Friday, 19 September 2014


In 2007 Wendy Alexander, recently elected as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in the aftermath of our first defeat by the SNP, decided that the only viable way forward for our Party was to call the Nationalists bluff on Independence by promoting our own referendum.

I was one of those involved in the inner circle at that time.

I was asked to go to a "secret" meeting in, for some reason, the Scotsman Hotel without even being told the subject matter to be discussed. There were perhaps ten others present; a couple of trusted MSPs, a half dozen formal or informal advisers and, importantly, a pollster.

Wendy outlined her thoughts and, she having selected those present, perhaps unsurprisingly they met with unanimous approval.

But there was one matter on which we had to be absolutely certain: was there any conceivable circumstance that such a referendum could be lost?

For that we could not just rely on our own political gut instinct and for that we turned to the pollster. His view was unequivocal. There was no conceivable circumstance in which Scotland would vote for independence.

There were any number of reasons for this but among them were two central "facts". Firstly, that those who voted SNP in much of rural Scotland were not truly nationalists but rather tactical anti Labour voters and, secondly, that the Labour vote in central Scotland was solid against SNP encroachment. All we had to do was deliver that latter vote and allow the former to return to its natural loyalty and even allowing for any number of adverse campaign circumstance it was difficult to conceive how the nationalists would ever get more than 35% of the vote.

In the political circumstances of 2007 I remain quite certain that this analysis was correct and Labour's decision to reject "bringing it on" was a huge strategic mistake. Why it didn't happen might yet be the subject of another day.

But what's done is done and I am writing this blog against a background of the Nationalists doing a full ten per cent better than we thought they conceivably might.

For what it is worth, and I appreciate that you will have to take me on trust on this, at no point from start to finish did I think there was any prospect of a Nationalist victory over the last two years. It can too easily be forgotten that over that entire period there was but a single reputable opinion poll putting the Nats ahead and the closest odds ever offered by the bookies was 3-1 against in what was always but a two horse race.

My confidence was also founded on the fact that nothing had changed since 2007 in respect of the second pillar of Wendy's analysis. And so it proved. Moray, Angus, Perth and Kinross, Aberdeenshire, all nominally nationalist strongholds, returned among the largest No majorities across the nation. It may well prove in the long term the big winners in what was perceived as an existential struggle between Scottish Labour and the SNP will in fact turn out to be the Scottish Conservatives and (importantly) Unionists.

But the first pillar of Wendy's majority, the one to be delivered by her own Party has, during the referendum eventually held shown itself to have far from stable foundations.

And why that happened is what I want to address today.

I would suggest it had three causes. The first two are entirely self inflicted wounds but the third may highlight for us, electorally, a much more difficult problem to solve.

But I'll deal with the two we can address first.

I have made this point before but I will make it again. Even among people viscerally hostile to the Con-Lib Coalition there is little or no enthusiasm either for a Labour Government or for Ed Miliband personally as Prime Minister.

In my political lifetime the Scottish Party would invariably be significantly boosted by the arrival here of any opposition Labour leader (Wilson, Foot, Kinnock, Smith or Blair) to campaign here. That simply is not the case at the moment. For a Labour leader to enjoy even lower approval ratings in Scotland a Tory Prime minister is an almost unique achievement. And as if that is not enough, except for the fact that it is not a Tory Government, what exactly is the case for a Labour Government?  Say what you like about Tony Blair he had big promises in 1997 and big early achievements: The minimum wage; the Independent Bank of England; the massive increase in NHS resources; the cut in class sizes; not least the Scottish Parliament itself.

But by 2010 Labour offered little more than benign managererialism against a background of vicious palace politics. And it's far from clear what more we are offering next year. We are seen as no more in touch with the actual day to day experience of working people than the Tories.

We had a record high turnout in Scotland yesterday but who would bet against a record low turnout in next year's General Election? It simply did not cut the mustard to ask traditional Labour voters during the referendum to  stick by us when we struggled to find a response to the answering question "Why?" We have in this regard simply encountered in September 2014 in Scotland what the Party will encounter across Britain in May 2015. Except that in September 2014 Scotland had somewhere else to go.  No matter how much we protested that the apparent destination amounted to a mirage.

And the second own goal was in relation to Labour's attitude to the Scottish Parliament itself. I tried to avoid arguments with personal friends during the referendum but I did have a few and I readily agree I did not have all the winning points. At one point a pal protested that Labour politicians were "all useless" and I responded "Is Jim Murphy useless?  Is Douglas Alexander? Is (our own MP) Greg McClymont". "No" came the response "but none of them are up here. If we were independent they'd be in the Scottish Parliament". And my only response was to try and move the argument on to a different topic.

The Scottish Labour Party continues to see Holyrood as nothing more than a "big cooncil". So if you are a reasonably competent member of a wee cooncil why shouldn't you head off to Holyrood if the opportunity arises? Well, that's not the view of the electorate who increasingly are unwilling to endorse the "appointment" of the candidates Labour places before them for the devolved Parliament. Yet the selection stampede for 2016 has been undertaken at breakneck speed and with as limited a selectorate as possible to try and protect the position of those already in Holyrood (many by accident) or provide the maximum opportunity for those recently ejected to return. Actually winning back the seats we lost has been no consideration of any sort. So we have just had a referendum campaign where the only contribution most MSPs and PPCs were capable of making was in the delivery of leaflets. A campaign instead fronted by Westminster MPs all with the apparent intention of returning to the green benches at the earliest opportunity.

This will not do. I say this as a friend of the Labour Party who has long abandoned personal political ambition. Unless we tear this up and start again then unless the Nationalists themselves descend into internal recrimination, Labour will be comfortably defeated in May 2016 and will deserve to have been so. And that observation goes in relation to any possible candidate for First Minister chosen from the current Labour Group as well.

And then finally we have the third development. The one we may have less control of. It is best understood by reference to a flag.

Yes Scotland grabbed hold of the Saltire at an early stage of the referendum campaign. In my opinion it was far too easily surrendered by our side but we, the unionist side, did of course have a flag of our own. Arguably the most famous flag in the world. Flown regularly on every public building; adorning the shoulders of every winning British sportsperson; draped over the coffin of every serviceman who makes the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The Union Jack.

But, of course,  it would be inconceivable for the (particularly) West of Scotland Labour Party to have any association with the Union Jack. For it is not the flag of many of our most traditionally stalwart supporters. Not just because it is "the flag" of a football team they do not support (!) but because it is a flag to which they have a dubious allegiance.

Until perhaps ten years ago it was almost a given that if you were a Scottish Catholic of Irish origin you would be a Labour voter. That applied even if you were in relative financial comfort yourself. It wasn't where you were now that mattered it was where you had come from. And what's more it was an almost equal given that you would have a certain hesitation about the Scottish Parliament having "too much" power or even, as was proved in 1979, existing at all. There was some logic to that both in respect of a legitimate fear of return to a "protestant ascendancy" the passing of which owed more to the achievements of (British) Labour Governments than to any great movement in that direction from within Scotland itself but also because many of today's  Nationalists would concede, privately at least,  that Scotland's "National" Party had, historically, a significant  "Orange" streak.

It is an entirely benign development that no-one could now see a return to the days where Catholics couldn't get a job in a bank or a shipyard because of their religious observance. So it is perhaps no surprise that a political allegiance once based on class politics and religious tolerance could not survive indefinitely when neither of these factors were at play in the life of at least many Scottish Catholics.

It was always a bit of a contradiction that stalwart supporters of a Thirty Two County Ireland were sceptical about even a modicum of home rule for Scotland but, contradictory or otherwise, that is how it had been. And that brought a price on the side of the political party these people overwhelmingly supported. To preserve the political advantage we gained from that dichotomy, in attempting to make a case against an independent Scotland the one argument that could never be used was that no matter what one might think of the United Kingdom it was a much more culturally mature, ethnically diverse and economically successful place than the Republic of Ireland. And yet it was and it still is. Unemployment is much higher in Ireland than in Scotland, living standards much lower and in relation to the most common cultural interlocutor, the national broadcaster, there is simply no meaningful comparison.

No wonder it remains the principal ambition of many of Ireland's brightest and best young people to live elsewhere. Ironically, for many, to live in the United Kingdom.

Now this past six months or so we have been caught out by this. Our opponents have suggested that Scotland could be "just like Ireland" without us being free to respond "We don't want to be just like Ireland. Britain is an infinitely superior place to Ireland." But that is precisely what we should have said.

Well it might presage an earthquake in Scottish voting behaviour but, let's be honest, yesterday already was a bit of an earthquake anyway. Perhaps it would be best all round if Labour in future was required to make its case based on actual policy rather than tribal allegiance. We didn't initially pitch for the "catholic vote", we pitched for the vote of working people many of whom happened to be Catholics. And we made the case then that the common interest of working people was far more important than differing religious denominations, or races, or genders, or ......... nationalities. We are not going to get our traditional voters back on the basis of "Some small countries good, other small countries bad; some ethnically based politics good, other ethnically based politics bad; some nationalisms good, other nationalisms bad." So let's not go forward on that basis. Let's instead make the case for unity being strength. In all circumstance.


  1. Quite frankly regardless of your views on Ireland. I having lived in England and in the six counties, do much rather prefer to live in the imperfect R.O.I. with all of it's faults and to experience what freedom really means, than to live on your island.

  2. Ian,

    I think you have identified three really big problems for the Scottish party, but I am not sure I really understand what it is you are suggesting on the third one - because just ignoring the "Catholic problem" doesn't make it go away.
    Being Irish and yet a passionate opponent of Scottish independence (enough to make me spend the last week here) and a Celtic supporter and all that I have wrestled with these contradictions internally but am stymied in my understanding by the fact that my impression of the SNP remains that it has always been - and Salmond always comes over to me as a pocket Paisley.

  3. So which 'unity is strength' do you propose Scottish Labour should back: the unity of Ireland, or the unity of the North of Ireland with Britain? Or are you suggesting something else?

  4. I have the daily record VOW on my fridge,pledge is already out of date unlike my food

  5. Challenge for Labour is next year. SNP have been recently irrelevant at Westminster, but Labour are vulnerable to a campaign based upon the additonal powers to be legislated for in the next parliament. "Vote SNP to guarantee Devo Max"

  6. ps. I remember the meeting :-)