Here’s former Scottish Labour MP Tom Harris in today’s Sunday Times:
But the only thing that would make people give Labour a second glance at the moment is offering something that I am absolutely opposed to, and that is independence. The only way we can attract voters back is by offering them what they want and that is independence.”
Wait, what now?
There’s barely a word of that we don’t need explained.
We’re not sure in what way Kezia Dugdale is “different from what you would normally expect”. Like the other two main party leaders at Holyrood she’s a fairly young woman (Nicola Sturgeon is around 12 years older than her, Ruth Davidson just four years older). She’s been the branch office’s deputy manager since last December, and was hot favourite to win the leadership job.
She’s exactly what everyone expected and has already been seeing at FMQs for nine months. She’s about as surprising and attention-grabbing as milk on cornflakes.
And the second paragraph is even more bewildering. The last sentence says that the only thing Scottish voters want is independence, but the polls have shifted only a couple of points since the electorate rejected it last September. We’re not sure who’d be won back if Labour offered it now anyway – such a spectacular U-turn would surely shred what few tattered scraps of credibility the party still has.
Harris concurs, going on to add that the situation is hopeless:
“Labour can never do that so I am very pessimistic about getting us back to the position we were in, in the short term. If we are lucky we are facing a decade in the wilderness.”
We doubt the SNP will be so complacent as to take that claim as gospel – politics is a story of unforseen events turning conventional wisdom on its head. But Harris indirectly puts his finger on the huge core problem facing Dugdale, which is that even if Scotland starts listening, Labour has nothing to say to it.
While commentators and opposition alike regularly carp and girn about how real the Nats’ left-wing credentials are, the fact of the matter is that in the public perception the SNP is now the party of social justice and opposition to austerity. Labour doesn’t have a single policy to call its own, nothing it can offer that the SNP isn’t already offering with the benefit of years of competence in government to back it up.
Labour can attack, for example, on what its tame media allies call an “A&E crisis”, but it immediately faces two problems. One is that it’s invariably the case that the statistics in an SNP “crisis” are still improvements on the best Labour achieved during its eight years in control of Holyrood, despite the SNP working under far more challenging fiscal conditions.
And secondly, in the event that there should be real problems, Labour has no solution. Even if you think that, say, John Swinney is doing a poor job as Finance Secretary, who in Scotland believes Jackie Baillie would do a better one? When challenged to explain how they’d fund the higher spending they propose as the magical solution to all problems, the responses of Labour’s would-be ministers tend to – and we’ll put this as tactfully as we can – lack credibility.
Torn in two directions at once – to the right by the Tories in England and to the left by the SNP in Scotland – Labour has triangulated and compromised its way into complete irrelevance. The SNP are trusted by people who want to vote for leftish social democracy, and the Tories are trusted by those who want neoliberalism. Labour (and the Lib Dems) are no use to anybody. Whatever your ideology, Labour are the second-best choice to carry it out.
The only cure for that malaise in politics is to put a party in the hands of a group of strong, credible conviction politicians. We’re straining our eyes as hard as we can, but if Kezia Dugdale and Ken Macintosh are the best Scottish Labour can find as possible leaders, we’re not seeing where a front-benchful of those are coming from any time soon. And nor, it seems, is Tom Harris.