Ian Swanson: Blairite path a death wish for Labour

Labour must move away from the Brown-Blair years. Picture: Getty
Labour must move away from the Brown-Blair years. Picture: Getty
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THE election result has left Labour in turmoil both in Scotland and across the UK. New leaders are being sought and searching questions asked. But the problems facing the party look different north and south of the Border.

In Scotland, Labour was almost wiped out by an SNP “tsunami”. Big names, long-established MPs and respected figures were swept away. There seemed little individual candidates could do to resist this Nationalist force of nature. Only Ian Murray in Edinburgh South survived.

At least there had been some warning – the polls had picked up an SNP surge, even if no-one could believe it could be quite that strong.

In England, by contrast, Labour’s defeat came as more of a shock. The polls throughout the campaign had indicated a close finish and a hung parliament, with Labour tipped to be best placed to take power. So the Tories’ overall majority – however slender – came as a bitter blow.

But despite the post-mortem verdicts that this was a “catastrophic” result and the worst performance since 1918, Labour actually increased its share of the vote and its number of seats in England.

This was no Tory landslide, no seismic shift of opinion on an SNP scale. David Cameron is not riding the crest of a wave of popularity.

The Conservatives won a narrow majority largely thanks to scare stories about a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP, the oft-repeated claim that Ed Miliband was “not prime ministerial” and taking swathes of seats from their former coalition partners, the Lib Dems.

It is understandable that Mr Miliband should decide to step down following the defeat, but calls by senior figures for a “fundamental review” and suggestions that the party needs to reassess “what it is for” look like an over-reaction.

And the apparent desire by most of the UK leadership candidates to return to a New Labour, Blairite agenda is worrying. Mr Miliband worked hard to move the party away from the toxic legacy of the Blair-Brown bickering and the Iraq war and focus on Labour’s true values – 
tackling inequality, fighting poverty and promoting a strong society.

Going back to the era when Peter Mandelson said he was “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich” seems a bad idea.

And a return to New Labour would certainly do nothing to help the party in Scotland. Here, Labour is fighting for survival against a party which has effectively supplanted it as the 
primary political presence.

The SNP’s win was nothing to do with a political pendulum swinging from left to right or back again; it is not like voters switching from Labour to the Conservatives or vice versa when they feel a new approach is necessary. Labour and the SNP are quite close on the broad thrust of their policies on the day-to-day issues. People have just decided the SNP do a better job. The Nationalists have effectively taken over Labour’s territory and it is going to be very difficult to win it back again.

If Scottish Labour was to split from the UK party, it may or may not help restore its fortunes. Such a move might defuse the “branch office” jibe, but it could undermine the notion of solidarity across the UK, which was one of the party’s strongest arguments against independence.

But if Labour in England chooses to head off in a new Blairite direction, that is a path which Scottish Labour surely could not follow unless it has a death wish.