A Tale of Two Elections and the demise of a Party.

1997. We’d fund-raised; campaigned; canvassed. We had no love for Blair. Were deeply suspicious of him. But we’d bought the hope that he was a necessary evil – a means to end. That the shift to the right was essential if we were to win the trust of an electorate who’d worshipped Thatcher.That with him would come political control. And that with control would come change – for the better.

I remember Thatcher’s shocking invocation of Saint Francis when she took up residence in 10 Downing Street. I remember my father throwing his dirty socks at the telly and swearing.

So I remember the sheer and childish elation – the almost hysterical relief – that we all shared watching telly and seeing the blessed normality of a young family finally walk into Downing Street. Our astonished ears ringing with a new language of healing and openness.

18 long years. I had no memory of any other Government but a Tory one. 18 long years.

We’d had the miner’s strikes and the steel workers’ strikes and the ‘Craig closure and my father’s redundancies and heart attacks and poverty and the ‘right to buy’ and trade union busting and care in the community and unemployment and the Falklands War and the demonisation of single parents and riots. And I had been a poor kid. Brought up by proud parents, living hand to mouth, in a dying town.

I grew up with hate in me for the arrogant uncaring unthinking privilege that condemned so many of us to cruel and ugly poverty. And that set neighbour against neighbour. And that had them chained by new debt and the fear of unemployment. That had folk ducking and diving. Dependant on rigged ‘leccy meters and cash-in-hand, no-questions-asked.The invisible people.

I came from that hinterland. Spending my first degree in silence – ashamed of my accent and convinced I was about to be found out for an unworthy interloper.

I joined the Labour Party in 1989. An act requiring no thought and little effort. I joined a family of comrades. A warm and squabbling family of local folk all wanting much the same thing – and a few things that weren’t in the manifesto. Though even then the party was in decline. And even then it was a broad church. The left and the right. The occasional condescending middle class worthy acting from a sense of altruistic guilt; the ideologues stuck in a socialist grove that had never been a reality for any of them; the working class aspirants spying their chance of political power, joining the party out of greed and self-interest; the guid folk and the folk who were ‘joiners’. And then there was the bulk – the ones who joined Labour because they believed it was the party that represented their best interests. Not acting from altruism. And not from any burning commitment to ‘social justice’ either. But simply because this was the party they believed would help them; would put money in their pockets. A party that recognised their hardships and took up cudgels on their behalf.

I joined as a politically illiterate, naive and idealistic arts under-graduate who quite fancied the local Branch Chair. The Branch Chair who was – quite literally – the youngest in the meeting rooms by at least 30 years. (And therefore – in my young eyes – the only eligible would-be partner in the room…)

It was a rotten burgh. And – in Scotland at least – we were in the last days of the Labour Raj. But none of that mattered to me. What mattered was fighting the good fight. Against Thatcher. Against inequality and squalor and deprivation and ignorance.

And against the SNP.

Back then the Nats were the risible oddballs. Mired in Braveheart politics and ‘Scotland the Brave’ kilts and bagpipes. Only occasionally breaking through (Ewing and then Sillars) – to fall way, way back again. But ‘back then’ Scotland still elected Tory MPs.

And their back-story was well-known to me as a child: when 11 SNP MPs had voted with 13 Liberal MPs to take down the then Labour Government – ultimately leading to Thatcher – they set the scene for decades of Nat-baiting and extreme Nat-hating.

Of course, they’d been reacting to Labour incompetence and failure – but little did they know…

2015. The internal conflict was just too great. No active campaigning for me. But I voted SNP.

All day I’d been fretting about what I knew I was about to do. Put an X against a nationalist candidate’s name. Kick the party I’d grown up believing was my party.

But I wasn’t alone. I was a cliche: the dis-affected ex-Labour voter. I joined one and a half million other voters resident in Scotland.

Scotland returned an astonishing 56 SNP MPs and only one each from Labour, the LibDems and the Tories. Labour majorities of 23000+ gone – and then some. Swings to the SNP of a massive 36% in seats that had been Labour for decades.

And in that pain of realising the Scottish Labour hegemony was decisively obliterated I felt this small seed of hope.

How did this astonishing reversal happen?

How did a middle of the road, often risible and small nationalist party make this transformation? From creepy ethnic nationalism to a inclusive and positive civic nationalist movement.

Scottish Labour’s current predicament is the harvest reaped from many and various seeds.

  • Scottish Labour became the ‘establishment’ in Scotland. This breeds complacency and entitlement. It corrupts and it distances. My hands aren’t clean. I remember mocking the Nats and despising the Tories and not seriously engaging with any of their arguments or positions. There was no opposition to Labour. Obviously we were right. We didn’t need to adapt or change or keep moving. Only we did. The rotten burghs finally began to stink and decompose.
  • Scottish Labour is a branch office. Dependant on the UK party for funding and subject to the UK rule book and with no control over policy etc. Failure to reform the party structure and to renegotiate the relationship with the UK party was a major mistake. There was no understanding from those in power that the Scottish Parliament represented a fundamental shift of political focus for the Scottish electorate. Instead there was a benign contempt for the wee Parliament – the eyes of the ‘talented’ were forever fixed on the bigger stage, the bigger prize, power…
  •  Political nepotism (largely down to centralised control of candidate selection and ruthless dispatch of possible opponents (think Canavan and McAllion for instance)); weak, talentless and easily controlled candidates who were more comfortable bureaucrats than politicians; political ineptitude (Ian Gray (dull etc etc); McLeish (decent but lacklustre and ultimately with his hand in the till); McConnell (where do I start); Wendy Alexander (very very bright but brought down by scandal)…
  • Blair and Iraq. Self-explanatory.
  • Ed Miliband: a decent man but another utterly unsuitable Leader. Unable to shake off the back-stabbing brother narrative. Subjected to an ugly sustained and vicious (anti-semitic and anti-left) abuse by the right wing press.
  • The breath-taking own goal: validating the Tory narrative of ‘Labour bankrupted the country’ by apologising for every bloody ‘mistake’ the Tories claimed they’d made whilst in power.
  • Inability to assert a convincing political narrative. Why vote for the inept bunglers now proffering Austerity-lite when you could vote for the real deal?
  • Taking your working class (C2, D, E) vote for granted – in the mistaken belief there was no one else they could vote for. There was. And its name was UKIP or Conservative or SNP…

How do they begin to rebuild from the mess they are in just now?

I am certain of this: there are no quick fixes. In Scotland they need to undertake the much needed structural reform; renegotiate the relationship with the UK Party; elect a new Leader. I’d say that the mandate and direction for this needs to come from the bottom up. But with a very low membership base this is easier to say than do.

Can I ever see myself voting Labour again?

Never say never.