Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

In the path of the juggernaut

Labour must be able to give Scots hope that another Labour government is possible, argues Stephen Daisley

The 110th anniversary of the parliamentary Labour party passed by in February largely unremarked. The decision by Keir Hardie’s Labour Representation Committee to rename itself ‘the Labour party’ after winning 29 seats in the 1906 election was a historic one. It marked the beginning of organised labour as a force in the House of Commons, one which soon replaced the Liberals as the party of progress and the alternative to the Conservatives. Perhaps in these times of existential crisis for Labour it was felt 110 years was a milestone too ominously rounded to celebrate.

Of course, democratic socialism is of an even older pedigree north of the border, where Hardie founded the Scottish Labour party in 1888. It is said – usually by nationalists, occasionally by the disaffected left – that Hardie would not recognise the successor Labour party in Scotland today. On the contrary, the travails of Scottish Labour in 2016 would be all too familiar: a small, embattled rump of trade unionists outgunned and outspent by landed interests in Westminster and middle-class conservatism in Edinburgh. Scottish Labour, arrogant and clunky-fisted rulers over their fiefdom for half a century, are once again political outsiders.

The humility has come quick and hard. The party has been reduced to one seat in the House of Commons and the Conservatives are trying to push Labour into third place at the Holyrood election in May. The swagger is gone; Scottish Labour is a meeker, quieter party these days.

Meanwhile, the nationalist takeover of Scotland is near-complete. The Scottish National party enjoys a majority in the Scottish parliament – an institution designed to prevent single-party control – and is on course to increase its seat tally in May. Police investigations pending, it holds 54 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. A plurality of councillors are SNP, an advantage likely to grow in the 2017 local government elections.

‘Civic Scotland’ is largely on-message and most of the nation’s intellectuals and artists have swapped pens and paintbrushes for pom-poms. Contrary to the paranoid mutterings of the ‘cybernats’, the SNP does not suffer an especially hostile press. The Scottish edition of the Sun backs it in elections and it benefits from the enthusiastic support of a daily paper, the National, which reported news of Scotland’s £15bn deficit under the headline, ‘Economy resilient despite oil revenues decline’.

The SNP is an electoral juggernaut that makes New Labour look amateur by comparison. It claims the votes of men and women; young and middle-aged; deprived and comfortable; home-owners and renters; graduates and school-leavers; left, right and centre. It is a national party in the truest sense, embodying most of Scottish society in its membership and support.

The fortunes of Scottish Labour could not be more different. A poll in March by YouGov put it level with the Tories in Holyrood constituency voting intentions and two points behind on the regional lists.

Even if that particular disaster is averted, how does the party begin to rebuild in Scotland?

John McTernan is no stranger to the Labour trenches on either side of Hadrian’s Wall. The political strategist cut his teeth as an adviser to Tony Blair but was most recently chief of staff to Jim Murphy, whose five-month tenure as Labour leader in Scotland came to a spectacular end in the 2015 wipeout.

He proposes a three-point plan for getting the party back on its feet:

For Scottish Labour, the task – in the words of Ronald Reagan – is not easy but it is simple.

First, never forget you saved Scotland. That gives you bragging rights. So, hammer home the truth about independence – a currency union was impossible and the economics couldn’t work. Those issues lost the nationalists the referendum and they have only been entrenched since then. The oil price has fallen and the [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] figures are beginning to show that independence would have meant penury. Do not flirt with independence – you, like 55 per cent of the country, are against it. Get those unionist votes.

Second, remember to represent the dominant class in Scottish politics – the middle classes. The notion that Scots are in any way especially leftwing is a fiction. The SNP don’t believe it – that’s why they are building a middle-class welfare state. Don’t you believe it either – so don’t flirt with raising taxes.

Third, as well as being a party for fiscally conservative, middle-class unionists you must unite the anti-independence forces. So, merge with the Scottish Liberal Democrats – together you would make a more substantial parliamentary group. And you would represent all of Scotland – urban and rural, islands and mainland. Reunite the two radical traditions of Scottish politics.

Less optimistic than McTernan is Tom Harris. An acute thinker on the challenges of centre-left politics, Harris lost his seat of Glasgow South last May and is now a political commentator for the Daily Telegraph as well as running a public affairs consultancy.

He maintains:

So long as voters continue their apparent obsession with constitutional matters, they’re not going to give Labour a hearing. But this is the crux of Scottish Labour’s dilemma: Should it try to play the nationalists’ game and focus on national identity? The thing is, we’ve been doing that for years (arguably, as STV digital politics reporter Aidan Kerr wrote recently, since the 1980s) and some might say it hasn’t been entirely successful in electoral terms.

Scottish Labour is not in charge of its own destiny. If the national mood – and attention – turns to “bread-and-butter” issues like health and schools, Labour might start to be listened to. But if all voters want are independence and/or more devolved powers, then they’re going to stick with the real nationalists, not the pretendy ones.

Set against these odds, even the most optimistic social democrat might be tempted to give up. But Scottish Labour has one thing going for it: Kezia Dugdale. The 34-year-old took over the leadership in the wake of the 2015 ‘Natmageddon’ and to the chagrin of her critics has proved tough and tenacious. Slowly but surely she is giving Labour a voice again, and it is one that speaks about issues that voters care about: jobs, services, and fairness.

Her proposal to raise income tax by 1p to offset Scottish government cuts to council budgets wrongfooted the SNP, which then abandoned an election pledge to scrap the council tax and instead raised the bands to make the better-off pay more. For the first time in nearly a decade, the nationalists were forced to back up their social democratic rhetoric and the panic was palpable.

Even if this does not bring Labour a single vote in May, it underscores Dugdale’s abilities in a party not overly burdened by talent. Scottish Labour has had six leaders in eight years and cannot afford another changeover, no matter the result of the 2016 election.

Harris warns:

Voters aren’t very impressed when parties of government fight over their leadership; they would be utterly perplexed about yet another fight for the leadership of a party which, for the foreseeable future anyway, has no prospect of being in government.

I like Kez and I think her instincts are broadly right and she has a vital quality that voters really value: she’s authentic and sincere. She’s also a woman and if she were replaced by one of the union fixers eyeing up her position it would look extremely regressive.

Contrary to the assurances of his boosters during the leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn has not won back Scotland. His net satisfaction rating among Scots is minus 13. The notion that Corbyn would return Scotland to Labour was based on the false assumption that the swing to the SNP is motived by leftist politics. In fact, the SNP’s success is built on being what it is: a nationalist party, albeit one that makes progressive noises.

Scotland has been exposed to nationalism in a more sustained, comprehensive manner than England ever has. Substitute a saltire for the St George’s Cross and Emily Thornberry’s ‘image from #Rochester’ could be an image from any street in Scotland. ‘Westminster’ is spat, not spoken, and no discussion of politics can go longer than 30 seconds without independence being raised. Scotland has not become leftwing; it has become nationalist.

If we know anything about nationalism it is that it thrives at times of economic despair. Labour must be able to give Scots hope that another Labour government is possible in the near future, one that can deliver economic growth and opportunities for ordinary people. If Scots cannot be convinced that a viable alternative to the Tories exists within the UK, the balance will tip in favour of independence.

That is why the cause of returning the Labour party to the centre-ground is the most vital task in centre-left politics today. Scottish Labour alone cannot rebuild Scottish Labour. To win back Scotland, Labour must first win back England.


Stephen Daisley is a political journalist and commentator based in Scotland


Photo: First minister of Scotland


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Stephen Daisley

is a political journalist and commentator based in Scotland


  • Aye but the revenues, the revenues. They ain’t returning to sufficient levels to make up for the structural onshore fiscal gap any time soon, even if oil rebounds in price way higher than 50$ a barrel.

    With 15 billion of borrowing already out of about 70 billion spent in Scotland there is no other way to increase public spending in Scotland (regardless the constitutional settlement) in the short term than increasing tax revenues. With the economy slowing down (due to the oil situation) in the short term at least that means raising taxes.

    A hugely popular nationalist government baulks at anything other than modest tinkering. They don’t want to risk scaring the middle class unionist horses that took fright last time. Problem is they haven’t got hold of all these disaffected ex labour voters by preaching steady as she goes managerialism. Labour sounding a few familiar tunes on tax and spend might lead to a bit of disgruntlement with the “radical” yessers. Polling shows labour’s tax plans are not unpopular with SNP voters.

    My opinion, they need an Indy ref soon…their urban base won’t put up with this timidity and hypocrisy forever. And it doesn’t take much of a drop in support for a majority at holyrood (and therefore another referendum) difficult to manufacture from such a disparate political coalition as the current SNP support. Kezia’s just got to stick with this.

  • Dailey has lost the plot……again. Complete fiction. Dugdale has no following even among Labour voters.
    McTernan is a joke. How many times does he have to support a loser before even he realises he has no credibility.

  • The issue for “Scottish” Labour is making a convincing case to a public which is already very sceptical of their abilities and motives that the predictions of economic doom are accurate. Many of those who voted Yes, who they would have to convince to change, simply see this as talking Scotland down and don’t buy the airy assertion by the unionist commentariat that it’s simply a “fact” independence would result in penury. Of course partisans like McTernan will do their best Cassandra act, but fewer and fewer Scots are buying the snake oil. The case for independence isn’t and never was based solely on oil revenues.
    The GERS figures tell us nothing about what the fiscal situation will be at the time of independence. We don’t know what share of the UK deficit Scotland would inherit, we don’t know what the tax, spending and borrowing policies of the first independent Scottish government would be. All the SNP and independence supporters more generally have to do is convince enough of those who voted No in 2014 that on balance, the risks of independence are outweighed by the risks of staying in the union. That cost/benefit analysis may change in favour of the Yes camp if the rest of the UK votes in favour of brexit.
    The “steady as she does”, competence based argument makes total sense from the SNPs point of view. They have to carry the whole independence movement with them, which won’t be done by advocating radical policies (as many in RISE and the Greens are calling for). The left and the “urban base” know that the only real chance of radical reforms comes via independence; there is little point settling for the crumbs from the rigged devo table. The short term gains that using the meagre powers already devolved would bring are more than offset by the real and present danger that they would entrench the current system, fail to address the underlying structural problems, and kick independence into touch for years, if not decades.
    The elephant in the room for Scottish Labour is that they are facing an existential threat; few of their diminishing band of supporters would ever admit this of course. Those that remain are a motley collection of NuLabour true believers, old style socialist/TU types with an atavistic hatred of nationalists, and generational Labour supporters used to seeing their votes weighed, not counted. Of course Kezia will stick with this. She has no other options. She is actually seen as LESS popular and less competent than Ruth Davidson…just lest that sink in for a moment. Labour are actually losing support in Scotland to the Tories, as a core of furious Labour unionists steel themselves to vote Tory. Most Scots no longer care what deluded, well beaten losers like Harris and McTernan think; they are coming not to praise Scottish Labour, but to bury it.

  • Jesus wept. it’s also still less than half of what it was before the indyref. denial of fact is not a plausible strategy for indy going forward…

  • Your calculation on steady as she goes from the SNP is bold in my view. Doing nothing with new powers (however limited) is not a strategy likely instil confidence in people that the powers of independence, if granted, will change anything. The SNP don’t have to be the Greens or RISE but they should at least try and be something close to the SNP we’ve been listening to for the last few years to prove to people that there is a different path to WM and that independence could fully unleash the potential of that. If not, the full influx of new SNP voters surely can’t be sustained for long.

    Given the state of the opposition, mind you, my prediction is that this will manifest itself, in the first instance, in a return to low turnouts and disengagement rather than a swing to Labour or anyone else.

    A quickfire indyref is also not a good option. No matter how many times you say GERS tell us nothing, the fact of the matter is, they are the best estimate of a starting position (not deadly accurate but probably not far off and the difference could go in either direction of course) so people will put credence in them. Heck, the fact the GERS figures looked fairly appealing in the WBB selection of years was probably one of the main factors that it was so popular with Yessers. That those arguments can’t be relied upon again for at least 5-10 yrs (assuming continued growth and limited spending increases) cannot be wished away.

  • Why is it bold? Independence won’t be achieved by triangulating from the left. Evidence is that the 45% who voted Yes in 2014 are still pretty solid, so the task is to convince enough of the No voters to switch. That extra 5-10% isn’t going to come from there, but from “soft” No voters, many of whom may already either vote SNP at elections, or at least think they are competent. Realistically, the SNP will simply continue to emphasise what they already do differently from rUK, try to introduce some more measures to alleviate austerity polices within the constraints of devo, and point to the possibilities if Scots made all the decisions and choices for themselves.
    I don’t share your pessimistic view that turnouts will decrease; they may fall back from indyref levels, but I doubt that will help let alone save Scottish Labour.
    Few people see indyref2 happening before 2020/22. That gives some time to prepare a better case than 2014. I doubt the “£15 billion black hole” message will stand up to much scrutiny; people will begin to realise that there are no guarantees. The problem for the SNP & broader Yes movement is to convince a limited number of former No voters that the risks of staying in the union (especially one outside the EU) are greater than the benefits, and greater than the risks of indy.
    Austerity can’t be wished away either. Neither can the fact that all 3 unionist parties in Scotland are pretty hopeless by comparison, as the polls and voter satisfaction ratings show. Explaining to people that spending e.g. £3.3 billion PA on defence is too much and indy would result in £2billion PA saving, that yes taxes might have to rise, but we will be able to borrow and run a deficit just like other countries, will in the end pay dividends. The biggest issue for the opposition parties is the fact Scots no longer take them seriously as opposition, never mind actual governing parties. that isn’t going to change anytime soon, particularly not if they are unwise enough to listen to regressive forces with a history of failure like Harris and McTernan.

  • So tell us Mystic Meg, what will it be next month? Next year? At independence date? If there’s a war and it went up to $120 a barrel would you support indy then? Fewer and fewer buy the “we’re all doomed” hand waving. The case for indy didn’t rest on oil revenues, neither does it collapse because the price falls.

    You’re entitled to your own guesses about what the fiscal position would be if we stay in the union, but you’re not entitled to claim they are facts any more than I’m entitled to claim that I can guarantee what a post indy government would do. What deficit will indy Scotland inherit from the UK? What spending will it cut? What taxes will it raise? What will it borrow? What savings will it make in areas like defence?

  • Andy,that’s when Calzo switches to position 2,oil is running out.If oil is such a burden,why is it reserved to Westminster?

  • It’s not a burden. for 40 years it has been a massive boon to UK coffers and if we’d been independent we’d be as rich as, if not richer than Norway. We don’t have a time machine however and the glory days are behind us, although a reduced but solid industry can likely be sustained for a good number of years yet.

  • What we do know is that it is not incorrect to say that prices have fallen and also that due to various factors (costs of extraction on the rise, taxes lower etc) that even at $120 we wouldn’t be seeing the same levels of state income as in the past.

    I couldn’t agree more that this is not an argument in itself against Indy. I voted yes. But there has been a widespread failure to acknowledge that Indy would have necessitated the tax rises and spending cuts you talk of if we’d won, something that is now fairly clear, but was much more uncertain in 2014. That’s why I think your assertion that the 45% yes vote can be banked is bold. At least a good chunk (I speculate) were tipped towards yes on the pre-requisite that our fiscal position would, by and large, be the same to begin with. I know polls are fairly solid but it’s easy to say something in a poll with no immediate prospect of it occurring. As you say yourself, Scots are not triangulated on the left but probably just as fiscally conservative as anyone else so Project Fear 2 on any indyref in the next few years would have solid ground to hammer home the same arguments and they’d win again.

    I don’t doubt there is a natural majority in Scotland for independence and the reasons that fuel this are strong enough on their own to maintain a core vote of up to say 40% but I simply can’t see a yes vote occurring without there being strong confidence that our finances are going to be sound when we get there. That is the challenge that must be faced.

  • I don’t see it as a bold assertion that the 45% can be banked, it’s what the evidence suggests. If there was a significant drop in SNP support for HR 2016, or a consistent reduction in their support and satisfaction ratings from all the polling sources over an extended period, you might have a point.
    Tax rises may well have been necessary. there’s a perfectly reasonable argument to be made that, if explained properly, people will support higher taxes for better services. the point of independence is that we get to decide what the priorities are, and what the balance between taxes, spending, cuts and borrowing should be.
    My point about triangulation was more narrow: the SNP/Yes movement should avoid listening to the voices from the left/Greens to move left &/or introduce more radical polices now, because it risks alienating more supporters than it gains. I disagree that Scots are just as conservative, whether fiscally, politically or socially. I don’t think Project Fear 2 would have the same success. I agree the case has to be strong, but I also think the direction of travel supports indyref2 being a success for Yes.
    The opposition is in disarray, the Vow has not been delivered and every age category apart from OAP’s is now pro-indy. We may not achieve record levels of turnout again (tho’ I’m not even sure I’d buy your prediction that engagement levels will), but a more robust response to Project Fear, continued Tory government & austerity, and the risks of brexit are cause for optimism I think?

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  • What does it matter to you Mr Ellis?
    How is life in Surrey these days?
    Come back and comment when you have a vote..

  • I don’t know Stuart, you’d have to ask someone who lived in Surrey? So aside from the usual unreasoning “but, but…but…you don’t even live here!” did you actually have any meaningful contribution to make? No…thought not. Get back to us when you have anything meaningful to contribute. we won’t be holding our collective breath.

  • The figures in GERS are eye watering. They are the reason, in my view, that there won’t be another indyref in the next parliament.

    They disclose that, presuming we don’t abscond on a per capita share of sovereign debt, our deficit as a % of GDP would have likely been double that of the rUK on independence. One year’s figures yes, but factor in that all of the other years had a substantially higher value for oil revenues, and that these levels are not likely to return. Our onshore revenues have actually largely kept pace with the rUK over the life of the GERS series. The difference is in our higher public spend. “Taxes might rise” as you say, but try explaining that to voters as a positive when it is not going to prevent a simultaneous cut in public expenditure. Factor in the same concerns over the currency and Yes would, at any stage in the next Parliament, lose again.

    That isn’t going to satisfy an awful lot of Yessnp’ers. I ssuppose we will see if more dissent from the SNP’s urban base materialises or not, based on the gradualist caution of the leadership on another referendum and/or their centrist orthodoxy. This approach may well make sense to the leadership, and you, but a lot of your supporters were/are enthralled by a promise of a Yes/SNP vote as a vote for radical change. And they are less patient than you for independence and radicalism. A FM explaining she is afraid to tax rich folk doesn’t look radical or enthralling to me.

    I suspect we will see more dissent, especially if there is concerted and meaningful pressure from the opposition to use income tax to protect levels of public expenditure. With a zero rate band, the space to formulate a policy which goes after middle/high earners grows, starting to expose the fault lines in the SNP’s broad coalition. Much as you like to deride the devo settlement as crumbs, remember that income tax is an 11billion pound revenue stream at current levels, and that holyrood will be in direct control over approximately 40% of money raised in Scotland, and 60% spent. Large scale devolution is consistently the most popular constitutional offering put to Scots in polls. Now that we have it, it will be difficult for the SNP to justify ignoring its potentiality to an electorate, large swathes of which have been seduced by their fiery rhetoric.

    Plus, with the economy growing, a constitutional upheaval might start to struggle for support more than it does in periods of economic uncertainty.

    As regards the opposition parties, well, combined they have support of about half of all voters. These are obviously dark days for Scottish labour in particular, but it doesn’t take much lost support for the SNP to make a 3rd consecutive majority very difficult to construct. And in the context of the independence question, that’s all they need to do.

  • Doesn’t matter what the oil price is. Ever day Scotland remains in the United Kingdom is another day we are paying £12bn a year to subsidise England. Another day our economy is strangeled by the pull of London on our wealth and people. Another day we get closer to the postion of all colonies – drained until bankrupt like Wales and NI.

    But then that’s Labour’s goal. Create a pliant, poor, dependent Scotland because it’s always been Labour’s M.O.. Every person they move into poverty is another vote they believe they are “entitled” to.

  • A £15bn deficit when you’re paying £12bn of subsidies to the rest of the UK is a very low real deficit of £3bn. Basic maths seems an alien concept to Yoons.

  • GERS shows a net fiscal transfer to Scotland from UK of circa 8 billion. Not sure where your 12 billion figure is ftom, but I am afraid to say it is incorrect.

  • I don’t think you understand the economics of Scotland within the UK. It is simply not true that Scotland currently subsidises England.

    I would tend to agree that unionism represents managed decline for Scotland but the idea that Indy is in itself the the silver bullet to address that is a gross simplification. The powers of devolution are bitty but no longer insignificant so there are already measures available to the Scottish Govt. The SNP must prove themselves capable and competent at making a difference with the powers we do have to slowly rebuild the case for independence when the time comes…

  • There is no silver bullet in any economics system, however, ending the subsidy paid to England will massively change the Scottish Fiscal position.

  • GERS represents transfers to pay for English Debt of £5bn per annum and an overspend on Blue Water military unnecessary for Scotland which would immediately save £1.5bn on Independence. On top of that, various aspects of the National Infrastructure Plan where English spending is allocated as “UK wide” and charged to Scotland still exists within GERS despite some efforts to account for them.

  • Reneging on a share of UK debt is possible but not considered hugely plausible, given the knock-on implications it would have for borrowing capacity. It’s not particularly morally sound either.

    Military spending would not automatically drop by £1.5bn, the 1st party of government would have to actively make that choice and weigh up any job losses that it might entail.

    Shared infrastructure spending works both ways and the extent to which it matters in GERS is exaggerated by it’s critics, for example, London 2012 costs are not passed through to Scotland in GERS in the main, contrary to popularly peddled myths.

    GERS is a fairly solid representation of a starting position for Scotland, the SNP wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t or would produce something that addresses your implied shortcomings instead – but they don’t so we know that we can take the figures seriously.

    What the GERS figures don’t do, even at their present worst, is negate the case for independence. They just show at present we’d be faced with quite a bit tougher tax/spend decisions than we face within the UK. They also historically show we would have faired hugely well if we’d have been independent 40-50 years ago and just fine right up until the crash of 07/08 really but as I said previously, we don’t have a time machine so must first comprehend, and secondly have a plan to deal with current realities.

  • I wouldn’t set overmuch store by GERS, L. It’s at best a guesstimate of the figures for IDENTIFIABLE public spending and revenue raising in Scotland. We would do well to remember, also, that GERS was originally designed at the behest if Ian Lang c 1992 to scupper the case for independence. More widely, it “measures” the Scottish economy as a subset of the U.K. economy as misgoverned by the tories and constricted by their overarching philosophy.

  • “…, , and that holyrood will be in direct control over approximately 40% of money raised in Scotland, and 60% spent. Large scale devolution is consistently the most popular constitutional offering put to Scots in polls. Now that we have it….”I wouldn’t class 30-40% of the fund raising powers as large scale devolution, Hugh, especially since they are based on the most unpopular form of tax raising, the one that dare not speak its name in U.K. politics for about 40 years.

  • I wouldn’t set overmuch store by GERS, Hugh, It’s at best a guesstimate of the figures for IDENTIFIABLE public spending and revenue raising in Scotland. We would do well to remember, also, that GERS was originally designed at the behest if Ian Lang c 1992 to scupper the case for independence. More widely, it “measures” the Scottish economy as a subset of the U.K. economy as misgoverned by the tories and constricted by their overarching philosophy.

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