Why, How and What Now: Labour
This was supposed to be the staging post: the first step on Ed Miliband’s path to Downing Street – the entry of Iain Gray into Bute House.
It was a formality, surely? A million Scots voted for Labour in the Westminster election; the party regained Glasgow East and Dunfermline & West Fife, lost in By-Elections to the SNP and LibDems respectively and retained every other seat. Momentum remained with Labour beyond Christmas: the party enjoyed double-digit poll leads and maybe, just maybe, a Labour majority was possible.
Instead, they went from 46 MSPs (and 44 notional seats) to 37. Compare and contrast with Wales, where Labour – leading the Welsh Government since 1999 – gained four seats; compare and contrast with England, where Labour – rejected by the electorate in 2010 – ended up with 857 more Councillors and in control of 26 more Councils. Yet Labour had pinned its hopes on the one part of the UK where the party actually ended up going backwards,
Now, of course, Labour sources on the night said it was all to do with the LibDem collapse, and the Labour vote held up. Wrong on both counts: on both votes, the increase in the SNP’s vote was greater than the fall in LibDem vote share, and on the Regional vote, the SNP increase was more than double the LibDem decrease. And the Labour vote actually fell: by 0.5% on the Constituency vote, and by 2.9% on the Regional.
So what went wrong? Everyone seems to point to the Subway Incident, when Iain Gray fled from a group of anti-cuts protesters (whose position he was meant to agree with, remember). Others point to the first TV debate, when Gray ended up in a shouting match with a member of the audience. It’s also tempting to point to the policy U-turns, which effectively turned the Labour manifesto into a bootleg of the SNP edition: only with weaker commitments and some howling mistakes, and so reduced the election into a personality contest which Gray couldn’t win.
But with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, it seems that the seeds were sown for the 2011 defeat in the 2010 performance.
In 2010, all Scottish Labour had to offer was horror stories about the Tories, and a promise (broken by a combination of the parliamentary arithmetic and the refusal of Scottish Labour MPs to remain in government if it meant dealing constructively with the SNP) that they – and only they – could stop them. Well, why change a winning formula, eh?
So a year later, it was perhaps inevitable that the Labour manifesto would begin with the words “Now that the Tories are back…”
And this was the problem: it wasn’t just slagging off the Tories that delivered success in 2010… it was being able to frame the election as a Labour v. Tory contest, a LibDem constituency bar chart writ large. It was not possible to frame the 2011 election as the same: in this election, Labour were the opposition to the SNP, and not the Tories. And so, ten days before polling day, and a few months too late, Labour junked their campaign strategy, stopped talking about “what really mattered” (they said this was jobs, but spent the time talking about the Tories instead) and started ranting about independence.
But the problem with negative campaigning is that you can only tap into fears if people are actually afraid: there’s no question that many people – not just in Scotland – were hugely sceptical about what a Tory Government would mean for them. But this year, there was never any prospect of a Tory Government, so whipping up anti-Tory sentiment was never going to work. And it was no good attacking the SNP: they’d been in office for four years already and the sky had not fallen in. Even fears about independence wouldn’t work: that was farmed out to a referendum which could be won or lost separately.
Now, it’s perfectly possible that Labour may have had some distinct, positive policies – but we never heard them! All we heard was the aping of SNP vote-winners, which had been funded in budgets with Tory support… coupled with attacks on the SNP and the Tories, the two parties that had proposed, supported and enacted those popular moves such as the Council Tax freeze.
Nor was Ed Miliband’s intervention useful. This, we were told, was Labour’s first step back to Downing Street. Nothing to do with, you know, the future of Scotland. Nothing to do with, you know, who would form the Scottish Government. No, this was, apparently, all to do with an election four years down the line. Miliband greatly misread the electorate’s attitude to the election and the Parliament, just as Jack McConnell did in 2007 when he described his own contest for re-election as a ‘mid-term’ poll.
So again with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, Labour’s reverse was inevitable: no policies, no strategy, no hope… for the voters or the candidates!
And now, the recriminations begin: the MPs say they should have been involved more; MSPs point to MPs such as Jim Sheridan, whose level of interest was such that he took a holiday during the campaign. MSPs (and former MSPs) want more autonomy; MPs say Westminster can’t be shut out. It’s now the job of Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack to piece together what went wrong and how they fix it (a Labour equivalent of the Tories’ Sanderson Review last year) and it’s clear that what ever they propose, one set of Parliamentarians will be royally pissed off. Moreover, Jack McConnell has realised that Labour MPs will have a greater say in the Leader of Labour MSPs than the MSPs themselves will: the parliamentarians – in Holyrood, Westminster and Europe – form one section of the electoral college to elect Iain Gray’s successor, and there are 42 MPs to 37 MSPs (and 2 MEPs).
Meanwhile, whatever the review concludes, and whatever lessons can be learned, the early signs are that Labour will not learn them. This week, following the formal re-election of Alex Salmond as First Minister, we had an announcement of the new Cabinet and Ministers. The Cabinet has increased from six members to nine.
Today, we see the appointment of Iain Gray’s (caretaker) Shadow Cabinet. Now, I’ve been saying for years that the Labour front bench was just too large – there were 24 Labour frontbenchers to 16 in the SNP before the election. We’ve got an expanded SNP cabinet, and a reduced Labour group shorn of a number of front bench members such as Andy Kerr, Des McNulty and David Whitton. Despite that, the Shadow Cabinet is still larger than the actual Cabinet! Eleven MSPs to the SNP’s nine. Now, you can forgive the presence of John Park, the new Chief Whip (incidentally, why has David Stewart lost that position while Richard Baker, the party’s hapless Justice spokesman, got a promotion to the Finance brief?), but you have Michael McMahon in situ as Shadow Local Government Secretary, when his Government counterpart will be new junior Minister for Local Government and Planning, Aileen Campbell. Equally, it’s interesting that there’s still a Local Government portfolio, when Housing, once a Labour ‘priority’ is clearly deemed as no longer meritorious of having a direct spokesperson in the Shadow Cabinet and a Deputy Spokesperson as well. Labour Councillors have a voice on their front bench; people struggling to get on the property ladder do not.
So the early signs for Scottish Labour are bad. But what about Labour at the UK level?
Well, this may yet still be a staging post: Gray was outflanked by all three other participants in the TV debates and something similar will happen to Ed Miliband if he is still in post in 2015, while the strategic errors made by Scottish Labour throughout their first term of opposition will provide profound lessons for Labour MPs if they are willing to learn them.
And the key lesson? Beating people with the Tory stick won’t work. Despite the so-called Cameron effect, the Tory vote hasn’t improved all that much since Michael Howard assumed the Leadership, so attacking the ‘ideological’ nature of the cuts won’t have any effect: the people voting for the Tories now have been, in the main, voting for even more ideologically-driven cuts for years. They’re getting something of what they wanted, and it’s telling that the Tories ended up with more Councillors and AMs (though fewer MSPs) after polling day. So we shouldn’t be too surprised that Labour’s best performances were in Northern England, which has become a largely Labour-LibDem battleground.
But there’s an even bigger warning shot to Labour: simply throwing pelters at Nick Clegg won’t work either. The reason they did so well in Northern England is that there was, in the main, no credible challenger to Labour for disaffected LibDem votes. In Scotland, while Iain Gray was bleating about the Tories, the SNP took ads out in major newspapers listing reasons for LibDem supporters to vote SNP. In Brighton & Hove for example, the Greens went from joint second with Labour to clear first place, with 23 Councillors. They made a net England-wide gain on the night (though their net gain of 14 was accounted for primarily by the increase of ten in Brighton, and the party did go into retreat in Lancaster, the Greens’ key stronghold in the North West). Now in Brighton, there wasn’t much of a LibDem presence there to begin with, but the Greens were the ones who took on the Coalition parties and won there, just as the SNP did in Scotland. The lesson to Miliband is this: attacking the Tories won’t work yet – their supporters are getting what they wanted – while just not being Nick Clegg isn’t enough – Alex Salmond and Caroline Lucas aren’t Nick Clegg either.
We know what Labour isn’t, but until Labour itself has worked out what it is, it will remain in Opposition. That is the bottom line.