I’m not interested in trying to ‘punish’ the “Labour” party

There is a much chatter on social media about ‘punishing Labour’, trying to ensure a ‘Labour wipe-out’ in 2015 (Westminster General Election) and 2016 (Holyrood election).  For a longer version, though not necessarily more coherent than a handful of excitable tweets, the Scottish Times offers an example of the kind of thing I mean (I have no idea who ST really are).  In contrast, my Stirling University colleague Scott Hames writing at the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum offers a more sober interpretation of where we are, including in relation to the next two elections (if you’re still a bouncy Yesser, that one might deflate you a bit, but it is worth reading).

Let me say right at the start: I can understand the desire to whack the “Labour” Party, I really can.  After all, I can’t even use their name without quotation marks now, since they clearly no longer have a connection to labour as most understand it (i.e. that thing people do that’s meant to provide them with a stable and sufficient income).  With the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, firmly committed to Tory/LibDem spending cuts, the argument that it actually makes no difference whether you vote Tory, LibDem or “Labour” at Westminster makes increasing sense.  Why vote “Labour”? For a pink-tinted version of Tory viciousness? For a party that pretends it’s got your interests at heart, when it actually serves the same neoliberal forces as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats?  I always used to joke that I preferred Thatcher to Blair – at least everyone knew Thatcher was awful, but for a while Blair managed to fool many people into thinking he was nice (several wars and privatisations put paid to that).  Nobody was ever going to make that sort of mistake with Thatcher!

“Scottish Labour” is no better.  In fact, I should probably have separate quotation marks around “Scottish” and “Labour” – but that level of pedantry is a bit much, even for me.  This is an utterly shameful and ignorant group of politicians: a cheerful front for the Tory/LibDem-funded Better Together organisation, doing their legwork: Johann Lamont as ‘leader’ (I’m not even sure if she thinks she is genetically programmed to make decisions), Ian Davidson (wanting to ‘bayonet the wounded’ – what is wrong with him?), Jim Murphy (who only cared about visiting communities across Scotland to secure the British state and bolster his own profile, not to engage with any social issues these communities might be facing under his Tory/LibDem allies’ tender care), Alistair Darling (the darling of the Scottish Tories and house flipper extraordinaire), Margaret Curran (so deluded she thinks her party can ‘reach out’ to those who once supported it)… oh, and Gordon Brown (who cares so much for his constituents that so far in 2014 he’s voted in parliament on eight days, and makes promises that then need huge petitions to ensure they happen).  I could go on.  What astonishes me most is their complete lack of self-awareness: campaigning for Yes even just in my area, the contempt so many people feel for “Labour” took me aback: these politicians are not just disliked by many people, they are actively despised.  And yet they don’t seem to realise it.

So… I can appreciate the desire to ‘punish’ a party that many people at one time actually liked, respected, and voted for – and of course, when people are attached to something like a party that then moves to occupy ground they disapprove of, the disillusionment is strong.  I fall into this category, and although I left the “Labour” party over the Gulf War (no, not that Gulf War, the 1990-1 Gulf War, when they fully supported the Tories plans for attacking Iraq), for some time I still occasionally voted for them – including in 1997, despite my misgivings about Blair.  To use a cliché: the “Labour” party left me, not the other way around.

However, I don’t think those of us who voted Yes should set out to ‘punish’ “Labour” – not because they don’t richly deserve it, but because they’re not worth the effort.  Blair McDougall, the director of Better Together, said recently that negative campaigning may not be nice but it wins.  I am not convinced.  The astonishing increase in support for Scottish independence in the last two years, from being at about 25% to almost double that on 18.9., is not down to negative campaigning.  There was relatively little of that in the Yes movement.  Instead, Yes was broadly positive and vibrant and encouraged people to imagine a better Scotland (some might say too much so and that turned some folk off, but that’s another issue).  45% of voters did just that.

Whatever constellation of candidates emerges, either from the main parties that supported Yes (SNP, Greens, Scottish Socialists), or through some kind of ‘Scotland Alliance’ or ‘Devo Max Candidate’ system, I think the emphasis should be on what they can achieve for Scotland and beyond.  The ‘Vow’ may now be unimportant to Westminster, where extreme right-wing UKIPpers dominate the thinking, but Devo Max/Home Rule etc. was promised to Scots and we need to push for it and push hard, whether we voted Yes or No.  Only with control over all taxes will we be able to counter the worst of the Westminster austerity cuts all three main parties there have promised.  That message, about the need to control our own finances, is the one we need to communicate to voters.

Against that, what can “Labour” offer? They are austerity Tories in red rather than blue (not for nothing the #redTories hashtag on Twitter).  They are widely discredited and mistrusted… But I still expect them to retain a decent number of parliamentary seats (the LibDems may be wiped out in most of mainland Scotland, but few will mourn them).  There are sufficient folk in Scotland who can still see something valuable in the “Labour” Party that I can no longer see – how long that might last I don’t know, but we should not waste our time on that negativity.  Instead we should seek to show that the parties that actually have Scottish, and therefore wider solidarity at heart, are the ones who can implement more significant changes.  I don’t buy Scott Hames’ line, that:

… even if it were possible, ‘destroying’ Scottish Labour would be a terrible strategy for supporters of independence (or, now, home-rule). At the electoral level, the driving force of Scottish devolution was the self-preservation of the UK Labour party, desperate to hold seats threatened by the SNP. If Labour were somehow to lose all its Scottish seats, the key electoral ‘lever’ would be broken by which the threat of independence was leveraged all the way to the establishment of Holyrood and the indyref itself. The less Labour have to play for in Scotland, the less the Scottish question is a counter in Westminster party politics – and the No result puts Westminster firmly in charge of what happens next….

I don’t believe “Labour” would do much if anything for Scotland if they won at Westminster: if they were interested in doing something for Scotland or the wider UK, they wouldn’t be following the Tory/LibDem austerity programme, and wouldn’t be pushing for ever harsher measures against the young (you thought Osborne at the Tory conference was bad in wanting to stop benefits for young people? Maybe he learnt from Miliband’s speeches in June?).  Of the three British nationalist parties, “Labour’s” pre-referendum ‘offer’ was the worst and least coherent.  No: Miliband is counting on Scotland to provide some ‘safe seats’ (probably in vain, as John McAllion, former Labour MP and MSP, now an SSP member, argues) whilst he chases right-wing voters in the south of England.  UKIP talk about threatening Tory and Labour seats – and you can be sure Labour take this seriously and will try to forestall it, offering more right-wing enticements to the electorate.

Whichever of the austerity parties – Tories/LibDems/”Labour” – emerges victorious in 2015, we know that since WWII Scottish votes have hardly ever made a difference to the outcome of Westminster elections. I therefore don’t think anyone should feel obliged to vote “Labour” to ‘keep the Tories out’.

Neither should we focus on “Labour” in order to ‘punish’ the leadership – that just drains energy that could be used in a more positive way.  The current “Labour” party is a hypocritical Toryised husk of a once great labour movement, and the few good folk in the party who persist with it because they want to rescue it can be supported as friends (buy the poor souls a drink every now and then), but we should not vote against “Labour”. Instead we should vote for parties offering a positive vision for Scotland and the wider world.  Until “Labour” start doing that, we should ignore them and support parties that do offer a positive vision for improving wider society (as a Green, of course I think they are offering the best programme for that!):

Vote positively, not negatively.


4 thoughts on “I’m not interested in trying to ‘punish’ the “Labour” party

  1. Cheers Michael — passionately cogent as always.

    I’m not sure we actually disagree very much. I understand and share the disgust with Labour, though their role in BT was no surprise or disappointment to me. My point was that voting for pro-indy parties (e.g. the SNP) computes rather differently in the post-No power dynamic. Hobbled and defanged by ‘the sovereign will of the Scottish people’, these parties simply aren’t in a position to exert the same leverage or pressure as before.

    Nor do I have any faith in Labour ‘doing much if anything for Scotland’ at Westminster. My (narrowly strategic and slightly seminar-room) point was to highlight a paradox: Labour is the only major WM party whose *self-interest* and self-preservation aligns with devolution. I don’t say vote for them, but I do say ‘be careful what you wish for’ to those fantasising about their total annihilation in May 2015. The section you’ve quoted is really more of a thought-experiment along those lines, imagining how pro-indy/home rule politics might look if *none* of the major WM parties had a significant base or stake in Scotland. (To be absolutely clear, I think there is zero chance of this happening anytime soon.)

    Something like this did happen with the Bloc Quebecois in the early 1990s — a pro-sovereignty alliance won nearly all the francophone seats in Quebec, which returns almost 25% of the Canadian parliament. A party dedicated to breaking up Canada actually become the official opposition (the right was split in those days), and had serious clout in federal politics, helping to secure the 1995 referendum. Simply for population reasons, that couldn’t happen here — Scotland returns 9% of the UK Parliament, and even in very complex minority/coalition scenarios post-2015, the largest party (probably Labour) will have options (e.g. Lib Dems) other than making craven deals with the conquered separatists (which is how the Tory press would present it).

    Anyway, that’s more seminar-room stuff. In reality WM parties will of course always want to win support from Scotland, but at the moment it’s only Labour who really *need* to — and thus they’re the only party susceptible to pressure, needing to keep what they have. If it came true (it won’t), the fantasy of drubbing Labour out of Scotland would break the ‘lever’ through which pro-indy votes in Scotland have force in WM power politics. And post-No we’re in a game of leverage and triangulation, not one of ‘demands’ and veiled threats (e.g. to call another referendum).

    Much of the commentary on this seems to assume that constitutional issues will remain dominant in Scottish politics for the next few years. I’m not so sure, and in what’s certain to be a tight general election I can imagine a lot of furious Yes voters agonising over whether it’s more important to boost the SNP’s (fairly limited) prospects at WM or vote tactically against the (blue) Tories.


    • Thanks, Scott. I did say ‘mild’ disagreement! 🙂

      Yes, I agree that it’s only “Labour” that ‘needs’ Scottish votes, in the sense that the Tories don’t count on any seats coming from Scotland, the LibDems shouldn’t count on any after all this, and I don’t expect UKIP to get much traction here in 2015 or 2016. I think my point was simply that “Labour” is pretty unreformable at the moment, and whilst I take the point that ‘infiltrating’ the party with new activists in order to turn it around might work, it’s not going to happen after all that the party leadership has done. Therefore, people who want change would be better not trying to vote ‘tactically’ in order to defeat “Labour” but voting positively to ensure that their perspective is communicated – an SNP/Green candidate is much more likely to do that than a “Labour” one (and doing so might have the added bonus of kicking “Labour” out of some seats it has hitherto regarded as ‘safe’ – but I don’t think that should be the primary aim).

      Incidentally, whilst I think a kind of ‘yes coalition’ might be a good thing (and it seems to me that Greens and SNP could probably do this), I am not at all sure it will happen. However, whilst I agree that we in this period of ‘devo-maximum-we-can-get’ leverage and triangulation are key, the possibility of demands and threats could return pretty quickly if a Tory or Tory/UKIP government emerges in 2015 with an EU referendum in 2017. I don’t think Scotland will be dragged quietly out of the EU – we are far more positively inclined to the concept of that kind of unionism(!) than many in the Tory/UKIP heartlands.


  2. My perspective is that the “punish New Labour” narrative is because New Labour is by far the greatest threat to Scottish interests precisely because it has set itself up as the only party to “stop the Tories” at Westminster, yet has effectively turned into another Conservative party in its attempts to chase Middle England votes. How many people still protest that New Labour is still socialist, and then dare call the SNP the “Tartan Tories,” even when it’s the SNP who are stopping a *Labour-Conservative* council from chasing Poll Tax arrears? Too many.

    The problem is, as the referendum has shown, New Labour still has significant clout in Scotland: two-thirds of New Labour voters voted No, after all, and even turnips like Johann Lamont command sizeable majorities. That’s where the vast majority of the Silent Majority come from: older Labour voters who don’t realise that the party they voted for doesn’t exist any more. It is not sufficient to promote the SNP/SGP/SSP as the positive choice any more, not when so much is at stake: New Labour in Scotland have to be exposed as the charlatans they are.

    That said, I think we can do both in one fell swoop: what better way to “punish” New Labour than to simply show how much better at social justice, equality and general political competence the pro-independence parties are? And with the pro-indy parties’ membership crescendo, soon we’ll have the manpower to bring that positive message to every doorstep, to finally bring hope to those who needed it most – the people who voted No out of fear and confusion. We didn’t have that manpower for the referendum: by May 2015, we surely will.

    ” I don’t say vote for them, but I do say ‘be careful what you wish for’ to those fantasising about their total annihilation in May 2015.”

    New Labour were desperate to make the referendum all about Alex Salmond and the SNP, eager to make it all about one man’s fantasy or a single party fanaticism, hoping to destroy them. Since the No vote and Alex Salmond’s notice of resignation, SNP membership has TREBLED. Methinks it’s New Labour who should be careful what they wish for…

    In any case, surely it’s clear by now that the functional differences between New Labour and the Conservatives are minuscule, what with Rachel Reeves promising to be “tougher than the Tories” on welfare, the vast majority voting for airstrikes in Iraq, and so forth?


    • Yes, you’re right: there is nothing substantive to differentiate “Labour” and the Tories, and that is something that needs to be communicated ever more clearly.

      However, I stand by my argument that we should aim to do what is best for Scotland (and actually beyond that), not by seeking to ‘punish’ Labour, but by highlighting what eg SNP/SGP/SSP can do. Of course, that is in contrast to what “Labour” would do (the same as the Tories, basically), and highlighting that is part of arguing what good can be done by the others. I just don’t want to make this only about the failed “Labour” party – they are not worth it spending the energy upon, and we can do better. We know we can do better, and that is what we should aim for. The growth of the parties in the Yes movement gives me much hope for this task – my own lot (the Greens) have been immeasurably strengthened by all that has happened.


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