Where now for Scottish Labour?

By Dale Street

Winning just one seat in Scotland, the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) was annihilated as an electoral force, and possibly as any kind of political force, on May 7th.

On being elected SLP leader last December, Jim Murphy said: “I am confident we will hold all the Westminster seats we have.”

In January he criticised the SNP for being “sluggish, lethargic and off the pace.” He was “surprised by their lack of energy, by their lack of response, or belated response, to a lot of the things we’ve been doing. I’m just astonished by how quickly they’ve run out of ideas.”

By February of this year Murphy was predicting that the SLP would increase the number of seats it held in Scotland: “We plan to hold all that we have, and we are going after (Lib-Dem) East Dunbartonshire as well.”

But back in the real world, satisfaction rates with Murphy’s role as SLP leader had slumped to minus 19 by April, the lowest for any of the party leaders in Scotland

And on election day itself Labour won just 24% of the vote, amounting to one seat in the whole of Scotland. Murphy’s own seat saw a 32% swing to the SNP on an 81% turnout. The size of the turnout underlines how committed his own constituents were to kicking him out.

The “sluggish and lethargic” SNP, on the other hand, won 50% of the vote, and 56 out of 59 seats (compared with just six seats in 2010).

Speaking about the overall collapse in the SLP vote, Murphy blamed the SLP itself for its defeat: “It’s proven hard to turn round years of difficulty with the Scottish Labour Party in just five short months. … I will continue to lead Scottish Labour as we fight for our progressive policies.”

Murphy’s ‘analysis’ of the reasons for the SLP’s defeat is as far removed from reality as his predictions that the SLP would hold on to all its seats.

The SNP entered the election campaign knowing that 81% of ‘Yes’ voters in last September’s referendum were going to vote SNP. With those votes already in the bag, it focused on attacking the Lib-Dems for having been in coalition with the Tories, and on Labour for selling out on its principles.

As one of the SNP’s leaflets used throughout Scotland put it:

“Labour used to stand up to the Tories. Not any more. Labour and the Tories campaigned together in the referendum. And they voted together at Westminster for deeper spending cuts. The only way to lock out the Tories and force Labour back to its roots is to vote SNP.”

The claim that a vote for the SNP would force Labour ‘back to its roots’ was nonsense. (The SNP does not want Labour to go ‘back to its roots’. And if Labour were to go ‘back to its roots’, the SNP would still oppose it.)

There was also no logic to the claim that the only way to lock the Tories out of 10 Downing Street was to vote SNP. (Subsequent events confirmed this. Lots of people did vote SNP. But that did not lock the Tories out of office.)

And SNP criticism of Labour for not standing up to the Tories and backing spending cuts was deeply hypocritical.

The SNP’s own manifesto required cuts in public spending (albeit at the end of the parliamentary cycle). In Holyrood and in local authorities it has not stood up to Tory austerity but implemented it. And a raft of its Holyrood policies have disadvantaged the working class and benefited the better-off.

Even so, the attacks on Labour for not standing up to the Tories, for collaborating with the Tories in the referendum campaign, and for supporting more spending cuts struck a chord with broad swathes of the electorate. Because, however hypocritical they might be, they were true.

Labour has failed to be an effective opposition in Parliament over the past five years – too concerned with demonstrating that it would be a ‘responsible’ government, instead of using Parliament as a tribune from which to help mobilise a working-class fightback against the Tories.

Disastrously, and without any consultation with the SLP’s affiliates, the leadership of the SLP decided to set up a Labour-Tory-Lib-Dem alliance (‘Better Together’) as the vehicle for campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum, with politicians of the three parties appearing on the same platform.

And, even if they amounted to ‘austerity-lite’ rather than full-scale Tory austerity, the Labour election manifesto committed a Labour government to more cuts in public spending – again, in order to demonstrate that Labour would be a ‘responsible’ government.

But perhaps the biggest single factor accounting for Labour’s humiliation in Scotland was the fact that its leader was Jim Murphy.

Murphy is an unreconstructed Blairite. He represents precisely the politics which allowed the SNP to win voters away from Labour. He backed Blair’s wars, supported tuition fees, and voted for the benefits cap – but did not bother to turn up to vote against the bedroom tax.

He backed the Blairite candidate in the 2010 Labour Party leadership contest, opposed Miliband’s decision not to back Tory plans for military intervention in Syria, and went out of his way to publicly attack Unite at the time of the Ineos dispute and the Falkirk re-selection contest.

On election as SLP leader he dished out jobs in the SLP bureaucracy to his Blairite friends – including the appointment of John McTernan as his chief of staff. McTernan is a self-confessed admirer of Thatcherism and has criticised the Tories for not having privatised enough public assets, including London Underground.

And in last year’s referendum campaign Murphy was Labour’s public face in the collaborationist ‘Better Together’ campaign.

(In fact, the plot by SLP right-wingers to oust Johann Lamont as SLP leader and install Murphy in her place had already been hatched last summer. Murphy was given the lead role in ‘Better Together’ in order to raise his profile in preparation for the coup against Lamont.)

Whatever the limitations, it is certainly true that Labour shifted to the left under Miliband and that its election manifesto contained a raft of policies to raise taxes on the rich and big business, defend the NHS, freeze private sector rents and energy prices, and scrap some (but nowhere near enough) of the Lib-Dem legislation.

But in the election campaign in Scotland all of this was obscured by the fact that the SNP was able to masquerade as the ‘real’ Labour Party, and by the fact that the SLP was led by someone whose own political record was in direct contradiction to Labour’s more left-wing manifesto commitments.

In fact, although the SNP did pour resources into selected constituencies, in many other constituencies it did little or no canvassing, and little or no leafletting. And yet even in constituencies where the SNP campaign was virtually invisible, it still won with a swing of around 30%.

This was true even in constituencies where Labour had high-profile campaigns with record levels of voter contact.

An outsider observing arguments on the doorstep might well have concluded that Labour was led by a man called Tony Blair who had just invaded Iraq. The SNP’s national and media campaign was so effective that it squeezed out any discussion about what Labour was advocating now, in 2015, in this election.

As one SNP member put it, the SNP could “ride the wave” and neglect door-to-door canvassing because the fatal combination of the collaboration of the ‘Better Together’ campaign and the role of Murphy as SLP leader had done the SNP’s work for them.

And just to give an even bigger boost to the SNP, in the final week of the election campaign the SLP ran the theme of the alternative: “Labour’s Fairer Economy or Another SNP Referendum”. It did nothing to help Labour, but it certainly must have helped consolidate the SNP vote.

(The sudden appearance of this theme meant that Murphy and McTernan had written off any chance of holding on to traditional Labour strongholds. Instead, they were making a pitch for Tories to vote tactically in cities such as Aberdeen and Edinburgh. But it didn’t work.)

It is impossible to underestimate the disaster which swept away the SLP on 7th May (unless your name is Jim Murphy or John McTernan.)

The general election result was a dream come true for the SNP: A Tory government in Westminster, and absolute SNP political domination in Scotland. With the Holyrood elections only 12 months away, the SNP is well on course to a clean sweep in those elections, a second referendum, and independence.

The SLP has been out of power in Holyrood since 2007 and controls only a handful of councils. The Labour Party has now been out of power at Westminster since 2010. To demonstrate what it can achieve when in power, it has to go back to Blair. And that is a problem in itself.

The SNP is consolidating an electoral base for which voting SNP is becoming as natural and engrained as voting Labour used to be in the Central Belt: First-time voters in the referendum who voted ‘Yes’, who then went on to vote SNP this week, and who are guaranteed to vote SNP in next year’s Holyrood elections.

These are not disillusioned ex-Labour voters. These are voters who see Labour as the party of Blairism, Trident, war in Iraq, public spending cuts and, most toxic of all, Jim Murphy and collaboration with the Tories. They are predominantly young voters. And they are repelled by what they see of the SLP.

There will probably be a concerted push in the Scottish regions of Labour-affiliated unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. A majority of trade unionists, perhaps an overwhelming majority of trade unionists, must have voted SNP on 7th May.

The union bureaucrats are unlikely to offer any resistance or any alternative (i.e. one in which the principle of collective working-class representation would find expression in a different form.)

A layer of the bureaucracy already backs the SNP, or has even joined it: Far better a few crumbs from the table of the SNP than fighting for union policies in the Labour Party and organising a working-class fightback against the Tories.

Even more so than is already the case, politics in Scotland will shift further away from class and class-struggle politics to a politics of national identity and Scotland versus Westminster. Anyone on the left who sees the SNP’s crushing of Labour as creating an opening for socialist politics needs to wake up.

The day after the SLP’s election debacle Murphy followed up his announcement that he would continue as SLP leader by saying that it would take time for “the divisions of the referendum to fade back into distinctions between left and right.”

This is true. The problem is that Murphy represents the right and everything which cost Labour all-bar-one of its seats in Scotland. If Labour is to survive in Scotland, then the first precondition is that Murphy and his hangers-on such as McTernan are forced out.

For Murphy to lead the SLP into next year’s Holyrood elections would be political suicide. Not just for Murphy – and all socialists will wish him well in any such endeavour – but also for the SLP as a whole.

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