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Election Comment: Terry Murden

RIP Scottish Labour b. April 1888, d. May 2015

Jim MurphyThe long struggle for the rights of working people began well before James Keir Hardie, the son of a domestic servant and ship’s carpenter, decided to contest the Mid-Lanark by-election in April 1888.

Hardie, however, is long -regarded as the man who gave voice to the working classes and the father of the Labour party. As Labour licks its wounds this morning after a bruising General Election defeat, it is worth taking a glance at Hardie’s election campaign for clues that tell us something about its current failures.

He stood on a platform that included a pledge for stronger regulation of health and safety in the mining industry, the introduction of an eight-hour maximum working day, the sort of policy commitments that would be familiar to left wing campaigners today. But his ticket also included the far-sighted pursuit of political rights for women and, significantly, “home rule for Scotland”.

Those final words may be ringing in the ears of former Labour MPs this morning as they look back on a catastrophic night.

Hardie won only 617 votes.  However, it was enough to send the man, who had started work as a seven-year-old, to Westminster and give birth to a new and radical force in Scottish politics.

How the modern Labour party could use some of his vision and determination. The party that came to dominate Scotland as it swept up support in the shipyards, mines, steelworks and mills, is now in tatters.

The collapse of industry partly explains Labour’s fall from grace, but the party has taken working voters for granted. It allowed the more determined and convincing nationalists to steal its birthright by showing concern for the issues that matter to working class people. The final nail in the coffin was its decision to oppose independence in last year’s referendum that encouraged former party loyalists to turn their back on a lifetime of voting Labour.

Already ailing, it was finally put out of its misery last night with a 39% swing to the SNP which has assumed its left-wing, welfarist credentials, and finally punished it for not being seen to be supporting Scotland.

To add to its woes and humiliation, Jim Murphy lost his East Renfrewshire seat. Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, was dumped. There are calls for Murphy to step down but what Scottish Labour needs is a change in policies and possibly a new alignment of politics in Scotland where the SNP currently seems unstoppable. A new Labour leader would not want to go into the 2016 General Election campaign knowing the battle is already lost.

A week ago I suggested that  the outcome of the election may be the rise of a Scottish Centre party, combining elements of Labour, Liberal and even Tory policies. There are reasons why such a realignment would be possible and desirable in Scotland. Here’s how it might work:

The Tories and Labour cannot agree on Europe, personal taxation, VAT or public spending. That is a long list of policy differences.

But these differences are not irreconcilable in Scotland. On taxation, Labour and the Tories disagreed over the merits of a 50p top rate of tax, but in Scotland it is meaningless. Only 14,000 people earn more than £150,000 a year. Raising the tax threshold by 5p would raise only £700,000.

In response to teasing by Mr Miliband in the Commons Mr Cameron said he would not raise VAT. In Scotland it doesn’t matter as Holyrood does not have full powers over VAT.

Europe is an issue for the Tories in England because of the threat from UKIP which demands withdrawal from the European Union. But UKIP is even less of a force in Scotland and membership of the EU is not an issue for the Scottish Tories.

All this paves the way for creating a new political force, and if the Tories and the Labour party can settle their mutual and historic differences, it would surely not take much to bring the Lib Dems on board. Realignment is not new. It happened in the 1980s when the ‘gang of four’ – Labour’s David Owen and Shirley Williams together with the Liberals Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – formed the SDLP, precursor of the LibDems.

New splits and divisions are already happening. In England it concerns Tory defections to UKIP. In Scotland the SNP is attracting disaffected members of Labour’s left wing.

Could we see the right-wing of the Labour party join the Tories and the Lib-Dems in a new Scottish Centre Party?

Despite their delaying tactics, the SNP will revive plans for another referendum. It simply has no choice as it is the reason the party exists and without a commitment from the leadership it too faces division.

One way or another, the SNP has achieved something remarkable that gives the party huge bargaining power. It could spell big changes north of the border and set up a stronger opposition to her party in the battle for control of Holyrood.

Picture: Jim Murphy under attack from Yes voters (STV)

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