Professor Brian Cox has made explaining the inexplicable his life’s work. In
recent episodes of his television series – Human Universe – the physicist
has tramped from Ethiopia to Peru, via Morocco and Ohio, in an attempt to
unravel the mysteries of the cosmos. He has asked whether we are alone in
the galaxy, and speculated on whether there might be other life forms out
Perhaps for his next project, Professor Cox could go to Scotland and answer an
even more perplexing question: is there any intelligent life whatsoever left
in the Scottish Labour Party?
Last week, one opinion poll suggested that despite Labour’s being the largest
part of the coalition of parties that defeated the Nationalists in
September’s referendum, in the aftermath it is being sucked into a black
hole. A resurgent Scottish National Party was on 52 per cent of the vote
ahead of next year’s Westminster elections, with Labour at a mere 23 per
cent and the Tories on a distant 10 per cent. If those numbers were to be
replicated in May, Labour would be reduced from 41 seats to four north of
the border, while the Nationalists would have 54 MPs.
Ordinarily, this might not matter too much. For many years now, the Scots have
seemed to live in a state of self-absorption and almost perpetual electoral
upheaval. But in the context of the United Kingdom’s craziest general
election for several generations, the collapse of Scottish Labour matters a
lot, particularly to Ed Miliband in London.
Even before the results of last week’s nightmarish poll landed on Mr
Miliband’s desk, the Labour leader needed every seat he can get in 2015,
what with his UK-wide lead over the Conservatives having all but
disappeared. His “35 per cent strategy”, which rested on scraping over the
line thanks to an electoral system that favours Labour, was only going to
work with him holding 40 or so seats in Scotland. The loss of even half that
number could cost the Labour leader the general election.
Now Mr Miliband must expend energy desperately attempting to retain those
seats – supposedly core vote seats – that the party thought were safely in
its column. In doing so, Mr Miliband could be pulled further to the Left as
he attempts to please deserting Scottish voters, which risks further
alienating the middle-ground voters in England he needs (and is failing) to
To put it politely, this is not the glad, confident position of a prime
minister-in-waiting on the verge of victory.
But how to fight back? In England, Labour’s answer is to keep going and hope
that it can out-campaign Ukip in the north of England – as it did during
Thursday’s Police and Crime Commissioner by-election in South Yorkshire –
while the Tories leak votes to Nigel Farage in their southern heartlands.
On the Scottish front, Mr Miliband’s hopes now rest with one of his enemies
from his own shadow cabinet: Jim Murphy. Yesterday, the shadow development
secretary, who was once sceptical about the wisdom of devolution, formally
launched his campaign to become Scottish Labour leader, following the
resignation 10 days ago of Johann Lamont. She left, accusing Labour in
London of treating Holyrood like a “branch office”, a particularly toxic
allegation in a country in which the nationalist impulse is so strong.
But as a Labour frontbencher puts it, blaming London for the failings of
Scottish Labour is a “cheap shot”. The real blame lies with a Scottish party
that has failed utterly to adapt to the constitutional changes it inflicted
on the UK.
Not only did Labour introduce an asymmetric model of devolution in the late
Nineties that ignored the rights of England, but the experiment was from the
start doomed by a further fatal flaw. This was the arrogant presumption that
Labour could continue to produce sufficient leading figures to send to
Westminster to run the UK – and still have enough left over to run a
devolved Scotland in perpetuity. The gene pool in a small country was always
going to be too shallow. The predictable result has been decline north of
the border under a succession of leaders and the rise of the SNP.
In addition, the Scottish Labour family’s senior figures have continued to
pursue their personal feuds with a mafia-like intensity. Even now, as Labour
sups in the last-chance saloon ahead of Nationalist potential Armageddon,
the trade union Unite is setting about the lunatic task of blocking Mr
Murphy – the party’s only hope – for the crime of being electable.
If he does defy the dinosaurs, and wins the contest and then becomes an MSP,
Mr Murphy must from the wreckage somehow construct a winning proposition
that restricts the number of SNP gains next year and makes Labour
competitive in a tightly fought Westminster election. Then he will attempt
to prevent the SNP winning a majority at the 2016 Holyrood elections,
otherwise it will be able to push for another independence referendum.
It should be said that if anyone stands a chance of succeeding in this
unenviable task, it is Mr Murphy, as he proved yesterday with a punchy
speech in which he noted that the SNP does not have a monopoly on
patriotism. As he says, the nationalist obsession with constitutional
grievance has obscured the failure of the SNP’s First Minister Alex Salmond
and his successor Nicola Sturgeon to reform public services and increase
But Labour in London must understand that fighting back will not be easy. The
squandering of the No campaign’s victory in the recent referendum has helped
create the perfect conditions for the latest boom in nationalism.
While Labour strategists detect in recent polls an element of “buyer’s
remorse”, as some voters who backed No in the referendum regret it, other
voters see the SNP as the best means by which to secure yet more powers for
the parliament in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, some voters see backing the
Nationalists as the best way to kick the established UK parties, just as
angry anti-establishment voters in England flock to Mr Farage.
The result of the insurgency in Scotland has been a rocketing SNP membership.
It stands now at around 80,000 and the party is confident of reaching
100,000, against which Scottish Labour has a mere 13,000. To put that in
context, while Ukip has in the region of 40,000 members, the SNP tally is
equivalent to a UK party with a membership of more than 800,000.
If this rapid growth has made the SNP somewhat overconfident, it is perhaps
understandable. Yet a party that only recently proclaimed that it was
definitely going to triumph in the referendum and then lost has moved,
shamelessly, straight on to predicting gleefully that it will soon hold the
balance of power at Westminster in a hung parliament.
Mr Murphy will be particularly good at countering such hubristic chuntering
and asking searching questions about SNP shortcomings on the economy,
schools and the NHS. Mr Miliband must hope it is enough to save seats and
rescue his chance of becoming prime minister.
Of course, before he began unravelling the mysteries of the universe,
Professor Cox in a previous existence played keyboards in D:Ream, a pop band
whose biggest hit was borrowed by New Labour as its anthem ahead of the 1997
landslide (in which Jim Murphy won his seat from the Tories). For Labour in
Scotland, and Ed Miliband, things can only get better.
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