Thursday 19 February 2015

The Shallow Talent Pool of Scottish Labour

The Scottish Labour Party is in deep trouble. Many of the reasons are obvious, but I will explore a less obvious one.

The facts are well known: Since October 2014, the SNP has held roughly a 20 point lead over Labour in voting intentions for Westminster in Scotland. This basically reverses the situation in the 2010 general election, and would hand about 30 of Labour's Scottish seats to the SNP. It is usual to credit the energy, optimism, and unity of the SNP, galvanized by its efforts in last year's referendum campaign; contrasted with the internal conflicts of Scottish Labour, the uninspiring leadership of Ed Miliband, and Labour's dismal efforts to chase swing voters in middle England to the exclusion of all else. All these things are true, but I think there is another underlying factor.

The Scottish Parliament building.

In 1999, the first devolved Scottish Parliament was elected. It was the zenith of Labour dominance, following the collapse of the Scottish Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1997 general election, Labour had won 56 of Scotland's then 72 seats, with 46% of the vote; the SNP were a distant second on 22%. It had a similarly crushing victory in the 1995 local elections, with 44% of the vote and majority control of 20 out of 29 local councils. Labour had campaigned for the creation of the Scottish Parliament; in the 1999 election it was the largest party with 39% of the constituency vote, with the SNP trailing on 29%.

Now, imagine it is 1999; you are a bright, idealistic, ambitious young Scot of mildly left-wing inclinations; and you want a career in politics. One might suppose the Labour Party would provide a natural home; but what does it really have to offer?

With the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, a career as a Westminster MP suddenly lost much of its attraction. You would have to travel at least four hundred miles from home, to a Parliament which spends most of its time debating matters which have nothing to do with Scotland. Many ministerial posts are closed to you; it would be most unlikely for a Scottish MP to be given a post in a fully devolved department such as health or education. Your ability to directly affect the lives of your constitutents is severely limited.

Holyrood is looking much better; but here, the Labour Party's decades-old dominance of local government might work against it. Simply put, there are a lot of local councillors ahead of you in the queue. You could try and spend the next decade or two climbing through the party ranks until it is your turn; or you could go somewhere else.

The Liberal Democrats are a possibility, but at best they will be junior coalition partners at Holyrood. If you want a chance at the big prizes, or even being First Minister one day, the obvious alternative is the SNP.

The conditions were right for a capable, ambitious generation of Scottish politicians to join the SNP. Now, these recruits are rising to positions of leadership under Nicola Sturgeon, who herself was first elected as an MSP in 1999 at the age of 29. Sturgeon has a long-standing commitment to the SNP, having joined at the age of 16; but some of her colleagues might once have been more flexible, such that Labour could have tempted them away with a better offer. Now, of course, it is far too late.

For some time, the talent pool for Scottish Labour has looked distinctly limited. There is a stark contrast with the previous generation or two: John Smith, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, John Reid, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling. Even their worst enemies would acknowledge that in their heyday, these were serious men and formidable political operators. (However, it's telling that they were all men; the SNP may well have been better at attracting talented women like its new leader.)

Where are their equivalents today? With all due respect to Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, I'm not sure he's in the same league; and there aren't many others. It appears that Scottish Labour failed to adequately develop a new generation of leadership over the last 15 years or so, and now it is suffering the consequences. I don't have any direct experience of the internal party dynamics, but to an interested observer, this looks like a plausible hypothesis.

The party has now turned to Jim Murphy for leadership; as an MP since 1997, he belongs to the pre-devolution cohort of Scottish politicians. Time will tell how he performs, but he has a mountain to climb before he can restore his party's fortunes.

The SNP is well on its way to securing the dominance of Scottish politics which once belonged to Labour. One day, it too may become moribund and complacent, leaving an opening for its opponents; but that day will be far beyond the 2015 Westminster and 2016 Holyrood elections.

Make no mistake, the ongoing political changes in Scotland are of historic importance. What I find interesting here is that historic events may depend on impersonal economic forces, grand conflicts of ideological systems, and the like; but they are also contingent on personalities, and ordinary, everyday incompetence.

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