4 February 2015

"I see no ships"

You can imagine the conversation in the Members' Tearoom in the Palace of Westminster. Deep in Labour territory, in parliament's musty, flyblown, careworn tea den, two Scottish members sit, in cahoots. 

Their grogblossomed faces glow with that self regarding malevolence which comes only from putting the boot into your friends and allies. The first shakes his head, apparently more in sorrow than in anger, as he smacks his lips and pushes a spent newspaper across the green baize table. "2011: SNP re-elected with majority, Labour crushed." His colleague's brows furrow in a pantomime performance of irritation, flipping over the offending front page in exaggerated disgust, but the corners of his mouth twitch with barely concealed glee.

"What's wrong with these people? Just a few months ago, they had a fucking massive lead in the polls, a fucking massive lead. And they still blew it."

"The B team."

"The C team. They managed to lose in Glasgow, for fuck's sake. In fucking Glasgow. They're just useless, they really are." 

He pauses his diagnosis to pick a stray, burnt currant from his scone, giving it a second slurp of the butter knife. 

"I did tell them. We all told them. I mean, less than a year ago, I took -- we took -- nearly half of the votes in our seats. Nearly half. But this bunch of chancers are about as much use as a fart in a colander."

""Un-fucking-believeable. I've always said, devolution was a mistake. Half of our lot shouldn't even be fucking councillors. Councillors. MS-fucking-Ps? Fuck me."

"Amen, comrade. Another scone, Brian?"

Since 2007, the Labour Party has resembled the repeat victim of pyramid selling, whose eyes still quiver with the mad conviction that this get rich quick scheme is legit and sure to come off. Like Shelley Levine, Glengarry Glen Ross's faded, desperate hustler, the party has been lead by the nose to regard every setback as a blip, and every encouraging sign as sure proof that normal service will resume tomorrow. All we need do is watch the clock and wait for the electorate to rediscover their senses. 

Sure, its spokesmen and women will utter a few appropriate remarks about listening, change, and reconnecting with alienated communities -- but words are wind, and these windy words never seem to come to much.  Behind the mask of contrition, and promises of introspection and renewal, in the eyes, you see that same old Bourbon gleam. Learned nothing, forgiven nothing: entitlement, hubris, lack of self reflection. 

As one wag recently observed,  the party has become like the touchy and confused party guest, marching blimpishly around the room, barking at indifferent strangers, "don't you know who I am?" In 2011, they urged the electorate to "come home to Labour". For many voters, it's the idea that the party now represents any kind of spiritual home which befuddles. 

Instead of seeing any connection between the defeats of their colleagues in 2007 and 2011 and their own political fortunes, the party's Westminster contingent has shown every sign of lazy contempt for their comrades labouring north of the wall. And you don't hear the half of it in the media. Johann Lamont's parting shot, in resigning, expressed ideas you hear muttered in private, time and again.  

But you can see how the Scottish Labour MPs acquired this misplaced hubris. Marginalised in political decision making, vexed to see colleagues they don't rate doing the talking on telly, it is hardly surprising that a compensating psychological devilment has made work for their idle hands and mouths. After all, they might ask their Holyrood colleagues, what happened in the last general election? Unlike you lot, we got the goods. We delivered the same old crashing majorities. Why can't you? We may be marginalised, powerless, and uninteresting, but at least we're not as crap as you lot. We, at least, can enjoy a guid conceit of ourselves at your expense.  And a disloyal trauchle to the tearoom quietly to savour your disasters.

The problem with this attitude, of course, is that it is bereft of any self criticism or self awareness. Rather than seeing, in these defeats, lessons and implications for MPs' own conduct and political futures, the rise of the Nats was all down to a clownish band of third rate Labour MSPs. Problem solved. Westminster forever. That was, undoubtedly, part of the calamity which engulfed the party in 2007 and 2011, but it was not the whole story. 

And as has so often seemed the case in recent years, this convenient, psychologically compensating story left problematic assumptions unchallenged and awkward questions unexplored. Since politics north of the border ceased to be easy for them, Labour have become addicted to easy explanations for their troubles. It would be quite wrong, I think, to see the party's current polling only as an expression of recent events or individual incompetencies.

It is the culmination of years, of decades, of alienating compromises, weakening ties, and ever more provisional political loyalties. The independence referendum perhaps clarified a number of these themes, and intensified feelings, but the process was set, and understood, in a wider political context and structure which can't be overlooked. Ian Smart is dead right about that. Blaming Ed, or Murphy, or Lamont, or Gray -- represents just another tempting evasion for the People's Party about the scale, yes, but also the depth of their challenge in the 2015 campaign. The language of the "implosion" suggests a sudden, unforeseen catastrophe. But this prostate has been rumbling for years.

Ironically perhaps, a crushing defeat for the party in Westminster may be an essential condition for normalising the relationship between Labour in Holyrood and in Westminster, encouraging the party to put their shoulders to the same wheel, without the atmosphere of snark, recrimination and condescension. Scottish Labour MPs have, for many years, seemed to have adopted Nelson's motto about the implications of the party's long crisis for their own careers and ambitions. "I see no ships." 

With Ashcroft's startling polling this morning, many of the party's slighted Holyrood members may think, quietly, in their own tearooms: Well, ye see noo.


  1. One or two of those solid Labour seats were once Tory seats ( I well remember Teddy Taylor falling in Cathcart after big heaves from Labour) and who knows, they may end up being some kind of Tory again in the future.

    I for one will not be rushing to welcome our new nat overlords but I also believe that breaking the Labour power in the west of Scotland can only be a good thing. I remember being one of a few dozen people protesting in George Square as Provost Hodge entertained the South African ambassador (so much for Red Clydeside) and also remember being told by a Glasgow Labour Party trade unionist that he had over a hundred men 'under him' (oh er missus).

    I do think there is something odd going on - the opinion polls in Scotland before the Euro election gave the SNP a bigger lead than the actual voting did, so while I am sure My Lord Ashcroft is correct that something big is going on, maybe it will not be a Big big when Scotland votes.

    The council by-elections since the referendum look good for the SNP, but think the turnouts are low as usual.

    Puzzling times, but very interesting times.

    1. Do you prefer Tory overlords, of which ever hue, then. Overlords that the Scots electorate, appear to, want rid.

    2. The SNP in the Euro elections made almost no effort both for reasons of money and their activists being heavily involved on Yes duties.

      Those are far more likely reasons than something 'odd' and the SNP are not going to be stingy with either the money or the resources for May, certainly not with the polls as they are and all their activists now in comparison.

    3. Hi MuscleGuy. Well, am not convinced the SNP 'made almost no effort' in the Euro election but if so, all that apparently diverted effort put into the referendum didn't bring victory in the SNP's own heartlands. Worth looking at the percentage share again.

      SNP - 29%
      Labour - 25.9%
      Tory 17.2%
      UKip - 10.5%
      Greens - 8.1%


      In terms of minimal effort, surely the Kippers win the box of flying ducks - they cant have had much more than four guys and a dug out campaigning, and they still nicked that last Euro seat against all predictions (apart from some occult genius at Better Nation).

      Frankly I am baffled by the recent polls. One - a Survation poll? - gave the Greens 1 %, which cannot reflect reality.

      You missing the Graun YTU? I can;t navigate the new Beta landscape on Comment is Free on my old mac.

  2. "I see no ships." Surely as the "unsinkable" Titanic sailing towards icebergs

  3. "Put not your trust in pollings" Psalm 146.. (amended) :- )

    Didn't the Maximus Eck, convinced by the polls, have a team of Civil Servants scantin' to get on the early shuttle on 19th Sept past, the quicker to storm Downing Street?

    And wasn't he rather disappointed?

    The polls are bad for Labour and good for the SNP/Tory nexus, but the bookies are not early as convinced....

    So better not to count your chickens before they have laid the golden egg...

    1. I read somewhere that Eck was told in the course of the morning of the vote by some Canadian social media bods that he had won - and to prepare his victory speech.

      Tim Montgomerie says in today's Times that Charles Clarke not only predicted the result of the referendum, he also forecast a surge in support for the SNP afterwards, and that Nicola Sturgeon leading the SNP would be a nightmare for Labour.

    2. Surges die down... I know from personal experience....

      Question is: can the keep it going 'til 7th May.

      And Nicola is already beginning to disappoint. Poor at FMQs again today.

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  4. I didn't see FMQ but think she has been impressive so far myself. She obviously means to put clear blue water between herself and Salmond - at least as far as manner goes - and as Clarke seems to have realised earlier (see above) this is equally clearly working well for the SNP, and more importantly, is good for our civic realm. We are a long way from that ridiculous TV debate with Johann.

  5. "I see no ships" Only burning boats and tattered semaphore .