Jim Murphy and Ed Miliband have spoken a lot during this UK General Election campaign about minority governments, coalitions, how the House of Commons and UK politics work and, mostly, how they will not work with the SNP. Jim Murphy, surely the soon to be outgoing leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has talked about how you have to go back to the 1920s to when the UK last had a minority government that was supported by a supply and confidence agreement. He has stated that the only way the UK can ensure having a Labour government and/or to keep the Tories out is to vote for his party. In fact, both Murphy and Miliband have gone so far as to say that they would not do a deal with any party to ensure we are not faced with another five years of Conservative rule. According to both Labour men, Scotland must help deliver a Labour Government.
The only trouble with that is previous Labour Governments have not needed their Scottish contingent to ensure the keys to Number 10. Blair didn’t and neither did Wilson, so why does Miliband need our support so badly? The truth is, Labour has failed to do enough to win over voters in England and Wales with their policies. Now, they keep saying that Scotland must vote for them for fear of the Big Blue Wolf at the door. They invoke memories of Keir Hardie and John Smith, hoping that this is enough to convince an electorate to vote for them. According to the polls, this has not done the job and voters are increasingly turning away from the party.
For decades, Labour took it for granted that Scotland would always vote for their candidates. When I first moved to Scotland in the early 1990s folk told me a monkey with a red rosette would win an election in Glasgow. The trouble is, the party, at least the London heidyins, still believe this and cannot understand why Scotland has gradually moved away from them over the last ten years. They blame the SNP’s rise in popularity for all of Scotland’s ills. They blame voters who wish to give the UK parties a black eye. They blame malcontents who still want to fight last year’s independence campaign. The only people they don’t blame are themselves and the policies of previous Labour administrations, both at Westminster and Holyrood.
Did the rot set in under Henry McLeish’s watch, when the then First Minister was found guilty of sub-letting a tax-subsidised constituency office on the sly? Perhaps. Was it Blair taking us into a war on George W Bush’s coat-tails, which a large majority of Scots opposed? Possibly. Was it down to the further relaxing of banking regulation and the following financial mismanagement, which helped contribute to the most recent recession? Mebbes. Allying themselves with the Tories as part of the Better Together campaign in last year’s referendum didn’t help their case, that’s for sure.
I think all of these things contributed to the increasing disillusionment of Scottish voters, especially when having promised further devolution before last September’s vote. They then sought to block any moves to make it happen in the Smith Commission. However, as with any person you seek to woo, taking them for granted will never win their heart or their hand, let alone their franchise. Labour and Jim Murphy still believe that is the early Nineties and threatening people with a Conservative government is enough to send them in their droves to vote Labour. Scotland did back Labour in 1992 – out of 72 seats Labour won 49 against the Tories 11 – but were still lumbered with another Tory UK Government. Perhaps that’s why the fear slogans they currently use about not backing them and seeing David Cameron in Number 10 again sound a little hollow. Jim has stayed still; the trouble is the country hasn’t.
Since devolution, Labour has consistently saved what it considers its brightest and most able politicians for Westminster. You only have to look at the slim choice the party had in November 2001 with Jack McConnell the only candidate to succeed McLeish. No matter what you think of McConnell nobody could honestly describe him as a political heavy-weight, even at Holyrood. However, he had the backing of Tony Blair, which was good enough for Labour MSPs. With this attitude, that Holyrood is a second-rate parliament – that man Blair once described it as the equivalent of a parish council – it shows an inherent arrogance when it comes to Scottish politics. “They’ve always voted for us and they always will.” The trouble is, the party leadership maintained that opinion even after things started to change in 2007 with the election of an SNP minority government.
That’s another area where Jim is stuck in the past, the rejection of coalitions, partnerships and minority government. Somehow, he forgets that Labour held sway at Holyrood for eight years thanks to a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, back when people trusted them. The SNP’s first term as the Scottish Government showed how a minority could work, something that Labour never quite got to grips with. During Alex Salmond’s initial four years as First Minister, his Labour opposite number Iain Gray spent the Session berating, denigrating and arguing with the SNP. Meanwhile, the other parties at Holyrood, especially the Conservatives under Annabel Goldie, used the government’s minority status to their advantage. They sought deals with the SNP, agreeing to support budgets and bills in return for extra funding for their particular policy hobbyhorse. Labour did not and stuck to tribal and confrontational politics, which was eventually reflected in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. The last five years at Westminster has shown how coalition government can work, although that partnership only seemed to work for big businesses, tax dodgers and those with inherited wealth.
Lastly, Murphy and Miliband have not seen Scotland’s growing belief in itself. We think we can do better and that we deserve more. We are not happy to keep tugging our forelock in deference to our London political masters. We want a new future. Labour could have formed part of that new future and still can. The party can show that it believes in Scotland and its people, whether it is through increased devolution or independence. They can show they know that those who have suffered over the last five years, the people who have not benefitted the most over the last twenty, deserve a better and fairer country to live in. Unfortunately, I think that come next week the Labour Party will blame all of the UK’s ills on Scotland for not backing them. They, of course, had nothing to do with it.