The week Scottish Labour withered

The week Scottish Labour withered

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 19, May, 2017

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

FOR MOST of my life, the Labour Party has dominated the Scottish political scene like a towering statue. Huge swathes of the political map were painted red, with constituencies where the party had such massive majorities that it was joked that a monkey with a red rosette could be put up as a candidate and still be elected.

This was the Scottish Labour party that gave us figures like Robin Cook, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander. It was the party which ambitious young Scots, wanting to make a career in politics, rushed to join. Its tentacles extended into all aspects of Scottish civic life, from local government, to health boards, to quangos, to the third sector.

Now, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, all that it is now left of the once great edifice is two ruined stumps emerging from an empty desert of sand, a cruel and mocking memory of past glories.

The unravelling of what remaining credibility the Scottish Labour Party had began on Tuesday, where events in Perth gave us the first inkling that all was not well. The newly-elected (and only) Labour councillor in Perth and Kinross, Alasdair Bailey, had signed up as part of a Conservative-led partnership administration, along with the Liberal Democrats and Independents.

He was pictured happily on the front page of the local edition of The Courier with the Conservative group leader Ian Campbell, and representatives of other parties, talking about how the new administration would take Perth and Kinross forward.

But Cllr Bailey’s stance was contradicted by Scottish Labour’s HQ, who put out a statement in his name (which, apparently, came as a surprise to him) stating that he was not part of the administration, and never had been. A source blamed the confusion on “a breakdown in communications”. It was certainly an embarrassing position for a newly-elected councillor to be put in by his Party’s headquarters.

But there was much, much worse to come for Scottish Labour. On Wednesday morning a coalition was agreed in Aberdeen between the Conservative group and 9 Labour councillors, with Labour’s Jenny Laing to be leader of the administration. This was effectively a continuation of the previous Labour-Tory coalition which had run the city effectively for the previous five years.

It was at this point that the Scottish Labour leadership threw its toys out of the pram, decreeing that this coalition could not go ahead. The Labour councillors were warned that unless they backtracked by 5pm on Wednesday, they would be suspended from the Labour Party and face disciplinary action. Bravely deciding to put the interests of the city, and their constituents, before their party loyalty, the 9 Labour councillors stood their ground, with the consequence that, as of Wednesday evening, there were no Labour councillors in Aberdeen, but instead a Tory/Independent group in the administration.

What seemed to lie behind the Scottish Labour approach was its concern, in advance of the General Election, that they would be seen to be working with the Conservatives. Yet, on the very same day as these events were developing, Labour in Fife was announcing a deal to form a joint administration with the SNP to run the Council there.

So, the Scottish Labour stance appeared to be that deals with the separatist SNP, campaigning for a second independence referendum, were acceptable, but deals with a pro-Union Conservative party were not. It was a dreadful message for Kezia Dugdale to be sending her pro-Union party supporters in advance of the General Election.

Worse still, on Wednesday we saw Kezia out on the stump in Edinburgh South, the seat of the sole remaining Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray, calling for Tory and Liberal Democrat voters in the constituency (of whom there are a fair few) to tactically vote Labour. Quite why any of them should do this, when Kezia Dugdale was happy for her councillors to work with the SNP but not the Conservatives, was not explained.

This total shambles at the heart of the Scottish Labour party has a number of serious consequences for the party. Firstly, it makes it much less likely that Conservatives in seats like Edinburgh South will now be prepared to lend their tactical votes to Labour – why should they, when Labour is more comfortable with propping up the SNP than working with the Conservatives? Any chance Labour had of winning the East Lothian constituency, their only realistic target to take from the SNP, must now have disappeared.

Secondly, these events are ruinous for Kezia Dugdale’s personal credibility as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. She has been openly defied by the entire Labour group on Aberdeen City Council. It is worth reflecting that they would be unlikely to be so brazen in their approach if they thought that Kezia was still going to be in office a month from now, after what is expected to be another disastrous set of results for Scottish Labour.

Finally, and this has to be the most damning, it is absolutely clear now (indeed if it were ever in any doubt previously) that the Labour Party in Scotland simply cannot be trusted to defend the Union. At this stage in our political history, any advance for the SNP will be seen as a boost for plans for a second independence referendum. For Labour to be putting the SNP in positions of power just undermines the future of the United Kingdom. Only the Scottish Conservatives can be trusted to stand up to the SNP, and robustly oppose an unwanted second independence referendum.

A long, long period in the desert now beckons for what remains of Scotland’s once dominant political force. And, frankly, they deserve no better.

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