3 May 2015

Nicola's Assumption

Is the SNP campaign of 2015 the mirror image of the campaign Scottish Labour wanted - and thought it was running - in 2011? Unconvinced? Appalled at the apparent illogicality of the proposition? Understandable, on the evidence -- but please bear with me. 

Over the last few days, I have been struck by the unexpected similarities in the logic of the two campaigns. The one a calamity - the other a seeming success - but both effectively rely on mobilising similar feelings and logics in the electorate. Where Scottish Labour crashed and burned, the SNP look likely to net a healthy share of Westminster constituencies. Certainly more than the six we managed to secure in 2010. 

By 2011, Scottish Labour had admittedly shed two leaders and acquired a third. This was unedifying, messy, and characterised by its awkward marches and countermarches of policy. But the polls were initially friendly. In 2010, from Gordon Brown's bloodied and defensive crouch, the electorate had handed Labour a stonking victory. The Nationalists were confounded. Our ghastly "More Nats less Cuts" slogan had all the ferocity of a butterknife. The "local champions" riff -- a dud. The punters weren't listening, and backed Broon in the face of David Cameron, and his allies in the reactionary media. 

It was a cruel misdirection on our part, appealing to the lizard brained part of the People's Party, which told them that their current predicament in Holyrood was like an April shower -- soon melted, evanescent. The sturdy old oxen logic of tribalism, loyalty, and dogged adherence to the cause would soon revive. The people would repent of their error, and return. They would, as Margaret Curran said at the time, "come home to Labour", sheepishly, prodigal, but forgiven their trespasses. The old benedictions - interrupted but not forgotten. 

In my experience, the best way to lie to people is to tell them something which they desperately want to be true. And Scottish Labour seemed only too delighted not to collapse into any self-reflection, and to tell itself these gentle, convenient stories about the predicament which Jack McConnell had blundered into. 

After the narrow forty-seven to forty-six face off with the SNP in 2007, Iain Gray led his party into the Holyrood election on a platform of minimal difference. If the SNP wanted to freeze council tax? So do we (only slightly less so). The abolition of tuition fees? That too is here to stay. We're on students' side. Extra polis? A national boon. We won't reduce the numbers. But just think -- just think -- how much you would prefer to hear these policies from a Labour minister for finance, under a Labour first minister? 

Your deid grandpappy would be proud. His grave would have no occasion to birl. The natural order of things would be restored. Labour's policy distinctiveness in 2007 came down to an uncosted, illiberal, irresponsible plan to introduce mandatory prison sentences for everyone caught in possession of knives. But at its core -- it was an SNP manifesto, reframed in a Labour voice. This is not interesting in itself -- but it is telling about how Labour strategists thought about the electorate they thought they were appealing to. They recognised the allure of a number of "big ticket" items in the Scottish Government's first budget, but assumed that, given a contest, people would prefer hearing these policies from a Labour First Minister, cabinet, and Scottish executive. 

The assumption was that -- by borrowing the SNP's clothes, with an admixture of old Labour tribalism and loyalty -- the electors would come flocking back to the People's Party, remember the old hymns, and vote as Donald Dewar once intended. They judged folk wanted to back them. The unholy aberration of 2007 would be upended. The hated, temporary regime would be consigned to oblivion, and the old order would be restored. Difficult questions need not be asked. Fundamental change in the organisation was unnecessary. It was a quirk of the numbers and, as Euan McColm recalls in today's Scotland on Sunday, a few iffy, wet ballots from Arran. 

It's always tempting to compare Scottish Labour to the Bourbon monarchs of France, and their ideological hangers on and adherents. As the old snake Talleyrand once said, after their decapitation and dethronement, "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing". There is something strangely of the west of Scotland, Labour municipal cooncillor or parliamentarian about the portly, self-assured and slightly glaikit figure of King Louis XVIII.

As is so often the case, it is our unquestioned assumptions which eventually get us crucified -- and the central assumption of  Gray's 2011 campaign proved faulty. There was the sandwich shop, of course, Gray's own limitations, and a shaky statistical basis for the knife policy -- but it was the assumed allegiance and the assumed preference for a Labour government in Holyrood which proved devastating. It turned out that the Scottish electorate of 2011 had learned to disregard their fealty to the ancien régime. They looked at Gray, and at Salmond and Sturgeon, and found they preferred the SNP incumbents they had only very modestly backed in 2007. Like his campaign, Gray's assumptions imploded.

Scottish Labour's 2007 manifesto was defined by their opponents. 2015's SNP manifesto could only have been published after Labour's 2015 proposals. It calculates, with caveats, that the SNP is now regarded as better placed, and better trusted, to realise and extend these aspirations than the UK Labour party. The 2015 SNP campaign effectively reverses and pursues Iain Gray's 2011 logic. 

Of course, the parallels are not exact. The context is different. One some very big ticket items - public spending, the constitution, and Trident - the SNP is seriously at odds with Labour. The referendum has also helped to create a different, broader constituency for Nicola's message and a constituency which is justly vexed with Labour, its performance in office before 2010, and its often cautious and uninspiring performance in opposition since. But at bottom, the First Minister is now exploiting a logic of minimal different with her main opponents in precisely the same way in which Iain Gray hoped, in 2011, to lead Scottish Labour back into Bute House.  

Only Thursday night and Friday morning will tell us whether Nicola's judgement -- that the Scottish people would now prefer to take this old social democratic medicine from her lips -- will be vindicated.  


  1. Interesting analogy. My questions are:

    Firstly, is this merely tactical as Peat Worrier appears to suggest, or is Nicola genuinely positioning herself to the left, because those are her convictions?

    Secondly, what is the effect of the huge influx of new SNP members on policy-making? Is it not reasonable to assume that after a vibrant Yes campaign that largely escaped its SNP handlers and centred on promoting new social-democratic choices, Nicola & team would have too acknowledge the new base and trim their sails to the left? What more if that was her instinct anyway?

    Whereas Labour in 2010 can hardly be accused of excessive devotion to principle.

    1. I hope and trust the new cohorts to the SNP cause will tack it - and tak it - further to the left, but I suspect not too far and not too fast. Madame Nicola, I believe, inclines that way herself but knows she must bestride her party with a large tent. There is, how and ever, an upcoming scenario which may well facilitate a less centrist course.

      With the D'Hondt method likely to work against the Scottish Party for list seats in 2016, an intelligent campaign from Patrick Harvie and Co. could see the verdant ones overtake not just the Liberals but also the Tories in the parliamentary pecking order. Certainly there are many SNP members thinking of "lending" their second vote in 2016 as a way of winnowing out the Westminster wastrels. Perhaps - stop me if I'm getting carried away - perhaps we may yet see a Green eclipse of the People's Party? Surely the simmering socialist civil war will ensue under a defeated, recalcitrant Comrade Murphy.

      Indeed, the Warrior's allusion to the Bourbons might be even more telling than first appeared. Oddly my aged eyes perceive the more modern ghost of Ceaucescu shadowing the Murphy visage, the former dictator bewildered on his balcony, arms beating the air as the mob circles the palace...

  2. Andrew, the reason the electorate ditched Labour at Holyrood in 2011 was because of the quality of their team and their leadership, not their manifesto. Manifestos deliver nothing - effective, committed, and forceful politicians do.

    It was the sheer mediocrity of the Labour team that was rejected in 2011.

    That and the political skill that the SNP had shown in running a minority government since 2007. This convinced folk they were pragmatists, not zealots. And effective to boot.

    1. The classical concept of 'virtu' from Latin root for 'manliness' but meaning in this context, manly skill, political skill: effectiveness. It was the 'virtu' of the SNP in running a minority government skillfully and effectively since 2007 as much as their policies that has shifted perceptions - and preferences.

      They said it could never be done! But the SNP team pulled it off.

      Nothing succeeds like success.


  3. 'Your deid grandpappy would be proud.’

    Yes I admire Stephen very much but I thought that argument pretty weak. From the little I know of my own grandads - one a Belfast welder with the splendid name of William McGonagle, the other (I gather) a Biggar stonemason - I think it perhaps not certain they were examples of working-class solidarity.

    He also invokes the dreary spectre of Keir Hardie, a common sign - as Muggeridge pointed out many years ago - of self-delusion.

    The core fact of the 2011 Holyrood election is that only 50% of the Scottish electorate bothered to vote - most of those who voted did so for unionist parties. Two certain things for Thursday - the SNP will take more votes than any other party, but less than the others combined, and the turnout will be higher not just than the Holyrood 50%, but the Westminster 63%. Well i think so anyway.

    Stephen also strums the 1945 harp, but that is also complex - porportionately Scots voted less for Labour than the English did, and of course 10 years later Scots voted overwhelmingly for the Tories and their allies.

    Nothing is for ever, as i shall remind myself Friday morning.