Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Scottish Labour's problems far from a Scottish problem

I don't particularly like Irn-Bru. I just thought I'd tell you that, though that fact is neither here nor there. So, what am I blathering on about?

A report in the Daily Record a couple of weeks back stated that, according to party insiders, Scottish Labour were planning on rebranding themselves as the Irn-Bru of modern politics and planning on putting forward more made in Scotland policies in order to make them distinct from the Labour Party as a UK-wide entity. The piece goes on to say that senior Labour figures have even studied how Scottish products like whisky and Irn-Bru retain a solid Caledonian identity while appealing to a wider market. I had a hunch the comrades in Albain would do something silly after their defeat in the Scottish Parliamentary election but this garbage really has surpassed anything I had imagined.

Clearly the leadership in Scotland feels that their drop in popularity has come around as a result of them being too closely tied a UK party. While this may well be a contributing factor for some ex-Labour voting Scots I do feel that it is not anywhere near being the whole story. STV's Political Editor Bernard Ponsonby was closer to the truth when he spoke of Iain Gray's "lack of narrative."

What he probably could have added is that this absence of a defining vision or goal is not just something which Labour in Scotland suffers from but that this is a criticism which at the present moment could well be levelled at virtually all of those parties aligned to the Party of European Socialists and the Socialist International. There has been nothing which one could call a distinct democratic socialist response to the current crisis in capitalism. The sticking plaster approach to patching up the system in a hope that it recovers may make sense if you come from a conservative or liberal camp, but surely even the most moderate of social democrats aspires to something much greater than simply that, don't they?

One of the problems with the leaders of the European centre-left at present is that they seem to be utterly incapable of thinking outside the box. Perhaps for them politics is not about policy but about image – get it right and you win, get it wrong and you lose. If so then it is easy to see why the top dogs at the Scottish Labour Party may feel that what they need now is a revamped political vehicle with a more nationalistic, made-in-Scotland tinge to it. After all, haven't they just been overtaken for the first time by the SNP? Well, yes, they have. However, while the Scottish Nationalists may have secured a majority in the Holyrood parliament, successive opinion polls have repeatedly shown overall support for independence to be in the minority. Just like votes for similar parties in Wales, Northern Ireland, Italy or the Basque Country, it would be foolish to interpret every single SNP vote in May as a vote to sever the link with London.

There are many factors behind the success of Alex Salmond's party. For some it is all about ending the union with England. For others an SNP vote is a vote for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, though not complete independence. Some may also consider their vote a protest vote; a way of giving a two-finger salute to both the coalition parties and the opposition at Westminster. There will also be a considerable left vote for the SNP. While it may be difficult to point to precise policies that set them apart from Labour in this regard, perception often counts for a lot and there is a feeling among many Scots that the Nats are now well to the left of Iain Gray's lot.

The important thing for Labour in Scotland is that they do not press the panic button just yet. Their vote in this year's Scottish election gave them 26.3% of the vote; their vote in the previous Holyrood poll gave them 29.2%. While a drop in your popularity is never a good thing this still does not represent a complete disaster for Labour. They remain a mass party, still able to fight back and regain their position as the leading party in Scotland. However, now is the time to make some choices. The answer to Labour's problems do not lie in hiring a PR company and deciding whether the word 'Scottish' should be in larger font than 'Labour' on their election literature. They do not lie in having Archie Gemmill's goal against Holland featured in a Party Election Broadcast in which Iain Gray's replacement watches the famed footage sipping some Irn-Bru and wrapped in the Cross of Saint Andrew.

If the Tories and the Lib Dems want to respond to their problems north of Hadrian's Wall by attempting to Caledonianise themselves then fair enough. Labour, however, should not feel compelled to follow their example. What the party needs to do now is take some time and think hard about the one thing that can truly set them apart from the rest of the field - policy. The decline cannot be reversed by a few quick fix tweaks and a rebranding suggested to them by a public relations guru. They must establish the unique narrative that Bernard Ponsonby spoke of, the thing which they so clearly lacked under the leadership of Iain Gray. To do so they must also appreciate that the decline is not confined only to Scotland but part of a wider downturn in the left of centre vote in the United Kingdom and across the European Union.

Clause IV of the Labour constitution states that the "Labour Party is a democratic socialist party." If they wish to rejuvenate the fortunes of the organisation, and by that I mean from the organisation from John o' Groats right down to Land's End, then they would be better advised to take their inspiration from democratic socialism than a carbonated soft drink from Cumbernauld.