johnodonnellJohn O’Donnell says Scottish Labour’s problem isn’t our tax policy, or the referendum, or our leader, or fracking, or Trident. Our problem is much more fundamental: it’s trust.


Those of us who remember the 1992 general election will remember the front page of The Sun on election day, which headlined ‘If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’.  Headlined the following day when John Major, to the surprise of everyone, was returned as Prime Minister with an overall majority of 21, was ‘It’s The Sun wot won it’, taking full credit for the Tory victory.

The reality, however, was completely different.

The veteran Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, has a reputation for brutal honesty, which is why he is one of the most respected politicians in the House of Commons. When Michael Foot was elected Labour leader in 1980, Gerald quipped that ‘the Labour Party has just voted to lose the next General Election’, and of course he was spot on. When Labour published its manifesto in 1983, he named it ‘the longest suicide note in history’ and of course he was spot on.

In 1992, the Tories ran a series of posters, one of which is the photo above, with the simple slogan ‘You can’t trust Labour’. On the face of it, it looked foolish, stupid and a waste of money. In fact, it was the cleverest poster campaign there had been in years. What it did was to draw on an emotion, present in many people.

Labour didn’t lose the election because of Kinnock, because of the Sheffield rally or because of tax. They were all outward signs of ‘you can’t trust Labour’. Let the record show that this was the reason Labour lost Scotland in the 2015 general election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

Let’s have a look at some of the results. Dumfriesshire, where Labour’s vote dropped by 14.3% pushing us from 1st to 3rd. Rutherglen, that traditionally safe Labour seat, an 11.2% drop. Uddingston and Bellshill, another safe Labour seat, a 13.6% drop. Ayr, where Sandra Osborne used to be the MP till last year, a further drop of 9.3%. Cunninghame North, a drop of 10.8% pushing us again from 1st to 3rd. Cunninghame South, a drop of 9.1%. Greenock and Inverclyde, once again a solid and safe Labour seat, a staggering drop of 16.2%. Edinburgh Central, where former minister and highly respected MSP Sarah Boyack was pushed from 2nd to 3rd with a drop of 9.8%. Edinburgh Western, a drop of 12% pushing us into 4th place. Maryhill, that traditional Labour stronghold, a whopping drop of 16.3% with a 15% swing to the SNP. Cathcart, my own constituency, which had previously been a Labour stronghold since John Maxton beat Teddy Taylor in the 1979 General Election, an unbelievable 17.2% drop in our vote with a 12.5% swing to the SNP. Pollok, where former leader Johann Lamont was defending her seat, a drop of 15.8% with a swing to SNP minister Humza Yousaf of 13%. Provan, a drop of 17.6% with a 15.4% swing to the SNP. Shettleston, another traditionally safe Labour seat, a drop of 17.9% with a 13% swing to the SNP. Cowdenbeath, where Labour’s deputy leader Alex Rowley was defending the seat he won in a by election, a drop of 10.6% and a 7.5% swing to the SNP. Eastwood, which we had held since Jim Murphy’s spectacular win in 1997, a drop of 9.1% sending Ken McIntosh from 1st to 3rd. Renfrewshire South, a drop of 14.8% with a swing of 12% to the SNP. Coatbridge and Chryston, another safe Labour seat, a drop of 17.6% with a 17.5% swing to the SNP. Motherwell and Wishaw, a 12.7% drop with a swing of 12% to the SNP.

Huge and unexpected swings in many safe Labour seats, most in favour of the SNP, a party that had been in power for nine years. Even Tony Blair was not able to replicate these swings during the 2005 general election, when Labour had been in power for eight years.

We didn’t lose because of the referendum. We didn’t lose because of the 1p on tax. We didn’t lose because of our position on fracking. We didn’t lose because of our stance on the Named Person legislation. We didn’t lose because of Kezia. We didn’t lose because of our position on the renewal of Trident. All of these were just outward signs of ‘You can’t trust Labour’.

The Labour Party could take heed from St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. Just to humour you, how about we change the word ‘love’ with the phrase ‘the trust of the Scottish people’. The passage, which is one of my favourites, is amended as follows:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not the trust of the Scottish people, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not the trust of the Scottish people, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not the trust of the Scottish people, it profits me nothing. And now abide faith, hope, and the trust of the Scottish people, these three; but the greatest of these is the trust of the Scottish people.”

Labour has failed, spectacularly, over many years, to deserve the trust of the Scottish people.


It reminds me of a form of torture that the Nazis used in World War 2 when trying to gain information  from captured soldiers when being interrogated. They would place a rat on a soldiers belly, put a pot over it and gently heat the pot. At first, the rat did not react, but as the heat increased the rat began to get restless and tried to find a way out. It realises that it can’t get out through the pot so it becomes desperate and does the only thing it can: it starts to dig down into the soldier’s belly.

The Labour Party in Scotland has become so desperate that it will do anything to get out of its trap, without having any obvious and clear strategic purpose, direction or route to power. That is why the public rightly does not trust Labour.

In 2015, to the surprise of many, the Conservative Party won the general election and now run a majority government. It could easily have been called the Consensus Party as it managed to position itself in the centre ground and drew votes from Labour on the left and UKIP on the right. The Labour Party’s response in the September leadership election of that year was to run way past the centre-left, way past the soft-left and to position itself with the hard-left, electing the 66 year old veteran MP Jeremy Corbyn with a whopping 60% of the vote, even more than Tony Blair’s vote in 1994 following the death of John Smith. It elected a man who, in 32 years in the House of Commons, had never held a shadow or government post. The Labour Party would do well to acknowledge the reasons why.

Between the number of MPs that Scotland sends to Westminster (59) and the number of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament (129), a total of 188, the Labour Party has a grand total of 25. It has between one-in-seven and one-in-eight parliamentarians. A shockingly low number of politicians from a party that has its roots in working people.

The SNP positioned itself in the centre ground. It encouraged people not just to hope for a better Scotland but to vote for it, in an almost identical poster to that which Margaret Thatcher used in her successful election campaign in 1979. This was no mere coincidence but a successful strategic positioning that saw the SNP as the natural successor to Tony Blair’s ‘what works’ that delivered Labour only its second landslide in its history.

The SNP might not have been principled. It might not have been right. It might not have been socialist. But it was popular. It appealed to people’s pockets, it appealed to people’s hopes. It appealed to people’s aspirations. It said ‘trust us’ and the electorate responded by saying ‘yes we do’. The Labour Party, meanwhile, ran around like the desperate rat I mentioned just trying to find a way out of an impossible situation. It’s young, new and energetic leader didn’t manage to be one crucial thing: believable.

In the Scottish Parliament there are now 99 MSPs out of 129 that identify themselves as centrist. That equates to 80% of MSPs. If this does not demonstrate to the Labour Party that the future of politics is in the centre then I despair to know what does. There are Corbyn supporters in the Labour Party who believe that the Labour Party is not far-left enough. You only need to look at the success, or lack thereof, of Solidarity, TUSC and RISE to see that the hard-left has no future in politics.

If the Labour Party in Scotland can acknowledge that its future is in the centre ground then, in time, it might begin to rebuild its reputation with the Scottish people. Kezia needs to exert her control and discipline over the party and the way it behaves in parliament. The way in which MSPs James Kelly and Neil Findlay behaved towards the Presiding Officer like a pair of petulant school boys is a good example. The public expects political parties to be run well, organised well and to behave like politicians, not second hand car salesmen. Nicola Sturgeon runs her party well. Ruth Davidson runs her party well. Both of them received the trust of the Scottish people. We didn’t.

I have fallen short of calling for an independent Scottish Labour Party, which I first raised after the General Election defeat last year. There are some who would rather go down with the sinking ship, rather than break away from the UK party. I am not one of them. The Scottish people deserve a strong Labour Party but the Labour Party does not have that automatic right to their support. If you look at Ruth Davidson’s campaign literature you will see that she created a strong brand whilst mentioning very little about being a Tory.  She distanced herself from David Cameron on matters that were not in the interests of the Scottish people. Labour spectacularly failed to do that.

I am also falling short of recommending that Labour cut its link with the trade union movement. For long enough the party has been in a stranglehold with the trade union movement and the public want a party run by strong politicians, not unelected union leaders. There is no reason why the unions cannot support Labour without holding it to ransom. The reality is that more trade unionists are voting for parties other than the Labour Party so its significance to them is no longer as important. Other parties manage to operate without trade union money so why can’t Labour? The unions played a key role in helping to found the Labour Party but it wasn’t born out of the bowels of the trade union movement as Ernest Bevin said it was.

If the current or future party leaders are able to exert control and discipline then the uphill climb may move into first gear rather than the ignominious reverse gear.

If not, then perhaps the party has no future and might as well wind up. Because the electorate will quite rightly come to the conclusion that ‘you simply can’t trust Labour’.

Related Posts

17 thoughts on “A question of trust

  1. “Labour has failed, spectacularly, over many years, to deserve the trust of the Scottish people”.
    Well said, John. A truer word has seldom been spoken about Scottish Labour.
    Will Scottish Labour listen, comprehend the guddle they are in, and do the needful to rectify their situation?
    I very much doubt it. Scottish Labour are required, apparently, as lobby fodder to get rUK Labour back into power. All the pundits tell us so.
    rUK Labour are also in a mess, ideologically—split in Westminster, and split between Westminster and the country.
    With a rank bad press, a BBC which Cameron seems to have cowed into his corner, and Murdoch no longer on board, rUK Labour will not regain power for as far into the future as we can see(unless there is a totally unexpected EVENT ).

    So Scottish Labour need to worry only about their own circumstance, solve their own electoral puzzle and not think of anything else.

  2. Time to start over. I know it does not sound spectacular or strategic but to re-build the trust of communities we have to return to them and offer up service. Being an effective councillor is probably more important than being in Holyrood right now. I can’t say I am optimistic about next May’s council elections and fully expect the SNP to capture Glasgow outright but it is a sad reflection of how far we have indeed been abandoned by our electorate that we will receive zero recognition. All we can do is start again from scratch, accept that this will take a decade and possibly more and try not to replicate the mistakes of the past. Spin is not policy.

  3. The trust in Labour was lost irrevocably during the referendum campaign.The site of the party siding with the Tories, and vigorously talking down Scotland, removed all trust that been generated in thousands of supporters of the Party and I simply cannot see that being forgiven or forgotten any time soon.

    1. I don’t accept that. That may be the line promoted vigorously by the SNP but most folk actually applauded the fact we could work with other parties in the national interest. By the way, if we had waited for United With Labour to get out of the traps we would still be waiting now. Nor have the SNP ever denied they were kept in power between 2007 and 2011 ONLY with the support of the Tories when presenting their budgets to parliament. You might accept the “Red Tories” badge but I don’t. And do you know what…..I would do it again if I had to.

      1. Get real, most folk voted against labour because you were in bed with the tories in better-together.

        And you would get exactly the same result if you did it again, and it would be well deserved.

      2. We really need to stop viewing the world through an SNP-tinted prism.

        It’s not about what they do or did, it’s about what we need to do and justifying actions on their merits from our standpoint, not because the SNP didi it.

      3. We should agree to disagree Peter. The article however is about trust ,and my opinion has nothing whatsoever to do with the SNP . Trust is a belief that something is good, honest,reliable and effective. The electorate decided Labour simply did not come up to these tenets and left the Party in droves . I feel a lot of soul searching will be needed by my Labour friends on this vital issue of trust because without it as a foundation to new refreshing ideas I not think they will recover.

      4. ‘I would do it again if I had to’ – that’s why Scottish Labour will stay in the mire for the forseable future- failure to learn.

  4. Only an Independent Scottish Labour Party will move Labour in Scotland into first gear. The weekly spectacle of the rejected “old guard” at Hollyrood with chancers like Sarwar blotting the floor does Labour in Scotland no favours.

    1. You’re right. Scottish Lab can for the next 20 years remain connected to London Lab, fine tune and adjust manifesto
      points an promises, it can for year after year keep on the SNP’s back about health and education – and it won’t make
      the slightest difference to the problems Scotlab is having and will continue to have.

      Some of the less ‘old school’ Scotlab members are ready to think about a completely new approach to get Scotlab live and
      vital again – sever from London Labour and support independence.
      (Would be a very tricky sale to split from London Lab and then justify staying in the union)

      But it’s safe to say that Scotlab will try and fail at everyother approach over years before it gets to this realisation.
      (Almost like Scotlab giving it’s self several years of deliberate self flagellation in order to show that it was in
      an agony of trying everything else to justify the eventual and inevetable London Lab split and Indy).

  5. Your entire argument is that the Labour Party is not the party you want to be in – you should do the honourable thing and start the party you want. Good luck with that.

    1. But that’s part of the problem Joe, the Labour party now isn’t the party we joined, how many times have you heard the phrase “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me”?

      Telling people to go setup their own party if they don’t like what Labour had become isn’t the answer, especially when there’s a ready made alternative in the SNP waiting in the wings.

  6. Honestly can’t see Labour going anywhere in Scotland any time soon.
    Doesn’t exactly help with Glasgow councillors noising up people at the hustings i was at.
    That went down very badly Frank.
    Stop attacking the voters might be a good start.
    You can justify Better Together to yourselves but not to the voters in places like Shettleston.

  7. Just so everyone is absolutely clear where I stand – a Labour Party that promotes the braking up of the United Ki9ngom is most definitely NOT the Labour Party I joined. If that is your world view then join a party that advocates Scottish independence – there are a number to choose from.

    If we are going down the road of “doorstep anecdotes” for every voter you found saying “I never left labour, Labour left me” or some such cobblers I can take you to 5 who told me to my face that we were abandoning the Union.

    The adoption of the SNP narrative – a narrative designed purely to undermine trust in the Labour Party not just here in Scotland but UK wide – is unlikely to prove a successful path to follow. Why on earth would anyone vote for “SNP Lite” or second class SNP.

    Really, some people need to get a grip.

Comments are closed.