The Strange Death Of Labour Scotland

by Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw

Edinburgh University Press, £19.99

The Strange Death Of Liberal England by George Dangerfield, published in 1935, tried to explain the collapse of the Liberal Party after the First World War. The Liberals had dominated Edwardian politics but were eclipsed by the rising Labour Party in the 1920s, as the industrial working class entered history. Gerry Hassan's thesis is that Labour in Scotland is going much the same way following the decline of class politics in the 21st century. The SNP landslide of 2011 marks the beginning of the end of Labour hegemony.

Mind you, Labour luminaries don't quite see it that way. The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, insists that Labour are on the way back in Scotland, following the council elections of 2012, when the SNP failed to win Glasgow, were trounced in Aberdeen and had to form a coalition in Edinburgh. Indeed, Labour MPs say their party never went away in Scotland, and point out that in the 2010 general election they won more than one million Scottish votes and returned 41 seats to the SNP's six. So, reports of the death of Labour may be premature.

But there's no doubt that Labour Scotland is in intensive care. Alex Salmond's 2011 victory delivered a devastating blow to Labour morale as anyone close to the party will confirm. Labour went into the election campaign ahead in the opinion polls, but collapsed as the deficiencies of its leadership, policies and organisation were cruelly exposed. Scotland turned away in disgust from a party that appeared to have no ideas except the ones it had belatedly pinched from the SNP, such as opposition to tuition fees and the council tax freeze.

Labour's biggest mistake was to urge Scots, as Ed Miliband put it, to "start the fightback against the Tories". Since the Tories are nowhere in the Scottish parliament, Scottish voters didn't see any reason to vote against them, and instead handed Holyrood over to the SNP, who won a majority of seats in a proportional parliament. Labour may have been responsible for delivering devolution, but they still don't seem to understand it.

But there have been more fundamental changes in Scottish society that contributed to Labour's downfall. According to Shaw and Hassan, Labour Scotland rested on three main pillars: council housing, trade unionism and local government. During the 1960s, more than half of Scots lived in council houses, and that gave Labour a huge client base, especially in the west. Most Scottish workers were also in trade unions during the 20th century, and these transmitted Labour values to and from the shop floor. Finally, Labour's control of local government ensured that networks of influence and patronage – cronyism if you like – prevented any other political tribe from getting a look in. But not any more. Proportional representation in local government has destroyed Labour's local power base, the unions are in steep decline and only 15% of Scots now live in council homes.

Of course, this could equally have been a prospectus for New Labour, rather than the SNP. But, somehow, Blairite modernising didn't take in Scotland, where traditional social democracy endures. The SNP came to power in 2007 largely because it had taken over Scottish Labour's former agenda of universal benefits: free personal care, prescription charges and school meals. Hassan and Shaw's socio-political analysis is surely correct, but Scottish Labour did a lot to hasten its own demise by its pusillanimous capitulation to London Labour, its pig-headed factionalism and sheer incompetence. If there is any criticism of this book it is that it lets Scottish Labour politicians off too lightly.

I'd almost forgotten that, in 1996, the Labour Scottish executive voted for a three question referendum on devolution. Now they baulk at two. Then there were the selection panels of 1998 that weeded out independent spirits from the approved Holyrood candidates list. Henry McLeish resigned as first minister over a "muddle not a fiddle" about the subletting of his constituency office. Wendy Alexander resigned over a piddling campaign contribution from a businessman in Jersey who wasn't technically a British citizen.

Labour's debilitating infighting and personal rivalry beggars belief. I have spoken to senior figures in the Scottish Labour Party who remain convinced that Wendy Alexander's campaign accounts were deliberately leaked to the Sunday Herald by Gordon Brown's people. They seriously believe that a Labour prime minister fitted up the Scottish Labour leader because she had called for a referendum on independence. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant – the mere fact that some Labour people believe it tells you all you need to know.

This book is sometimes a little ponderously written, but it is comprehensive and authoritative, and the authors are to be congratulated for writing the first major study of the Scottish Labour Party. Trying to research Labour's internal organisation is like trying to penetrate a Colombian drug cartel – it's not for the faint-hearted. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw have done an excellent job of elucidating and recording the processes that led to Scottish Labour's downfall. But you can't help concluding that the party only has itself to blame.

Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw are at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 25. For details go to or call 0845 373 5888