Monday, 23 March 2015

The Legacy of Blair

Blairism lives on north of the border, not in the person of Jim Murphy, as you might imagine, but in the person of Nicola Sturgeon. During the 1980s, the 79 Group (which included Alex Salmond) attempted to shift the SNP to the left, mirroring a similar generational struggle in the Labour party, and were temporarily expelled for their pains. In the 1990s, again mirroring developments in Labour, the SNP combined neoliberal economic policies with superficially progressive social policies. But where New Labour "triangulated" from centre-left to centre-right, the SNP moved in the opposite direction, pitching themselves as a more principled opposition to the anglocentric Tories than Labour, hence the emblematic importance of nuclear disarmament and (later) opposition to the Iraq War.

Salmond was probably a more genuine socialist than Blair in the 80s, but his (and others) more recent claim that Scotland is a fundamentally social democratic country is self-serving. The conservative interest in Scotland did not simply evaporate under Thatcher, nor did it shift to Labour. It migrated to both the LibDems and the SNP, once the latter made clear its acceptance of the neoliberal order and its willingness to engage with limited devolution. This is why the result of the independence referendum was all too predictable. The Labour voters that Salmond attracted to "yes" were outweighed by the middle-class SNP voters who quietly chose "no" to protect their economic interests as sterling-based pensioners and rentiers.

Centre-left English observers continue to kid themselves that the SNP is keeping alive the social democratic flame. Commenting on the new Scottish Government Economic Strategy document, Owen Jones cheerfully claims "they have abandoned their flirtation with Osbornomics by dropping their pledge to cut corporation tax", when all they've done is replace a "blanket" cut with a more "targeted" approach. They are still keen on "tax competition" (i.e. regulatory arbitrage) as a means of attracting foreign investment, which means capital-friendly taxation. They're not proposing to increase corporation tax, capital gains tax or the tax on dividends; while their preference for cuts in VAT is to reduce the rate for tourism (i.e. a business-friendly stimulus) rather than the daily goods that Scots buy. It takes a heroic disregard for the facts to characterise the SNP as social democratic.

A better gauge of the party's attitude is the frequency of the word "competitiveness" in the executive summary of the strategy document. With all the usual buzzwords about "human capital investment", "innovation" and "inclusive growth", this is indistinguishable from the output of a New Labour thinktank. "Internationalisation" occurs a lot; "nationalisation" is conspicuous by its absence. The focus of investment is "SMEs with high growth potential", which is a fool's errand. The SNP's instincts remain centrist and opportunistic, eliding tricky subjects such as the strategic prospects of the oil industry or the over-dependence on the financial sector. As Martin Kettle notes, they are as likely to ostentatiously hold their noses, plead the "national interest of Scotland", and support a minority Tory government after May as a Labour one, though he fails to spell out that this is because the SNP have emulated his hero Blair: "make your compromises in advance by broadening your party tent".

Since devolution in 1999, the Scots have voted differently in Scottish and UK elections. Tactical voting has become habitual. The oscillation in the popular vote has seen Labour gain a bonus of around 10% in general elections relative to its share in elections to the Scottish Parliament. Some of this comes at the expense of the SNP, but some also comes from the "others" - Socialists, Greens and independents - who have accounted for between 11% and 22% in Scottish elections (compared to under 5% in general elections). The Lib Dems have also gained a bonus, though a more variable one of between 4% and 11%. This is more likely to be predominantly SNP voters. The Tories' share of the popular vote saw negligible movement between Scottish and UK elections (indicating a hard-core of about 16%) until 2010 when the bonus was just under 3%, suggesting that the SNP had attracted 2-3% from the Tories in the Scottish election of 2007, increasing to 3-4% in 2011 (i.e. about a fifth of the Tory core vote shifts to the SNP in Holyrood elections).

As the SNP vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament has grown, so their discount in UK elections (i.e. the amount of the total vote that then deserts them) has increased, reaching 9% in 2010. The question is whether 2015 will "break the mould", shrinking this discount and keeping SNP support above 40%. I think this is unlikely. Despite the post-referendum bounce and Labour's troubles, I doubt the Scottish electorate will dispense with tactical voting altogether. This is still likely to produce a discount, even if the SNP benefits from greater tactical voting by former LibDems. The 44% secured by the SNP in 2011 looks like a high-water mark; and a proxy for the "yes" vote in 2014, with "no" voting SNPers offset by "yes" voting Labourites.

Though Labour's vote in Scotland will be down, I suspect it will be closer to 33% than the current prediction of 27%. Jim Murphy hasn't been parachuted in because he is attractive to Scottish voters, but because he has the tactical and organisational nous to engineer a late surge and get the vote out. The SNP share of the popular vote will probably be closer to 38% than the current, frothy 46%. If Murphy can "do a Netanyahu" and get the Labour vote up to 35%, the higher concentration of Labour votes in urban constituencies may mean the shift in seats to the SNP will be less dramatic than the pollsters predict, and Labour could still be the largest party at Westminster.

A lot of the anecdotal evidence of the turn against Labour points to the disgust of long-time supporters seeing the party share a platform with the Tories during the referendum. Some of this will dissipate come the ballot, not least because the UK-wide campaign will heighten the antipathy between Labour and the Conservatives and accentuate the material policy differences. If emotion can drive supporters away, it can also attract them back. The more anti-working class the Tories are seen to be during the general election campaign, the more likely that Scottish working class voters will cleave to Labour. It is anti-Tory middle class Scottish voters who are likely to cleave to the SNP, which is why the LibDems in Scotland face a greater existential threat than Labour.

There also appears to be a belief that as Labour has abandoned "socialism", which for many Scots simply means being pro-working class, there is little to be lost in voting for the SNP. Though the nationalists may be less "left" than they advertise, they will be sensitive to local demands and might hold Labour's feet to the fire in a coalition (the Tory posters suggesting that a vote for the SNP will result in a Labour-led coalition may be counter-productive). This belief combines both emotion and calculation - the underlying assumption being that most Scottish voters want a Labour-SNP coalition - but I suspect it's a minority view, and largely the product of media speculation. Labour's bigger worry is deserters rather than turn-coats, in other words their chances depend on getting out the vote.

Some English and Welsh voters, seduced by the myth of a social democratic SNP, may find the idea of a Labour-SNP coalition attractive, even though their assumption that the nationalists would act as an egalitarian conscience isn't consistent with either the party's neoliberal policies or its likely strategy. As an anti-UK party, they aren't going to be seduced into formal coalition like the LibDems: ministerial Daimlers would not go down well in Scotland. Instead, they will achieve more by offering vote-by-vote support in return for a series of staggered concessions throughout the Parliament. Ironically, a Labour administration dependent on the SNP could find itself edging leftwards in order to create some space between it and the nationalists, but don't bet on it. Insofar as Ed Miliband has a project, it is to put a kinder face on an already compromised neoliberal order, which post-2008 looks unimaginative at best and craven at worst. Without an outright majority, he is unlikely to commit to anything braver.

The chance of a longer-term recovery for Labour in Scotland depends on flushing out the SNP as the real heirs of Blair, but that can only happen if Labour in England makes a clean break with the Blairite past. Until then, the SNP have the luxury of being able to punt a neoliberal agenda, with suitably progressive adornments such as the cancellation of Trident, while attacking Labour for the legacy of their multimillionaire former leader. Assuming the LibDems implode in May, Labour could confront the Blairites confident that a centrist breakaway, a la the SDP, is an empty threat, but if the party fails to secure a majority, the Blairites will be emboldened. We could then end up with a post-Blair but still neoliberal Labour party in England and Wales and a noticeably similar SNP in Scotland. This could even become a fixture of the political landscape, like the CDU and CSU in Germany. The prospect of a less (or post-) neoliberal Labour party depends on an outright majority in May. The chief threat to that is the relative success of the "social democratic" SNP in Scotland, and the extent to which the turn against Labour that it has championed influences sentiment in the North of England.


  1. Jim Murphy ... has the tactical and organisational nous ..."

    Really? I'm mean I know he's a spook with a lot of very dubious friends, and no doubt can wield quite a few levers of power, pace Falkirk, but I don't see any evidence of electoral genius.

    1. But his selection indicates that the Labour leadership is no longer complacent, and it recognises that it needs a "street-fighter" - with a lot of initiative and latitude - to turn things around. I'm not suggesting that Murphy is a genius, merely that he's probably the best tactical choice the part could have made, given the circumstances.

      A more cynical view is that as Murphy is a high-profile Blairite, his choice is also strategic. If the Labour vote in Scotland collapses, this will strengthen the "post-Blairites" in the subsequent inquest. If Labour secures a majority (unlikely though that looks), it will be because of a better performance in England, not Scotland, which will also strengthen Miliband. If Labour ends up in coalition, the need to placate the SNP will (ironically) marginalise the Blairites.

    2. Well it seems odd that, in order to counter the rise of nationalism, that Labour should parachute in another Westminster politician, and one associated with the worst aspects of Blairism. It's a gift to the Nats whether he's a street fighter or not. And we've not exactly seen any evidence of improvement in the polls since his appointment.

  2. May I ask if your desire (I read) for a Lab majority stems from; stop the Tories at any cost? Or have you spotted true social democratic colours in the current labour line up? I am one of those delusionals that puts hope in the SNP. You seem to follow the logic of Umberto Unger, 'president Obama must be defeated!' as he really is a Trojan horse for the policies of his opponents. Why is this labour any less of a Trojan horse?

    1. I have no illusions about the nature of the Labour party. They are no more social democratic than the SNP, and there is no prospect of them advancing any policies that could be considered remotely socialist. That said, they would be less destructive of the social fabric than the Tories, and might even take a more interventionist stance towards rebalancing the economy, so there are still hopeful reasons for voting.

      The SNP aren't going to drive policy for the UK as a whole - that's not in their interest as it would entail risks with no obvious payback. If there is no overall majority, they will seek to maximise their rights and minimise their responsibilities, which is why they'll avoid formal coalition. A vote for the SNP in a UK election is a protest, but one with little chance of a psoitive outcome, unless you believe that a defeated Labour will shift left or that an SNP-Labour coalition will disavow neoliberalism.

      Unger's analysis (which I don't share) is that the compromised left must fail electorally in order to prompt the rebirth of a more genuine left. In fact, as we are seeing in Scotland, all that happens is that you get another neoliberal party that uses a single vector (national identity, in the SNP's case) to distinguish itself as "radical" and "progressive".

  3. I can't quite see your logic in the last paragraph. The Blairite/Brownite split was always largely tribal and cosmetic, and I don't see evidence of many (E)Milibandites yet. If Labour was to win a majority who would drag it to the left? The only way I can see this happening is if there is a threat on their left similar to that which UKIP offer to the Tories. I'd like to see this coming from a proper radical socialist party, but in the more immediate term the SNP and the Greens seem the only real occupants of this position. I understand your reservations about the credentials of both of these parties, but I think the point is that they at least pose left of Labour, and are perceived as such by potential voters.

    As to the election, I still think that all bets are off. Tactical voting is going to be very difficult and confusing with the unpopularity and impending collapse of the Lib Dems, with the rise of UKIP an additional complicating factor in England.

    1. Ideology in the Labour party has traditionally been framed as "tribal", which is a trope intended to suggest that sectional interests are backward, personality-led and essentially emotional. Strangely, the term is rarely used for the Tories or LibDems. When ideological interests come to the fore that cannot be squeezed into the tribal paradigm, they are characterised as alien, such as the left of the 80s.

      There is always a left and a right in the party. It is the attempts to obscure this that tend to be "cosmetic". Miliband isn't attempting to shift the party to the left - he's a managerial centrist - but I think he is a sincere "broad-churcher" who wants to acknowledge the plurality of views. Where he differs from the Blairites is essentially a matter of tolerance, which is why they characterise him as weak.

      I agree that the SNP and Greens will prosper as a "left" alternative to Labour, but as neither are going to be pushing leftish policies through Westminster, their only real achievement at the UK level will be to deny votes to Labour. The idea that they will persuade Labour to abandon Trident or implement a basic income strikes me as far-fetched.

      Whether you think that erosion of the Labour vote matters or not ultimately comes down to whether, in a straight choice between Labour and the Tories, you think that one or the other is preferable.

    2. I was using 'tribal' in the sense of non-ideological differences that come from people coalescing round certain figures who offer more scope for career opportunities, dispense patronage or offer more congenial company. It is perfect for current politics as it merely personalises every issue and takes both ideology and sectional interests out of the equation.

      I agree about Miliband, given the circumstances of his election I think he has needed to try and maintain a wider base throughout the party. In some respects I think he would have been better off to pick a fight with the Blairites straight away, given that his brother was seemingly the only one able to take up their mantle and that their reputation has declined with that of their mentor.

      I just think the left is not benefitting from people holding their noses and voting for the 'least worst' option in every general election, and I'm not all that convinced that anything will change except that the personnel will be less obnoxious.

    3. I take your point about what you meant by "tribal", but I suggest that the word is compromised by hegemonic use. For example, following Cameron's announcement that it will soon be time for him to join the City gravy-train, is anyone talking about the tribes of Johnson or May or Osborne?

      What we refer to as tribal antagonisms in the Labour party are usually representative of genuine ideological conflicts, over and above any personal antipathy - e.g. Bevan vs Gaitskell, Benn vs Healey. Though the Blair-Brown conflict was routinely personalised by the media as a Shakespearean tragedy of ambition and hubris, it was driven by substantive differences of opinion, not least in respect of the Eurozone, that reflected different sectional interests (domestic vs global capital).

  4. Herbie Kills Children24 March 2015 at 18:18

    I don't see any material difference between Blair and Brown. For me it was all cosmetic.

    But you have gone down in my estimation by quoting Martin kettle favourably!