Rotten boroughs

Sunday National, 24th April 2022.

It’s difficult to think of a more toxic slogan to trip out of the mouth of a Scottish Labour Party leader. Fifteen years after his party last held office in Holyrood, eight years since the first independence referendum, seven since the party’s decades-long domination of Westminster seats crashed to a dramatic end, and just five since his party lost control over Glasgow city chambers – Anas Sarwar has urged Scots this week to “come home and vote Scottish Labour” in the upcoming local election.

To Tory voters who’ve supported his party in the past, Sarwar’s message is “you don’t need to hold your nose and vote Tory anymore, come home and vote Scottish Labour” – on the basis that Boris Johnson has betrayed the union. For the SNP switchers who’ve abandoned his party, he bemoaned the rise of poverty and inequality – giving the UK government a free pass for its role in driving these phenomena across the UK – and complained “our country is more divided than ever.” These SNP voters should also “come home to Labour” he says.

In just four words, Sarwar’s slogan expertly manages to misunderstand the party’s relationship with voters, misunderstand the reasons their support collapsed and has not recovered, and reminds everyone of the culture of political entitlement which made such a lively contribution to its dwindling fortunes. The Scottish people have let the Labour Party down. But despair not. They are willing to forgive you your trespasses. 

Many people in life lack self-knowledge, but the continuing lack of self-awareness in the Scottish Labour party is truly a wonder to behold. In treating the electorate like prodigal sons and daughters – and imagining this is a winning line which will resonate with all the lost souls who have fallen away from the light of the true kirk – it has reached pathological proportions.

What makes Sarwar imagine people think of his party as “home” exactly? Given his recent experience of electoral politics in this country, what makes him think anyone is secretly longing for that homecoming, for a Labour party they believe in again? And why does he feel the need to throw out such lazy caricatures about why folk no longer support his party anyway?

In Labour’s worldview, the votes cast by those who once supported them are always leant to, tactically offered up to, or reluctantly and temporarily extended to their competitors. The unreality of this is profound. And more fundamentally, it shields the organisations from the honest introspection It has spent over a decade avoiding. The therapists would probably describe it narcissistic projection. The problem isn’t me: it’s you. “Come home.”

But it gets better. Having made such a virtue in his speech of the importance of transcending political differences and coming together – Sarwar immediately foreswore any coalition pacts in local governments with either the SNP or the Tories after the election. Because nothing embodies the hard work of building political consensus than bursting your ball and heading home in a huff.

His announcement caused understandable disquiet in his own party, which owes much of its continuing relevance in local government to deals of this kind. Look across the map. The SNP and Labour and working together in local government Edinburgh, and Fife, and in Dumfries and Galloway. So why is Sarwar suddenly inclined to dunk on these forms of cooperation?

The answer, it seems, is because the Scottish Tories have him spooked. The Conservatives have been gunning for the cooperation agreements between Labour and the SNP, on the basis that the Nats must be politically isolated and hounded out of government at all levels. And Sarwar, apparently, now agrees. He hopes to blunt the Tories attacks on his party by capitulating to their demands.

You’ve got to wonder: why is Scottish Labour allowing the Scottish Tories to push them around like this? Douglas Ross’s political position has never been weaker. The UK government is looking green about the gills, queasy at the lies they’re telling, with the Prime Minister’s fate remaining in the balance. Against that backdrop, the Labour leadership still can’t find a spine?

It retrospect, it was probably one of the most significant decisions in Scottish political history. Certainly for the Scottish Labour Party. They year is 2003. Jack McConnell has just led his party out of a Holyrood election campaign. With 50 seats in the Scottish Parliament, Labour is the largest party by some distance, but to achieve the magic number of 65 votes – the going rate then and now for a Holyrood majority – McConnell needed to secure the support of Jim Wallace and the 17 Liberal Democrat MSPs he led out of the 2003 campaign. And the Lib Dems had a red line when it came to coalition talks: local government reform.

In 2000, a committee led by Professor Richard Kerley recommended wide-ranging changes to how local government worked in Scotland. Among them, Kerley made the case that single-member wards choosing local councillors on the basis of first-past-the-post elections should be junked and replaced with multi-member wards electing councillors on a more proportional basis.

It isn’t too hard to see why. And looking at the numbers, you will immediately understand why the bitterest opponents of introducing single transferrable voting in local government were … Jack McConnell’s comrades and friends in the Labour Party.

Why? Because first past the post disproportionately favoured Scottish Labour and disfavoured their political opponents. First, the national picture. With 36% of the vote in 1999, they scooped up 45% of council wards. The SNP, by contrast, won just 17% of wards with 29% of the vote in 1999. The picture in urban west central Scotland was even more absurdly out of whack.

In North and South Lanarkshire, for example, Labour won 80% of council seats with just over 50% of the vote that year. But Glasgow reliably turned out most starkly disproportionate results. In 1999, Labour secured 74 of the 79 of the available council seats with less than 50% of the popular vote in the city. The “opposition” in the City Chambers consisted of five guys and their dug. It is easy to forget it now, but in 2003, there wasn’t a single SNP councillor returned in the whole of Edinburgh or Midlothian.

It wasn’t fair. Any fair-minded person could see it wasn’t fair. But Jack McConnell faced an obvious political problem. While his political opponents stood to benefit from proportional voting in local government – they would do so at the direct expense of his own party, particularly in the big conurbations across Scotland’s central belt.

But the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 was the price of doing business in Holyrood – and it passed, notwithstanding the noises off from Glasgow baillies and some of the ruling spirits in COSLA. When STV was rolled out in 2007, it was a fiasco as the electorate struggled to adjust to the new model of collecting their political views. The morning after, the big political story was national – the Holyrood election on the same day had produced its first ever plurality of MSPs for the SNP and the first SNP minority government followed.

But change was simultaneously afoot in town halls across the country. In a single election night, McConnell’s introduction of STV in local government wiped out 161 Labour councillors while the Nats gained 182. This effectively reduced Scottish Labour’s haul of seats by a third overnight and doubled the number of SNP representatives on Scotland’s councils. Labour’s tally of councillors would shrink dramatically again in 2017 under Kezia Dugdale’s faltering leadership. The upshot of these successive waves of reform and electoral failure is that Labour has less than half the number of councillors it had at the advent of devolution.

Why was this important? Organisation, for one thing. Local councillors are a locus for local election activity in their party. Strip that out, and you strip out activists you can reliably expect to turn up come election time and to earn their party nomination papers. When Anas Sarwar says that Scottish Labour is “hollowed out,” this is one reason why.

STV effectively dismantled Labour’s one party city states. But given the recurrence of the “come home” rhetoric this week – I wonder if the psychology and sense of the political order of things which this domination inculcated has truly disappeared from Scottish Labour’s political consciousness. Their nostalgia for the good old days of false consensus and Labour domination remains palpable.

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