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The implosion of Scottish Labour means the battle for Britain has only just begun

4 February 2015

2:02 PM

4 February 2015

2:02 PM

Gordon Brown is holding an adjournment debate on the union this evening, which comes after an Ashcroft poll which shows precisely what danger the union is in. If today’s polls were tomorrow’s election result, the SNP would have 55 out of 59 seats in Scotland. It’s even set to lose Coatbridge, where it picked up 67pc of the vote at the last election. Yes, all this will help the Tories in the short term: Cameron needs the SNP to destroy Labour in the north and the SNP need Cameron in No10 – remember, their political model is based on grudge and gripe. Without a villain, Alex Salmond won’t have a pantomime.

But back to Brown. He designed devolution to kill off the Tories in Scotland – he succeeded, but has ended up with the SNP instead. Since the mid-1990s Brown was seen as, and acted as, as the godfather of Scottish Labour and he is now confronted with the results of his disastrous strategy. Labour treated too much of Scotland as a rotten borough, a place for safe seats where its MPs had huge majorities and didn’t have to fight. LabourList today discloses that a Scottish Labour MP told colleagues he didn’t understand the fuss about declining constituency party members – because his constituency had fewer than 100 and “win every time”.

So the party’s apparatus decayed, and Scottish Labour failed to rejuvenate – relying on clichés and tribal loyalty rather than strong, active, modern reasons to vote Labour.

The late Donald Dewar was a responsible First Minister with talent as big as his ego was small – he had no interest in antagonising the rest of the Labour Party. It was, then, a fundamentally unionist party. But because it was a unionist party, its A-team (John Reid, Robin Cook, Brian Wilson, Douglas Alexander) gravitated to Westminster while the B-team was dumped in Holyrood. Where they faced the nationalists’ A-Team. This talent mismatch helped the SNP take Holyrood in two successive elections.

In the 1980s, the SNP was against devolution – seeing it as a trap to halt their march to independence. But Salmond then changed his mind, deciding that it could be a staging post. His calculation was that, over time, devolution would swell the egos of the Labour MSPs and they’d start to define themselves against ‘London Labour’ (a phrase straight out of the nationalist playbook). And so it was to prove. First, they defied ‘London Labour’ by offering free care to the elderly, then free university tuition (a decision made all the more deplorable by the fact that it was Scottish MPs who foisted tuition fees on England – had they abstained, Blair would have lost the vote).


So for years now, the hierarchy of Scottish Labour has been saying disobliging things about the UK Labour Party, complaining about being treated as a ‘branch office’ and so on. Its voters were listening, which helps explain why Ed Miliband was traduced when he came north to argue for the union – and when he has no takers when he asks for votes now. Even Jim Murphy has to engage in this ‘we’ll tax London millionaires!’ rhetoric. He has even felt the need to disown the word ‘unionist’.

It pains me to say this, but the SNP richly deserves its success. During the referendum it ran a positive, inspirational campaign based on old-school politics with town hall meetings and door-to-door campaigning. Theirs is the politics of optimism, and it’s infectious – as a stunned Scottish Labour Party is finding out. As Isabel remarked earlier, the Ashcroft poll asked Glaswegian voters how many times their door has been knocked by party activists. This showed the SNP working far harder than everyone else.

Brown gave a decent speech at the end of that campaign, but had sulked up until then. And even when he emerged, his interest was a personal one: he had written a book about Scotland with a bunch Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 14.29.46of personal prescriptions. And even today, he’s hawking these prescriptions – banging on about the constitution and, ergo, dancing to the SNP’s tune. It’s part-ego trip, part-book tour – and not much of it helps Jim Murphy. Scottish Labour desperately needs to turn the conversation to other matters where it has greater salience. But Brown won’t allow it. Even now, he is dragging his party down.

Gordon Brown had five years to decide what he would do after the general election; only a few weeks ago he decided to stand down. By then, it was clear that there was no such thing as a safe Labour seat in Scotland – he would actually have to fight. And the odd thing about Brown is that, for all of his combativeness, he has never been very keen on fighting in the daylight. When his Dunfermline constituency was redrawn to become a not-so-safe Labour seat he booted out Lewis Moonie from neighbouring Kirkcaldy. In 2007 he did all he could to avoid a contested leadership election, and had his character assassins do in all likely rivals rather than face them in front of a Labour electorate. An opinion poll in 2007 led him to bottle out of holding a general election (and one he would have won, leading to Cameron’s resignation). Brown prefers the fix to the fight. When it became clear that the SNP were on the rise in Kirkcaldy – and that his role in the Scottish Labour campaign would be akin to Michael Caine’s role in Zulu –  he decided to scarper.

Winning without fighting – this has been the motto of Gordon Brown’s career in politics and, tragically, the motto of Scottish Labour. It’s now clear that the party’s apparatus has decayed and that its fighting skills have atrophied.

This cannot be said for Jim Murphy: he entered parliament after taking a supposedly unwinnable seat: Eastwood, which had a 11,700 Tory majority. Through his own hard work (constituency surgeries on train platforms, etc) he turned a former Tory safe seat into a Labour safe seat. So he’s good at winning arguments, making friends and facing enemies. During the referendum campaign he went up and down the country, making the case for the union.  His energetic, upbeat style of politics could scarcely be more different to those of Gordon Brown, the Gollum of Whitehall who operated via stitch-ups, character assassination and backroom deals.

The UK political map, according to latest polls. From May2015.com

The UK political map, according to latest polls. From May2015.com

Finally, a confession. I’d like the Tories to win the next election, but not as much as I want Jim Murphy to do well. If Ashcroft’s poll is right, then the end of Britain is once again on the cards. The collapse of Scottish Labour will have brought a new constitutional crisis to England’s door and it will be harder than ever to talk about ‘British politics’ (see map on the right). Labour would be unwise to expect a dead cat bounce – the Scottish Tories have been waiting 18 years for theirs.

I’d rather spend a lifetime in a Labour-run Britain than a day in a fractured, diminished, disunited kingdom – and this is what this election now threatens. We thought the union had been saved (just) in the referendum. But the collapse of the last powerful unionist party in Scotland suggests that the battle for Britain may have only just begun.

Update: John Rentoul says that I’ve ‘come out for Labour’ – em, not quite. To clarify: I think an Ed Miliband government would be an utter disaster for Britain, but I think the breakup of Britain would be even worse. My first choice is for David Cameron to return to 10 Downing St without needing any help from Alex Salmond.


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