David J Black: Stuck in the middle with you

David J Black: Stuck in the middle with you

David J Black

Clowns to the left and jokers to the right: the Scottish electorate is zugzwanged as David J Black sees it.

Some weeks ago The Guardian’s Marina Hyde levelled a blast against Labour and its normally hesitant leader. Her headline, ‘What was that dreadful thud? The sound of Keir Starmer falling off his high horse’ was less than supportive of the party which usually commands a degree of sympathy in the favourite organ of the metropolitan chattering classes. Her splenetic volley reminds us nicely that politics and hypocrisy often operate in harness. John Major’s ‘family values’ initiative, anyone?

Sir Keir, understandably, sniffs opportunities in Scotland with the implosion of the SNP, and aims to win back 20 or more seats in the next Scottish election, yet having once suffered a wipe out in its old fiefdom Labour’s new found chirpy confidence could be misplaced. That decline began around 20 years ago when endless scandals and water-treading incompetence brought the party into disrepute, and worse. The mood music was provided by a London-imposed Scottish Parliament building project whose original £10-40 million estimate was soon soaring into the hundreds of millions. The nadir came when the people’s party was reduced to a single MP, and the last bastion of socialism in Scotland turned out to be in one of Edinburgh’s most exclusive post codes.

The SNP is certainly in disarray, due in part to its inexplicable obsession with transgender issues which are of little interest to its core vote in Scotland’s council estates, where feeding the kids and finding the rent tend to be the matters of most concern. A leadership contest which exposed the divisions within the party’s upper ranks, and the ongoing psycho-drama of the police raid on the Sturgeon-Murrell home didn’t help either. Nor did the arrest of the amiable Colin Beattie, party treasurer, on the very day that Humza Yousaf was due to deliver an important speech to the faithful.

It should not be forgotten that the courtroom persecution of Nicola’s former mentor, Alex Salmond, infuriated many in the SNP. A great Shakespearean drama in which the condemned man was meant to go down in an orange jump suit, at least metaphorically, was stymied when all 14 charges were thrown out. The look on Kirsty Wark’s face was one of anguish. She had, after all been planning a blockbuster on the subject, and now the ending had been wrecked – something of a surprise, given that Lady Dorrian is no softie, as Craig Murray discovered to his cost when he was banged up for eight months.

That said, let’s have a look at the principal opposition party salivating on the sidelines, and cast our communal minds back a decade or so to the litany of farce which characterised its less than impressive devolved achievements. So let us count the ways, and remember how Labour lost the plot long before the Nationalists started having their meltdown.

Take ‘Lobbygate’. This suggested it wasn’t so much Labour politicians running Scotland as PR agency Beattie Media, whose senior lobbyist was the son of John Reid, Blair’s Scottish Secretary. Then came ‘Officegate’, and the resignation of First Minister Henry McLeish over undeclared rents which he failed to brush of as “a muddle rather than a fiddle”. ‘Trousergate’, the prelude to Jack McConnell’s leadership, saw a gruesome press conference confession to an affair, with the wife ‘Tammy Wynetting’ beside him.

At the 2003 Scottish elections Labour lost seven seats, but ‘Villagate’ was probably the scandal which delivered the 2008 election victory to the SNP. This involved the McConnell family being guests of Kirsty Wark and her husband in Majorca at a time when Ms Wark, one of the competition judges who had chosen the architect of the Scottish Parliament, was negotiating with the BBC over her proposed three-part documentary on the project – in manifest breach of producer guidelines.

Jack McConnell also failed to appear at the inquiry he’d set up into the budget-busting parliament project, despite being the finance minister who’d been nodding through payments. The result – that no-one was to blame – was even damned as a whitewash by the Labour-supporting Herald. By then, Labour’s demise in Scotland was inevitable, and so it came to pass.

Quite where the next electoral showdown will be taking us is anyone’s guess. The Greens may fancy themselves as kingmakers, but with a mere eight MSPs they could yet be relegated to the margins. Douglas Ross declined to answer a question about the membership numbers of the Scottish Conservative Party in the Holyrood Parliament, suggesting the figure may well be embarrassingly low, perhaps as low as 7,000, say some, though thanks to the list system it currently has 31 Holyrood seats, nine more than Labour. On the matter of Mr Salmond’s breakaway party, Alba, press coverage is sparse, though the fact that he is supported by a number of former SNP insiders of the calibre of Kenny McAskill and George Kerevan suggests it should not be entirely written off.

Voters have memories. They might remember, for example, that days before the 2014 referendum vote they shocked some of their own supporters by forming a panic driven alliance with David Cameron’s Conservatives to concoct ‘The Vow’, a palpably disingenuous bid for the sentiment of the undecided. It worked – but it also preceded a massive boost to SNP membership.

Sir Keir Starmer and his Brexit-endorsing party will no doubt make some gains from the SNP’s present misfortunes, but he would be unwise to anticipate a Scottish Labour landslide. Taking the electorate for granted is rarely a clever strategy.

David J Black was author All the First Minister’s Men; the truth behind Holyrood.

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