The rise of nationalist parties and the decline of Labour

Labour needs to find its own narrative before it can tackle the SNP and Ukip.

The publication of Lord Ashcroft’s huge poll of 16 Scottish constituencies confirms what other opinion polls have been signifying. A massive swing towards the SNP in the upcoming UK general election is in prospect. In the Labour strongholds polled by Lord Ashcroft, the swing to the SNP looks to be in the region of 25 per cent.

While Scotland-wide polls had indicated that this may be the case, up until now individual incumbent MPs were able to seek solace in the idea that this was going on elsewhere. Popular local MPs may be expected to benefit from an incumbency effect. The polls released today smash that idea.

How can it be that a party whose flagship policy was decisively rejected in the referendum just a few months ago is currently riding higher than ever in the polls?

There are two key reasons behind the SNP’s rise. One of them is on a global level. The other is closer to home. But I’ll begin with the global dimension, which also explains the rise of Ukip across the UK, and other populist parties across Europe.

The global economic shift

It is easy for each individual nation to look inwards and believe that the solutions to their economic problems are unique to them. The economy is globally inter-connected, and people know that, broadly, the current economic problems have an international dimension. Yet people tend to look towards insular attempts at solving those problems.

What is easy to overlook is the idea that the world is undergoing a fundamental economic shift. One that we might have expected to happen, and one that we should probably be celebrating.

The Global Trends Survey asked a range of questions to 32,000 people from 20 different countries around the world. On More or Less at the end of 2014, Evan Davis highlighted one particularly interesting question from the survey. It asks respondents whether life in their generation will have been better or worse than their parents’ generation.

It is a telling question, because it asks its participants to simultaneously assess their past and predict their future. The final answer reveals how you feel about the general direction of travel over the long run.

The findings are fascinating. Chinese people are by far the most optimistic on this count. Other countries near the top include Brazil, India, Turkey, Russia and South Africa.

The bottom half of the table is dominated by western countries: Belgium, France, Spain, the US, Canada, Italy, Poland, Great Britain and Germany.

The passing of economic power

Evan Davis made the following point:

I think it tells you why in the richer countries you’re seeing populist parties coming out and saying, “Hang on a minute, what’s going on here? We don’t like what’s changing around us.” There’s a deep-rooted sense of discontent and detachment from global change.

But in the emerging world very clearly people are thinking, “Hey, this is actually beginning to benefit us and our children.”

It’s just a nice symbol really of where the world is at the moment, that you do have a passing of economic power from an old world to a new world and what you’re witnessing in 2014 is some of the political and global ructions of that shift.

That people in developing countries are beginning to feel optimistic may be a sign that part of the economic crisis of recent years was not a temporary scenario, but part of a fundamental shift in the global economy. A rebalancing of economic power across the world ought to be cause for celebration.

But Europeans are struggling to come to terms with it. They are turning on centrist and liberal governments, and look to nationalist and populist parties for the solutions. In Scotland that is manifesting itself in a surge for the SNP, just as across the UK there is increased support for Ukip.

Scottish Labour’s decline

There is more to this story than that global economic shift, of course.

Across the UK the two main parties have faced a slow decline that has lasted several decades. The same has been true for a while in Scotland.

The collapse of Scottish Labour may appear to have been a sudden post-indyref crunch. No doubt there is part of that going on. Others point to the unpopularity of Ed Miliband, which is even more pronounced north of the border than it is across the UK.

But there have been indications of a problem for Scottish Labour for almost 10 years. Labour lost by-elections it should have won in Dunfermline and West Fife, and Glasgow East. In every Scottish parliament election since it was founded, Labour has lost seats. Out of government in the Scottish parliament for two terms, Labour have long since lost their ability to sell themselves as Scotland’s party.

The 1980s origins of Scottish Labour’s malaise

These seeds were sown in the 1980s, when for tactical reasons Labour began to focus on blaming the Conservatives for all of Scotland’s problems. This line of attack was easily adopted by the SNP, who for ideological reasons have evolved it into a running narrative about how Westminster as a whole does Scotland down.

In their attempts to stem the gradual rise of the SNP, Labour have in turn adapted that message into a story of how Labour is best placed to stand up for Scotland against the Conservatives. The problem is that this line of reasoning doesn’t stack up much as a reason not to vote SNP.

Moreover, the logical conclusion of such a line is this: If the Conservatives are so bad for Scotland and they are so unpopular in Scotland, why not get rid of them for good by leaving the UK?

This may explain why the swing to the SNP appears to be greatest in Labour heartlands. The SNP have essentially taken Labour’s argument, and used it to promote their own cause. The SNP have been doing this for a while. But now they are really cracking it on the doorsteps. Labour don’t know how to respond.

Perhaps most worryingly for Labour is that a lot of their problems stem from decades of complacency. Their issue in Scotland is that so many of their MPs took support for granted. People really began to notice.

Then when the SNP came to power in the Scottish parliament and the world didn’t collapse, Labour’s long-term strategy was undermined. They could no longer rely on the voters’ fear of the Conservatives to tackle the SNP.

On this front, Labour have a lot of making up to do with Scotland’s voters. The way back for them could be a very long journey indeed.

A UK-wide problem for the Labour movement

This issue is allied to a long-term problem that Labour faces throughout the UK — its lack of a cohesive narrative of its own. What are the core values of the Labour party? Today it is unclear.

This is no longer the early-to-mid-20th century heyday of the Labour movement. Amid people’s continued dissatisfaction with socialist policies, Labour must instead improvise its way to relevance.

From today’s standpoint, it is easy to see this as a crisis of identity that has existed since the 1980s. The Tony Blair years brought about an illusion that Labour could still be relevant. But in many ways it was a Conservative-lite government that kept the seat warm until the actual Conservative party was ready to govern again.

Can Jim Murphy turn it around?

Jim Murphy, April 2009 cropped

After a series of ineffective Scottish Labour leaders, they have finally got a leadership pairing of Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale that might be capable of turning the tide. In a Labour party that — across the UK as much as in Scotland — often seems lacking in brilliance, two of their best are now in charge.

But the early signs are not good. Jim Murphy appears to be trying to out-nationalist the SNP. It is a tactic that is easy to mock due to its transparency and simplicity.

I can only imagine that this approach will play further into the SNP’s hands. You can’t tackle an ideology by pretending that you’re into the ideology yourself. Yet Labour still thinks it can.

It is this flawed thinking that led George Robertson to claim that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. On the contrary, nationalism has never looked back since.

Stop playing into the hands of nationalists

The same mistake is being repeated by Labour and the Conservatives in their attempts to tackle the rise of Ukip. Amid the increasing popularity of populist anti-immigration policies, the trend has been for politicians to make out that they are “listening to the very real concerns of voters”.

In other words, they won’t tackle anti-immigration attitudes for being dead wrong. Instead they will themselves adopt anti-immigration policies.

But in the long run this will only serve to increase the perception that such attitudes are correct. In which case, why wouldn’t people vote for Ukip?

Only when Labour tackles opposing ideas head-on will it be able to see them off. But without a distinctive narrative of its own, Labour instead continues to legitimise them.

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