It was shortly after midnight on the 6 May when Thomas Docherty, ex-Blairite MP and list candidate for Scottish Labour, appeared on the BBC’s Scottish Parliament election coverage to articulate what had gone so badly wrong for Scottish Labour in this latest round of Holyrood elections. Unsurprisingly for someone of Docherty’s political persuasion, he considered the 2016 Scottish Labour manifesto an act of 'self-immolation for dummies'. In his view, it signified a lurch to the left akin to the 1983 manifesto and moderate, middle Scotland rejected this loony leftism.
Perhaps Docherty regretted commenting at this early stage of the game, as several hours later he failed to be elected to Parliament and succeeded only in provoking anger among the membership. However, his comments set the tone for the Labour right’s reaction to the results. John McTernan’s post-election column in the Scotsman asserted that voters had 'punished' Scottish Labour for Kezia Dugdale’s equivocation on the union and attempting to outflank the SNP on the left with an anti-Trident renewal policy and proposals for an increase in the basic rate of income tax. McTernan cites Dumbarton, one of the few constituencies held by Labour, as evidence of why a Unionist and ‘centre-ground’ position would have delivered - incumbent Jackie Baillie held the seat by a margin of 109 votes, narrowly beating the SNP, and had made her pro-Trident stance a focal point of her campaign.
This is an argument that doesn’t hold up very well across the 72 other constituencies. In Dumbarton there was a swing of 3.8% from Labour to other parties, with the Conservatives and SNP increasing their vote share by 2.6% and 1.6% respectively. This was relatively low, with constituencies in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and West Lothian seeing a swing of approximately 12% from Labour to the Conservatives in traditional Labour heartlands. It appears Baillie was able to achieve the status of the Unionist candidate due to being an established incumbent, but that across the board voters primarily motivated by preserving the union unsurprisingly trusted a British nationalist Tory Party over a social democratic option. Further, at the 2015 General Election, the SNP stood on a unilateralist platform and gained the closely corresponding Westminster constituency of West Dunbartonshire from Labour with a majority of over 14,000 votes. At this time, Scottish Labour were yet to pass policy opposing the renewal of Trident, suggesting that retention of the ‘nuclear deterrent’ is not the magic bullet in this constituency.
The Scottish Labour left’s reaction to the results so far has been to lay the blame on a toxic combination of separatism and unionism. Scottish Labour, caught between two competing forms of nationalism, has been unable to make its economic arguments heard. While these were undoubtedly significant factors, an argument which begins and ends with nationalism is equally as myopic as the right’s insistence that we veered too far to the left for Scotland’s liking. After all, political parties fight elections but do not do so in circumstances of their own making. Neither side in this argument has been willing to acknowledge that this election is yet another milestone in Scottish Labour’s decades of decline. Another opportunity to mitigate damage and rebuild has been thrown away.
It is now vital for the future of Scottish Labour that it acknowledges the fundamental lack of trust in Labour which developed in Scotland throughout the New Labour years. The analysis of why this came about is well worn. Labour’s working class core voters feeling increasingly alienated from a party that embraced big business and the Murdoch-owned media and find it harder to distinguish between Labour and the Conservatives in terms of their image and policies. Evidently, the rot set in for Scottish Labour long before its catastrophic result on 5 May. The intervening five years have been characterised by continuing failure to move on from the early years of New Labour.
Indyref, and Labour’s complicity in Better Together served as confirmation to much of Scottish Labour’s core vote that it was more closely aligned to unionism and the Tories than the interests of working class people. Labour’s own No campaign only appeared to grow legs in the final stages of Indyref, by which point it was entirely too late. The party had already espoused Tory arguments for remaining in the UK, thereby shattering its already deteriorating image and credibility. With the exception of a brief, embarrassing flirtation with Saltire-waving under Jim Murphy, Labour’s involvement in Better Together encouraged British nationalist tendencies in voters to secure a No vote. It is unsurprising that those voters were subsequently drawn to the Conservative and Unionist Party, rather than the “unionism lite” on offer from Labour. The likes of McTernan are keen to lament that Scottish Labour is being 'punished' by voters, but this implicit self-pity conveniently overlooks the role that the Party played in resurrecting unionism as a significant political factor in Scottish politics.
This repeated inability to assess honestly and admit its past mistakes pervaded Scottish Labour’s 2016 Holyrood campaign. The manifesto was broadly social democratic - certainly to the left of the SNP - and contained a number of strong left wing policies, but these were at odds with flagship policies such as championing home ownership via subsidising mortgages. The result was a lack of a coherent socialist vision, and a party that didn’t even seem particularly convinced by its own policies. A quick scan of Scottish Labour’s list candidates revealed a great number of familiar faces, many of whom were too tainted by New Labour to ever convince voters to 'take a fresh look at us' as the party’s campaign materials exhorted them to do. The same old guard that refuses to examine its past is preventing Scottish Labour from rehabilitating its image and culture and from developing a coherent ideology and stance on the constitution. The failure of Dugdale and others to accept that the constitutional debate is now firmly embedded in the Scottish political landscape did not help matters. Until UK and Scottish Labour can develop a constitutional approach which is ideologically placed to develop arguments for redistributing wealth and power, it will be hamstrung between Scottish nationalism and Unionism.
Hopefully this latest defeat was sufficiently crushing to prompt an influx of fresh faces and the development of a coherent socialist ideology and constitutional position. This is a crucial moment for the Party to begin to rid itself of the remnants of Blairism that paralyse it, and to acknowledge its role in creating external forces rather than retreating into the comforting rhetoric of 'flags beat facts'. Judging by the diatribes of McTernan and Docherty, some sections of the Party have failed to learn anything from this decade of decline, and this continued failure to learn– not unilateralism or raising income tax– is 'self-immolation for dummies'.