I’ll have to start taking my tablets at this rate or maybe go for a check-up – I find myself agreeing with both Peter Mandelson and Michael Forsyth…with qualifications. My condition is serious, nurse.
Let me dispose of Forsyth first. When he says Scotland has undergone a revolution, he is right. When he calls for a white paper on a comprehensive devolution settlement, he is right. His tone strikes the right chord – one that Labour has notably failed to find – acknowledging that this is a catastrophe, not just for Unionist parties, but for Unionism and, unless it is met head on, its destruction draws nearer. The era of piecemeal powers is over…time now for the final play that has the best chance of avoiding Union disintegration. It’s the equivalent of conceding ground and materiel to the enemy in order to regroup further behind the lines – and hope he’s satisfied with his spoils enough to stop the pursuit.
It’s the first sensible thing he’s said in 18 years since he led the Tories to a worse debacle than even Murphy’s Mayhem when he lost every single Scottish Tory seat – and ended up in the Lords. Which is why I resent him being wheeled out by Jim Naughtie and others as some kind of sage on Scottish politics when he was a disastrous failure rejected by the electorate but rewarded by the Establishment. But then he has to be right once every generation…
Mandelson reminds me of Kaa, the snake in Jungle Book (I have young kids!), his serpentine mind and hissing voice, calmly skewering opponents while slithering along studio sofas. He is the gatekeeper to the Legend of Blair and bestows the key to the chosen few – poor Chukka Ummuna with that hand creeping round his shoulder. The Mandelson mantra, repeated by David Miliband and most right wing and Labour voices so far, is that Ed didn’t build on New Labour. Instead he rolled back the years to tax-and-spend policies and anti-wealth rhetoric. That’s why he lost, the aspiring strivers left feeling ignored and disagreeing that bashing business was acceptable.
I think there was a lot more to it than that but I do agree that Miliband failed a basic test of having something to say to everyone. That was a Blair trick. He embodied radical youth for a new age emerging from Tory stagnation; he talked of caring for all people encompassing the stragglers; he courted business and wealth-creation and was tough on defence and security (maybe a little too tough at times…) The anoraks call it triangulation, adopting others’ policy positions or versions thereof placing you between different viewpoints in order to neutralise the opposition and insulate you from attack. In chess, it’s like castling. In marketing, it’s broadening appeal. In real life, it’s common sense. You’re trying to win as many votes as possible, right? Do you focus tightly on one group or do you expand your offer in the hope of capturing more votes?
And like Blair, the SNP has cracked this too. The secret of Blair’s electoral success is the same, more or less, as the SNP’s. They’ve captured the market. They started with a fundamental – Scotland. (Blair’s I think was modern social justice). It has to be something with a universal appeal, a powerful lure that is always associated with you and seems to underpin everything else you do. Nobody disagrees with Scotland (whatever that means to them). Nobody. With that central identity, you have the makings of success. Equally, this was an identity Labour previously held with distinctive Scottish polices, well known figures who also were big in the UK, strong-accented trade unionists, wholesale elected representation at all levels and a unrivalled place in working class history. Labour’s dream was the people’s dream, making the SNP look spindly and eccentric.
It’s often remarked how the SNP encapsulates different strands of opinion, some statist, some libertarian and even suggested that after independence it will split into factions – wishful thinking of Labour strategists like McTernan. But what is true is that it is simultaneously business-friendly and welfare-minded. It can reach the entrepreneur with a tax-cutting, less red tape approach and win the Left with fair pay and dignity level benefits. The SNP wins the shopkeeper in Forfar, the fund manger in Edinburgh, the binman in Glasgow. Look who the MPs are – a breast surgeon, a university professor, an international banker, a lawyer and actress, a trade union official, a female QC, a TV producer, a broadcaster, a business maverick, a former Labour official, a politics student.
This means compromise and trimming to meet all aspirations and not all of this hangs comfortably together but is sustained by the fundamental – Scotland first. When you add in believability (I prefer plausibility in the case of Blair) and professionalism, the winning formula is complete.
Labour failed partly because it’s leaders weren’t believable while the SNP’s are. Ed was always going to struggle. When broadcasters say ‘image problem’, the voters say ‘goofy’. He didn’t fit their idea of a Prime Minister. Balls brought the failure of Brown’s government centre stage to add to his own belligerent, eyeballing bluster. Murphy was memorably compared by Andy Kerr to your dad dancing in a night club.
Without a direct personality-based appeal, people turn off. They stop hearing you and if they think you may have deceived them or let them down, heaven help you. Labour’s failures have accumulated into a perceived hellish betrayal. It’s notable how tame the SNP’s actual promise was for this election – a stronger voice for Scotland. That is utterly meaningless in itself but it makes it difficult to challenge whatever they achieve or whatever they don’t. It’s another way of making a broad appeal and avoiding complaint.
There is a time in this political game when it all catches up. Unless you constantly review and renew – and they’ve been good at this so far – decisions can go stale and policies turn in on themselves. A prime example is university tuition fees where students pay nothing for the education but still end up in debt because the maintenance grant is too low. Another is Full Fiscal Autonomy where they sound querulous and unconvincing because of the deficit when I don’t think they need to at all.
But it remains important to stick to principles. Being anti nuclear is a no brainer and an absolute. Refusing to buy the British fetish of anti austerity budgeting is another. People will respect a dogged position even if they don’t agree with it and will give credit for clarity – the very opposite of Murphy’s scattergun strategy.
The problem now is that the SNP is so ascendant that an opposition is keenly needed. This is quite different from the howl of the bemused Unionists that we have become a one-party state. This argument fails because it was a free vote (are they saying it was rigged as in Uzbekistan?) There is no stifling of opposition. There are 58, I think, non-SNP members of the Scottish Parliament, 23 councils have no overall control, only two out of six MEPs are SNP. Oh, and we’re not a state.
But where is the opposition? Labour looks incapable of conducting the kind of fundamental reappraisal needed and simply can’t do that while Murphy and McTernan remain. There are risible kites flown by the loopy – among them Professor Neil Ferguson – that there will soon follow a Tory revival. I could wallpaper the bedroom with cuttings on that one. To be clear – No There Won’t.
Real opposition could soon emerge though from within the Yes movement if there is an alliance of Socialists, Radical Independence and Common Weal that could outflank the SNP on the left. Indeed, I suspect there will be a huge upsurge in Green votes for second preference. They could supplant Labour as the real opposition of the Left. The outcome could easily in the current mood mean that Labour drops off the radar for many voters as it struggles to redefine itself. And what if the party in the south follows Mandelson’s advice and returns to New Labour ideology with knobs on? What then for the raddled Scottish branch office? The comparison with the thriving and competent SNP with its all-people appeal is stark. This is the period of maximum danger for Labour when its remaining strength gets drawn down the plughole no matter what it does. Real leadership is needed to bring together the old heads who have deserted or gone into abeyance – Charlie Gray, John Mulvey, Alex Mosson, McLeish, McConnell and the unions with Labour academics and a huge public meeting and online consultation with the members. Question One: Do we need a Labour Party? If Yes, who’s it for and what does it do?
Only then can they begin finding the ideas and the language to re-engage with the Scots. And that won’t happen before next May.by