Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and a former Conservative & Unionist member of the Scottish Parliament.
Another fine mess of Labour’s making
Lord Ashcroft’s polling of Scottish constituencies caused a panic in the Labour Party like no other. There have been a swathe of polls since the Scottish independence referendum that have repeatedly put the SNP well ahead of Labour. These have offered up a variety of nightmare scenarios in which all but a handful of Labour’s 41 Scottish seats will be lost in the general election. Surely these polls could not be true?
Ashcroft’s mega-polling suggests they are and a near wipe-out looks distinctly possible – causing despair amongst hard-nosed socialists and glee in the ranks of ever more optimistic Tory MPs whose Schadenfreude has gone off the scale.
Why has this happened and can Labour turn it around before 7th May?
The ending of Labour’s dominance in Scotland has been a long time coming but it has most certainly arrived. In the past the received wisdom was that the Scottish electorate could and would vote differently in the Holyrood elections – having the luxury of two votes in its proportional system they could vote Labour and then experiment – while voting Labour in the Westminster elections in the belief that the party would best represent their UK interests.
After all, the SNP would always be a small minority party in the Commons with little influence, wouldn’t it?
That’s certainly the way it looked in the Holyrood polls of 1999 and 2003. Minority parties managed to squeeze into the parliament as voters flirted with exotic alternatives – like the Greens and the Trots – while voting Labour in the 2001 and 2005 general elections. Even when the SNP formed a minority Holyrood administration in 2007 Scots then voted in greater numbers for Labour in 2010. But then came the sea-change – the Liberal Democrats supported a Conservative coalition and have been in a tailspin ever since. Meanwhile Labour has had no clear answer to the relative success of the economic recovery except to demonise the Conservatives as akin to an inhuman evil sect that hates the poor and especially anything Scottish; an approach that helps the SNP by laying the blame for every calamity at the door of Westminster.
This narrative was evidenced by the appallingly negative tone of Better Together’s campaign for a No vote in the referendum that was packed full of Labour place men. Labour politicians and their commissars could not bring themselves to talk-up the benefits of the union lest they gave hostages to fortune about successful Tory policies – or accept that having a Conservative government, or even a coalition one, was a price worth paying to stay in the Union.
The core argument was that staying in the Union was the way to keep the Tories down. Scaremongering became the default position. Explaining the faults in the SNP’s economic case was necessary but it was not until Gordon Brown’s intervention near the end when Labour offered a positive vision of British solidarity.
There is nothing new in this strategy. Labour has been painting itself as the sole arbiter of Scottish interests for decades and sought at every turn to define Conservatives as an English party delivering colonial rule to Scotland. Rather than debate policies on purely ideological terms (as happens in most of the UK) Labour thought that this approach would not only marginalise Conservatives but also keep the nationalists at bay. Scotland’s left would even go so far as to suggest It was and remains a socialist country, despite all the history and evidence to the contrary. Periods such as the enlightenment of Smith and Hume to the achievements of industrial Victorian Scotland or the still unbeaten record of Conservative Unionism in the fifties and the continued existence of over 400,000 Conservative voters were conveniently ignored.
Labour’s faux-patriotism (the Stalinist party was always controlled by the NEC from London) has been a slow burning disaster for all it has done is diagnose Scottish politics through the context of statist nationalism – a cancer that is now set to eat the Labour Party in the same way it has already consumed the Tory Party. No matter how popular Conservative policies became in the 80s (and many, such as council house sales were very popular) Labour painted them as anti-Scottish to the point that the Tory brand itself has become a burden in all but a small number of areas.
Labour’s pitch has always been to justify ever greater state spending in Scotland as the justification for Union – a route to disaster when the economic cycle requires spending restraint (never mind alleged austerity). This meant politics became a nationalist bidding war that only Labour or the SNP could win; it was only a matter of time before the SNP became better poker players and cleaned up.
So, having fed the political monster that is nationalism, a creed that has turned friends, families and communities against themselves, what can Labour do? Why, it reverts to type and seeks to outbid the SNP with policies that the rest of the UK (and especially London) will pay for to justify the Union while suggesting the SNP cannot deliver such prizes.
Thus the Mansion Tax is intentionally flagged as transferring money from London to Scotland’s NHS, and the 50p tax rate will deliver a bounty far beyond the contribution made by Scotland’s 13,000 top rate taxpayers.
The policies are drenched in bilious anti-Tory rhetoric while New leader Jim Murphy especially courts the 190,000 former Labour voting men that last September put their faith in ‘Yes’. These voters are now identified as the most important group in British politics as they could mean the difference to Miliband getting into Downing Street or not.
Murphy offers Labour hope because, although not without his flaws, he is a tireless, fearless, passionate and skilful publicist – astutely naming his campaign ‘Yes for Labour’. Already there are signs that he is making a difference and due to the large size of Labour majorities even a modest recovery will reap dividends. A TNS poll this week saw Murphy cut the SNP lead in half while the Electoral Reform Society reported that the SNP could fail to win the many seats predicted even with large swings.
Expect, therefore, more of the same from Murphy – demonising the Tories better than the SNP can. Where this leaves the Scottish Conservatives will be for another column.