Monday 27 April 2015

Scottish Labour, Again

You're in a secure military facility and there's an intercontinental ballistic missile, inbound. The anti-missile batteries have fired and missed. Electronic counter measures cannot dissuade it from its course. You glance helplessly at the blip on the radar getting closer and closer, hoping the blast doors are thick enough, that the concrete bunker is buried deep enough to ride out the devastating attack about to be wrought. At worst, you're vaporised. At best, you pop the hatch to emerge into a blackened and blighted landscape.

That doomed stronghold is Scottish Labour, and that man fretting in the bunker is Willie Bain - quite possibly the last Labour MP left standing, if today's TNS poll is anything to go by. It's astonishing stuff. The realignment of British politics from the emergence of Labour to supplanting the Liberals as one of the two main contenders took a generation. The same is happening right now in Canada, which has seen both its main parties - the Tories and the Liberals - displaced by challengers. Again, same time frame. In Scotland however, time has sped up. What takes decades to accomplish has flipped in the course of a single Parliament. Such tends to happen when masses of politicised people enter the stage and find existing modes of political expression wanting.

What is happening in Scotland was a long time coming. The referendum was the precipitating factor, and the election of Jim Murphy has so far seen Labour's position deteriorate further, despite tacking left and taking activism seriously. Yet no one, not the SNP, not Labour, not the professional commentariat, nor the academics saw any of this coming. It has been a huge collective failure for anyone whose business is the reading of political tea leaves.

In hindsight, it seemed so obvious. The warning signs were there. Not just the long-term trends and the decrepitude of Labour's organisation. You didn't need to be a sociologist and sink a shaft into the earth of Scottish society to observe the wobbly mantle under Labour's position. Just watching the comings and goings of Holyrood was enough. In 2007, the SNP won 47 seats on the basis of 32.9% and 31% of constituency and list votes respectively, forming a minority administration. Four years later, they defied Parliamentary convention by winning an increased share after a term in government. Their vote for both sections rose to 45.4% and 44% respectively. Labour managed 31.7% and 26.3%. Yet with the weakness of Scottish Labour exposed absolutely nothing was done. It was business as usual. The SNP was allowed to rhetorically annex Labourist politics while Labour opposed them from the right. To underline the complacency, politics watchers across the spectrum grew complacent. "Those canny Scots", many thought, "they want a SNP government in Edinburgh to look out for Scottish interests but when it comes to Westminster elections, Labour will be returned to keep the Tories out". And, for a while, the polls bore that out.

It was rubbish though. Polls are snapshots, not predictors, and political comment paid no attention to the evidence filling their senses. As a rule, if large numbers of voters return challenger parties in second order elections, and do so again, something is shifting. Once voters of one party switch to another, then vote for them subsequently, the chance they will stay with their new home is much, much greater. We experienced in Stoke with the rise of the BNP across several local elections. The LibDems for a time managed a similar trick nationally by building up its base in local government. And UKIP have followed a similar strategy these last couple of years. We had a clear indicator of the calamity to befall Scottish Labour, and no one spotted it.

Is Willie Bain going to be the last man left standing? We will find out in 10 days time, but it's not looking pretty. When the retention of just 10 Scottish seats would be a good result for Labour, that underlines how unmitigated the disaster is. Coverage of Scottish result declarations are all set to be snuff movies for the politically interested. And as Labour activists in England and Wales sit down to celebrate Tory and LibDem scalps, the catastrophe up north will finally be driven home.


Paul said...

No one saw it coming? Nah, Henry Drucker saw it coming in 1979

The key question is how Scottish trade unions (as institutions) now react to this new reality. Do they stick with Labour and its hopeless cause, or do they take their resources to the place where a lot of trade unionists have gone?

asquith said...

Phil said...

You could say Tom Nairn saw it coming too.

But no one in political comment did. That's the point. I berate myself for this as well. If I'd been blogging during the Holyrood elections perhaps I could have caught it, but life intervened and blogging took the back seat.