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The Party’s Over (An Obituary for ‘Scottish’ Labour)

May 1, 2015

An Open Letter to the People of Clydebank (feat. The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the General Election for Scottish Voters)

Hi. Can we talk? There are a few things I need to get off my chest. Important things. Last year I undertook a journey. In a way it was a journey through time as well as space. A journey that crossed 13,000 miles and three decades. I came home. Home to the town where I grew up. It’s not a great metropolis. It’s not glamorous. It’s not particularly famous, in fact when I tell people where I come from I usually have to add some additional information. ‘Just west of Glasgow’ for instance. Nonetheless I’ve always been proud of my wee town. Sometimes, when I’m feeling that pride, and the person I’m talking to gives me a blank look, I have been known to say, “Have you heard of the Queen Mary? The Queen Elizabeth? The QE2? Yeh? Well, we built those!”

Of course, I didn’t personally build any of them. I am (and I don’t often get to say this these days) too young. In fact one of my earliest memories is that of sitting on my Dad’s shoulders in the middle of a jam packed main street when the entire town turned out for the launch of the QE2 in 1967. I was barely two years old. Even so, I grew up feeling a sense of pride, the collective pride of the town, in the achievements of its workers. In the fact that, on our little stretch of the Clyde, we had built the greatest shipyard in the world. And in that yard, the workers of the town had built the biggest, fastest, most luxurious ocean liners the world had ever seen. And those workers were union, hardcore and proud. From the rent strikes of the Teens and 20s, to the UCS work-in in the 70s they were at the forefront of the European labour movement. I could hardly call myself a musician and a Bankie without having a song or two about shipbuilding in my repertoire, and this is my favourite (with thanks to Karine Polwart):

I’ve already written about the reasons and circumstances that led to my leaving in the first place in a blog called The Moment When You Know. The reason for my return at this time was the referendum. I’ve always had an interest in politics. In my day that was not particularly unusual in Clydebank, but in my case it led me to the conclusion, something like thirty years ago, that independence was the only way forward for Scotland. I have held that view, and argued for it, ever since, but I did not know if there would be an opportunity for it to happen in my lifetime. But, as we all know, it did happen. The unprecedented electoral collapse, in the 2011 Holyrood elections, of the Labour Party gave the SNP an overall majority, something that the electoral system with its proportional representation component had been designed never to produce. That overall majority triggered a manifesto commitment to hold such a referendum.

Like most of us I didn’t really know if it had a chance of succeeding. The polls, the pundits and the odds were against us. David Cameron and the Tories were convinced it was doomed to failure which, it must be assumed, was why they agreed to it as readily as they did. They hoped for a crushing victory that would kill the issue for at least a generation. I, however, would never have been able to forgive myself if I had not played my part in the effort. Win, lose or draw, I had to try. I began by starting this blog and campaigning online, but it was clear to me that in order to feel I had done everything I could, and in order to be taken seriously, I had to come home. Also, on a personal level, I just really, really wanted to stand in that polling booth and put my mark in that ‘Yes’ box (which, by the way, was every bit as satisfying in reality as it was in my imagination).

Now when I first decided to come home part of my reasoning was that Clydebank was exactly the sort of place that the ‘Yes’ movement would have to be able to win in order to carry the day. That’s because Clydebank, largely as a result of that proud trade union history, is what the pundits would call ‘Labour heartland.’ For generations it has been one of the safest Labour seats in Scotland. Until 2011 that is. Alex Salmond is reported to have exclaimed, “Fuck me!” when it was announced that Gil Patterson had won Clydebank and Milngavie for the SNP. So the clue was there, and when I arrived I was immediately struck by the number of Yes posters in windows and Saltires flying from wherever folk could string them up. Now we know that Clydebank voted Yes by a margin of at least 2:1, quite possibly the widest in Scotland. Despite the pain of losing the national vote, I’ve never been so proud of my wee town. So what happened? How did it come to this?

Well, I think this picture I took on the eve of the referendum might tell a part of the story at least:


It was taken from near the bottom of Alexander Street. The Lucky Break (formerly Woolworths) is just out of shot to the right. What’s notable about the picture is what isn’t in it. The shipyard. The main street. The place where I’m standing used to be slap bang in the centre of town. I couldn’t have taken the picture when I was growing up because there would have been a building in the way. This is a town which has quite literally had the heart torn out of it. The shipyard, around which the town grew up, Singer’s, which at it’s peak during WWII when it was a munitions factory, employed 17,500 people, gone. Even the main street, composed of the tenements where the early shipyard workers, the first true Bankies, once lived and with all of the ground floor flats converted into the shops, tea rooms, pubs, doctors’ surgeries and all the other things you’d expect of a busy, bustling, thriving high street. To be replaced by a bland, generic shopping mall, in a different place (although seen from inside it could be anywhere in the Western world), that gets locked up in the evenings. How are people supposed to see it as the town centre when it’s only accessible to them about half of the time? What effect does that have on the psyche of a community?

Anyway, with all of that went all the jobs which powered the local economy, and of course generated that sense of pride and worth I was talking about in the first couple of paragraphs. The town became a place of unemployment and deprivation. The population dropped precipitately. Of course much of this happened in the Thatcher years, and of course I know that plenty of other working class towns suffered similarly. But this one was mine. So what of the people? Well, a few weeks after the referendum I wrote this:

“However, despite all of that, what I found on returning to my home town was not despair, not a community crushed by the weight of its sadness and its loss. I found a people bloodied but unbowed, a spirit undaunted, and the flame of hope and optimism kindled anew. A sense of unity and common purpose, unknown since the UCS days, was abroad once again. It was the ‘Yes’ campaign that had united people and given them that hope.”

When you’re away you can easily fall victim to the nostalgia disease. It’s a human trait. We all tend to remember the good stuff, maybe exaggerate it even, and play down the bad. But growing up in Clydebank definitely gave me something – everywhere I’ve gone in the world (and I travelled quite a lot when I was younger) I’ve stepped out with confidence. How hard could it be? I was a Bankie, I’d cope. And I always did. Then there’s Melbourne, where I’d been living for quite a while. It’s not much like Clydebank. It’s a big city, almost 4 million people, which to me is not on a human scale. You don’t know your neighbours. It’s big, it’s alienating and at times, like the last couple of days for instance, it’s stupidly hot. I sound like I’m kind of over it, don’t I? Could it be that these things were colouring my view? Was I just looking at my past through rose-tinted glasses? But no, Clydebank people were all I remembered them to be, and more. Which brings me in, I admit, an extremely roundabout way, to the first really important thing I want to say.

Thank You Clydebank!

The town itself and all of its people. They made me, shaped my politics and taught me about resistance. I want to thank the old friends, the new, and all great the people of the ‘Yes’ campaign, who welcomed me back with open arms and open hearts, didn’t judge me for having to leave in the first place, and proved to me that Clydebank was still, and will always be, my home. And a special thank you to the people who turned out to the Lucky Break a few weeks ago, at 10 o’clock on a cold Wednesday night, and a Wednesday night on which there was a Scotland match at that, to wish me a happy birthday. It meant a lot to me, I was deeply moved and I miss you all. And I will be back. Soon. You can depend on it. Best of luck with the May Day fundraiser tonight, have a great time, I only wish I could be there and sing you a few songs, but in the meantime, for those who weren’t able to be there at the time, I was able to stay just long enough to perform at the Clydebank Yes Alliance fundraiser at the Lucky Break in late October, and by the way, thanks to the LB as well. It was/is the unofficial HQ of the Yes campaign and the guys there have been brilliant. So thanks to them and their friends at Titan Cams, here is a highlights video of my set that night:

Hope you enjoyed that. But Clydebank, we need to have that conversation. We need to talk about the elephant in the room. The big, red and yellow stripy one. This time next week we’ll be waking up to the results of the General Election. We need to discuss the Labour Party.

The Ghost of the Labour Party

As I mentioned earlier, Clydebank, or at least the various constituencies based on it (currently West Dunbartonshire) has long been one of the safest Labour seats in Scotland. Even today they hold it with a majority of over 17,000. So quite a lot of us must have been voting for them over the years. It’s okay. This is a safe space. You can admit it. Look, I’ll start the ball rolling. Hello. My name’s Derek and I’ve been a Labour voter. But that’s not all. I was once a member of the Clydebank Labour Party. For a couple of years. Hey, it was the 80s. I was a teenager, a student, lots of us were experimenting with politics back then.

I know, I’ve always said that I’m not aligned with, or a member of, any political party. And that’s true. Since then I never have been. Of course I’ve never ceased to be interested in politics, or to have strong political opinions, but I’ve never again joined a party. Now I’m not blaming that solely on my experiences with the Clydebank CLP. The fact is I realised that I was far too opinionated to ever say something I didn’t believe because someone else told me to say it, because it was the party line. Actually, being in the Labour Party in, I think, 82 and 83 wasn’t a totally alienating experience. There were some pretty good people in it back then. There were even some socialists. So it gives me no pleasure to say this, but Clydebank, you have to know, that party doesn’t exist any longer. Most of the good people and the socialists left years ago. Some were kicked out, some just drifted away of their own accord. The mass exodus started when Tony Blair drove a symbolic stake through the heart of Keir Hardie’s party by abolishing the old ‘Clause 4.’ of the Labour constitution. For quite a while now we’ve been voting for the ghost of a party that turned up its toes long ago. It is not merely pining for the fjords. It is an ex-party. It has ceased to be.

So let’s examine our relationship with the party formerly known as Labour. We’ve already talked about it’s working class roots in the local labour movement. So, given that we have been such a ‘stronghold,’ such a bastion of support, you might well think we’d have been rewarded by now with a big name candidate. An important figure in the party needing a safe seat perhaps. Or maybe a high-flyer, an up and coming younger candidate destined for future high office. Or even a strong local figure of some intellectual calibre. But you would be dead wrong. Our loyalty has been rewarded with a string of mediocrities and intellectual lightweights as our parliamentary representatives. MPs who don’t know their own opinion until somebody gives it to them.

Gemma Doyle

Last time around I suspect quite a few people must have thought this was finally about to change. The new Labour candidate was young, female and well-connected. Could this finally be our high-flyer? But the optimism was short-lived. She was quickly revealed to be just the latest in a line of deeply unimpressive time-servers and careerists, with very little to say for herself when given the opportunity. She infamously said virtually nothing, leaving all the talking to the appalling Jackie Baillie, on the one and only occasion she deigned to turn up to an indyref debate in her own constituency (in Whitecrook). Now sadly, as I’ve hinted, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that. In my day Hugh McCartney was known for having little if anything to say in parliament, and for sitting on his hands in important Commons votes. Even at constituency meetings he tended to say as little as possible, and when directly questioned was stumbling and inarticulate. But the current crop of Labour Party seat warmers, of whom Gemma is entirely typical, are far worse. They actually vote for Tory policies!


Now, that’s just one example. If you were to examine her voting record you would find dozens of such examples, but let’s just take a closer look at this one. Now I know she’s no intellectual giant, but you would have to be spectacularly stupid not to know that voting for the welfare cap is categorically and overwhelmingly not how the people of this constituency would want you to vote. So either she really is that spectacularly stupid (surely not?), or the term ‘traitor’ in the above meme is entirely appropriate. This is not about patriotism or nationality. This is good, old-fashioned class treason. And an abject failure to represent the views of her constituents. Now, she might well make the excuse that she had no choice. That it was the party line. But if your party line conflicts so radically with the legitimate wishes of your constituents, then you have to at the very least recognise that you have a conflict of interest, and abstain, or even have a ‘diplomatic illness.’ That’s why only thirty of them voted for it, the rest couldn’t bring themselves to (or at least didn’t want their names on it), but Gemma apparently suffered no such pangs of conscience (or good sense). Clydebank, you deserve better than Gemma Doyle. Much better.


So much for the local member. But what about the national leadership? Well, if you live in Scotland you could be forgiven for thinking the Jim Murphy is the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, but there are a few problems with that.

Jim Murphy

Perhaps the greatest problem is that there’s no such thing. It doesn’t exist. The Electoral Commission has no registration for any party known as the Scottish Labour Party (unless Jim Sillars’ old one is still on the books). It has no constitution, no rules, and no membership separate from the British Labour Party. There is a Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party, comprised of the Labour Holyrood MSPs. So what exactly is it that Jim’s leader of? Well it would appear that someone in the party, probably the NEC (the National Executive Committee is the highest elected body of the Labour Party, there is no SNEC), have changed the rules to allow a Westminster MP to be the leader of a parliamentary party that he’s not a member of! And he’s been going around saying things like, “If I’m elected First Minister…” despite the facts that this is not a Scottish election, he is not currently a candidate for that position, he is standing for a Westminster seat again, refusing to admit to his constituents he’s not intending to serve out his term if elected, because in order to be a candidate for FM he’d have to resign that seat and stand for Holyrood next year. He’s either very confused, or he’s trying to confuse us.

He continually confuses Westminster and Holyrood issues. He blusters and obfuscates. He directly contradicts policy statements and positions of his leader, Ed Milliband, and his shadow ministers. Despite his strident support for the Union just a few short months ago, he now seeks to distance himself, and the imaginary Scottish Labour Party, from UK Labour. Now, in their wisdom the London parties have this time around decided that voters are too stupid to concentrate on more than one policy, so they are only having one each. Not so much a policy even as a vague feeling. Whatever they rated highest on in the focus groups basically. So the Tories are running on ‘We’ll be better at managing the economy,’ Labour are going with ‘We’ll be better at safeguarding the NHS’ and the Lib Dems, well they’re sticking with the one they’ve always had, as long as I can remember, ‘We’re not Labour or the Tories.’

Now, this is a bit of a problem for Jim. He owes his position to two things: he was perceived to have had a ‘good referendum,’ and even the London Labour leadership realising they were fighting an entirely different campaign in Scotland, against a different opponent. Now, if you’ll forgive a little bit of Babel Fish editorialising, what’s happened with this reductionism of political debate to the vague feelings of focus groups is that parties have been forced to choose between appealing to the centre or to their core voters. Both Labour and Tories have gone to their traditional support. When Labour are campaigning against the Tories they traditionally invoke the NHS. When they’re campaigning against the SNP they traditionally say, “Vote SNP, get the Tories.’ Even though that is a complete fiction. And Jim consequently has to promulgate both of these things.

It occurs to me that I should explain exactly why the ‘Vote SNP, get the Tories’ thing is nonsense. Now I know many readers will have worked this out for themselves, so I won’t be offended if you skip to the next paragraph, otherwise read on. A government can only be formed if it can command the confidence of the Commons. For which it would need a majority. If the Tories can’t win a majority (and it looks like they can’t) they would need the support of enough other MPs to make up one. Since the SNP have already committed themselves not to support a Tory administration under any circumstances, any seats won by them cannot, by definition, assist the Tories in forming a government, whether they are won from the one Tory MP left in Scotland, from the Lib Dems or from Labour.

The interesting thing about this, I think, is that Labour has declined to make the same commitment. In debates Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly invited first Ed Milliband, then Jim Murphy, to rule out propping up a minority Tory administration, or even joining a ‘Grand’ Labour/Tory coalition. Neither would do so. Now, most Labour voters, and probably most members for that matter, would think such a thing an impossibility, but don’t dismiss it so easily. I’ll come to that later, when I deal with the electoral calculus. For now, it’s back to Creepy Jim.


Sorry, Jim Murphy. Couldn’t resist. But he is, isn’t he? Anyway, I said he owed his position to two things. The first was that he was perceived to have had a ‘good referendum.’ But did he really?

Jim’s major contribution to the campaign was his notorious 100 day tour. But what did he actually achieve? Well, he alienated a lot of people, particularly Labour voters, by going to working class towns, towns like Clydebank, and doing the most inflammatory thing he could do in such places, sharing a platform (or at least a couple of Irn Bru crates) with Tories! That created a lot of ill feeling, and must have contributed to his party’s current woes. And what did he say at those events? Well, not a lot really. I heard several eyewitness accounts from Clydebank, and slogged my may through several accounts of other meetings in other towns. It was hard going, though not I suspect as hard as it was for the poor souls who endured the reality of them in order to report the proceedings, so I salute them for it. The pattern seemed to be Jim mouthing slogans and platitudes, hanging onto the microphone and again blustering, obfuscating and generally confusing the issues. If a questioner proved persistent he simply used the mic to talk over them. He showed no discernible actual debating ability, something which has been confirmed this year when he has been obliged to participate in actual debates, where he has been badly found out. In the first, held at Glasgow Uni, he was even obliged to issue a clarification afterwards that he had not sniffed glue as a teenager. The great debater? No, debating is not a part of his skill set.

The only thing which rescued the entire tour from becoming a complete non-event was that all-too-convenient egg-related incident. How? By again distracting us from the real issues of the campaign and beating up the non-story of the groups of non-existent SNP/Yes Scotland thugs Jim claimed were following him around (now in my day throwing an egg at a politician was only considered a violent act if it was hard boiled, but never mind, obviously times have changed). They were being organised, these imaginary thugs, online he claimed. Strange, because you might be surprised to know (or not) that I know a great number of people who were involved in the ‘Yes’ campaign, and was very actively involved on social media. I was even on Yes Scotland’s mailing list. Yet somehow, I never got any of those memos. Not one. Quite the reverse, I read a lot of appeals for ‘Yes’ supporters to stay away, as we’d only make it look like he was drawing a crowd.

Because at first he wasn’t. He would often turn up with a handful of people and talk to an empty street. But sooner or later, whether by luck or judgement, he managed to find some streets that actually had people in them, and some would stop to see what all the shouting was about. These were the people who heckled him (otherwise known as ‘asking difficult questions’). Not organised thugs, passers-by. Shoppers. But Jim didn’t like it, so later on in his tour he took to bussing in his own supporters, in sufficient numbers to surround his Irn Bru crate stage, make it look in the photographs as though he had a supportive crowd (unless you were one of those annoyingly observant people who realised that they were the same faces every time), and prevented any dissenters from getting close enough to be heard. Apparently our political leaders have such a low opinion of our intelligence that this was seen as such a brilliant manoeuvre that they’re all doing it now. Isabel Hardman of the Spectator has seen through it though:

Anyway, his efforts were still failing to attract much attention until the egg. Strange how he appeared to duck the first egg, even though it came from directly behind him. Almost as if he was expecting it. And as for the guy who threw the egg, I couldn’t find anyone who knew him, even after he was identified. As I said, all a bit too convenient. We’ll probably never know, but what we have, I think, identified here is one of Jim Murphy’s skills – I will allege that he has two – his instinct for self-publicism. He’ll do anything to show what a man of the people he is, won’t he?


Only he’s not. He’s been in London too long. everything he does to demonstrate his Scottishness is so clichéd, from the bottle of Irn Bru he clutched daily on his tour, to the frankly embarrassing bag of groceries he sent out as a donation to a foodbank whilst attending a £200 a plate dinner in Glasgow (Porridge oats, oatcakes, shortbread, Tunnocks Tea Cakes, etc) tell of someone who has forgotten the real Scotland and succumbed to the ‘shortbread tin’ version so popular down South. My father coined a term for it. To him, descendent of real Highland warriors, it represented everything he despised about fake patriotism, reductive and just plain offensive. He called it ‘popscot.’ Jim Murphy is a shameless purveyor of popscot. I get the feeling he’s not fooling anyone though.

So that covers the first reason he got his (possibly non-existent) position, and reveals the first of his skills. The second reason is slightly more complex, and reveals his second skill. The Labour leadership in London was obliged, in the aftermath of the referendum, to realise a number of things in quick succession. The first was that, to borrow a military phrase which has sadly come into all to common usage in recent years, they had won the war and lost the peace. They had staked their party’s reputation, and their own careers, on winning that referendum, but they were horrified to discover that despite their win that reputation was left in tatters and their careers were under threat like never before. Johann Lamont was the first to go, at the hands of her colleagues, no doubt in an effort to insulate themselves, but it became increasingly evident that her sacrifice wasn’t going to save them once Scottish voters got their hands on them. They needed a messiah, but who should they turn to?


Alistair Darling? Well, he supposedly ran the successful campaign, but remember in the polls that campaign went from a huge lead to a last minute panic that I think was very real and a result far closer than they anticipated at the outset. Now I know this because I’ve been a campaign manager, but you wouldn’t be shocked if I told you that in campaigning terms that’s not a win. The leadership’s confidence in him was always in question, to be fair, and with good reason. He was a deeply unsympathetic character and worst of all he had a shocking ‘tell’ – he blinked furiously when he lied. Which during the course of that campaign was really quite a lot, so it became blindingly obvious. So no, he didn’t come out of the campaign at all well, and made it clear he wouldn’t be sticking around to hear the verdict of his electorate fairly early in the piece.

Lying Scotsman

So if not him, what about the ‘big beast’ himself, Gordon Brown? Parachuted into the campaign at the last minute, full of personal ‘guarantees’ of ‘home rule’ and ‘as close to federalism as possible’ on which he knew he couldn’t possibly deliver. Sure he was an ex-PM, but then, as today, he was a mere backbencher, and an opposition one at that, with no authority to commit his own party to anything whatsoever, let alone David Cameron’s government. As became apparent the minute Cameron stepped out of 10 Downing Street on the morning of the 19th of September.

GordonChecksGordon checks the timetable and waits for his new powers to arrive. And waits, and waits…                 With thanks to @ChrisBulow

No, not Gordon. He had performed the last service of his political career and surrendered the last remnants of his credibility to the establishment . Should be enough to fast track his seat in the House of Lords. And maybe a few lucrative directorships thrown in. So who was there left to turn to? Certainly not one of the dismal and dreary group of Labour MSPs. No, there was only one man for the job:


Legend in his own mind, wounded hero of the battle of the Irn Bru crates, manic self-publicist and pre-eminent expert (his second skill) at sucking up. No, seriously, it’s something he is undeniably extremely good at. Let’s look at his record. This is a man who was able to remain technically a student for nine years, extending his term with a career in student politics which culminated in his becoming President of the NUS, without ever actually obtaining a degree. Such selfless service to his student members! But don’t worry about Jim, he didn’t end up on the employment scrapheap. The Labour Party took him under its wing, and it wasn’t too long before he was given the opportunity to stand in a contestable seat. Now I wonder why that was. Could it be because while he was NUS President he agreed to the introduction of tuition fees, even though he’d stood on a platform of opposition to them, because the Blair government wanted it? Far be it from me to make such a scurrilous accusation. Makes you think though, doesn’t it?

On entering parliament he fairly quickly secured advancement by dint of some more judicious sucking up, becoming more of a Blairite than Tony Blair himself. He climbed the greasy pole enthusiastically. You can’t fault him for lack of ambition. He had, as my Australian friends would say, tickets on himself. Big time. Of course the problem with allying yourself too closely to the leader became apparent when Blair retired and Murphy’s star went into decline somewhat. Brown was wary of him. For the first time things weren’t simply falling into his lap. And then along came the referendum, a golden opportunity for a self-publicist. He probably thought he should have been leading the ‘No’ campaign, but he was passed over for ‘Blinky’ Darling. Undeterred, he started a rather silly campaign of his own, and hit the streets. It is highly unlikely that his tour had any significant impact on the outcome at all, but in the absence of Darling and Brown, or any other serious contenders for that matter, he would have to do.

Or at least, that’s what he managed to persuade his London masters of. They allowed him to stand for a position that didn’t technically exist, but now seems to be real enough for him to have staff, more of which in a moment. But what has he really done, this messiah? You’d have to conclude that behind all the hype, and let’s face it, his relentless quest for exposure has been ably assisted by the BBC et al, the evidence of any actual achievement is thin on the ground indeed. He failed to finish a degree, sold out his NUS members to gain preferment from the labour Party, when he got a seat he attached himself like a limpet to the leadership and got promoted, then he stood on some Irn Bru crates and yelled at people. When obliged to participate in actual debates, ones where it wasn’t only him who had a microphone, he was just as those intrepid reporters I mentioned earlier had described him. He would waffle, he would bluster, he would obfuscate. He would leap with the ease of a mountain gazelle from one subject to another, but ultimately he was incapable of constructing a coherent argument about anything.

“And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth 5/5)

John McTernan

So who do you suppose a man with a record like that would choose to fill the role of his chief advisor and campaign strategist? Well, he turned to Blair favourite John McTernan. Lately returned from warmer climes, where he was disastrously Director of Communications from September 2011 to June 2013 for the Australian Labor (sic) government of Australia’s first female PM, Julia Gillard. I suppose I should tell you about that. I was there. For every excruciating day of it.


He presided over a trainwreck of epic proportions. Gillard was far from the worst PM Australia ever had, she showed promise. And despite governing with a minority, needing support from Greens and Independents, quite a lot actually got done, legislation wise. Some of it was even quite progressive. We were getting educational reform, a National Disability Insurance Scheme, a National Broadband Network with fibre to every home. There was a mining super profits tax and a carbon pricing mechanism. All gone now. Her communications strategy however, McTernan’s area, was a disaster from start to finish. Couldn’t take a trick. His leadership was chaotic and dysfunctional. Those who worked with him said he thought he was Malcolm Tucker. This was confirmed when thousands of e-mails from his office were leaked. He lost his job when Julia Gillard lost hers, removed by her colleagues who were terrified of the consistently catastrophic poll numbers McTernan’s communications strategy had produced. As a result of his ineptitude Australia has ended up with this guy:


Well, no actually this guy, but you must admit the resemblance is striking:


And it’s not just the ears. If you could see him from behind when he’s walking you’d swear he was a chimp in a suit. The point is he should have been eminently beatable. As a political strategist I’d have relished the opportunity, the guy had so many negatives with the electorate it would have been like shooting fish in a barrel. With a rocket launcher. After failing to win over the cross-benchers he needed to form government in 2010, Abbott never accepted the result and indulged in what, at three whole years, is officially Australia’s longest ever political dummy-spit. But McTernan failed miserably to effectively counter Abbott’s crude populism, his three word slogans, his monosyllabic appeal to the lowest common denominator, with a hefty dollop of misogyny on top. I wrote about it at the time for anyone who’s interested. It was in no sense a great campaign, it was petty and nasty and ugly. But what does that tell you about the campaign that lost to it?

What McTernan should have learned was that you can’t out-nasty the Tories and it is folly to try. It just comes more naturally to them. The lesson he took however was that that stuff works. As The Australian reported,

“Other emails reveal him (McTernan) pointing his staff to Tony Abbott’s communications discipline as “a lesson for us” and praising the Coalition’s cohesion in sending out the same messages in key attacks against Labor.”

These are the sort of messages he’s talking about:


This is Tony in opposition. Bob Brown incidentally was the then leader of the Greens, whose support was needed to get anything through the Senate. The sign behind Tony’s head says ‘Ditch the Witch.’ This is the level of political sophistication we were dealing with. Gillard must have thought she was quids in, with her big time spin doctor, specially imported from London on a 457 visa, a category specifically designed to allow employers to fill skilled positions they cannot fill within Australia. Let’s just take a moment to consider that. By bringing McTernan in on a 457 visa, the ALP was in effect saying there was no-one available in Australia who could do what this guy could do. And what did he do? He lost. So badly his boss didn’t even make it to the election. To that. That ape. That evolutionary throwback.


Call me crazy, but I reckon there just might be a few people in Australia who could have handled the job of screwing up like that. Hey, I was here at the time and I could have wiped the floor with Abbott. So we know he’s no Babel Fish, but what else should we know about him? Well of course Scotland has seen him in action before. In 2007 Tony Blair sent him North to thwart the rise of the SNP. Well, obviously that was also abysmally successful. And then there was this:

“In January 2008, while he was employed as a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland, it emerged that in 2002 McTernan had branded Scotland as being “narrow” and “racist” during the period he worked for the Scottish Arts Council. In an email to the then Labour MSP Karen Gillon, who was about to make a trip to Sweden, McTernan wrote “If you’ve not been to Sweden before, I think you’ll really like it – it’s the country Scotland would be if it wasn’t narrow, Presbyterian, racist etc. etc. Social democracy in action.”[10] The email was obtained by the The Sunday Times under freedom of information legislation.” (from his own Wikipedia entry)

So we know he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, that he has a very low opinion of his fellow Scots, full of distortions and stereotypes, and that he is vicious, amoral, with no depths to which he will not stoop. I think I’m beginning to understand what Murphy sees in him! If by some chance he manages to survive the coming electoral disaster the polls have been predicting for a long time now, expect a brutally nasty, deeply misogynistic Holyrood campaign, personally directed at Nicola Sturgeon. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That’s if he survives. As I said, the polls say he’s about to suffer yet another catastrophic failure, perhaps his greatest yet. And perhaps those extraordinary polls are not so surprising given that the Labour campaign is in the hands of a pair of losers like Murphy and McTernan.

And speaking of losers…


Ed Milliband

Yes, this guy is the real leader of the Labour Party. Now how can I describe him? Perhaps the nicest way would be to say he’s not a people person. He has trouble with eye contact and issues with personal space. Some have suggested he might be on the autistic spectrum, and I don’t find that inconceivable, so I’m inclined to tread carefully. Certainly we know it was a bit of a surprise to everyone including, you get the feeling, Ed himself when he was elected leader. We were all expecting his slicker, better-looking, more charismatic brother to get the nod. But Ed made his pitch on being just a teeny bit to the left of his brother and it seems that was enough to swing the union vote in his favour. Though given subsequent events, decisions and pronouncements, I mean seriously, how left wing can he be? Red Ed? Promising to continue all of the Tory austerity cuts, the ones that target the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and even to go further? Don’t make me laugh!

No, the fact is the Labour Party has been captured. Have a look at their front bench. Look at their names. Listen to their accents. They are all posh boys, members of the same narrow section of society as the Tories on the other side. If you didn’t know who they were they’d be indistinguishable. They represent the same arrogant, entitled, Eton/Harrow/Oxbridge elite. Labour is no longer a working class party, and it’s certainly not a left wing party. At best it’s centre right, and that’s being generous. The fact that Ed Milliband can be considered a leftie is merely a measure of how far to the right it has drifted. In August last year I wrote the following, also under the heading ‘The Ghost of the Labour Party,’ as part of a blog on the politics of independence:

“That’s what many Labour voters in Scotland are actually voting for, a pale shade of a once-proud party, which has over the years abandoned virtually every principle on which it was founded. It started out, back in the days of Keir Hardie, as an unashamedly socialist party. It morphed, on achieving government in the 20th Century, into a social democratic party.  In recent years, and it would be hard not to conclude that it was during the Blair/Brown years, the transformation has moved them all the way to the centre right. That is not the party Scottish Labour voters are voting for. They are voting in the main either for the Keir Hardie one, or the post-war Attlee one, which gave us the welfare state, the NHS and all that other progressive, social democratic stuff.”

I see no reason to change that assessment. Apart perhaps to remove the ‘virtually’ from the phrase ‘…abandoned virtually every principle…’ I also suggested that the SNP had won an outright majority at Holyrood by being a better Social Democratic party than Labour. Since the referendum that trend has been amplified as the SNP has been pulled to the left by its new membership, and arguably the handover from Salmond to Sturgeon, while Labour has continued its inexorable drift to the right. It’s small wonder that the most googled question on the night of the 7-way UK debate was, “Can I vote for the SNP?” And this is for the UK, so presumably mainly from voters in England! And the reason why these English voters want to vote SNP? No rocket surgery required. Left of centre English voters too shrewd to fall for UKIP’s nonsense don’t have a credible left of centre option to vote for. So it’s not that we in Scotland, and particularly in towns like Clydebank, the famed Labour ‘heartland,’ have abandoned the Labour Party. It’s that the Labour Party abandoned us. Years ago. They left us to rot while the good times rolled for their precious floating voters in the prosperous South East. Now they expect us to pay for the excesses of that boom, pay with our children’s health and futures. Nuh. Not doing it any more. For years they’ve taken us for granted. It has suited them to keep us poor, because in their minds that locked us into voting for them. Well you can only pull that con so many times. We have well and truly seen through it.

And so we have had the spectacle of Jim Murphy trying to fight two different campaigns at once. Attacking the SNP from the left, while at the same time supporting the right wing policies of their London HQ. Like more austerity and Trident replacement. This has at times led to direct policy contradictions. Jim unilaterally (a word he doesn’t like) declared, for instance, that Ed’s signature policy, the Mansion Tax, which will be collected mostly in London where property prices are the most inflated, would be used to fund a thousand extra nurses in Scotland. Ed had a bit of difficulty swallowing that one.

21-may-js-miliband 07.jpg

For the record, like most of the ‘policies’ that Jim’s been announcing, that is not Labour policy in this election. As the NHS is an area already devolved to the Scottish Government, it could presumably be claimed to be a Scottish Labour policy in next year’s Holyrood elections (not the election he’s currently fighting though), but in reality it was just a Murphy thought bubble. And he hadn’t thought it through. When it was announced to the media the conversations went something like this:

“We promise a thousand more nurses in the Scottish NHS.”

“A thousand more than what?”

“A thousand more than any number the SNP might come up with!”


“So there!”

This is playground stuff. The logical conclusion of such an auction is that the entire world population could end up working as nurses in the Scottish NHS. There’s only one response to that sort of wooly-minded nonsense, and I learned that in the playground too – make sure your brain is engaged before you put your mouth in gear! Anyway, what does it all mean, all this sound and fury? It’s time to examine the entrails. It’s time for…

The Electoral Calculus (note – contains no actual calculus)

Well, not very much it would appear. The polls have barely shifted in months. The have been small variations in the Labour and Tory figures, but all within a standard deviation (3%), so basically it’s a dead heat. The minor parties vary somewhat more, which is normal given their smaller sample size. Here is a seat count from a typical poll-of-polls prediction, this one from Sky News:


Some put one side ahead, some the other, but all are around there and have been for some time. Nothing in the campaign so far seems to be shifting them. The same is true in the Scottish polls. Here’s something I wrote a few weeks ago, as a comment somewhere else, at the start of the official campaign. And kept, yes. I’m only human, I like to check on the progress of my predictions occasionally. It starts with a quote

“A spokesman for Scottish Labour said: “As the General Election draws nearer it becomes clearer every day that only Labour or the Tories can form the next UK government.” (Herald, 21/3)

“No, as the General Election draws nearer it becomes clearer every day that neither Labour nor the Tories can form the next UK government unless the SNP allow it. They have already vowed that they will not support the Tories forming a government under any circumstances. As they hold only the one seat in Scotland, the Tories cannot possibly form a government in their own right unless they are able to make considerable headway against Labour in England, something they haven’t been able to do in five years, so there is no reason to suspect they can do it in five weeks. The flip side of that is that Labour can’t make any headway either. The ‘poll of polls’ reported in the Herald article only confirms that all of the polls have been remarkably stable, and remarkably consistent. It looks very much as though voters have ‘stopped listening,’ that most made up their minds some time ago, and have no intention of changing them.

The difference for Labour however is that although the polls strongly suggest that they cannot form a majority government either (unless they are able to make considerable headway against the Tories in England, something…, etc), the SNP has not ruled out supporting a minority Labour government under certain conditions. If Labour finds itself unable to live with those conditions, they have two options. They can in effect tell voters, “No, wrong, do it again!” Or they can seek a ‘grand coalition’ with the Tories. Ramsay McMilliband, come on down! And, looking to those stubbornly consistent polls once more, the only way that the Tories could possibly form a government would be with Labour support. So for Jim Murphy and the Labour Party to continue to suggest that,

     “As we have said repeatedly every seat taken from Labour, by the SNP or any other party, increases the likelihood that David Cameron’s Tories will be returned to government.”

is frankly laughable. They love to say a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories. They’ve been telling us that for decades. But right now it is the exact opposite of the truth. The SNP will almost certainly hold the balance of power and will block a Tory government. They are committed to it. The Labour Party is not. They have not ruled out a coalition with the Tories, and several of their MPs have actively proposed it as an option. In fact it is far more likely that a vote for Labour could turn out to be a vote for the Tories.”

Well, I think the odds on that are shortening by the day. And remember, I wrote that before I heard Ed Milliband and Jim Murphy repeatedly refuse to rule it out when challenged to do so. As for the rest of it, I see no reason to change a word. He’s another quote I picked up around the same time:

‘Speaking on a campaign visit in the SNP target seat of Edinburgh South earlier on Tuesday, Murphy said lots of voters were only beginning to think about the issues at stake: “The election is only 24 hours old; there are weeks to go,” he said. “When I was elected [Scottish leader] I said the polls will turn big and the polls will turn late, when people are confronted by the choice facing them.”’

Well, we’re still waiting. And I suspect that’s because people have understood the choice facing them. Only too well. And the problem is, with Labour and the Tories, there really isn’t much of a choice at all.

   “‘It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…’
   ‘You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?’
   ‘No,’ said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, ‘nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.’
   ‘Odd,’ said Arthur, ‘I thought you said it was a democracy.’
   ‘I did,’ said Ford, ‘It is.’
   ‘So,’ said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, ‘why don’t people get rid of the lizards?’
   ‘It honestly doesn’t occur to them,’ said Ford.  ‘They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.’
   ‘You mean they actually vote for the lizards?’
   ‘Oh yes,’ said Ford with a shrug, ‘of course.’
   ‘But,’ said Arthur, going for the big one again, ‘why?’
   ‘Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,’ said Ford, ‘the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?'” (Douglas Adams – So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish)

That is pretty much the Labour Party’s pitch to Scottish voters in a nutshell. But we’ve discovered another option. You see, Murphy’s right, but only up to a point. He says the leader of the largest party forms the government. Well, usually. But not always. What actually happens is that the Queen (yeh, seriously) ‘invites’ the leader of the largest party to form a government. If that leader’s party doesn’t have a majority in its own right that’s when the negotiations start. They have to secure enough support from amongst other parties and independents. Now, assuming the Tories are the largest party (which is by no means certain, it’s really more like a 50/50 proposition), who is going to support them? UKIP? Well, although they have been polling a quite solid third at 10-15%, that support is pretty evenly spread, which is why none of the projections have them getting more than two or three seats. The Lib Dems? They are on course to be all but wiped out. There won’t be enough of them. On every single projection I’ve seen the SNP will have sufficient numbers to block a Tory administration. Provided Labour don’t support one of course. And if they were to do that then they would have conclusively proved my point – that they have truly become Red Tories, distinguishable from the actual Tories only by their branding.

So. if the leader of the largest party is unable to secure a Commons majority within a reasonable time, usually a couple of weeks, the leader of the second largest party is invited to try. What this means is that one way or another, whether they are the largest party or not, it is Labour who will have the opportunity to form a government. But only if they are prepared to deal with the SNP. And that wouldn’t require doiing anything treasonous or undemocratic, but would mean them adopting certain policies somewhat to the left of the ones they are currently espousing. Which, I think you’ll agree, most of their Scottish voters would like them to do anyway. The conclusion has to be, surprisingly, that if you’re a Scottish Labour voter, the best way to get the Labour government you want, the one you’d vote for if it still existed, is to vote SNP. And it would appear, looking at these recent polls, that they are about to do just that. This one from the Daily Record and this from Ipsos-MORI are if anything even more dramatic than earlier ones, suggesting that there has indeed been a late swing as Jim was expecting, only it has been away from him. Both show the SNP with over 50% and over 50 seats.

The Hitchhikers’ Guide

We are about to step into uncharted territory now. In its short life this blog has covered two elections, the 2013 Australian federal election and the 2014 European election. In both The Hitchhikers’ Guide To – The European Elections (v2.0) and Your ‘Why To Vote’ Card I offered advice on tactical voting to achieve certain aims, such as keeping UKIP out, and in the Australian case I also gave a handy guide to what I saw as the real issues in the election (as opposed to the concocted, fake issues the parties chose, as so often these days. to campaign on). But unlike in the referendum campaign where I took a strong position, I have so far refrained from endorsing any candidate or party in an election. This time it’s different however. I believe, when they come to write the history of the 21st Century struggle for Scottish independence, this election will be seen as a pivotal moment. Indeed, to paraphrase Churchill, I know that’s what history will say, because I shall write it. 😉 I’ll explain its importance in a moment. Now, you’ve read my obituary for the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party, so you know I won’t be supporting them. It’s time to bite the bullet and spit it out, or some similar mixed metaphor.

The Babel Fish Blog is endorsing Martin Docherty, the SNP candidate, for West Dunbartonshire. And the SNP for the rest of Scotland too. Not because they are my ideal party, they’re not. Because I believe it’s best for Scotland, and probably for the rest of the UK too. For very practical reasons. So this time, let’s examine both tactical and strategic voting and see why.

Tactical Voting

The Babel Fish guide for tactical voters has become a feature of the blog, so here we go, by which party you usually vote for, or voted for last time.

Tory Voters – there’s really not much you can do to assist your party’s prospects, but then you’re probably used to that by now.

LibDem voters – welcome to the Tories’ world. Of course unlike them you could always get off the fence and make up your mind what you really think, then you might find a party that will still exist on May the 8th to vote for.

UKIP voters – go back to where you came from (probably the 1930s).

Green voters – I sympathise, but you are not currently in with a chance in any constituency. Your time will come next year in Holyrood. This time your best tactical option is to assist in wiping out the Labour Party by voting SNP, as the quickest and most practical way to advance your policy agenda (for reasons I’ll come to in the ‘strategic’ section).

SSP voters – See ‘Green voters.’

Independent voters – See ‘Green voters.’

Labour voters – what, still? After reading this far? Well anyway, your best option is still to vote SNP (doubly so in non-Labour seats of course) as the most likely way to get a Labour government, only with a bit more spine than we’re used to, and with a genuine interest in Scotland for a change.

SNP voters – fill yer boots!

Overall the choice is clear. You can vote for the old order, or the new politics. You can vote for business as usual, or you can vote for a veto. That’s what the SNP is offering, a Scottish veto over governments, or policies, that we can’t live with. The other side of the tactical equation is what they might be able to extract by way of concessions in return for supporting a minority Labour government. They have articulated an anti-austerity, anti-nuclear agenda which has resonated strongly with Scottish voters, and with many English voters too. If they were a business I’d say they should franchise. ‘SNP North East,’ ‘SNP North West,’ ‘SNP Midlands’ and so on. They’d probably do well. Because there’s definitely a gap in the market. So it comes down to this: how much of their progressive wishlist (no more failed austerity policy, no Trident replacement, full fiscal autonomy, etc) can they get up? Who knows? How much of it would Labour do without their influence? None whatsoever.

Strategic Voting

So what is strategic voting? Let me just float the idea. I haven’t heard it mentioned yet in this campaign. We’ve all heard a lot about tactical voting, but nothing about strategic voting. Here’s the thing – we ‘Yes’ supporters all came to support an independent Scotland at different times, and from a variety of political backgrounds. In my case it was a left wing, socialist background. I have never been what you’d describe as a ‘natural’ SNP voter. I have never described myself as a nationalist either. However, as I mentioned earlier, I arrived at the conclusion that independence was the only way forward for Scotland roughly thirty years ago. Around the same time I left the Labour party. Obviously the reasons why are complex, but I’ll give you perhaps the most basic one.

It’s not a real country. The UK I mean. To blatantly plagiarise Salman Rushdie (speaking of Pakistan), it is a country insufficiently imagined. It didn’t grow organically as a nation state. It was cobbled together out of bits that did. So what, you might ask? It was cobbled together 300 years ago, there are plenty of countries younger than that, even in Europe. Which is true, although the successful ones tend to be based on a genuine sense of shared identity, which the UK just doesn’t have. Those that have lacked it have not always fared so well (think Yugoslavia). And then there are heaps of post-colonial ones that had their borders drawn with colonial rulers by their colonial rulers (if you’ll pardon the pun). Those ones aren’t doing spectacularly well either though, are they? Quite a few seem to be coming apart at the seems in fact.

Now, if I’m right, the Union shouldn’t have caught on. Oh, wait…it hasn’t. Three hundred years and we still don’t feel British. Which would mean Scotland is still a real country, and always has been. There are plenty of cultural arguments about whether or not the Union has caught on, I’ve been a part of them in the past, but for me there would be one defining question, one clincher, that would tell you the answer. Is it (the UK) one body politic? Is Scotland part of the same polity as England? I would submit that all the evidence says no. The Scottish centre is to the left of the English centre, and we have already seen one of the ruling parties at UK level rendered non-existent for a time, and irrelevant perhaps for ever, in Scotland. The Lib Dems will certainly go the same way this year. If we could see the end of the Labour Party as a serious force in Scotland too, well I’d say that would be conclusive proof. And what’s more, it couldn’t be denied. Everyone would see and understand – we are not one polity.

This is where the thirty years bit comes in. Thirty years ago it really didn’t look like there was any prospect of independence in sight. Having reached, however, what I by then felt was an inescapable conclusion, I was obliged to think long-term, strategically rather than tactically. I hear plenty of people talking about the tactical advantages of an SNP majority. What it might be parleyed into if they got the balance of power, that sort of thing. I don’t really care so much about that. Well, I care of course, but what interests me even more is what I see as the potential historic significance of ending all the major Westminster parties, with their pretendy Scottish branch offices, as serious forces in Scotland. That is the sort of seismic event which has the potential to clear the political decks. To allow that hope of a new type of politics, the hope that cheered all of us ahead of the referendum, to return and start to actually produce practical results.

If people could really get that we don’t need to accept any of the second hand damaged goods sent to us by Westminster in our Scottish political system, what kind of a parliament might we not produce, in all our myriad colours, at Holyrood in 2016? I don’t know, but I’d be fascinated to find out, wouldn’t you? And the feeling is there to do this now. To strike while the iron’s hot. I sense a hugely important symbolic and strategic turning point is within our grasp. I say we grab it, and worry about the tactics later. Labour will say we’ll have a one party state (conveniently forgetting all the decades when they enjoyed that situation), but we know that’s not what’s going to happen. Let May the 7th 2015 be remembered as the start of the great realignment of Scottish politics and the beginning of a new Scottish Enlightenment.

Saor Alba!


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