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Is this the end of ‘Scottish’ Labour?

It is hard not to conclude that Johann Lamont has retreated into a fantasy land. Cancelling devolution, retreating into local government and turning to the right to align herself with London Labour might solve her internal squabbles. But what does any of this have to do with Scotland?

It took me a while to work out what was going on in Johann Lamont’s mind after I read her speech yesterday. I usually get a fairly quick feel for the ‘big idea’ when I see political repositioning but this took me a little while. Because usually I think in terms of left-right (i.e. political ideology) and campaign strategy (how can we win the thing we want to win?). In both cases there was an analysis but it didn’t make a lot of sense.

Just to recap the new strategy for Scottish Labour as set out by Ms Lamont:

  • Abolish free care for the elderly
  • Abolish free concessionary travel for the elderly
  • Introduce top-up fees for university students
  • End the Council Tax freeze
  • Reduce the number of apprenticeships
  • Reintroduce charging for prescriptions

This is a sharp turn to the right, an outright rejection of the universal welfare state and a relaunch of the doctrines of Blairism. And before I get any of the ‘oh but we’ll target the freed-up money at the poor’ nonsense from Scottish Labour, that’s what Blair said. Unfortunately, it somehow never happens. Meanwhile the very underpinning of the Labour philosophy of the state (from the cradle to the grave and all of that) is dropped. It makes no more sense to say ‘why should poor college students pay for the education of rich university students’ than it does to say ‘why should poor cleaners pay for the heart operations on rich bankers’. If you’re going to end universalism, one way or another, sooner or later, it means the end of the NHS. We have seen this in England where it will son be all but gone as a universal public service. And Ms Lamont can object all she wants, it is the only theoretical end-point for the sorts of arguments on which she is now basing her leadership.

But since Blairism went down so poorly in Scotland, where’s the political strategy? I can see the usual flow charts and ‘voter segmentation diagrams’ somewhere in a strategy office. I can see a group of pointy-heads standing around fretting about ‘differentiation’. I can understand how some politicians have been heavily lobbied by (in effect) the Scottish financial sector on the need for ‘credibility’ and ‘good housekeeping’. I can even imagine the right-leaning columnists giving Labour credit for ‘facing up to reality’. I just can’t see how these things add up to a political strategy. Floating a set of policies which negatively hit virtually every voter in the country is usually seen as unwise, especially when the big idea is ‘more money to councils and colleges’. I can see my neighbours skipping down to the chemist to pay for their medicines whistling joyfully in the knowledge that Glasgow City Council will have more money to create directorships for more Labour councillors on ALEOs.

So when nothing makes sense, follow the money. Or more accurately on this occasion the benefits. Who benefits from this? Well, first the Labour local government sector which gets loads of name-check. I’m a big supporter of local government but even I started to find the emphasis on councils disproportionate. I tried to think who in Labour would like this. I concluded that Westminster Labour would be very happy. So local-government-Labour will like it and Westminster-Labour would like it. And that is two thirds of Scottish Labour’s warring factions. If – and it seems a big if to me – Scottish-Parliament-Labour can be persuaded that this is good for them, it solves Ms Lamont’s short-term problems, uniting the three warring factions of her Party.

The local government people get the nod that she sees them as Labour’s real power-base in Scotland. They get promises of more and more devolution of resource to them. Westminster Labour and all those under-employed, permanently sniping Scottish Labour MPs get what they’d really like, Scottish Labour un-differentiating itself from the London Party. And, presumably, the Scottish MSPs are being offered a truly differentiating position. They may be sold this on the basis that Labour can’t win a head-to-head with the SNP fighting for the same policies and so they need to fight on a different platform.

So Labour has now (it hopes) found a way to reconcile the three most important groups to itself. There is a problem though – you may have noticed that the three most important groups to Scottish Labour are all – well – Scottish Labour. Nowhere in this strategy is there any consideration of the public, of people. I fear that this is not a relaunch of Scottish Labour but something approaching its final demise. The more it tries to find a way to regain its place in Scottish politics, the more it seems to reflect itself obsessively.

But what is most awful of all is when you explain this strategy in simple language. Lamont wants to unite Labour by cancelling devolution. That’s the only way I can read this. She has systematically gone through every area where the Scottish Parliament (largely through the actions of Labour itself) has differentiated itself from Westminster politics and she has abolished the differentiator. The big selling point of devolution was Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. Scotland’s biggest problem has been that it really likes a strong welfare state and adheres to the principle of universalism. It has voted this way over and over. Yesterday it seems that Lamont called time on this experiment. She has signalled her intention to pull the party in line with the UK Party, means testing everything, breaking down universalism, championing fiscal conservatism. Meanwhile, she seems to see the real strength of Labour in Scotland as being in local government.

This should perhaps come as less of a surprise than it does. Lamont was always a reluctant devolutionists and has a tendency to identify with Labour first, Scotland second. She never liked proportional voting and that in itself is a signifier of someone who likes the political cartel approach to politics. It is like she has absorbed so much ‘Better Together’ rhetoric that it is now her defining belief in politics, that Scotland must be pulled into Britain, that Labour must become first-and-foremost unionist.

It is a retreat into two comfort zones from different decades. From the late-1990s she takes Blairism which was superficially effective (although not in Scotland). From the 1980s she takes a model in which the real power of Labour is held in two places – Westminster and local government. Both are fantastical memories of times past, neither seem to me to offer a way forward. I have come across very few people who have seen Scotland’s future as becoming more like the rest of Britain again. Even Cameron sees further differentiation as inevitable. Even many of the Scottish Tories see the future that way.

There is only one other interpretation – that Lamont is a sleeper agent for the Yes Campaign. Far from offering more devolution (something she has been trying desperately not to do) she is offering less. She is offering Scotland the chance to do as it is told. Even the anti-independence people I know see the future of the UK as more diverse politically. Lamont is a wholly new kind of unionist. The No campaign wants to offer Edinburgh-and-London as a balanced partnership in opposition to ‘Scotland alone’. With this, Lamont is not helping them.

And so I am simply dumbfounded. The snap reactions have all been that this is suicide because each of the things she attacked is popular. That is true – I fear for anyone having to sell that manifesto. But there is a greater existential issue about the relationship between Scotland and Labour. If you ask me, this is not only suicide, it is suicide-and-damnation all rolled up into one. If you support a welfare state and Scotland having the ability to follow its own path, this leaves the SNP or the Greens. If you want an end to the welfare state and Scotland to toe the line, there is the Tories. Labour will lose badly on this prospectus. The fact that this is not the real risk to the Party is, to my mind, staggering. Because the real risk is that after it loses, Scotland will struggle to remember why it identified with Labour in the first place. We like devolution, we don’t want it put in reverse.

It was a badly written speech. Oh well, few political speeches these days are worth remembering. But this one is. It is the moment when Labour pretended it was going to tear off to the right and abolish devolution. This speech is memorable for being possibly the most ‘politically risky’ in generations. And by ‘politically risky’ I mean inept.

So why did I write ‘pretend’? Because I very strongly doubt this will happen. That is the strategic stupidity of it. She has said that all of these policies are fundamentally wrong, but she is just not going to be able to follow-through. She can’t reverse them all. So now she is going to have to stand up and defend policies she has rubbished. Irrespective of left or right, that is inept.

Who is advising her? Who was consulted? How could this happen? Many people thought they’d seen Scottish Labour at its lowest ebb. I now very much doubt that. I wouldn’t want to be a Labour politicians in Scotland, and I would be sweating nervously if I was running the No Campaign.

This is insane. The ‘Scottish’ in Scottish Labour has to fight back. The ‘Labour’ in ‘labour movement’ has to fight back. Presumably a left-of-centre voter like me is the sort of person Labour might like to vote for it. So what is it offering me? What reason do I have to choose Labour? One wonders how much longer any progressive element left in Scottish Labour can stick this out. One wonders how long Labour has left as a credible force in Scottish politics.

Robin McAlpine