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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Some post-election thoughts

Well, that wasn’t pretty. As someone who has participated in elections since the age of 12, that one rates alongside 1979 and 1992 in terms of outcome, and possibly worse in terms of the campaign itself.

It was very tempting to jump to instant analysis and solutions, but I have resisted the temptation. I think some analysis is justified, but I believe some careful consideration is needed on solutions, both for Labour and the other political parties as well as those outside the party structures who have to deal with the consequences.

So where are we? Will Hutton, in today’s Observer, summed up in a paragraph the likely failure of a Tory win to address the UK’s major problems; "David Cameron’s Tory party will not reform the structures that make business building so hard. The productivity crisis will continue. R&D will stagnate. The trade deficit will widen. Inequality will grow. Low wages and insecure jobs will proliferate. The housing crisis will deepen. Public services will become more threadbare. Foreign companies will plunder our national jewels. Public service broadcasting will shrink. Human rights and civil liberties will be weakened. Britain will continue to become more marginal in the world."

The impact on Scotland could be just as serious. Austerity continues with two years of major cuts that the salami slicing of recent years will be unable to paper over. Relationships between Holyrood and Westminster are likely to be a combination of austerity max and grievance max, which again will distract from the need to take long-term decisions. While most nationalists I know would prioritise ending austerity over independence, a right-wing Tory government has long-term benefits for the fundamentalists.

The added factor in this election was the ugly short-termism of the Tories in playing an overtly English nationalist card. The polls in the marginal seats and my discussions with colleagues running campaigns in areas like the Midland’s, makes it clear that the Tories didn’t waste the millions they invested in this aspect of the campaign. As a consequence we have a further batch of Tory MPs who are not unionists at all. They can see that forty fewer Labour MPs and the damage it did to the Labour vote in England was a good thing for their short-term political prospects. This is likely to add fuel to the flames in the coming years

So what about Labour?

At a UK level there is the predictable Blairite call for a return to the ‘centre ground’, whatever that is. They have spent years undermining Ed Miliband and now they can go public. Retro style may be fashionable, but back to the 90’s isn’t a coherent political strategy for any political party. The UK Labour strategy in this election did offer differentiation, but always fell short of convincing many of those who should have voted for Labour. For example, the employment rights offer was broadly positive, but an ‘inquiry into blacklisting’ was hardly likely to get those who care about fairness in the workplace, queuing up to vote.

Scottish Labour's problems didn't start with Jim Murphy's leadership or the fall out from the referendum. It goes back to the Blair years when even the positives were played down because they didn't match the New Labour narrative. This played out in Scotland with Labour led administrations that got no credit for taking radically different approaches. For example, it was Labour that abolished the market in NHS Scotland, but was asked to keep it quiet and as a result the SNP now claims to be the party that 'reversed privatisation'.

The same problem played out after 2010. The narrative that Labour's overspending had caused the crash was allowed to gain credence, because ‘fiscal prudence’ was the narrative that Ed Balls championed.

Then there is the Westminster problem. Too many Scottish Labour MPs gave the impression that they were semi-detached from Scotland. Hostility to the Scottish Parliament and media briefings reinforced that view. The anti-politics driven by the expenses scandal had a more credible outlet in Scotland. Organisation on the ground was weak in seats that have never really been challenged, although in fairness, the same can be said of all parties in 'safe' seats. As Rob John's analysis rightly identified back in February, "The shift to the SNP is the expression not of a mass post-referendum conversion to independence, but of longstanding preferences for self-government within the union". Most Scottish Labour MPs have been on the wrong side of this trend for years and some even oblivious to it – not helped by an MP becoming a career choice. Student politics then parliamentary researcher may equip you for the Westminster bubble, but not for the real world back in the constituency. Labour simply hasn’t been selecting enough authentic voices with the skills and life stories to be credible. The tragedy of this election is that the good MPs are swept up with the bad

Aspects of the U.K. campaign didn't help. Rachael Reeves "we're not, the party to represent those who are out of work", was to put it mildly badly thought through. Ed Ball's reluctance to trumpet the difference in spending plans negated, from a trade union perspective, the best pro-Labour line. This allowed the SNP to claim to be the party to end austerity, even when their numbers didn’t add up. Even when Jim Murphy rightly recognised the importance of a different narrative in Scotland on this, Chuka Umunna went out of his way to undermine the narrative in a shocking campaign interview.

Ed Miliband may never have won over most Scots, but he had a good campaign that went a long way to improve his standing in Scotland. All to often, particularly during the referendum, he came to Scotland badly briefed and it showed. Sadly, that isn’t just down to his poor advisors, certain MPs also gave him poor advice. Whatever my political differences with Tony Blair, his private office would always check the ground out before a visit to Scotland. The only really bright moment was Ed’s speech to this year’s STUC. The failed auto cue seemed to liberate him and we got a speech of passion and content that we needed much, much earlier.

On the short campaign, we should firstly give Jim Murphy some credit. Scottish Labour's campaign needed an injection of energy and he provided it. The problem was it lacked focus. If you are going to use the New Labour textbook, follow it through. If there was a big idea, a narrative in the jargon, it was lost on me. This is well illustrated by the alcohol at football matches issue. A focus group identified this as an issue for the very 'Glasgow Man' that apparently needed to be won over. The problem was that it was never that high in 'Glasgow Man's' agenda and it turned off lots of other groups, particularly women, who were Labour's strongest demographic. The Democrat’s in the USA learned long ago that collecting issues rarely adds up to a majority.

At the special conference in Edinburgh we were shown a frenetic video that jumped all over the place, but had no focus. It was a metaphor for the campaign. As one activist described it, "The problem is Jim is all over the place. He's gone from putting a kilt on everything to now talking about socialism. It lacks credibility". STV Stephen Daisley's tongue in cheek piece on the manifesto launch caught the mood when he thought it was Neil Findlay not Jim Murphy launching the manifesto.

Iain Macwhirter summed up what a lot of Labour activists were saying privately in his Herald column during the campaign; "But the good that Mr Murphy is doing for Labour is being undermined by the air of contrived frenzy and by an unavoidable scepticism about his sincerity. Maybe Labour is now - as the party claims - more left wing and socialist than the SNP, willing to contemplate renationalisation of rail. But it is hard to see Mr Murphy as Scotland's answer to Alexis Tsipras - it just doesn't add up."

I did a number of meetings and focus groups during the campaign. The participants didn't have a problem with the kilt or socialism. They just didn't trust the messenger. Those with some political knowledge referred to his political baggage and questioned the sudden conversion - the others just didn't trust him. They didn't like his presentational affectations (he did eventually drop the patronising whisper) and openly said he didn't sound sincere. Actually many were less polite, but you get the drift.

When you have as much political baggage as Jim Murphy, it is difficult to persuade people of a Damascene conversion. The Iraq War, Trident, tuition fees, Henry Jackson Society etc were all trooped out. Hiring John McTernan was a further gift. His 'Thatcher's economic reforms were a good thing' and similar was a gift to the SNP - even if Alex Salmond once said something very similar.

So what about some solutions. It isn't easy because the beauty of nationalism is that there is always someone else to blame for your own shortcomings. Labour also needs to have a calm rethink and I don’t claim to have the answers, but here are a few discussion points.

Party structure. Some activists have argued for an independent Scottish Labour Party. I remain unconvinced that this would be viewed as anything other than a rebranding exercise and doesn't have enough support amongst activists, who value being party of a UK party. However, a more federal structure is possible enabling Scottish Labour to take control of its own organisation and take different policy positions, not just on devolved issues. This will be all the more important if Labour in England wrongly believes it has to tack to the right.

 

Constitution. Neutrality or support for independence won't work because most centre-left, pro-independence voters already think there is a party for them. However, Labour should still offer a home for those who support independence, but recognise that the SNP isn’t a socialist party and accept that the constitution wont always be the first priority. Labour managed these apparent contradictions in the past over issues like Europe and could do so again. Scottish Labour should also emphasise that it has consistently delivered on devolution and will be more radical, which after all is the majority position in Scotland.

 

Values and policy. Trident replacement is a big millstone around Scottish Labour. Why would you join a party and try to defend the indefensible cost of a useless weapons system. It may not be Scottish voters biggest issue but looks like one policy where changing it could win a lot of people over.

Even more important is values – the ‘what is Scottish Labour for’ question? Lord Ashcroft asked different voters what the main motivation behind their choice was, with 75% of voters saying that trust in the motives and values of their chosen party drove their decision. In the case of the SNP, the number rises to 91%. Among Labour voters, trust in the party’s motives and values drove 75% of their voters, while among Tories it was lower, at 71%. If Labour becomes the ‘whatever works’ party – it’s doomed electorally and why would you want to join it?

 

Election strategy for 2016 and 17. It was noticeable in the leaders debates that Nicola Sturgeon was much less comfortable defending her own government's record. It's easy to say what you would do when you don't have to deliver in a UK election. In 2016 the SNP will have to defend its record in government over two terms. Labour may benefit both from being the challenger, but it will have to be more radical and have some clear red water on key issues.

Scottish Labour has already started chipping away at the SNP claim to be Scotland’s progressive party. The SNP are very good at rhetoric and process, they are less good at delivery. Issues like fracking, colleges, police, transport and housing, particularly in the private rented sector are all issues on which the broad ideological SNP coalition can be stretched.

These issues also point to a different approach for Scottish Labour. The SNP, both as a party and as a government are instinctive centralists. Differentiation for Labour could be based on greater localism. Not the Tory ‘choice’ localism, but one rooted in new approaches to local democracy. However, this also requires all Labour councillors to recognise that they are part of a political party, not semi-detached local administrators.

 

Tribalism. I have an instinctive dislike of tribal politics. I can disagree with the SNP on policy issues, particularly their grasp of economics, while acknowledging common ground. I can do the same with the LibDem’s, even occasionally with the Scottish Conservatives, if not their UK counterparts. Labour politicians can be quick to condemn tribal nationalism, but allow their own, sometimes virulent, dislike of the SNP to influence better judgement. It becomes almost a Pavlovian reaction, rather than an objective response based on Labour values.

 

Leadership. While I didn’t vote for Jim Murphy, I at least understood the views of those who believed he would deliver a sharper campaign. Sadly, it reflected a view of politics that all you need is a sharp marketing strategy, rather than addressing the basics. As it turned out, for the reasons I set out above, the campaign didn’t even have that. A marketing friend of mine, experienced in testing celebrity endorsements, said to me after a focus group session - if this is Labour’s message, then I’m afraid Jim Murphy isn’t the right messenger. Jim was always going to be associated with campaigning alongside the Tories for the No vote - to deliver the new narrative of Scotland’s champion. As for socialism, well his political baggage makes that a very difficult sell.

The question now is arguably less what happened in the campaign, but what is the strategy going forward. Once you have a clearer view of that, you then ask the question – what leader can take that strategy forward? Some members and affiliates have already answered the leadership question; others will have to if Jim Murphy becomes possibly the first leader not to take responsibility for his own campaign.

 

While long-term trends for Labour are not positive, don’t forget that events outwith your control can also be damaging for any political party. For the Tories, Europe will be a huge challenge, but also an opportunity for distraction from the economy. For the SNP, I wouldn’t rule out the chances of the new Tory English nationalists saying, if Scotland voted for Full Fiscal Responsibility, let them have it – as Boris Johnson is already doing. That really would be Armageddon for public services and must be resisted, but it would highlight to voters how the SNP plays fast and loose with economics. Chinese levels of economic growth wont save the day. However, I suspect Treasury orthodoxy will win through, and for once we should be grateful for that.

For trade unions and more importantly their members, patience with Scottish Labour is running very thin. On the few occasions when advice is asked for, it is often ignored. Unions warned about the second referendum question and Better Together, not to mention many policy issues. Trade unions don’t always get it right, but they are far more rooted in the workplace than anyone in the political bubble. The real risk for Scottish Labour is not just institutional separation, but something far worse - indifference.

 

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this measured and coherent analysis, Dave (not that I'd have expected you to provide anything less!).
    I particularly welcome the 'tribal' paragraph - the hate and bile hurt too many folk. I cannot tell you how hurtful the Nazi name-calling has been, nor the 'defriending' on FB nor the never-ending criticisms and blaming and hate - but I understand that's just the way some folk operate - they mistake the person for the policy and attack the people.

    I'll freely acknowledge, the ad hominem users and abusers are everywhere, in every party. It's ugly and harms and demeans us all.

    I want to feel that I can rejoin and help rebuild Labour. I want to be able to vote Labour. But I don't feel that my own analysis of what needs to be done to rebuild would be welcome - and as yet I don't trust the party to listen or to change.

    I know that many are hurting terribly at the blow they've been struck. I understand that. My own bewilderment is that people I otherwise have so much respect for didn't understand that their party was about to be felled - and more, that they wouldn't even begin to acknowledge the many reasons for that.

    I'd agree with your assessment of the harm that some MPs - remote and condescending - did. But this was simply one inevitable outcome of an internal party structure that did not account for devolution. It's an outcome or manifestation of the explicit treatment of Scottish Labour as a 'branch office'.

    I remember Scottish Labour Action. I remember the British party's rejection of calls for 'Scottish' Labour to be devolved.

    Mind you, I also remember a time when members felt involved and at least able to influence policy. But the Party moved to neuter member 'power' - so paranoid were they about the dangers of loose cannon members and so intent on maintaining centralised control of 'the message'.

    I spent much of the mid 80s/90s observing the ascent of political careerists with growing dismay and a sense of despair. The centralised control of candidate selection was so nakedly manipulative and excluded many good and authentic voices.

    Lessons need to be learned: you cannot preach social justice and democracy with any credibility if your internal structures are so undemocratic, so rotten. I've always believed that without structural integrity and internal democracy and equality then we were in a poor place to presume to build those same things when in Government.

    Then there is way in which the party delivered its 'No' campaign.

    There's a dreadful wilful and blind arrogance that presumes to tell folk what their concerns should be - and that dismisses their actual explicitly stated concerns - whether that's concerns about the economy or social justice or the internal structure of the party.

    The final nail for Scottish Labour (for me) was the recruitment of the most right wing capitalist economic arguments during the Indyref. I cannot tell you what it felt like to have the very people who were usually attacking those global corporations/banks and factories of human degradation using those corporations and banks in support of their arguments against Independence. Not to mention sharing a platform with the Tories.

    I wish I were able to help rebuild the party. But I still feel 'locked out' - a traitorous member of the hated tribe who abandoned the Party in its hour of need.

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  2. I don't believe taking responsibility for a campaign always means resigning if one loses, an example would be Kinnock in 1987. No Labour leader would have won that election for Labour from the starting point and circumstances of the time and it was reasonable that he remained regardless of my own view of him. Equally, if Jim Murphy resigned tomorrow and a Scottish Labour Party leader was elected who I was supportive of, in say September, would that mean if they lost the Scottish Parliament election only eight months after becoming Leader that they should resign? I would hope not, as I would want not only the political starting point to be taken into consideration but the opportunity they had to put their mark on the Party and to give the electorate enough time to convince them that they meant what they said about direction of travel. I actually think Murphy has a strong argument in principle that he shouldn't be expected to fall on his sword after only five months as it wasn't enough time for him as a new Leader to turn around the Party's fortunes from the point where they started. Where Murphy's argument in defence of himself collapses is that he wasn't someone from outside the decision making elite when he took up the Leadership. Murphy was at the heart of the political strategy that made the conditions ripe for the result on Thursday, not least his de facto control of the Referendum 'Better Together' strategy. On internal federalist structures within the Party I would agree up to the point of different views on reserved matters as I cannot imagine how that works in practice. To use possibly the most obvious example, could UK and Scottish Labour Parties really take separate policy stands on Trident? How could we present such a position at a UK election and be taken seriously?
    As usual with the rest of your comments these are what we are going to need to discuss and find answers to in the coming months, because if we don't we may not be required to discuss them as a Labour Party in years to come as we may not have any relevance to the people of Scotland.

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  3. I don't think Labour can be attacked too strongly for agreeing with the Conservatives on one single issue in believeing that that Scotland is better off as part of the UK. I think too much emphasis is placed upon that myself.

    I'm a little disappointed in Neil Findlay's comments today and seeking to find a solution in breaking the Scottish Labour party away from the UK party. I think that would be a mistake. One of the strongest arguments to me for voting Labour, or any party that is left leaning, is that helping people should be based on need and not geography. I see nationalism as standing against virtually everything the Labour party is supposed to stand for. The Labour party rejects selfish individualism, although under New Labour this is much more murky.

    I do not take the view that Ed Miliband lost the election because he was too left wing or 'anti-business' as some commentators and the press believe. It made a difference in some seats, undoubtedly, but every time Labour loses it seems to want to lurch to the right.

    I was reading a newspaper article today and was shocked to learn that in Labour's 115 year history it has only had four Prime Minister's that could win a majority. The only one to win back to back majorities is Tony Blair. Success commands influence. Needless to say though, I am dejected that Ed Miliband, who did offer a slightly different stance to New Labour was unsuccessful.

    I don't think that you can have the kilt and socialism. I think that's one of Jim Murphy's biggest mistakes as leader. He is trying to masquerade in nationalist clothes just as the SNP have done so or appear to do so in Labour's in being 'more progressive'. Labour needs to challenge the SNP's rhetoric much more strongly. There's plenty to call into question and I hope that they do in the election campaign next year.

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