The story of the Scottish Labour Party was, until recently, one of the defining stories of Scotland over most of the 20th century.
First there was its rise – the emergence of ‘Red Clydeside’ and the socialist pioneers, and how radicalism gave way to respectability. Second, there was the ‘golden era’ of action and purpose – of Tom Johnston, and the big ideas and schemes, which began to fade as Labour morphed in the 1960s and 1970s into the political establishment. And finally, there has been the slow decline of the party, which accelerated in recent reverses to the SNP – most spectacularly, the near complete wipeout at the May 2015 general election.
A month and a half after the SNP triumph and Labour rout, which historian Tom Devine called Labour’s ‘Culloden’ (1), there is still an inability on all sides, victors and vanquished, to come to terms with the new landscape. There are still missing stories and voices. On the most basic level, politicians are human beings first and politicians second. A whole host of Labour politicians taken out in May are going through various stages of shock, bewilderment, even anger – equivalent to coming to terms with bereavement.
It isn’t a surprise then, that in the immediate aftermath, a number of Labour MPs who lost their seats just took themselves out of public life. For BBC Scotland’s documentary, ‘The Fall of Scottish Labour’ (2) shown on Monday, in which I am interviewed, several former senior politicians including Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and Margaret Curran refused to be involved, intimating that it was just too early.
Popular accounts of Scottish Labour’s decline are well-known. The trope that ‘Tony Blair destroyed the Labour Party’, or the immorality of the Iraq war are often cited. There was also the issue of Gordon Brown’s influence over the party, seeing it, some said as his ‘own fiefdom’; then there was Johann Lamont’s view that Scottish Labour were treated by London as a ‘branch office’. Finally, there is the symbolism of Labour standing alongside the Tories in the independence referendum, with former First Minister Jack McConnell even saying that ‘the whole campaign design was wrong’.
None of these factors aided Scottish Labour, but these were manifestations of a wider malaise. For example, more important than Labour siding with Tories in ‘Better Together’, was the absence (Gordon Brown apart) of a popular progressive vision of the UK which looked to the future. Even Brown’s interventions were significantly about Labour’s past, the NHS, and the big achievements of previous British Labour Governments.
The Long Tail of Decline and People Moving On from Scottish Labour
The longer story of Scottish Labour has to understand the party’s successes, in changing individual lives and society for the better. The party at its boldest had concrete, tangible ideas: it reduced poverty, built better houses, improved health and education, and widened opportunity and choice for generations of people who had previously been deprived of such things.
What happened when Scottish Labour changed Scotland for the better had multiple consequences. Not only did it change society, but it changed how people saw their own lives and aspirations, how politics was done, and it both changed Labour and how people saw it.
In post-war Scotland, which Labour did so much to bring about, the public although grateful and seeing the party in positive terms, wanted more. They wanted to be treated less collectively, and more as individuals. They wanted more choice and autonomy – from painting their council house front door whatever colour they wanted to, if they so chose, buying their own council house.
These societal changes can be seen in the Scotland of the 1960s and 1970s; they pre-date Thatcherism which merely accentuated a whole host of economic and social changes it is seen as synonymous with north of the border. Scottish Labour failed to move on so people chose to move away from Scottish Labour.
This was a fundamental change which took several decades and which the party had numerous opportunities to adapt and change to survive. Scottish Labour used to be a party of the future – focused on the idea of a better future and shaping and making that collective future.
As it failed to change, so the party became stuck in and fixated on the past. Not surprisingly, voters increasingly saw Labour as about the past, about their own histories and those of their families, neighbourhoods and society. Labour became something people saw as not relevant to them and their lives now, but as something that, with a bit of reflection and some sadness, they felt they left behind as life moved on.
The long genesis of these changes coincide with Scottish society, work and the economy transforming in dramatic ways, going from a place dominated once by manufacturing to a service sector economy; from a male shaped work culture to one increasingly female in many places; and from a very deferential, authority and permission based culture (think of the reach of the Kirk until the 1950s or local government officials pre-1980s) to one where power is much more diffuse and contested.
Scottish Labour hit its peak popularity in 1966 winning 49.9% of the vote; but already by the following year the cracks began to appear as the Wilson Government devalued the pound and abandoned its economic growth plans. That year the SNP threatened Labour in the Glasgow Pollok by-election, and then months later, the SNP’s Winnie Ewing won the seemingly impregnable Labour seat of Hamilton. Things would never quite be the same again.
Labour enjoyed many other honeymoons in Scotland: it did spectacularly well in 1987 winning 50 out of 72 Westminster seats, and in the 1997 New Labour triumph winning 56 out of 72. Importantly, these triumphs (like 1966) were won on a minority of the vote (42.4% 1987; 45.6% 1997) with the party’s strength magnified by Conservative unpopularity and a divided opposition. While some of Labour MPs mistook this parliamentary strength for popular appeal, even at the height of the party, anti-Labour Scotland was always bigger than Labour. And the party’s lack of motivation in needing to understand the country beyond its own boundaries made its eventual decline inevitable.
Through these years, large numbers of Scottish voters gave Labour the benefit of the doubt. They recognised the long Labour story; they had personal or family experience of lives transformed by the power of collective action. They liked the ‘idea’ of Labour, and could still see themselves and their life stories in it. But increasingly, the day-to-day reality and actions of Labour meant little to them.
What Happened Under Devolution Scotland and the Rise of the SNP?
For much of the last twenty years, and certainly for the entire period of the Scottish Parliament, a significant segment of the public waited to hear a Labour message and politics that would have resonance and relevance to them. They wanted it, and hoped for it, and for many, only slowly and reluctantly, turned away as it failed to appear, and the SNP offered a more confident, coherent and progressive account of Scotland.
The Labour Party legislated for the Scottish Parliament in 1997-98, but the party had little positive ideas about what the institution was for. Instead, it saw it in negative terms – to prevent Thatcherism being imposed on Scotland, to block the Nationalists, and to maintain the Labour self-perpetuating state and dominance that had come to define the party’s politics.
It wasn’t an accident that in the eight years of Labour-Liberal administration in the Scottish Parliament none of the big-ticket policy innovations came directly from Labour – free tuition fees, free care for the elderly, the smoking ban, or electoral reform for local government. Then there was Westminster Labour’s resentment of the Scottish Parliament, with many MPs seeing it, in former First Minister Henry McLeish’s words, as ‘a kind of second class Parliament’. When Labour finally lost by the narrowest margins to the SNP in 2007 it should have been a massive wakeup call to the party, which instead it chose to ignore and deny.
Now it has suffered three significant reverses: 2007, the first SNP landslide of 2011 which produced majority government, and now the 2015 tartan tsunami which has swept nearly all before it. Jim Murphy, party leader for a mere six months, was neither the answer or the problem. He jumped into the seat of leader of the party and found it similar to a 1970s Ford Cortina. He put the keys in the ignition and expected that with all his skill and craftiness he would soon be able to catch-up and surpass the SNP bandwagon. Instead, when he turned the keys nothing happened, then looked under the bonnet and found that the engine had been removed years ago, and that Scottish Labour was nothing more than a hollowed out shell.
Where does Scottish Labour go from this? First it has to understand that the politics which contributed to ‘Labour Scotland’ (3) – of benign, but paternalist bureaucracy and authority knows best – and which had its roots in the three pillars of party dominance (local government, council houses and trade unions) is no longer possible or viable.
Second, it has to see that the crisis is both home grown, and with wider manifestations, namely, the state of social democracy across the developed world. British Labour is not exactly in a great way, but nor are the German and French Social Democrats and Socialists respectively, and nor for all the Nordic nostalgia which exists in parts of Scotland’s left and nationalist politics, are the Norwegian Labour Party and Swedish Social Democrats.
Third, the rise of the SNP has not happened overnight, but has been a slow burner, which has still outmanoeuvred Labour. The decline of the Scottish Tories from the 1950s onward aided the SNP, as it became the main opposition to Labour, and inhibited Labour, as it moved politics from a simple class dichotomy to one of class and identity, with Labour struggling on the latter.
Scottish Labour is now miles behind the curve of society on a variety of subjects. There was the transformation of post-war society, which Labour itself contributed to. Then came the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, which Labour legislated for, but had little idea how far it would change Scotland. Brian Wilson recently said of the creation of the Parliament that the party ‘built its own scaffold’ (4). But it was always clear from pre-devolution Scotland that the Parliament would bring scrutiny and new questions for the old institutions and elites who had for years run things: one of those was Scottish Labour.
Fourth, and related to it, Labour have to get over the SNP and talk about social democracy, recognising that it is not their exclusive property any longer. Former MP Tom Harris conceded this point on a recent blog writing, ‘Nicola Sturgeon is a committed social democrat with values that the vast majority of Scottish Labour members would share’ (5).
Finally, Scottish Labour has to honour and inhabit those two words. It cannot allow the albatross of ‘London Labour’ and a ‘branch office’ to continue to be hung around it. There is no guarantee of success striking out on an autonomous route, but there is only further decline in inaction. This should have happened in the party’s better years. Now Labour will be confronted by the limits of its own Full Fiscal Autonomy, its lack of resources, monies and personnel, and that it was subsidised by British Labour for years at elections. Autonomy and Labour home rule will reveal a party structural deficit which has been there for decades, but which will show the Scottish party’s vulnerabilities and where ultimate power sits.
More important than structure and attitudes towards opponents is the question of whether a party and tradition which so shaped and contributed to changing society for the better, can renew and rejuvenate itself, after decades of atrophy and decline, and the long term stasis of having become the country’s political establishment until recently.
Scotland has at the height of the SNP’s success still a non-Nationalist majority: the SNP’s vote being 49.97% (assuming the recent SNP poll rating of 60% isn’t permanent). Considering the previous ‘Big Tent’ politics of Labour in its golden age and the SNP today, there is room for a popular opposition to the Nationalists. Its territory sits in two places: on the centre-right (probably for the Scottish Tories) and on the radical left (where the Scottish Greens and post-indyref left-wingers could make a claim). This terrain would be questioning of the institutional, establishment orientated politics which have dominated Scotland, shaped Labour, and which the SNP leadership see themselves as the inheritors of.
Can Scottish Labour make the leap to articulate a genuine politics which breaks with its own past, and offers a very different vision of Scotland to what it itself offered previously, and the Nationalists do today? In a climate of social democracy facing hard times there can be no guarantees of success, but Scotland and even the SNP need a vibrant, confident opposition politics. Politics have changed so much and so quickly in Scotland, that it is by no means certain that Labour can even be sure that it will remain the leading opposition party. Such are the disorientating scale of changes which Labour have to understand and adapt too, if they are have any kind of real and relevant future.
1. Tom Devine, ‘The Decline and Fall of Scottish Labour’, SOLAS Festival Lecture, June 21st 2015.
2. ‘The Fall of Scottish Labour’, BBC One Scotland, June 22nd 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b060dwn3
3. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, Edinburgh University Press 2012.
4. Brian Wilson, ‘Labour hoist with its own petard’, The Scotsman, May 8th 2015, http://www.scotsman.com/news/brian-wilson-labour-hoist-with-its-own-petard-1-3767894
5. Tom Harris, ‘Time to Grow Up Boys and Girls’, Labour Hame, June 16th 2015, http://labourhame.com/time-to-grow-up-boys-and-girls/