The symptoms of the size of the task ahead for those who wish to secure any kind of future for Scottish Labour are unmistakeable.
The evidence was there in the massive swings and the devastating losses of so-called “safe” seats in the General Election, and also the way in which no Labour candidate (no matter how competent, dedicated and talented) was safe from any SNP candidate (no matter how incompetent, unprincipled or untalented).
There was the range of opprobrium hurled at us as “Red Tories”; there is continuing ridicule in the streets; and the long term realisation that Scottish Labour is a toxic brand. It should also be remembered that Labour’s near wipe-out in Scotland differed in a crucial way from the Tory apocalypse in 1997: in John Major’s case, his party lost from a position of government, rather than while in opposition.
In fact the standard chant of the Nationalists (taken up on banners on railway and motorway bridges in the west of Scotland) “Red Tories Out!” made no sense in that Labour were in opposition in both Westminster and Holyrood. If people were unhappy with the UK or Scotland both, it made more sense to blame the Tories, the SNP and indeed both.
Just as illogical was much of the policy debate leading up to 7th May. The SNP waited until Scottish Labour had published its manifesto, then cut and pasted most of its commitments into to its own: 50p tax rate, Mansion Tax, et al.
(The exception was Trident, which had not been an issue which had drawn blood in any previous General Election – besides which, a number of Labour candidates have never made a secret of their unilateralist views. Likewise, the SNP hammered away on the issue of the Iraq War, which makes as much sense in 2015 as not voting for Attlee in 1945 because Lansbury had been a pacifist in 1935.)
The position regarding economic policy was no less absurd. The SNP promised to end austerity by two means. The first was an increase in public expenditure (actually not that much more than Labour’s offer, according the IFS). The second was by seeking Full Fiscal Autonomy from the UK – which would have cut Scotland off from over £7 billion of UK revenues, with the result of much more austerity rather than less.
The only point in relating these contradictions and failings in SNP policy at this stage is to use them as illustrations of the depth of Scottish Labour’s problems. Like the superiority of Labour candidates, the greater consistency and practicality of our policies did not register, because no-one was listening.
Further evidence of this process was the way in which during the campaign, the SNP’s failures in office were ignored, and indeed Nicola Sturgeon was elevated to near-goddess like status. Issues which would have cost other parties hundreds of thousands of votes were overlooked: these included falling standards of literacy in Scotland’s schools, shortages of GPs, new drink driving laws which are killing off country pubs and destination restaurants.
It seemed that Nicola Sturgeon could have strangled kittens on live television and her poll ratings would have increased. But what is more chilling for Labour is the mirror image: that Jim Murphy could have raised Lazarus from the dead and donated his technique to the Scottish NHS and still have lost support.
What has happened in Scotland seems pretty obvious. The electorate has fallen out of love with the Labour Party, despite our record whenever in office of progressive policy and achievement from the NHS to the National Minimum Wage. It did so at the time of the independence referendum and since then it has missed out indifference and turned straight to hatred and scorn.
On the doorstep, most comrades found the same thing: hostility and real and deep anger at Scottish Labour’s role in delivering the No vote majority. This is despite the fact that a Yes vote would have been economically ruinous to Scotland and deeply damaging to the most vulnerable in society, and that the pragmatic alternative – devolution – had been our policy for decades.
How did the referendum have such an effect? The standard answer – we were punished for working with the Tories – does not hold water in the light of the SNP having been in partnership with the same Tories as a minority Scottish government as recently as 2011.
In the absence of political logic, the answers may lie elsewhere. One theory is that the SNP effectively built an illusion of the wonderful world which independence would represent, in which voters had invested their emotions heavily. So Labour was punished for our role in (necessarily) destroying that illusion. Another theory is that faced with obdurate questions regarding continuing economic stress, voters are choosing to answer an easier one: “do you believe in Scotland?”
And where all governments get some things right and somethings wrong, we are in the position of allowing ourselves to blamed for all that is wrong while our opponents take credit for all that is right.
For example, during the election campaign, Alex Salmond received an honorary degree from Glasgow University; his citation credited him for having introduced free elderly care in Scotland, which happened while Labour Henry McLeish was First Minister. Alex Salmond was not even an MSP at the time.
The conclusion that we must therefore draw is that the Scottish Labour Party is culpable of a massive and obviously catastrophic political failure.
How that came about, how to remedy it, and indeed whether any remedy is possible requires much more examination. But it is worth describing the situation in which Scottish Labour finds itself for two reasons.
First, we need to recognise that the way back, if there is to be one, will be long and arduous. Certainly the 2016 Holyrood elections look to be too early to make an impression, and it seems we will lose further constituency seats.
Secondly, the Labour Party in the rest of the UK needs to look at what can happen during a referendum, and at the same time look over our shoulder at the number of votes and second places achieved by Ukip. We face an EU referendum in the next two years, and Labour can be very certain that Ukip strategists are very closely examining the SNP surge and its relationship to the pro-independence campaign.
They too will be seeking to encourage voters to fall out of love with Labour.
We have been warned.