed itself from the clutches of the Westminster consensus. But you can always rely on Scottish Labour to stamp on any sense of hope.

Despite all of this, it would be a mistake to write Murphy off. After all, he just won an election with a healthy majority. Apart from anything else, he appears to have some understanding of the scale of the challenge he faces, and it's worth watching his attempts to tack about. Since his election on Saturday, I have counted five key messages from him: that he's the candidate of change, that he's a socialist, that his party is united, that Labour won't lose any seats to the SNP in 2015, and that he's a Scottish patriot.

The first four of these are untrue, though they are statements of intent rather than lies. He knows there is a need for change, but the sort of change he means can be measured in his cabinet reshuffle today. It seems reasonable to say that those appointed fall into two categories. First, there are people who were already on the front bench but have been given a new job there: former leader Iain Gray, Jackie Bailie, Greame Peason, Claire Baker, James Kelly, Neil Findlay. Sarah Boyack is rewarded for her leadership run, and goes from minister to secretary.

Then there are those who have got promotions. Jenny Marra was co-chair of Murphy's campaign. Neil Bibby, is a former chair of Labour Students in Scotland who worked for Murphy before he was elected an MSP. Mary Fee's background is in Usdaw, one of the few unions which supported Murphy's leadership bid. Ken Macintosh has been an MSP since 1999 and his constituency at Holyrood is effectively the same as Murphy's Westminster seat. Murphy backed him in the last Scottish Labour leadership election, and he's certainly not new.

Among the 14 people who will attend the new shadow cabinet, other than his two opponents themselves, I can only find one person who didn't vote for both of the winning candidates: Hugh Henry, an MSP since 1999 who's held a range of positions in his time and can't really be muted as 'new blood'.

Murphy wants Scottish Labour to be seen as a socialist party because he has come to the conclusion that this is the best way to win, but his team looks like exactly the same Labour party as before, only with a couple of younger faces: faces of people who likely joined when Tony Blair was leader. He says he wants to unite his party, but he seems unwilling to give jobs many people from outside his own support base. Despite the rhetoric, the changed Labour really doesn't look very different.

Which brings us to the one thing he's said so far which is probably true – that he is “patriotic”. This was, in fact, a frequent trope from his corner of the Labour Party throughout the referendum. Better Together's twitter account still describes itself as “the patriotic all party and no party campaign”, and the first point in his five point plan for Scottish Labour, as unveiled in the New Statesman, is “making it clear that Scottish Labour is a patriotic party”. Added to the second point: “declaring Scottish Labour a party which represents Scotland first”, and there are two ways to interpret what he's doing.

The first is triangulation: Murphy is trying to steal the SNP's spots, pitching Labour as a party of Scotland, and a party of the left. Second, I'm told that Murphy was a part of the Blue Labour crowd, back when that was The Thing after the 2010 election - and it looks very much like this is, in some ways, the ideology he is pulling on.

Blue Labour was the movement associated with Ed Miliband's then guru, Maurice Glasman, who made a name for himself by declaring that the party should be about “faith, flag and family”. This helped shape the 'One Nation' narrative (I've never yet had a good answer to the question 'which nation?'). The newly elevated peer disappeared from the scene when he said some dodgy stuff about immigration, but it seems Jim may be putting a white cross through Blue Labour's flag, and attempting to steal the SNP's spots.

This strategy is, I think, bound to fail, for a few simple reasons. Triangulation has always been about winning power while losing the argument. If the only aim of either party is to get into office, then sometimes it makes sense. But the SNP has at least one more aim: winning independence. And if Scottish Labour accepts entirely that the political terrain in which it operates is Scotland, if it gives up on its soft British nationalism (“the unity of the British working class”), if it helps the SNP by itself articulating its own left-leaning Scottish national myth, then this might help Labour nudge towards short term power. But it will also push Scotland closer to independence.

In fact, for Labour, it's worse than that. One challenge the SNP has always faced is that they want a modern, left leaning Scottish national story to exist, but they don't want to always be the people telling it – because banging on too much about Scotland puts off the more traditional Labour voters they are aiming to win over. So if they can leave Labour to build the story, then they can get on with winning over Labour's voters.

The second reason it's bound to fail is that the SNP are just as adept at triangulation, but, being in government, they have a bigger stage. Where Labour has shown any leadership, Salmond and Sturgeon have been happy to follow, and then to ensure that they get the credit. As soon as there was any serious pressure on the SNP to back a 50p tax rate, for example, they did.

And, thirdly, this triangulation won't work because the voters who have swung from Labour to the SNP have done so not because they are soft nationalists who love a saltire, but because they are soft socialists who see the SNP as sitting to the left of Labour. Sounding like a patriot will do little to win those people over.

If all of this sounds bleak for Murphy, that's, largely, because that's how things are – but for one glimmer of hope. One of the key reasons Labour has fallen apart since 2007 is that it's been driven more by hatred of the SNP than by a coherent plan of its own. Murphy is utterly loathed by many yes supporters. There are huge numbers who now see their primary job as destroying him and his party. And, that kind of hatred eats movements alive.

If he can wind his opponents up until they look as bitter, nasty and directionless as his party has appeared for most of the last decade, then maybe, just maybe, he will have tricked them into giving him a chance. If they just ignore him, and let him get on with tacking and jiving in a hunt for long shifted trade winds, it seems fair to assume his party slowly, gradually, loyal supporters still fondly clinging on, will sink.

 

About the author

Adam Ramsay is the Co-Editor of openDemocracyUK and also works with Bright Green. Before, he was a full time campaigner with People & Planet. You can follow him at @adamramsay.


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