Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats 2009

Here is a piece that I wrote on the fortunes of Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats for Holyrood Magazine in February 2009.

What next for the former Scottish Executive – vision or opposition?

If there is one word that sums up the reaction by both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats to the 2007 election and its aftermath, it is this: shock. For Labour the shock was profound because it has long been considered the ‘establishment’ party. The 2007 defeat followed a sustained period of electoral dominance in Scotland that stretches back to 1964. Although it never achieved more than 50% of the vote in Scotland, the first-past-the-post system exaggerated its position, allowing Labour to win the most Scottish seats in 15 of the 17 post-war UK general elections. Its dominance of seats even continued during the election of a Thatcher government in 1979 (Labour won 61% of Scottish seats) and a Michael Foot inspired Conservative landslide victory in 1983 (57%). Indeed, the years of Conservative government from 1979-97 actually cemented Labour’s position in Scotland – first, by producing a group of MPs (including Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling) more assured of election and more able to rise up the UK party ranks than many of their counterparts in England and, second, by establishing an association in the Scottish public mind between Labour and the need to address the ‘democratic deficit’ (in which a population votes for one government but receives another). By the time that New Labour enjoyed its own landslide in 1997, the share of seats rose to 78% – an expression of dominance made all the more significant by the failure of the Conservative party to win any seats. This pattern extended to local government, with Labour’s high (but generally below 50%) share of the vote translating into a majority of council seats and overall control of more councils than any other party for much of the post-war period.

Despite widespread hopes for ‘new politics’ and multi-party cooperation, the introduction of devolution in 1999 actually helped cement the image of Labour as the establishment party. Although its share of the vote fell below 40% and the introduction of proportional representation ruled out an exaggerated Labour majority in the Scottish Parliament, it was still the largest party. Following a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in both 1999 and 2003, it was effectively able to function as a majority in the Westminster mould. Further, since the reform of the electoral system for local government did not happen until 2007, Labour also commanded the majority of councillors in 1999 and 2003. Therefore, until 2007, the centrality of Scottish Labour to Scottish government (both central and local) seemed assured. Add to this the fact that Labour has formed the UK government as long as devolution’s existence, and the ability of Scottish Labour ministers to appoint a range of people in high profile governmental posts (such as quango boards), and you produce a widespread perception that the Labour party is embedded in the DNA of the Scottish political system. The culture of Scottish Labour included, understandably, an expectation that they would be in charge.

It is in this context that we can view the SNP’s electoral success, perhaps made more difficult for Labour by the margin of its defeat. For the neutral observer (if there is such a thing) there was a clear sense that, although the SNP did not gain a majority (which is unlikely under most proportional electoral systems) they had effectively won the election. However, for Labour we can identify a much longer thought process akin to the most common phases of grief: from stunned disbelief to anger (when complaining about particular election results, including the loss of former minister Allan Wilson) and, eventually, acceptance of its loss. This contributed to an unusually lengthy process in which the Scottish Labour leadership has sought to define its new role as an opposition party. To some extent this has been plagued with bad luck or issues outside of the control of the Scottish leadership. While Jack McConnell resigned as leader, he could not bow out as quickly from Scottish politics as he hoped, because Labour could not face an embarrassing result in the subsequent bye-election. While Wendy Alexander was elected as Scottish leader with minimal opposition, the unfortunate details surrounding the funding of her campaign contributed to her early downfall. While new leader Iain Gray’s election as Scottish leader should have marked a new era in Scottish politics, it was quickly mired in controversy over the conduct of Labour members in East Lothian and caught up in yet another bye-election which could threaten the position of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister – both issues in which Gray had little influence and distracted him from Labour’s strategy in the Scottish Parliament.

However, these events should not distract the party from a much wider problem: of how to balance the need to criticise the government for electoral gain while also supporting it enough to pursue its policy preferences and, more importantly, to not be seen as the main culprit behind the SNP government’s downfall (particularly during a period of economic crisis in which politicians are less likely to be forgiven their excessive partisanship). So far, the results have not been impressive. The image produced by the Creative Scotland Bill debacle was that the party was too pleased with its part in the Scottish Government’s defeat over the financial provisions to notice that this would kill the whole bill. Similarly, the party has not done well during the two annual budget rounds. Last year, it pursued neither the Conservative party’s aim of trading support for concessions nor the Liberal Democrats’ aim to present principled opposition. Instead, it abstained in the key stage 3 vote, producing more laughter than relief among the SNP benches. This year, its clearer opposition helped defeat the whole bill at stage 3, producing embarrassing headlines for the Scottish Parliament as a whole rather than the impression of a strong, assertive opposition (particularly when Labour then appeared to accept marginal concessions in exchange for support only a few days later).

Overall, recent experience has provided two main lessons for the Scottish Labour leadership. First, the idea of Scottish politicians standing up for Scottish interests goes down well. Conversely, Scottish Labour does not benefit from a media and public perception that it merely represents a regional arm of a larger and more powerful organisation. Scottish Labour needs to avoid a repeat of the effect that the lack of support from Gordon Brown had on Wendy Alexander. The aftermath of Alexander’s ‘bring it on’ statement was that she became vulnerable to portrayals as a powerless leader. It is time that a Scottish Labour leader gave the impression that s/he cares less about, or is at least willing to challenge, any response from the British party and its leadership. This will be crucial to the forthcoming debates on whether or not the Scottish Parliament should be given more powers (following the conclusion of the Calman report) and whether or not it should pass a referendum bill (following the conclusion of the National Conversation).

Second, no party should go too far in opposition. While principled opposition is justifiable, the strategy of opposition merely to embarrass the government is not (particularly in a country in which most parties are competing to occupy the same left-of-centre ground). Instead, the Scottish labour leadership needs to learn how to be a critical friend – to suggest, for example, that government policy is broadly the right thing to do but not the best way to do it (rather than introduce an alternative electoral programme without the support or resources to see it through). If the election in 2007 taught us anything it is that when the parties broadly agree on most (but not all) major policy issues, what counts is the ability to present an image of (past, current or future) governing competence and a positive vision that leaders can rely on when trying to rise above the petty world of electoral politics. In the domestic context, Iain Gray has done well to reflect on his party’s operational mistakes in government while sticking to the idea that the guiding principles were correct. The more ambitious and necessary strategy will be to present two coherent and related visions for Scotland. First, it is time that Scottish Labour outlined a vision for a distinct welfare state in Scotland, akin to but not as dramatically presented as Rhodri Morgan’s ‘clear red water’ speech. Second, it should produce a vision for Scotland’s constitutional future, to challenge not only the SNP but also send a signal that Scottish Labour is not merely run from London.

For the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the sense of shock was more subtle and related to the practicalities of life in opposition rather than government. In particular, its then leader, Nicol Stephen, soon found out that the lack of party resources produced a job in opposition more demanding than a minister in government. Less difficult was the change in thinking from government to opposition (because it has always been a relatively small party dependent on negotiation with larger parties to have any influence) or the issue of British party influence (because the Liberal Democrats favour a federal model in which the Scottish leader has more autonomy). There was also a greater sense of choice for the Liberal Democrats, who rejected the chance to negotiate another four years of government. It appears that the mood of the Liberal Democrats was towards a period of opposition and relative independence, to rediscover itself and question what it had given up as a condition of coalition (the difference in constitutional preferences between it and the SNP did not help either). Yet, the Liberal Democrats have also struggled to find that balance between opposition and support. In particular, Nicol Stephen’s unfortunate term ‘smell of sleaze’ (describing the SNP government’s involvement in the Trump planning application) played into the SNP’s hands, allowing Alex Salmond to wrap up any personal insult and refusal to answer a question properly as a reaction against Stephen’s initial snub. The Liberal Democrats also played their part in the Creative Scotland and annual budget debacles without appearing to gain much for the party or country in return (bar the SNP’s agreement to correspond with a Commission it does not value and a vague commitment to future cross-party scrutiny of the budget). While Tavish Scott is less likely to pursue a confrontational style, he has yet to demonstrate what value the Liberal Democrats add to the Scottish Parliament. As things stand, the party has a higgledy-piggledy approach to the presentation of its policy aims – promising very little during election campaigns (such as extra time for PE in schools), but then demanding the Earth when elected (such as a reduction in Scottish income tax). It is relatively easy to oppose policy innovation and make unrealistic demands in Parliament, but more difficult to present a worthwhile, viable and coherent alternative to government policy.

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