Scottish Labour in disarray

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By Dr Gwen Jones-Edwards

When a battle is won, it is usually the victors who celebrate, and, carried along by the euphoria and adrenaline of their success, it is they who usually go on to ride the wave of further action and development. This has not been the case in Scotland.  Here, the victors are the ones beset by devastation; they are the ones scrambling furiously to find further direction. The victors are in a quagmire, and, worst of all, they do not even appear to have a raison d’être.

The Labour Party was, of course, the only serious opposition to independence within Scotland. The Conservative Party no longer has a Scottish foothold, hence Cameron’s decision to have Alastair Darling front his Better Together campaign. Later on when both public and private polls were suggesting that YES was ahead, he sent in the heavy cavalry, Gordon Brown, to throw missiles in the form of the vaguely worded vow which is estimated to have caused a mind-change in half a million of the electorate – more than enough to swing the result.

What was noteworthy was that Johann Lamont, the newly-resigned Labour leader in Scotland had very little part to play in all of this, and, indeed, as time went on, her role decreased dramatically until she became all but invisible. All well and good for her now to accuse the party in Millbank of treating Scottish Labour as a mere ‘branch’ of the central London party, for that is all it has ever been, and she will have known it. Labour in Scotland has no life of its own; it has no clear policies, and it had no positive message to give to the Scottish electorate during the referendum campaign, relying rather on the vague cliché of having the ‘best of both worlds’. The vitriolic comments left on the Scottish Labour twitter site during the referendum campaign (and still) by its own voters said it all, and it is estimated that nearly 40% of traditional Labour voters voted ‘Yes’. Furthermore, two prominent Scottish Labour politicians, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, both First Ministers in their time, are professing that they no longer know what the Labour Party in Scotland is all about.

Meanwhile the Scottish-based parties who were the face of the Yes campaign, the SNP, the Scottish Greens and the SSP (Scottish Socialist Party) are riding high on their defeat, with all three having attracted an unprecedented increase in membership. The SNP has increased from a membership of some 20,000 to a staggering 86,000 since September 18th. Perhaps it is telling that the Labour Party is refusing to publish its membership in Scotland. The Ipsos-Mori poll released on the 30th of October suggests that 52% of the electorate is intending to vote SNP at the General Election in May 2015, with only 23% meaning to place a cross against a Labour candidate. One can only guess how frustrating the situation must be for its members: if the Labour Party had backed a Yes vote, then logic dictates that it could very well have been the end of the SNP, with Holyrood becoming permanently leased to Labour.

Labour at Millbank must surely be shaken. Assuming a uniform swing across the constituencies, based on the Ipsos-Mori poll, then Labour would be left with just four seats in Scotland, leaving Ed Miliband in what is probably the stickiest situation in which a Labour leader could possibly find himself. Desperate to hang on to his votes in middle England, his policy has been to adhere strongly to Blairite principles. A disastrous re-emergence of old-style Labour policies in Scotland and Wales could be his death-knell, and the end of the Labour party as we know it; however, the fact that he will do all he can to prevent it is unlikely to help his cause in the long run. Favourite to replace Lamont is Jim Murphy, a Westminster MP, who, as a thorough Blairite and career politician will stifle dissent at Holyrood, but do nothing to further Labour’s future prospects in Scotland.

Few will claim that Wales is at the stage where independence can be countenanced. Plaid Cymru’s task in the coming months will be to demonstrate that an increasing devolution can bring about a move away from austerity and the effects of neo-liberalism. Just as for Scottish Labour, if Labour in Wales cannot find itself able to move away from its position of adherence to Millbank principles, it will be disadvantaged. Carwyn Jones may be an elder statesman, but he is one who is more or less ignored outside Wales. His government has not yet been able to put the pressure to bear so as to effect the recommendations of the Silk Commission, which would have given it more powers, although this may now have been superseded by the Smith Commission on powers to Scotland. His threat to veto a currency union in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote was hardly taken seriously, even by ‘No’ campaigners: indeed, with regard to the EU referendum David Cameron has made it clear that neither politicians from Wales nor Scotland will be able to veto processes agreed upon in England. Carwyn Jones’ call for a constitutional convention, perhaps not unreasonable, fell on ears that were deaf to it, giving the impression that in this ‘family of nations’ some members should be seen and not heard.

Ultimately, however, Labour in Scotland has failed because of the organised and effective government that the SNP has provided at Holyrood since it assumed its first minority administration in 2006. The ability of the SNP to run excellent health and education systems, to provide well-functioning environmental and justice systems, to introduce innovative social benefits and to bankroll the bedroom tax, while keeping to the Barnett formula budget year on year is a startling achievement. The Labour Government in Wales does not have this record. The frequent attacks made on the state of the NHS and education in Wales by David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question Time go largely undefended by Ed Miliband, who then leaves it for the Welsh Government to refute the charges ineffectively and from a distance.  Welsh Labour needs to follow the example set by the SNP: it needs to govern assertively and excellently, and it needs to demonstrate the way forward to a central Labour party that has lost its way.

Gwen Jones-Edwards is originally from Cardiff but now lives and works as a psychiatrist in Glasgow. She has studied both medicine and law, but has many other interests apart from these fields, which include both history and languages. Gwen is also a keen observer of politics. 

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Categories: Politics

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