Friday, July 04, 2008

Guest Post: Labour in meltdown in Scotland

Gordon Brown is not the only problem that Labour has. Sometimes people regard the Labour Party North of the border as a leftist alternative, but their current problems tend to highlight that this is not the case. Pam Currie, the National Secretary of the Scottish Socialist Party, takes a look at at the current Scottish crisis.

It’s a weird sensation, watching the Scottish Labour Party in meltdown. You’re not talking about some irrelevant, unelectable and slightly bizarre sect – that would be the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party – but a well-oiled machine which has dominated Scottish politics at every level for the entire lifetimes of many Scots.

Until last year, Labour had enjoyed unbroken electoral success for decades, comfortably ensconced in council offices and Parliamentary seats as Conservative governments in Westminster came and went. When Blair was elected in 1997 on a long-awaited promise of home rule, George Robertson reassured his party that devolution would kill independence ‘stone dead’.

A decade on, and he must be wishing someone would whack his party over the head and put it out of its misery. The death of Donald Dewar in 2000 marked the start of a downward spiral for Labour in Scotland, to the point where they seem utterly incapable of halting the SNP’s year-long ‘honeymoon’. When Dewar died, Labour had already conceded to a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats – the PR element of Holyrood elections dispensing with the tradition of weighing the Labour vote, and allowing not only nationalists but the SSP and Greens to make electoral breakthroughs in 1999.

Dewar was followed by the blundering Henry McLeish, followed just a year later by Jack McConnell. McConnell enjoyed a relatively successful period as Labour leader and First Minister from 2001 – 2007, riding on a period of sustained economic growth, and able to brush off the most unpopular policies of his Westminster colleagues – including the invasion of Iraq - as ‘reserved matters’.

By 2007, however, McConnell – and Labour – were looking tarnished. Few believed at the beginning of the year that the inconceivable would happen – Labour would lose not only a national election to the SNP, but all bar two of its Council fiefdoms, clinging on by the fingernails in North Lanarkshire and Glasgow, a city where it once boasted the largest electoral majority in Western Europe.

The reality of Labour’s decline unfolded during the election, however. With Alex Salmond back at the helm, the SNP enjoyed a renewed confidence, campaigning not on their raison d’etre – independence – but pushing this further down the agenda, focusing on social issues such as education, health and poverty. This allowed the SNP to appeal to left wing voters – subsequently implementing watered-down versions of SSP policies such as Free School Meals – but also, crucially, to appeal to ‘old Labour’ traditions in the Central Belt. Labour, on the other hand, seemed to have run out of ideas, resigning themselves to increasingly shrill denunciations of the ‘dangers’ of independence.

The SNP won the election by a whisker, helped by the chaos and confusion of the ballot papers and a poor showing by both the Left and the Greens. McConnell fell on his sword, to be replaced by Wendy Alexander, long tipped as a ‘rising star’ of the party at Holyrood. With Labour just one seat behind the SNP, the Lib Dems refusing to enter an official coalition and the two Green MSPs holding the balance of power, it seemed likely that it would be the SNP who would be in a shambles of recrimination and regret a year on. Their electoral presentation as a party of the centre left masks a neoliberal instinct to cut taxes and create a ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy to mimic the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s; in some local authorities, pressures over budget cuts have already seen divisions emerge and protests grow.

At a national level, however, the SNP have gone largely unchallenged, bathing in the media spotlight as Labour disintegrate in opposition. Alexander has stumbled from investigations into the financing of her leadership campaign – an election which never was – to baffling statements on the question of an independence referendum, demanding that the SNP bring forward the referendum she had, only a few weeks earlier, been completely opposed to. Presumably this smart move was intended to wrong foot Salmond – instead, the Labour Party landed face down in the mud, as the Westminster and Holyrood spin machines struggled to sort it all out.

Leaderless in Scotland, in crisis at a UK level, there could not be a worse time for a by-election for Labour. Voters in Glasgow East would be forgiven for being somewhat bemused by the media interest – it’s been a safe Labour seat for generations, a seat where the idea of the SNP doing more than merely keeping their deposit would have been laughable just a year or two ago. Now, the by-election is set to be a bitter fight between the two main political parties. Holding it, as is being rumoured, on July 24 – during the traditional ‘Glasgow Fair’ holidays – will almost certainly guarantee a low turnout at the polls. Could Labour lose one of their safest seats in Scotland? These days, nobody knows.

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