Black arm bands would not have been out of place. Something died in the Glasgow East on Thursday night, and it wasn’t just Gordon Brown’s hopes of winning the next general election. It was evident in the mournful faces of the Scottish Labour party workers as they grimly awaited their worst by election defeat in twenty years. Labour’s fifty year relationship with the Scottish voter is finally over. It’s time to move on.
The strange death of Labour Scotland has been taking place for well over a year now. In that time Labour have lost the Scottish government, two Scottish leaders, most of their councils, half their councillors and now the third safest Westminster seat in Scotland. If the Glasgow East result were to be reflected across Scotland at the next general election, Labour would be left with only one seat north of the border. And don’t think it couldn’t happen. The Scottish Conservatives remain the only party ever to have won a majority of votes and a majority of seats in a Scottish election, back in 1955. Yet in the 1997 general election they were wiped out in Scotland. When Scotland changes party it doesn’t mess about.
The trouble for Labour, and the reason for their black despondency, is that they can see no bottom to their current electoral recession. Gordon Brown is not going to go quietly, a housing slump is underway, a credit tsunami is looming and core Labour voters are suffering an unprecedented collapse in their material security. Real inflation, not the fantasy figures of the CPI, is really hurting those ‘hard working families’ Labour always talk about – just look at the latest breathtaking rise in domestic energy prices announced on polling day.
Meanwhile, Alex Salmond has forged a bond with the Scottish electorate which shows every sign of enduring. Labour hoped to wipe the smile off the SNP leader’s face in Shettleston and Easterhouse. They thought Salmond had finally overstepped himself, with his 12 pre-ballot victory tours and self-regarding declarations about Glasgow East being a battle between himself and Gordon Brown. But the Salmond smirk has got wider still. The SNP leader promised an earthquake and lo, the earth did indeed move. He can now say that no seat is safe in Scotland, and not even Labour can contradict him.
Yet, to everyone’s credit, Glasgow East was a good clean fight, between able candidates, conducted without rancour, cynicism or dirty tricks. It was real honest street democracy. John Mason and Margaret Curran fought vote by vote, tenement stair by tenement stair, and while the margin of victory may have been small, only 365 votes, this was a great moral victory for the nationalists in the true sense of the word. The SNP fought a classic Labour campaign in Glasgow East, as the party of the people against the party of the establishment.
One thing Labour did get right: independence really wasn’t an issue on the doorsteps – not even after John Mason described himself in a TV interview as a “hard line nationalist”. But that is only because independence is no longer seen as a threat by Labour voters. The bogey of “separatism” is no longer enough to frighten them into the arms of Labour. The warnings about Scotland’s subsidies being cut off don’t work any more thanks to the oil price. The blindingly obvious reality is that, oil aside, London doesn’t give a damn about Scotland any more. The metropolis is another country with an increasingly alien political culture.
Gordon Brown’s determination placate this culture; to match David Cameron policy for policy in England, is killing Labour support in Scotland. The abolition of inheritance tax for the rich, the assault on incapacity benefit claimants, the ten pence tax band, the billions being handed casually to the banks. Brown tells the public sector workers to accept below-inflation increases while Network Rail bosses get six figure bonuses for ruining their own industry. John Hutton, the business secretary, tells us to praise millionaires while the living standards of Labour voters are shredded by commodity speculators in the City.
This is the fatal contradiction in the UK Labour party cannot resolve. Labour’s abandonment of social democracy in England makes it a loser in Scotland. Metropolitan political commentators in Glasgow last week just couldn’t grasp that Scotland really is different as they looked in vain for a Tory revival. And despite reports, there wasn’t one; no Cameron bounce, not even a spasm. The Tory candidate in Glasgow East, Davena Rankin, a black single mother, may have come third, but she actually managed to deliver a worse Tory share of the vote than in 2005.
Of course, Labour now try to portray the SNP as the “Tartan Tories”, and children of Thatcher, but it just doesn’t stack up, and Glasgow voters didn’t buy it. They can see that it is the SNP government which has curbed the right to buy council homes, abolished student fees, cut prescription charges, extended free personal care, frozen council tax. It is Alex Salmond who has moved to scrap PFI, end private sector involvement in NHS health care, save local hospital accident and emergency units, promote renewable energy, oppose Trident and the war in Iraq.
Meanwhile it is Gordon Brown’s Labour government which has increased taxes on people on low incomes while reducing capital gains tax paid by private equity pirates; has allowed executive pay to spiral out of control while delivering pious lectures about wage restraint. Britain has become a grossly unequal society under Labour, a haven for tax-avoiding plutocrats, a nation of property speculators and greedy celebrities who thrive in an economy which has switched from making things to making debt.
The people of Glasgow East are clearly sick of it – homeowners and benefit claimants alike. This long-suffering Labour community has been dismayed by the cynicism and sleaze of the Labour establishment. The machine politicians who are more interested in soliciting loans from tax exile businessmen than in promoting the interests of their constituents; who harvest hundreds of thousands in parliamentary allowances while turning their constituency homes into multiple occupancy business parks. The former Labour MP, David Marshall’s, parliamentary expenses did not become the dominant issue in Glasgow East in part because of the natural reluctance of politicians to throw the first stone. But the people of Glasgow East aren’t stupid; they know fine well what’s been going on.
For too long a London-dominated Labour Party has treated its core voters in places like Glasgow East as election fodder – to be graced by the occasional ministerial visit before polling day, and then forgotten for the next four years. They treat their own voters with contempt, thinking their quaint egalitarianism to be the anachronistic product of simple minds. But as this columnist has tried to argue, voters in Glasgow think and care very deeply about their politics: it is a question of moral propriety. People in Glasgow don’t vote on their pocket books, but on their consciences, and they have had it with Labour – at least in its present form.
For, the good news is that Glasgow East could be a kind of catharsis for Labour in Scotland. Labourites know now that they must change or die; that they cannot continue as a unionist tail to the London dog. Labour will have to reinvent itself in Scotland if it wants to restore its privileged position as Scotland’s national party, a role it occupied for five decades. This doesn’t mean becoming a national-IST party, at least not in the separatist sense, but it does mean restoring Labour to the moral mainstream of Scottish political opinion.
Labour has used by-elections before to change tack. After Winnie Ewing took Hamilton 1967, Harold Wilson set up the Royal Commission on the Constitution. After Margo MacDonald won Govan in 1973, Labour abandoned its opposition to devolution in the Dalintober St. Declaration. After Jim Sillars took Govan by-in 1988, Labour threw its weight behind the Scottish Constitutional Convention making the Scottish Parliament inevitable. Now, after Glasgow East, Labour must find it within itself the will to change again: to make itself an explicitly Scottish party, with its own constitution and leadership, committed to an autonomous Scotland with full tax and economic powers within a reformed, federal United Kingdom.
Wendy was right: there really is no alternative. Even the 39 Scottish Labour MPs, as they finger their collars this weekend, must realise that the game is up in Scotland. Many will be dreading the belated publication next month by the Westminster authorities of details of their parliamentary expenses. Their faith in Brown is long gone. The next general election in Westminster already is already lost, which means that they will be facing a Tory administration in London for the next decade.
Instead of sitting back and allowing the SNP to take-over their home territory, Labour MPs should be moving to merge with the Labour MSPa in Holyrood to form a new Scottish political organisation, a new cohesive political formation. The election of the replacement for Wendy Alexander should be turned into the election of a fully fledged Scottish leadership with functional autonomy from Westminster. The new Scottish Labour Party could then formally disengage from the UK policy-making process and cease automatically to take the Labour whip in the Commons. The Tories are anyway going to curb Labour’s voting rights in Westminster as their answer to the West Lothian Question, so might as well beat them to it.
Has Labour the will and the energy to make the change? I don’t know. None of the leadership candidates so far shows much sign of recognising the nature of the task ahead. But it is the only sure way of persuading Scottish voters that the Labour party, the party they have supported for the last half century, deserves to win their votes again. It is the only way that Labour can re-emerge from the grave they have dug themselves. Yes, there is life after Glasgow East, but not as Labour currently knows it.