Jim Murphy

Sturgeon’s astonishingly risky EU intervention

SturgeonThe EU referendum was always going to be a tightrope for Nicola Sturgeon. The risks are manifold: saying something that could ultimately be used against her in future Scottish independence referendum; drawing attention to some of the more unpleasant elements of the independence cause; and appearing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Prime Minister, having previously denounced (and demolished) Labour for doing the same. I always therefore assumed that come the independence referendum Sturgeon, being more risk-averse than her predecessor, would restate her position that she favours British membership of the EU and then stay out of the debate. However, on Monday she delivered a most astonishing speech on Britain’s membership of the European Union – exposing herself to risks on all three fronts identified above, and more.

She acknowledged, though did not dismiss, the inconsistencies in arguing for a “pooling of sovereignty” with other EU Member States while not applying that same logic mutatis mutandis to the United Kingdom. The submission that “there is nothing at all contradictory about independent nations recognising their interdependence” is so packed with contradiction that only a true-believer could fail to spot it.

In the independence referendum the SNP hoped that we would suspend our better judgement and vote with our hearts, rather than our heads – and dismissed the pleas of those who urged us that we do opposite as cynical and negative. The irony of now making the instrumental case for a political union while dismissing the more emotive, nationalistic case for Brexit is clearly lost on her.

Sturgeon made the case for the EU imposing certain certain social standards on the UK (purportedly) against its will:

“In 2013 the UK only increased the minimum entitlement to parental leave as a direct result of European directives. There are other cases – for example minimum annual leave, and conditions for agency workers – where the UK complies with the European minimum and no more. Which begs the question without European regulations would minimum standards be meet the regulation at all?” [sic]

In other words, it’s OK for the European Union to impose laws on the UK that the UK has not voted for, but it’s not OK for the United Kingdom to impose laws on Scotland that Scotland has not voted for. I wrote previously about how the left was generally fine with surrendering control over the levers of power provided the levers are nonetheless pulled in a manner of their pleasing (such as the internationalisation of human rights). However, pulling the levers of power is the core purpose of the SNP and the independence movement. The SNP didn’t give up its pursuit of independence when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister even though Brown clearly enjoyed overwhelming support in Scotland. The fact that the levers of power were being pulled in a manner Scotland chose mattered not one jot to the SNP – what mattered most was who was pulling the levers of power, not how they are pulled – which is where the contradiction in Sturgeon’s position lies.

She continues:

“In fact, when you consider some of the UK Government’s other policies – for example its attempt to further weaken trade union rights – we should be thankful that the European Union sets some basic social standards.”

The 2015 General Election was remarkable for a number of reasons, though one result seldom commented upon is the fact that right-leaning parties won a majority of the vote for the first time since the war (though it was close in the 1950s). For Sturgeon to claim that we Britons should be thankful to the EU for imposing policies upon us that the people of the UK voted against at the last election, while simultaneously crying foul every time the UK pursues policies which “the people of Scotland did not vote for” is bare-faced hypocrisy, and impossible to credibly sustain. The very nature of a political community is one in which individuals and groups subjugate their own desires to the will of the community. The fact that Sturgeon is apparently OK with the principle of laws being imposed against a nation’s democratic will provided those laws come from Brussels and not London, is a conflict that cannot be resolved without exposing some fairly unpleasant truths about some aspects of Scottish nationalism.

Sturgeon further claimed that

“[t]he European Union is good for the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities across our country.”

This is a questionable assertion, but whatever the truth of it in the UK, it is most certainly not the case in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, or Italy – where the EU has imposed swingeing austerity on these nations, usually against their will, in order to protect (primarily the financial industries of) Germany and France from contagion. How can a party that claims to be “anti-austerity” be so enthusiastically supportive of political institutions that have imposed the harshest austerity Europe has seen since the war? Sturgeon’s narrow, self-interested, view of the beneficiaries of the European Union doesn’t square with her support for a social Europe. I would also ask this question of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, though their support for the EU is, at least, considerably more tepid. This is a contradiction that Sturgeon conveniently glossed over in her speech.

Sturgeon tail-ended her extraordinary foray into the EU referendum debate with an interview with Channel 4 News. Sturgeon was asked what her supporters might think about her fighting on the same side of a referendum as the Prime Minister. She replied

“[i]f he can appeal to those who agree with him, I’ll appeal to those more inclined to my progressive social democratic view of the European Union – if that maximises the vote to stay in, all the better!”

Substitute “United Kingdom” for “European Union” and that line could as easily have been uttered by Jim Murphy or Johann Lamont.

None of this is explosive, though it certainly provides the SNP’s critics (for what they’re worth) with some ammunition. What’s most remarkable is that such a risky speech is entirely out of character for cautious Nicola Sturgeon. Plenty of other political leaders who have won landslide victories became over-confident. Ultimately, it was their over-confidence that was their undoing.

Can we please drop the patriotic crap?

pss377337Recourse to patriotism betrays a poverty of ideas. Like the old Yes, Prime Minister scene where Hacker has nothing to say to the party conference so has to resort to “Britain’s place in the world”, “standing up for Britain” waving the flag, etc. It’s no surprise then that as the British left finds itself at its intellectual nadir so many see Labour’s lack of patriotism as the cause of much of its woe. What is somewhat surprising is that clever people like Tristram Hunt are amongst those advocating it.

Labour, nor indeed anyone on the left, can ever win a patriot game. That’s not to say that left wing people aren’t, or shouldn’t be, proud of their national identity (after I write this I’m going out to buy haggis for the Burns Supper I throw every year in Dublin). But patriotism is not a quality that wins the left any elections, nor is it a quality that the left should find remotely attractive in its leaders.

In Scotland, Jim Murphy believed that it was necessary for Scottish Labour to wrap itself in tartan in order to win back voters from the SNP – as though voters whose politics were defined by their Scottishness would ever look anywhere other than the nationalists. We all know how well that worked.

Does anyone seriously think that voters who make their choice on the basis of how patriotic they are will ever look to Labour? Beyond the cynicism of the fact that appeals to patriotism won’t win Labour any votes, there is a more fundamental point. The left should be fundamentally opposed to patriotism as a political virtue.

For individuals, patriotism is a good thing, or at the very least not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a belief that the community to which a person belongs is something to be proud of. Emily Thornberry’s sneer at a house with a Flag of St George hanging from it was, arguably rightly, portrayed as the view of a condescending London liberal. There was certainly nothing wrong with that household’s patriotism. We should be respectful of people’s pride in their identity, whatever that may be.

However, at a political level, there is something that sits extremely uncomfortably with this lefty in the view that there’s something intrinsic in Scots or Britons that makes us “special”. How on earth does patriotism as a political position square with the belief that we’re all born fundamentally equal?

For all his failings, I don’t recall Tony Blair doing too much patriotic flag waving, while John Major was romanticising a Britain of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers.” We all know how well that went for John Major, too.

In Scotland, where nationalism is undoubtedly rampant, the left should be asking nationalists how on earth do we redistribute wealth from the world’s richest to the world’s poorest by erecting political barriers between them? For the left in the rest of the UK we should tell the political patriots to hang flags from their houses – then get on with something more important.

The Problem of Perception for Scottish Labour

The Scottish Labour Party has an image problem. That is not to say that the root of the problem is our image. At this moment in time I cannot begin to count the various problems that the Scottish Labour Party has, but one of them is undoubtedly our image – how we are perceived by the people we want to vote for us.

Perceptions are difficult to manage in politics, because they can often have little grounding in reality. This, you might think, makes it easy to change people’s perceptions, by simply directing their attention towards reality. However, in politics, perceptions are far more difficult to change than reality.

The perception that we are fiscally profligate hurt Labour badly in England. No matter what the two Eds said or did to demonstrate their prudence, their long association with Gordon Brown’s Treasury meant that they were perceived by the electorate as untrustworthy with the public finances.

In Scotland, we are perceived rather differently. Lord Ashcroft held a focus group in Paisley, and he discerned three problems perceived by voters. The first, is that we are conservative – and virtually indistinguishable from the Tories. The second, is that we are a “branch office” of the Labour Party in London. The third, is that we “betrayed” our supporters by joining with the Conservatives to promote a homogenous establishment defence of the Union.

These perceptions are all, in part, rooted in reality. However, changing the reality does not necessarily change the perception. Once a perception has been formed in people’s minds about a party it is extremely difficult to exculpate it. We have witnessed the difficulties the Conservatives have had dispelling the ghost of Thatcherism. Labour may find it difficult to shake the perceptions that have formed in the public’s minds. Those trained in philosophy or jurisprudence will be familiar with the difficulties in proving a negative. In this instance, that we are not what they perceive us to be.

A new approach to communications

We are bad communicators. This is not to criticise the staff who work in communications. The fault is a systematic one.

Fundamentally, communications staff ought not be necessary. Communication is a core-skill of the politician. However, communication must not be one-way. While, of course, it is a tremendous advantage to have the oratorical skills of Michael Foot or a caustic wit like William Hague – but one of the key failings of these great communicators was that they were transmitters, rather than receivers. Over the years I have known many Labour politicians who are brilliantly attuned to the public mood, but they have been sidelined either through our recent electoral misfortunes, or a succession of leaders who have failed to appreciate the value of such a skill.

As a tarnished brand, and an unpopular product, the party should look to business practices for solutions to our present woes. In recent years, the Scottish Labour Party’s approach to political communication has been more akin to 1950s methods of selling products than modern methods of marketing. Prior to the development of more consumer-oriented marketing techniques, the predominant approach to driving profits was selling and promoting goods and services – the “hard sell” –  rather than determining new customer desires. In effect, selling people something they don’t really want to buy. By contrast, consumer-oriented marketing methods feedback from consumers and attempt to create a product that customers actually want to buy.

It was this approach to political marketing that the late Philip, later Lord, Gould brought to the modernisation of the Labour Party in the late 80s and 90s. It is this responsiveness to public mood that has been sorely lacking in the Scottish Labour Party since the inception of devolution.

For too long we have relied upon opinion polling and canvass returns to gauge the public mood. These have consistently let us down in recent years. In 2011 we fought an offensive election – targeting gains like Livingston and Stirling – when, we should have been defending seats like Shettleston and Cunninghame South. Up until a few months ago, Labour’s key-seat list in Scotland comprised of Argyll and Bute; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale; Dundee East; East Dunbartonshire; and Edinburgh West – our average share in those five seats was less than 15%. These seats were targeted because of both local polling and uniform national swings.

We saw in this election the dangers of relying on opinion polling (and those of us who are political punters paid the price!) Outside of an election cycle there is a tendency for voters to simply provide the answer that they always do – which would explain how Labour’s massive opinion poll leads in the run up to the 2011 election translated into a massive defeat. We failed to detect that “our voters” are no longer “our voters” until it was too late to stem the flow away from us.

Labour needs to make better use of focus groups and modern marketing techniques in order to adequately craft our message to suit the public mood. This might sound frightfully Mandelsonian to some, but it does not mean simply telling the people what they want to hear. In many areas of policy, the public mood appears to be far closer to our core values than we are. If Labour values are what the public wants, then it is utterly incredulous that we appear hesitant to embody them.

I do not believe that our product is fundamentally flawed, we just need to stop trying to flog the people’s last year’s model.

A new visual identity

Aschroft’s focus group discerned that the Scottish Labour Party is perceived as being a mere ‘branch office’ of the Labour Party in London. When even our leader shares that view, there’s bound to be a lot of truth in it. Jim Murphy, at least, recognised that that is a perception that needs to change, and made some attempts to dispel it.

Visual identity is hugely important. Tarnished brands frequently seek to change perceptions of themselves by updating their visual identity. McDonald’s responded to the perception of tackiness by ditching red and yellow in favour of earth tones in their restaurants. BP sought to bolster their environmental credentials by updating their logo. David Cameron did nearly the exact same thing when he changed the Conservative Party’s branding in 2006. And Peter Mandelson, too, sought to renew Labour’s brand by ditching the red flag in favour of the rose in the late 80s.

As a tarnished brand, the party’s visual identity needs to be renewed – urgently – to distinguish ourselves from the failings of the past, as well as the UK Labour Party of which we are perceived as being a branch.

This involves more than merely throwing a few saltires around the place. Name, shape, and colour should all be up for debate.

Of particular focus should be the name. It is arguable that the name ‘Scottish Labour’ evinces a sense that we are the Scottish bit of the Labour Party, rather than being the Labour Party of Scotland. The starting point for any rebrand ought to be the question ‘what would we call ourselves if we were starting from scratch?’ The answer, I suspect, would be ‘Labour’.