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Party leaders have gravely misunderstood Labour’s Scottish loss

ByOliver Lemarchand

May 10, 2015

In terms of the post-election flurry of results, resignations, analyses, and general confusion, 2015 has proven to be unparalleled in recent electoral history. But equally characteristic of the election has been general misunderstanding. The electorate’s decision to heavily punish the Liberal Democrats, who, in spite of flaws of which the student community need not be reminded, seems to represent a misunderstanding of the Party’s effort in diluting Conservative agenda since 2010, particularly when now faced with the bizarre reality that it was the Tories who were so unexpectedly rewarded for the failings of the coalition.

Perhaps most fatal of all, however, is the Labour Party’s misunderstanding of the reasons for their catastrophic failure in Scotland. In his departing speech, Ed Miliband claimed that his party was overcome by a “surge of nationalism” amongst the Scottish electorate, whilst Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy used his own defeat as an opportunity to attack the “artificial battle between English and Scottish nationalists” which, in his mind, worked to his Party’s ruinous disadvantage.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that nationalism cannot be blithely dismissed as non-existent with regards to the SNP’s sweeping defeat of Scottish Labour; a party whose raison d’être is the independence of a nation will doubtless attract nationalist support. But this does not necessarily equate to the reasons for the Scottish electorate voting in the way they chose to do. The Labour Party, rather than attributing their Scottish collapse to only loosely-identifiable exterior forces, needs to look internally. To many, their pact with the Conservatives during the referendum to unify in opposition to independence typified the Party’s gradual rightward shift, an alliance based upon little more than the preservation of self-interest. Whether right or wrong, no matter how questionable the now clichéd tag of Labour as the ‘Red Tories’ may be, the perceived choice to ally with the Conservatives rather than with the interests of Scotland was a powerful catalyst for the fall of Scottish Labour.

Indeed, many political commentators, such as Bloomberg Business’s Stryker McGuire, have remarked upon the ambiguity of Labour’s fragmented message: not right enough for England, not left enough for Scotland. The problem with such arguments, notwithstanding the generalised ignorance of the powerful presence of the Left across England and substantial pockets of support for the Right in Scotland, is that they rest upon the assumption that the SNP is a party of the Left. In short, the SNP’s credentials as a leftist party are questionable. As is widely-documented, their conservative economic policy does not match with their progressive rhetoric on social welfare. Commitments to an anti-austerity programme and to the starvation of financial support for Trident are not especially leftist policies, but those which captivated the popular leftism of the Scottish electorate. More accurately, the SNP may be regarded as a populist party, to the left of New Labour.  The SNP simply picked up from where a previously successful Labour Party left off, championing the voice of the ordinary Scottish (ex-)Labour voter, desiring a reformed attempt at wealth redistribution and a commitment to the working classes rather than some radical socialist utopia.

The victory of confusion in the general election is therefore not limited to the student community, or to the pollsters, or to the electorate at large. The gravest misunderstandings of all have come from the party leaders of Labour, failing to comprehend that the SNP’s success was their own failure. Perhaps while widespread changes to the Party were once a risk, it appears that the introspection against which Jim Murphy has warned is now of absolute necessity to the future success, and even survival, of Scottish Labour.

Image: Southbanksteve, Flickr

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