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Labour’s only hope: a referendum on independence

AS Labour heads for what looks like almost certain defeat in the Scottish Parliament election this week, the recriminations have already begun.
How could Iain Gray have thrown away a clear double-digit lead in the opinion polls in only three weeks? Is there anything he could do in the final days that could turn the tide? Actually, I think there is something that Labour could do, but first we need to understand why things have gone so wrong.

It isn’t just Gray’s fault. He’s hardly Mr Charisma, but this was a political not a personal fiasco. With a decent campaign, Gray might have been in with a chance in a political culture that is instinctively hostile to big political egos. Alex Salmond, brilliant operator though he is, always teeters on the edge of being dismissed as “Smart Alex”, a politician who just thinks a bit too much of himself.
Of course, Gray didn’t do himself any favours on the campaign trail. The defining image of the 2011 Holyrood election will be the Scottish Labour leader being pursued into a sandwich bar by anti-cuts protesters. A more self-confident politician would have refused to be bustled away by his political aides and faced the protesters down, as the Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, had done the previous week. Labour compounded the problem by putting out the line that Gray was a man of action who has “walked the killing fields of Cambodia” – as if the Holyrood election campaign could be compared with genocide in southeast Asia.
But the damage had already been done well before the meatball marinara episode. Labour’s first mistake was shamelessly to adopt the SNP’s headline policies on tuition fees, council tax etc, on the very eve of the campaign. This made them look like unprincipled opportunists, and left Labour very little to say that was distinctive on policy. This inevitably threw the focus of the campaign on to who would make the best first minister. Alex Salmond’s approval ratings have been consistently high since 2007, so why play to his strength?
Labour entered the campaign in March with what looked like an unassailable lead. But Alex Salmond’s personal popularity was the SNP’s secret weapon. They only needed to translate this personal vote into votes for the SNP and the party would be contenders. This is exactly what happened, and Labour did a lot to make it possible, not least by focusing its campaign not on Holyrood and the SNP, but on Westminster and the Coalition.
“Now that the Tories are back,” said Gray, “we need a Labour government to fight for things that matter.” But the Tories are not back in Scotland; the Tories are nowhere in Scotland, and everyone knows that. The Scottish election is not about “sending a message to Westminster” as the Labour leader, Ed Miliband repeated last week. It is first of all about electing the best government in the Scottish Parliament. Scotland sent its message to Westminster last May in the General Election. The Scottish electorate is one of the most sophisticated in the world, and has been adept at tactical voting – mainly against the Tories – for the last 30 years. In treating them as if they were sheep who could be herded into the Labour fold by Tory scare-stories, Labour was treating its own voters with contempt.
Labour’s election manifesto was also heavily criticised for its “think of a number” approach to economic policy. It promised to “abolish” youth unemployment and create 250,000 new jobs. But this sounded like Labour telling the voters what they wanted to hear, not what was going to happen – and that’s exactly what all the UK parties were (rightly) accused of doing at last May’s election. Voters are sick and tired of politicians’ empty promises. They know perfectly well that, with £1.6 billion in cuts on the way, no party can make such a commitment with any confidence of it being honoured.
What Labour failed to do was focus the campaign on the SNP’s soft underbelly of independence. The SNP’s brand of Celtic neoliberalism was dealt a devastating blow by the financial crisis of 2008-10, which has left Iceland, Ireland and most of the “Arc of Insolvency” sinking beneath the debts of their bankrupt banks. Scotland had two of the biggest banking failures in the world, but has sailed on, thanks to a £1 trillion bail-out organised by the UK Government. Yet, most of the Scottish people believe that the UK Government was largely to blame for the recession.
But is there anything, at the 11th hour, that Labour can do about this? Gray is being advised by some Labour insiders to turn “nasty” in the final days and portray the SNP as soft on crime. But once again, this would be treating the Scottish voters as idiots. What he has to do is take a risk, walk on the wild side, slap this election in the face. During this week’s leaders’ debate on BBC Television, Gray should announce that he is prepared to accept a referendum on independence – challenging Salmond to put his constitutional money where his mouth is.
Well, what has Labour left to lose? If Salmond wins two straight elections, he’ll have a mandate for a referendum anyway. Echoing Wendy Alexander’s call to “bring it on” would reboot the entire election campaign. It would turn all political attention, in the final 48 hours, on the SNP’s weakest issue: independence. The sandwich bars and manifestos would be forgotten, as the SNP were forced to say what they actually meant by independence. Flags and armies? The euro? Nato? Scottish passports? Customs posts?
Only around a third of Scottish voters want to leave the UK; the vast majority just want a more powerful parliament. A referendum would instantly make independence a political reality, rather than an abstraction. Labour could then paint a picture of where an independent Scotland would be now, two years after the crash. It would be the ultimate U-turn, but when you are going over a cliff edge, the only sensible thing is to turn back.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


8 thoughts on “Labour’s only hope: a referendum on independence

  1. Iain can your sort the formatting please.

    Posted by cynicalHighlander | May 2, 2011, 10:40 am
  2. Iain for Scotland to have financial autonomy we will have to have a referendum as Westminster and your unionist friends are trying stop Scotland having financial control.A referendum with questions along the lines of do you want Scotland to be Independent like New Zealand where the queen will remain head of state or would you like Scotland to remain part of the Uk but raise all our own taxes and pay a sum to Westminster for joint organisations similar to the Isle Of Man.So we would either get Independence or fiscal autonomy but we do have to have a referendum to get ther.

    Posted by Conway | May 2, 2011, 10:54 am
  3. That is a typically Fabian Labour idea to attack the independence concept with "facts" that bear as much relation to reality as one of Shaw's plays and then call upon the voters for support because we know better what's good for you.If you had suggested that there should be a proper debate on the subject in the remaining 3 days and that you as a journalist would find and present the facts, whatever "side" they were on, then I would have more respect for your views.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 2, 2011, 11:31 am
  4. ""…which has left Iceland, Ireland and most of the “Arc of Insolvency”..""Iceland and Ireland do not form an 'Arc' you have to include Norway, & Denmark to get an arc but of course those two do not fit the narrative do they?As to Mr Gray's tactic of harping on endlessley about the referendum and how that will distract the SNP in Government the following apply (in no particular order): 1. SNP has been in government for 4 years and seemed far from distracted by their independence agenda in their conduct of the business of Government.2. Wales has managed a referendum during difficult economic times without being 'distracted'3. UK is holding a referendum without being distracted from the business of government.4. Scotland Bill is on going and, for all its flaws, is not distracting the SNP from the business of GovernmentThe only person being distracted by the isdea of a referendum is Ian Gray. The only one fixating on the referendum is Ian Gray. And as is Labour's wont they are using it in a wholly negative way.

    Posted by CWH | May 2, 2011, 8:22 pm
  5. I was beginning to think of you as a decent sort of scribe until I read your outrageous comment in Today's Herald."Whatever, this paper, The Herald, will maintain its long-standing neutrality."You obviously do not read it then?

    Posted by Key bored warrior. | May 3, 2011, 4:32 pm
  6. Iain: Wendy's "call" was a bluff. Gordon MacNeill admitted this as soon as she stepped down as Leader. Wendy was told directly by Brown that it was not going to happen. It was not going to be allowed to happen so first off we should forget that Wendy ever made the suggestion when it was never serious in the first place. I have just listened to them all again telling US what WE want and answering the question they don't want to ask us. If they are so certain of the answer why are they so afraid to ask the question? Think of the prospect, for all of them, to shut Salmond up about independence. Yet they hold back. Why?If it is to be a resounding no from the Scottish people where is the risk factor for the Unionist Parties? They seem adamant that there is no risk for them. So why not prove it, ask the question and, if it is no, the question is buried for at least another generation (according to Salmond)? Salmond knows it may be an overall no vote yet he has the courage to ask the Scottish people what we think. Why, when they keep insisting Salmond would lose, do the other Parties lack his courage?

    Posted by Jo G | May 3, 2011, 9:08 pm
  7. Hilarious to see them all suddenly coming around to a referendum now isn't it? Murdo Fraser was particularly nasty during daytime programmes on Friday accusing Salmond of being "feart". What a difference 24 hours makes. I hope Salmond holds his ground: looks like he intends to."Mr Salmond said he would not deviate from his schedule of an independence referendum for the latter half of his five-year term.He said: “That’s the plan we outlined to the Scottish people very clearly in our election campaign – we did so consistently.“We’ve been backed overwhelmingly by the Scottish people on that prospectus, so you don’t change it now because you have an overwhelming majority.”

    Posted by Jo G | May 9, 2011, 9:59 am
  8. The British parties are terrified of the referendum campaign. They realise that once the arguments for independence and the arguments for remaining part of the UK are made clear, without all the nonsense, the public will warm to independence. Their fear tactics and scare mongering are clouding the real issues at the moment, but the SNP are shrewd operators and they will make a clear and articulate case for independence. If the last two election campaigns are anything to go by, the unionist parties will merely criticise independence rather than actually make a case for maintaining the UK. How they are going to defend the billions that would be saved on Trident, billions blowing up various deserts across the world, I am fascinated to see.

    Posted by Derek @ Dundee Cleaning | May 9, 2011, 11:55 am

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