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 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.

Scottish Labour’s principles – Anas Sarwar’s pitch

Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader Anas Sarwar made a set piece speech earlier this week that has been attacked from the fringe left and the right. It is worth reading in full rather than relying on some of the commentary that doesn’t do it justice.

I am someone who is likely to consider his words with a critical eye. I didn’t support Anas as Deputy Leader largely because he was a Vice-Chair of Progress, although he has subsequently resigned that post. I am also not a great fan of professional politicians, although in fairness he did at least do a real world job. His strengths are presentational rather than ideological, so a policy speech focusing on political principles is interesting.
So what did he say? The introduction covered some common Miliband themes of social justice and inequality, broken politics, attacking the banks, energy companies and tax dodging. While not new, these are themes even the right recognises are dangerous for them. Hence Cameron is at least talking tough on tax dodging and energy prices.
His pitch for Scottish Labour’s principles of Community, Solidarity, Fairness, Equality and Social Justice won’t find many opponents within the party, although many of us would add a few more. He wisely targeted the references to universal provision, learning lessons from the less well crafted Johann Lamont speech on the subject. As I commented at the time, the reaction from some quarters to that speech was hysterical as she no more condemned universal provision than the SNP have adopted it. The legal aid debacle has demonstrated that. However, while I understand the differentiation strategy over universalism, I still believe it does more damage than good.
But for me the most interesting part of the speech was when he, at least partially, tackled the issue Johann ignored – taxation. While his focus was on geographical redistribution he also pointed to a gap in Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, which he argued had, “No progressive argument in favour of those with the broadest shoulders sharing the biggest burden. How can you talk about social justice without talking about wealth redistribution?”
So overall it wasn’t the speech that I would have written and of course it doesn’t go far enough. But it was none the less a significant move in the right, or left, direction. For a former Vice-Chair of Progress to even talk about wealth redistribution is real progress with a small ‘p’. It is a recognition that faced with the most reactionary government for a generation; this is the territory we need to be on. Anas Sarwar may not be a conviction politician, but he appears to at least recognise that Scottish Labour needs more than managerialism to motivate members and capture the support of Scottish voters.
I won’t spend much time commenting on the predictable reaction to the speech from the fringe, exemplified by Robin McAlpine’s rant at the Reid Foundation. The key is in the last line of his post, “Or stay where you are”.This reflects the fringe left view that if Labour moved to the murky middle they can capture the left vote in Scotland. That isn’t going to happen and in real world politics you have to build broad alliances to achieve change.

In that context, if I can adapt Mark Antony’s words – I come to broadly praise Anas’s speech, not to bury him.

Chasing the middle ground

There is an interesting review by Alex Wood of Alistair Darling’s new book ‘Back from the Brink’ (Atlantic Books) in the Scottish Review. Essentially this is Alastair’s take on the banking crisis and some broader thoughts about political strategy.

I will admit from the outset that I am not a big fan of the former Chancellor. In particular his, our cuts will be “tougher and bigger” than Thatcher’s, almost led me to giving up on the 2010 election campaign. That one stupid phrase illustrated just how managerial Labour had become in government. However, I am willing to give credit to his handling of the crisis itself. Without the decisions he and Gordon Brown made at the time we would be in an even bigger mess. That’s not to say that his light touch regulatory approach didn’t contribute to the crisis, but he wasn’t alone in that, including Alex Salmond.

Wood argues that the book leaves him with several profound impressions including:

“Gordon Brown’s government appears a directionless combination of warring cabals, beset by personal jealousies and without any consensus on the moral purpose of a Labour administration.”

The book presents bank crises as always possible and banks as inevitably fallible and with only a limited capacity to foresee disasters. Despite the many warnings that are not mentioned in the book!

“The job of politicians is simply to manage the system as calmly and rationally as possible. The bankers appear, with a few, individual honourable exceptions, as short-sighted, self-centred and self-serving. Their expectation of government was a one-way deal. ‘When times are good, get off our backs; when they are bad, you have to help us.’ Labour duly did as the bankers expected.”

And on alternative actions,

“given the systemic failure of the privately-owned banking system, a Labour government might have seen maintaining a significant stake in such banks as a mechanism to avoid the much wider economic catastrophe which a banking crash would have brought and which remains possible. Nationalisation, not to create a socialist utopia but to ensure that a key part of the economic system kept running, would have made practical sense. “

Finally we get Wood’s conclusions, “As I read ‘Back from the Brink’ and as I listened at the book festival to my old friend’s calm and urbane explanation of Labour’s position, his assertion that Labour manages the system better than the Tories and that Alistair Darling’s approach to managing the crisis was better than Gordon Brown’s, what remained was a sense of loss.”

“Many, myself included, have moved far from the certainties of the politics of the 1970s and 80s but still seek to discern some moral purpose in the political arena. It appears sadly obvious that if all politicians occupy the middle ground, and his book lauds that tactical priority, it will become an over-crowded place occupied by essentially indistinguishable politicians and electoral cynicism will grow even further.”

“If the political system is never open to fundamental challenge, if ideology disappears, then politics devolves, as ‘Back from the Brink’ implies, to a mere competition in managerial competence. These are essentially conservative politics, offering, at best, a more effective maintenance of the financial and economic status quo than the brash and divisive conservatism of David Cameron.”

Some very good points in this review that reflect many of the concerns about New Labour that led to the Revitalise Network being formed. Chasing the middle can have adverse political as well as economic consequences.