Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Tories are within 4 points of Scottish Labour. What a time to try to outflank the SNP from the left

The UK's national media, not to mention Labour Uncut and this bloghave not spoken much about Scotland recently but, as the gaze of Britain’s political machine turns briefly northwards, as it does every four years, that will change.

It is right that it will, and this time it should not be brief. This is not just because the Holyrood elections are almost upon us. It is because Labour’s short-to-medium-term success, and perhaps its very survival, depends on a Scottish turnaround.

Why? Let’s just look at the basic electoral arithmetic. As Lewis Baston pointed out in an outstanding analysis at LabourList, because of its wipeout in Scotland, Labour needs a bigger swing than it had in the 1997 general election to win in 2020.

That is, a bigger swing even than its best-ever post-war result.

It would be a tall order for a party even at the height of its popularity and which had not for the last five years neglected swing seats in the South East which it had won in 1997 and needed to win again.

And this was all chasing the frankly imbecilic notion that it could squeeze into power on the back of a leftish “progressive majority”, consisting of discontented Lib Dem and Green voters turning towards Labour.

Now consider a party which, on top of that, has its most unpopular leader since records began.

It is not merely a tall order. It is impossible. It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which Labour’s comfortable hegemony in Scotland has provided Labour’s electoral safety net during its postwar opposition years. We are now living a historical anomaly for Labour.

Even in 2025, a Labour party which is still suffering from this devastating weakness in Scotland could not compete. Even in the unlikely event that it could do so, to win so many swing seats in the South East would require a rightward repositioning of the party which would make New Labour look like a Trotskyite cabal.

Ergo, there is only one real way forward for Labour. It must win back the Scotland it has lost, seat by seat and house by house.

It has not started well.

Yes, it is true that Kezia Dugdale has probably the most difficult job in the Labour Party right now. She has to rebuild a party that has suffered, less than a year ago, the political equivalent of a nuclear attack.

Yes, the 1p income tax rise announced yesterday is probably neither here nor there in financial terms, but as a symbol it is potent.

Although there is a new freedom coming into play from 6 April, Scotland has, of course, been able to vary income tax by up to 3% since devolution. There is also a reason why Scottish governments have been highly reluctant to use that power.

Tax-raising governments tend to be unpopular. Oppositions going into an election proposing to do so tend not to get elected. Who knew?

Actually, we all knew. The evidence is there from British general elections going back many decades, as commented before at Uncut. In fact, by 2015 even Ed Miliband had rowed back from his mid-term tax-raising hints, when he saw how badly they had gone down with voters.

Worse, it is not just that the policy is flawed and will not convince voters. It shows a lack of understanding of the game plan with the SNP.

After a wipeout at the polls, it seems we still don’t get them. Used to centuries of bipartisan politics, it seems that we don’t yet get the phenomenon of a successful, major nationalist party.

The SNP is not a left-wing party that we have to outflank. It is a populist party which will tack left or right according to the situation, in order to win what for it are far greater prizes: nationalist concessions, further devolution or even independence.

Labour could learn a lot from the Catalan CiU in Spain, possibly the most successful such party in Europe, which constructed a near-hegemony in its regional parliament over the best part of forty years. It did so by being most centrist and also by being fairly cautious (the move towards independence is a very recent phenomenon, as it is in Scotland). In addition, it united the Catalans by winding them up into a frenzy of suspicion about the central government in Madrid.

Knowing that, it is fairly clear what will happen. It will not be an effective weapon, trying to make the SNP look stingy. It will tack right, position itself as the sensible guardian of Scotland’s finances against a reckless, high-spending Labour Party. And with Jeremy Corbyn at its helm, and John McDonnell as its finance chief nationally, it will scarcely have a hard job convincing voters of that argument.

In short, Labour has just walked its Scottish goalkeeper out of the penalty area and said “go ahead. Shoot.”

Today’s TNS poll, which has the Tories within 4 points of Labour while the SNP are a dizzying 36 points ahead, is hardly a surprise although no less alarming for it.

Labour has really had only one strategic priority this year in electoral terms, which was to start to win back Scotland from the SNP so it might have a chance in 2025, not 2020. Not to mention clip the SNP’s wings as regards independence.

But it will not happen this way. It will not.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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