A question of trust
John O’Donnell says Scottish Labour’s problem isn’t our tax policy, or the referendum, or our leader, or fracking, or Trident. Our problem is much more fundamental: it’s trust.
Those of us who remember the 1992 general election will remember the front page of The Sun on election day, which headlined ‘If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’. Headlined the following day when John Major, to the surprise of everyone, was returned as Prime Minister with an overall majority of 21, was ‘It’s The Sun wot won it’, taking full credit for the Tory victory.
The reality, however, was completely different.
The veteran Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, has a reputation for brutal honesty, which is why he is one of the most respected politicians in the House of Commons. When Michael Foot was elected Labour leader in 1980, Gerald quipped that ‘the Labour Party has just voted to lose the next General Election’, and of course he was spot on. When Labour published its manifesto in 1983, he named it ‘the longest suicide note in history’ and of course he was spot on.
In 1992, the Tories ran a series of posters, one of which is the photo above, with the simple slogan ‘You can’t trust Labour’. On the face of it, it looked foolish, stupid and a waste of money. In fact, it was the cleverest poster campaign there had been in years. What it did was to draw on an emotion, present in many people.
Labour didn’t lose the election because of Kinnock, because of the Sheffield rally or because of tax. They were all outward signs of ‘you can’t trust Labour’. Let the record show that this was the reason Labour lost Scotland in the 2015 general election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.
Let’s have a look at some of the results. Dumfriesshire, where Labour’s vote dropped by 14.3% pushing us from 1st to 3rd. Rutherglen, that traditionally safe Labour seat, an 11.2% drop. Uddingston and Bellshill, another safe Labour seat, a 13.6% drop. Ayr, where Sandra Osborne used to be the MP till last year, a further drop of 9.3%. Cunninghame North, a drop of 10.8% pushing us again from 1st to 3rd. Cunninghame South, a drop of 9.1%. Greenock and Inverclyde, once again a solid and safe Labour seat, a staggering drop of 16.2%. Edinburgh Central, where former minister and highly respected MSP Sarah Boyack was pushed from 2nd to 3rd with a drop of 9.8%. Edinburgh Western, a drop of 12% pushing us into 4th place. Maryhill, that traditional Labour stronghold, a whopping drop of 16.3% with a 15% swing to the SNP. Cathcart, my own constituency, which had previously been a Labour stronghold since John Maxton beat Teddy Taylor in the 1979 General Election, an unbelievable 17.2% drop in our vote with a 12.5% swing to the SNP. Pollok, where former leader Johann Lamont was defending her seat, a drop of 15.8% with a swing to SNP minister Humza Yousaf of 13%. Provan, a drop of 17.6% with a 15.4% swing to the SNP. Shettleston, another traditionally safe Labour seat, a drop of 17.9% with a 13% swing to the SNP. Cowdenbeath, where Labour’s deputy leader Alex Rowley was defending the seat he won in a by election, a drop of 10.6% and a 7.5% swing to the SNP. Eastwood, which we had held since Jim Murphy’s spectacular win in 1997, a drop of 9.1% sending Ken McIntosh from 1st to 3rd. Renfrewshire South, a drop of 14.8% with a swing of 12% to the SNP. Coatbridge and Chryston, another safe Labour seat, a drop of 17.6% with a 17.5% swing to the SNP. Motherwell and Wishaw, a 12.7% drop with a swing of 12% to the SNP.
Huge and unexpected swings in many safe Labour seats, most in favour of the SNP, a party that had been in power for nine years. Even Tony Blair was not able to replicate these swings during the 2005 general election, when Labour had been in power for eight years.
We didn’t lose because of the referendum. We didn’t lose because of the 1p on tax. We didn’t lose because of our position on fracking. We didn’t lose because of our stance on the Named Person legislation. We didn’t lose because of Kezia. We didn’t lose because of our position on the renewal of Trident. All of these were just outward signs of ‘You can’t trust Labour’.
The Labour Party could take heed from St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. Just to humour you, how about we change the word ‘love’ with the phrase ‘the trust of the Scottish people’. The passage, which is one of my favourites, is amended as follows:
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not the trust of the Scottish people, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not the trust of the Scottish people, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not the trust of the Scottish people, it profits me nothing. And now abide faith, hope, and the trust of the Scottish people, these three; but the greatest of these is the trust of the Scottish people.”
Labour has failed, spectacularly, over many years, to deserve the trust of the Scottish people.
It reminds me of a form of torture that the Nazis used in World War 2 when trying to gain information from captured soldiers when being interrogated. They would place a rat on a soldiers belly, put a pot over it and gently heat the pot. At first, the rat did not react, but as the heat increased the rat began to get restless and tried to find a way out. It realises that it can’t get out through the pot so it becomes desperate and does the only thing it can: it starts to dig down into the soldier’s belly.
The Labour Party in Scotland has become so desperate that it will do anything to get out of its trap, without having any obvious and clear strategic purpose, direction or route to power. That is why the public rightly does not trust Labour.
In 2015, to the surprise of many, the Conservative Party won the general election and now run a majority government. It could easily have been called the Consensus Party as it managed to position itself in the centre ground and drew votes from Labour on the left and UKIP on the right. The Labour Party’s response in the September leadership election of that year was to run way past the centre-left, way past the soft-left and to position itself with the hard-left, electing the 66 year old veteran MP Jeremy Corbyn with a whopping 60% of the vote, even more than Tony Blair’s vote in 1994 following the death of John Smith. It elected a man who, in 32 years in the House of Commons, had never held a shadow or government post. The Labour Party would do well to acknowledge the reasons why.
Between the number of MPs that Scotland sends to Westminster (59) and the number of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament (129), a total of 188, the Labour Party has a grand total of 25. It has between one-in-seven and one-in-eight parliamentarians. A shockingly low number of politicians from a party that has its roots in working people.
The SNP positioned itself in the centre ground. It encouraged people not just to hope for a better Scotland but to vote for it, in an almost identical poster to that which Margaret Thatcher used in her successful election campaign in 1979. This was no mere coincidence but a successful strategic positioning that saw the SNP as the natural successor to Tony Blair’s ‘what works’ that delivered Labour only its second landslide in its history.
The SNP might not have been principled. It might not have been right. It might not have been socialist. But it was popular. It appealed to people’s pockets, it appealed to people’s hopes. It appealed to people’s aspirations. It said ‘trust us’ and the electorate responded by saying ‘yes we do’. The Labour Party, meanwhile, ran around like the desperate rat I mentioned just trying to find a way out of an impossible situation. It’s young, new and energetic leader didn’t manage to be one crucial thing: believable.
In the Scottish Parliament there are now 99 MSPs out of 129 that identify themselves as centrist. That equates to 80% of MSPs. If this does not demonstrate to the Labour Party that the future of politics is in the centre then I despair to know what does. There are Corbyn supporters in the Labour Party who believe that the Labour Party is not far-left enough. You only need to look at the success, or lack thereof, of Solidarity, TUSC and RISE to see that the hard-left has no future in politics.
If the Labour Party in Scotland can acknowledge that its future is in the centre ground then, in time, it might begin to rebuild its reputation with the Scottish people. Kezia needs to exert her control and discipline over the party and the way it behaves in parliament. The way in which MSPs James Kelly and Neil Findlay behaved towards the Presiding Officer like a pair of petulant school boys is a good example. The public expects political parties to be run well, organised well and to behave like politicians, not second hand car salesmen. Nicola Sturgeon runs her party well. Ruth Davidson runs her party well. Both of them received the trust of the Scottish people. We didn’t.
I have fallen short of calling for an independent Scottish Labour Party, which I first raised after the General Election defeat last year. There are some who would rather go down with the sinking ship, rather than break away from the UK party. I am not one of them. The Scottish people deserve a strong Labour Party but the Labour Party does not have that automatic right to their support. If you look at Ruth Davidson’s campaign literature you will see that she created a strong brand whilst mentioning very little about being a Tory. She distanced herself from David Cameron on matters that were not in the interests of the Scottish people. Labour spectacularly failed to do that.
I am also falling short of recommending that Labour cut its link with the trade union movement. For long enough the party has been in a stranglehold with the trade union movement and the public want a party run by strong politicians, not unelected union leaders. There is no reason why the unions cannot support Labour without holding it to ransom. The reality is that more trade unionists are voting for parties other than the Labour Party so its significance to them is no longer as important. Other parties manage to operate without trade union money so why can’t Labour? The unions played a key role in helping to found the Labour Party but it wasn’t born out of the bowels of the trade union movement as Ernest Bevin said it was.
If the current or future party leaders are able to exert control and discipline then the uphill climb may move into first gear rather than the ignominious reverse gear.
If not, then perhaps the party has no future and might as well wind up. Because the electorate will quite rightly come to the conclusion that ‘you simply can’t trust Labour’.