5 October 2010

Shock result! Labour in 1% poll lead!

Which well-educated metropolitan monkfish, in the waxy fleshiness of early middle-age, recently opined that “Wisdom is not the preserve of any one party. Frankly, the political establishment too often conducts debate in a way that insults the intelligence of the public”? With the advancing prospect of the Holyrood 2011 election, I've braced myself for the onset of logical fallacies and the trilling melodies that usually accompany them. In particular, next year we're bound to be treated to endless examples of a weary argumentum ad hominem - or more classically, the argumentum ad Toriem. Sneery Labourite hollowheads ask "What's the difference between the Tories and the SNP anyway? They're just Tartan Tories!" Cue responses "Look at that sleekit New Labour crowd, with their greedy, privatising, market enthusiasms. They're the very spit of CamCam and Gideon!" Scuffle, melee, accusation, repeat.  

I'm not saying that these statements don't raise issues which we could - indeed ought - to explore as we seek to understand what different parties stand for and intend. My point is that these asides are not generally an invitation to think - to identify and admit the significance of real differences - to explore the reasoning, philosophy and understanding underwriting particular choices and policies. They're the partisan scoff of the lazy cynic. As anticipated, the dreaded absurdities have already commenced. In a recent SNP party news release, Angela Constance MSP is quoted ruling out an SNP-Tory coalition, emphasising that

"... Labour had still failed to categorically rule out a coalition with the Tories despite their rhetoric. Ms Constance also highlighted how Labour couldn’t be trusted on the issue since they had voted with the Tories most in the Scottish Parliament since 2007 and also had coalitions with them in five councils – compared to ZERO for the SNP..."

Iain Gray treated us to a similar analysis at a past FMQs, which didn't so much turn the argument on its head as much as knock the questioner onto his bottom. The piece appends this ludicrous table:

1. How often parties have voted with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament since May 2007:

Labour - 46%
SNP - 45%
LibDem - 43%
Green - 32%
Margo - 28%

It is a phenomenon which has often puzzled me. Why do many Labourite commentators seem so urgently to wish that the SNP is a racist, right-wing nationalist party? Polemical positioning this might be, scratching after votes. That might be understandable, but forgive me - it hardly seems very honest or even very constructive. Why must we pretend that our opponents are simply wrong about everything? Why must we skirt over real disagreement as if it were inconsequential? Additionally, paradoxically, why must we insist that we shouldn't sometimes agree with Tories? In terms of rebutting Labour accusations of party Tartan Torydom, this sort of bizarre percentage analysis may be fair game.  Et tu quoque. 

Yet the absurdity of squabbling over a 1% Toryish voting differential hardly bodes well for a meaningful discussion about things of actual significance, or any sense of proportion about what issues parties agreed on, and where they disagreed. Take freezing the council tax, for example, or increasing police officer numbers, or mandatory prison sentences for knife crime, or the contested abolition graduate endowment - or a slew of other measures which are adopted consensually by the parliament, without provoking intense political speculation. Are we seriously suggesting that our politics should be governed by the inverse-Tory principle, where we wait for Dame Bella of Doily to announce Tory tribunes' voting intentions and them promptly, reflexively oppose all their endeavours (and our own which they happen to agree with)? I'd be interested (mildly, oh so mildly) to see a statistic which both Labour and SNP speakers tend to leave out - in what percentage of votes did they agree? 

It is possible to say an exculpating word here. Perhaps we should treat accusations of Toryishness as a sort of short-hand, an ensemble phrase whose chains of reference - if dutifully followed - would lead us to a meaningful discussion of substantive issues, exploring how the Tories policies are wrong-headed. Why opposing the end of the graduate endowment was wrong, why opposing the end of short sentences was wrong, why we shouldn't have mandatory prison sentences for those who are found with pointed weapons, why Trident should not be replaced, why the Scottish people should have a vote on independence - and so on, and so on. Those, it seems to me, are the issues that matter.

Not this demented ad hominem calculus, dancing on the raw-edged nerve of a single percentage point.


  1. Well said, sir, and it could lead Scots voters to think that the Tories are the ones with real power in the next Scottish Parliament, suiting neither Labour nor SNP. Hand me my petard if you will ...

  2. "Why do many Labourite commentators seem so urgently to wish that the SNP is a racist, right-wing nationalist party?"

    It's not in search of votes - far from it, Scottish Labour has swung to the right in search of votes in Scotland not to the left.

    No - the people they are trying to convince with that kind of rhetoric is actually themselves. Because in their hearts most Labour members/activists/politicians still see themselves as lefties. Therefore we in the SNP must be nasty racist right wingers. The fact that Scottish Labour increasingly fits into the Daily Mail slot in terms of justice and social policy is an incovenient truth which can only be repressed with an insistence that Alex Salmond is a Scottish version of Mussolini and we are his stormtroops.

  3. PS Accusations of Toryishness are quite handy. A Tory is someone who believes that the market is usually (if not always) right, that the state is inherently inefficient and that competition is the best (if not the only) driver of progress and improvement.

    The SNP does not believe that and neither does Labour. I used to think the Lib Dems didn't believe that either but it seems they do.

    Both Labour and the SNP float about in fairly similar kind of social democratic soup.

    I agree that defining ourselves solely in terms of how anti-Tory we are is a bit daft but nevertheless Scotland is an anti-Tory country so there is some logic in it.

  4. Thanks for the responses, as usual.

    I'm glad to hear that I'm not an altogether lonely voice, crying in the wilderness Anonymous. The SNP release links to this quote from Labour MSP and election coordinator, John Park in which he remarks:

    "This is all going to lead to a different approach north and south of the border. In Scotland, the two main parties share the same basic belief in the role of the state in terms of state provision – although the difference between us and the SNP is that we recognise that it has to be paid for".

    Surely it is highly problematic if - by dint of accusing your enemies of Toryism for political advantage - you find yourself unable to mobilise a broadly social democratic consensus on a different approach. Blacken your opponent's name and it may be difficult for you to polish them up as a plausible accomplice. Political flexibility and forgetfulness might help - but it is at least a bit difficult to call your opponent a Tory one day - and invite them to join you in an anti-Tory movement on the second.

  5. As I hope was apparent, Indy, I asked the question out of honest interest rather than partisan mischief-making. If I have any committed Labour readers - I'd be fascinated to hear your responses on this point. You may well be right in your assessment Indy. A conspiracy theory often appeals in some comforting way to one's own psychological make-up. In many cases, they are fundamentally self-referential. As you know, I'm curious about what Labour members who aren't professionally thirled to the parliamentary hierarchy make of their party's strident rhetoric and policies on justice & social policy. Are they in mute disagreement? Do they agree? Alas, my curiosity continues to go unanswered...

  6. I can understand the frustration - the quote by John Park for example could just as easily have been made by an SNP MSP. And with better justification I would argue since the SNP believes that the Scottish Parliament should have economic powers (and therefore the ability to promote economic growth and increase the funding for public services) and Labour doesn't.

    There are genuine differences however - for example over PFI. Labour adopted PFI whole-heartedly because they saw it as a way of building lots of schools etc quickly without having to pay for them there and then. In doing so they not only landed us with credit card levels of debt to pay off, they also undermined the whole notion of communities owning the assets they pay for and accepted the profit motive into the provision of public services.