Review: “The Fall of Labour”
Stephen Low reviews BBC Scotland Investigates: The Fall of Labour (BBC One Scotland, 22 June 2015, available on iPlayer until 27 July).
This was billed as “BBC Scotland investigates”, but you’d have seen more concerted efforts at establishing truth on The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Rehearsed cliché and extremely dubious “history” was followed by a series of “yes he did, no he didn’t” assertions that confused rather than clarified. Anyone, friend or foe, looking for any insight into the travails of the Scottish Labour Party would have come away from this shambles disappointed.
In fairness, presenter Jackie Bird used much softer tones than Mr Kyle usually does as she talked to the variously hurt and damaged individuals on this programme. Then again Jeremy seems able to challenge assertions from interviewees; not something that played a significant part of this travesty. But this was a programme that from the very start had little interest in answers.
“But how,” we were asked by Jackie Bird as she walks round Edinburgh South “did this affluent neighbourhood with its million pound homes become the sole survivor for a party which used to weigh its votes rather than count them?” Question posed, Ms Bird departs Edinburgh never to return, far less suggest an answer.
What follows is a gallop through Scottish Labour history which should have come with a health warning for historians with self harm issues. We are reminded of Hardie’s support for Home Rule and told: “In those early days the Labour MPs came from the communities whose lives they were trying to better”. Of course, Hardie didn’t, only ever being elected by the voters of West Ham and Methyr Tydfill. But we were never told this. For a programme much concerned with how distinct or not Scotland is, and how distinct or not Scottish Labour should be, this was an unfortunate oversight.
Later we are told: “The idea of Scotland being governed from Scotland was championed by its founding father Keir Hardie. And was a key pillar of its existence. But over the decades division within the party over devolution meant its relationship with this crucial policy was at the very least an uneasy one.” This idea that the Labour movement had existed as a Home Rule movement with social reform attached is currently fashionable, but simply doesn’t stand up to any historical scrutiny. Home Rule certainly went on to become a source of division, but the idea that it has been some sort of historic fault-line is utterly fanciful.
But this was of a piece with a version of history where the rest of the UK (never mind the rest of the world) struggled to get a look in. That Scotland, far from being a special case, is just part of a general trend, isn’t something we are allowed to consider. When the rise of the SNP in the 60s is to be accounted for (somewhat surprisingly by Ian Davidson), it is, as is standard, attributed to a novel political environment created by new towns facilitating a drift from Labour. It might have been relevant to mention that this wasn’t simply a problem for Labour in Scotland, but across the UK. Part of the motivation for Tony Crosland and his fellow revisionists was precisely how to hold Labour support in an era of full employment and generally rising living standards. In fact Social Democratic parties across Europe were facing similar challenges – hence the German SPD’s Bad Godesburg programme. Ian is certainly aware of Crosland and is a good enough European to be aware of the SPD. But the acknowledgement of these realities would have meant a lifting the perspective above the horizon of the Kailyard, which sadly was never on the cards.
The “history” on display didn’t improve. The 1979 referendum was held in an “…era of strikes and black-outs culminating in the Winter of Discontent. Labour, the party of trades unions, was seen as being unable to control them. These years did immense damage to Labour’s reputation as a party of government”. This is certainly an arguable point, but not when it’s being illustrated with footage of the work-in at UCS and a miners strike, both of which actually happened under the Heath government. And the ’79 referendum prompts the next question to which no answer is provided: “…it was seen as a blow to Scotland’s self confidence but did it damage the Labour Party?” (In the general election two months later, Scottish Labour put 5% on the previous result. So I’ll I’d hazard a guess at “No”.)
The trip down fantasy lane continues through the Thatcher era. “The Government of Mrs Thatcher was a blow to Labour nationally – but it turned out to be a unifying force for Labour in Scotland” (SDP? Robert MacLennan? Roy Jenkins winning the Hillhead by-election? … Oh never mind.)
What of trades unions? Just about the only coverage of the union-Labour relationship in the entire programme is provided by ex Ravenscraig convener Tommy Brennan, who is wheeled out to say “New Labour left me, I didn’t leave Labour”. The irony of this jibe coming from the former proponent and practitioner of the “new realism” in the trade unions, very much the precursor of the New Labour Project, is considerable.
Mr Brennan, incidentally, was introduced to viewers over shots of pickets struggling with police. But these were not steelworkers trying to save Ravenscraig; they were miners, protesting the movement of scab coal. The programme chose not to remind us of Mr Brennan’s infamous comment on this at the time, which was: “We’re not going to nail ourselves to somebody else’s cross”. But it was, you understand, Labour who left him.
There are plenty of people – historians, political scientists, God save us maybe even trade unionists – who might have been able to deliver some insight into the evolving relationship between the political and industrial wings of the movement. But instead we were thrown Mr Brennan’s trite little cliché, and no light was shed.
As for the development of New Labour itself, we are told that “during the Blair/Brown years the party’s direct effect on Scotland was often compromised by the need to foster alliances with middle England … but people kept on returning Labour MPs”. With an inaccuracy that begins to look compulsory, this is illustrated by film of newly elected Labour MPs standing on the steps of Keir Hardie House … in 1992.
We fare no better with the treatment of devolution-era politics. There is a series of interviews with Labour Party figures of greater or lesser seniority. These include two former First Ministers, four Scottish labour leaders, and two ex General Secretaries. That’s only four people by the way. What they have in common is, almost by definition, an inability to comment authoritatively on why the party finds itself in its current predicament. If you want to know why a plane went down it’s the air accident investigators you go to find out what really happened, not the people on the flight deck.
Instead we get their limited and partial perspective with no attempt to sift fact from self justification. X is interviewed saying something is black, to be followed by Y saying it was white. Assertions are made with no evidence provided. Actually establishing what happened is a task that the team who embarked on this “investigation” don’t seem to think is worthwhile. Even dealing with the relatively recent past the programme can’t seem to get a proper grip . Take that first Scottish Parliament selection panel. “Some claim the process wasn’t impartial, with the party reaching for a top down process with Westminster, not Scottish Labour, taking a lead”. Of course back then “Westminster” wasn’t a synonym for “rest of the UK” or even “just automatically bad” in the way it is used now. At the time plenty of people (myself included) were claiming the panel was a bit of a stitch up – but no one said it wasn’t one made in Scotland. And even if Ian Davidson’s bluntly stated view that it was all Donald Dewar’s doing is correct, Donald, we should remember (though the programme never mentioned) had been elected by conference as Leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell talk of difficult meetings and pressure from UK colleagues. We’ve heard this before. What might have added to our understanding would have been some indication of the impact of such pressure on what they actually did. Were they stopped from doing anything? If so what? How? These questions just don’t seem to have been asked.
In fairness, individual contributors made comments which may have had some degree of validity, but without follow up they explained next to nothing. David Whitton says that the SNP have lots of money. Absolutely, but Labour have won despite being outspent before, why not now? Iain Gray believes Labour never fully took on board the implications of devolution. Maybe so, but what does he think they are? Henry McLeish believes Better Together was created in London. Why does he think this? We aren’t told. The discussion of Scottish Labour involvement with and autonomy from the UK party failed to distinguish between organisation and policy – or even point out that Jack McConnell and Helen Liddell were former General Secretaries.
The (allegedly) thorny topic of party autonomy wasn’t one that seemed to have been put to Kezia Dugdale or Ken MacIntosh though. They, in their last minute appearances, were restricted to the valid but hardly groundbreaking observations that Labour should be a constructive opposition and look to the future. In fairness to them, it would have been a very poor platform to say anything of any significance whatever.
This programme consisted in laying out a very partial view of a situation and then trying to manipulate people into talking about it in the most accusatory way possible. Yes, there might be an actual answer or answers – but really that wasn’t the point. The Jeremy Kyle Show does it with the tangled personal lives of the suburban poor, BBC Scotland chose to do it with the Scottish Labour Party. Where Jereamy scores over BBC Scotland is that I’m not aware of him claiming to be involved in investigative journalism.
Labour’s future isn’t, of course, the BBC’s concern; it’s ours. How we got here though – that is something that a public service broadcaster could and should be examining seriously. They chose not to. A pity. We don’t have that luxury.