Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Labour's Scottish Bloodbath ... And What Needs To Be Done About It

As an ex-Trot, I've got previous when it comes to looking at reality and laughing in its face. I've been running through those memories ... hope that the far left might work together constructively ... that a new workers' party was a go-er ... that the paper I used to sell was improving ... in preparation for the much-trailed Ashcroft polls of select Scottish constituencies. And? Put it like this. I chuckled at the numbers his fieldwork has turned up because the alternative was sticking my head in the oven.

They are bad, really very bad. Of 14 Labour-held seats polled, the party is set to lose them all bar one to a SNP tsunami. We're not talking marginals here either. Take West Dunbartonshire, which is typical of the Ashcroft sample. At the 2010 general election Labour's Gemma Doyle romped home with 25,905 votes, or 61%. The SNP trailed far in second with just under 8,500 to their name. Fast forward to 2015 and it's carnage. If the poll findings were replicated on election day Labour would slump to 38% and the SNP surge to 47%. That's practically unprecedented. Let's wallow in some more misery. Look at Coatbridge, Chryston, and Bellshill. The Labour incumbent Tom Clarke has represented the constituency and its predecessors since a by-election in 1982. In 2010 Labour support in the seat increased giving him a majority of almost 21,000. Yet on the basis of the polling, it's as if it never existed. Labour are presently on 43% while the SNP have powered through to a 47% reported share. Across the board the SNP support is not just in double figures, we're talking monster swings in the 21%-27% range. It's almost obscene.

As Ashcroft himself notes, he's not saying this will apply uniformly across Labour's Scottish seats. He after all picked out Labour heartlands where the Yes vote was at its highest. He's also not in the business of forecasting. As he says, it's a snapshot, not a trend. Speaking of which, how is that looking?

Unless the entire SNP is implicated in a huge scandal, or are seen to be doing dirty deals with the Tories it's very difficult to see how Scottish Labour can pull enough irons from the fire. This is despite the Herculean campaigning efforts of Jim Murphy and his attempted shake-up of the party.

This, of course, has been a long time coming and it's not a uniquely Scottish problem. Too many constituency parties have become rotten boroughs beholden to awful cliques of mutual backscratchers. These have been the party to - and occasional victims of - stitch-ups, internal ructions, incompetence and, in some cases, criminality. The key difference between Scotland and the rest is the process is even more accentuated. When you have Scottish Labour MPs seriously thinking having fewer than a hundred constituency members isn't a problem "because we win anyway", then they are the problem. (At this point, it's worth remembering the Prince That Never Was, David Miliband, bequeathed his successor a contact rate of 0.5% - still think he'd do a better job of steering Labour through extremely choppy waters?)

Activism is not a magic bullet, but it does help enormously because regular campaigning narrows the distance between politics and people. Politics matters more, however, and Scottish Labour has long been a basket case. As Labour in England and Wales took baby steps toward a more recognisably social democratic policy platform - one many times removed from what is needed, but still infinitely preferable to the Tory alternative - Scottish Labour was stuck in a time warp. From at least Wendy Alexander on the party was frozen in time. The suits, the policies, they were all a bit 1997. The election of Johann Lamont, who ran as a quiet leftist, saw the nonsense redoubled. The Blairite common sense of the perennial unpopularity of "traditional" Labour politics saw Labour triangulate to their right, as if a left-tacking SNP insurgency would go away simply because their dogma said so. This culminated in the absolutely awful Labour-led Better Together campaign. I don't think it was Alastair Darling's readiness to share platforms with Tories that did for Labour (and I'm not saying that because I have a soft spot for Ruth Davidson) but rather the fact the campaign was almost entirely negative and self-serving, offered Scottish voters nothing but scare stories, and were seen to be lining up with the Tories to screw Scotland in the event of its independence. Would you want to vote for a party guilty of that?

This doesn't happen in a vacuum. This was only possible because political parties generally speaking have been emptied of the people that once animated them. With the labour movement defeated in the 1980s and systematically ground down by Tory and New Labour governments since, it's small wonder that Labour appears remote from people's lives, that much of the politics on show are antithetical to the interests of those the party was set up to represent, that people from working class backgrounds are underrepresented in Parliament, and the state of the left in Labour is shocking. The only consolation is the Tories are in an even more advanced stage of decrepitude.

What can be done? Labour generally and Scottish Labour cannot be fixed before the election. Options are limited. On the plus side Labour is slowly growing, though we're not talking the Green surge, and its troops are out and about. Even yours truly has been hitting the doors in the marginals. Yet what we need is politics. Jim Murphy pretending not to be a unionist isn't going to fool anyone, but shifting emphasis to the left not just on the NHS but on the living wage, education, tuition fees, housing, and employment rights under the theme of security in everyday life might just prevent Scottish Labour from being fatally wounded, and help us recapture some softer Green, SNP, and - yes - UKIP votes. You might suggest I would say that anyway, but I also have YouGov in my corner.

For Labour, these are the worst of times without them being the best of times. The Ashcroft numbers do look incredibly daunting, and with the constant drip-drip of anti-Labour shit-stirring and nonsense in the media it might discourage and demotivate those prepared to go out and help. Which is exactly what Ashcroft and co wants. His numbers are methodologically sound, but they are also an episode in the election battle for hearts and minds. Our job is to note them, adjust our strategy accordingly, and carry on.


Anonymous said...

"His numbers are methodologically sound"

You reckon? This the same Ashcroft who isn't a member of the British Polling Council. How do you know it's sound? The website doesn't say how the research is done nor who carried out the fieldwork. It's sketchy on every aspect of methodology.

But more importantly, a review of the referendum polling would show a marked, consistent bias in all of the polling towards Yes. From Panelbase and Survation that had Yes above the final result about 6 months before the result to MORI and YouGov who ended up overstating Yes, even if they were close. There was a persistent bias in the polling and that now translates into a marked bias in favour of the SNP. Not enough to suggest that things aren't bad for Labour but enough. I think it's implausible that SNP has the support of every Yes voter and then some.

Phil said...

UK Polling Report ran a story a while ago about party identification and left/right identification in Scotland. It was tragic - basically both Labour and SNP supporters see themselves as being to the Left of the other party.

Can Labour plausibly attack the SNP from the Left? Not for as long as the SNP go on redefining 'left' as 'nationalist'. Socialist unionism anyone?

Graham Purnell said...

You are so right. The only way to win these votes back, if ever, would be to ditch Blairite neoliberalism and adopt real left-wing values.

Home Rule used to be a plank of Labour ideology, now they treat it like a warped psychosis, akin to bestiality, paedophilia or Conservatism.

Phil said...

Polling isn't an exact science by any means. But, as a rule, Ashcroft's polling is well-respected in the "community". If he threw out any old crap no one would take him seriously. That said there are differences in methodology, as this post lays out with regards to Ashcroft's and Survation's findings in recent Sheffield Hallam constituency polling.

Anonymous said...

The fact of labour growing is a bad thing. We need a left alternative. You were wrong to join labour, recents events internationally have proved this.

David Timoney said...

Re Anon's comment "I think it's implausible that SNP has the support of every Yes voter and then some".

The reason the Yes campaign failed was that for every Labour voter attracted to it, there was a shy SNPer would noted No. In other words, pensioners and rentiers put their own financial interest ahead of their nationalist sympathies.

Those shy Nos will vote SNP in May, out of guilt as much as calculation. This will be offset by some Labour voters who opted for Yes continuing to vote for Labour at Westminster. This means that the polls predicting an SNP vote in the low 40s probably are reliable, reflecting the Yes vote of 45%.

Labour won't be wiped out, because its vote remains much more concetrated than SNP support, but where it wins it will do so with narrow majorities. Ideally, this will encourage the SLP to stop acting as a Praetorian Guard for the PLP and start carving out a distinct Scottish proposition. Paradoxically, this more "independent" line is their only hope of turning back the tartan tide, which Murphy was quick to recognise.

More broadly, the decline of Labour in Scotland is also occuring across the North of England - it just hasn't come into focus yet. Labour will still pick up the seats (UKIP have little traction in most areas), but the voters are dispirited and increasingly despairing. The significant indicator in May will be turnout in the North and Wales.

Speedy said...

A cynic might say that the Scots can vote SNP because they don't have to face the consequences - Labour is seeking to represent a compettive economy in a ruthless neo-liberal world and has to cut its cloth accordingly. The Scots can vote for a party that will be able to lever the maximum benefits for them, while the English bear the burden of actually generating the taxable income (particularly now oil is a thing of the past).

This is a perfectly rational decision on their part - they get to live off the fat of the English while feeling self-righteous - but it is not sustainable.

Labour destroyed the UK with their reckless, ill-thought out policy of devolution.

Vinyl Miner said...

Ashcroft has sacked one of his polling companies. Another thing is researchers are begining to postulate about a low turnout with many of the large number of first time voters from the referendum withdrawing into their former apathy. The SNP are also having difficulty in halting the vitriolic attacks on those who voted no. With Gordon Brown probably having a high profile part in the campaign I can see the SNP's 10 point lead being pulled in. The collapse of oil prices there is a growing rekindling of Scotlands love of the Barnet Formula.

Vinyl Miner said...

Well I got that fecking wrong. Well done Ashcroft.

Davey said...

"were seen to be lining up with the Tories to screw Scotland in the event of its independence"

you have nailed this in a way many even in Scotland haven't been able to.

its all about the currency union for me. not consciously, but sub-consciously. the entire unionist establishment (including our own bloody MPs FFS) threatening, in fact RELISHING the notion that they'd punish a Yes vote by destroying Scotland's economy.

you don't come back from that.

(speaking as an ex-SSP voting Yes voter who voted SNP with hesitation. my candidate is ex-Labour GS up here and left over Iraq. closest to my views, i had to vote for him. but current situation and likelyhood of a decade of Tory rule is forcing me to reconsider everything)