Martin Hutchison PhotographMartin Hutchison says Scottish Labour faces three giant destroyers of our politics, and together they constitute an existential threat.


Like the traveller in Ireland who is advised by the locals not to be starting from here, Scottish Labour wishes that the starting point was other than where we are, but there is no possibility of moving in the right direction if we don’t accept the full horror of our current predicament.

Ruinously and simultaneously, three giant destroyers of our politics are in play, each intersecting with and reinforcing the other.

1. Ulsterisation

In Northern Ireland there is no left or right, only the “British or Irish” dynamic, in which our sister party the SDLP saw its support fall yet again in the recent elections. That party has been in a death spiral for 15 years longer than Scottish Labour but hasn’t been able to arrest the decline, being obviously less Irish than Irish Republicanism.

Caught up in a vortex of destruction the SDLP can find no answer beyond being the party of the public sector Catholic professionals who make up its membership. How sweet. We are we and we are virtuous leads to an identity politics within an identity politics, one which harvested one in eight of the votes cast.

There is now almost no left or right left in Scottish politics. The hard left supports the brutal, post-oil austerity that would result from the independence it seeks in the next several years. Meanwhile our positioning to left of the SNP gained no traction whatsoever as that is no longer how Scottish politics works.

Anas Sarwar is correct in observing that we are not comfortable nationalists or unionists but we might be able to escape this particular pincer movement by asserting our own concept of Scotland and the union – conceiving of both as communities to which we owe solidarity, social justice and responsibility.

And if you think Ulsterisation is bad…

2. “O Rose Thou Art Sick!”

Scottish Labour is caught up in the crisis of social democracy in its European home enumerated in hideous detail in, of all places, The Economist: O Rose Thou Art Sick!

With identity politics growing everywhere under austerity, the left suffers disproportionately. The wipe-out of Scottish Labour is mirrored by the destruction of the PSOE in Catalonia by the Nationalist collation for “Yes”. It is poorer voters and anti-authoritarian voters who are seduced by nationalisms in both Spain and in Scotland. Under austerity Social Democrats haemorrhage support to Podemos, Die Link and “workers” parties to their left.

But the problems before recession and crisis were already bad enough. There is the key issue of programmatic exhaustion, with European social democrats having built the finest societies in human history; the roof is on, the structure is solid and none of the people who take our votes would dare to suggest tearing our house down. The SNP has become social democratic (leave aside the ethnic based repudiation of solidarity for one wee moment) but their entire success has been based on being Labour but more Scottish.

For the moment the Tories are numbered among those who would not knock down the house of British Social Democracy because if they tried Labour would come back. However, if Labour was to expire…

3. There are votes on our left

The revolution in Labour politics which took place in the summer of 2015 met its first electoral UK wide test in May this year and the results were the same as in the mid 1980s when the party adopted the same strategy. The Labour-sympathetic analyst Glen O’Hara says in the New Statesman that the results are very poor and portend the loss of the next two elections. Corbyn has harvested almost no votes to our left in an explicit strategy of not appealing to Tory or centrist voters.

A mountain of psephology suggested that Labour had to appeal to voters’ aspirations, not to overlook the need to reduce the debt, be pro-businesses and pro-market as that is where 80% of workers have to survive, and don’t favour the public sector. All repudiated. There are voters to our left, but they vote for the Greens, Plaid Cymru, et al.

This poor UK performance dragged down the Scottish result (can we find an single example of a hard left Yes supporter voting Labour anywhere in Scotland?) but more importantly it points to UK-wide losses in 2020 and 2025 ending Labour as a potential UK governing party. That analysis is shared by and is central to the SNP’s decision to postpone the second independence referendum to 2022. If Labour can deliver the UK to the Tories it will deliver Scotland to nationalism.

The obvious task for Scottish Labour is to share the SNP’s analysis of Corbyn with Corbyn and the wider UK Party. A Scottish secession will cause a nationalist backlash in England creating the Ulsterisation of English politics so they might want to be afraid.


In addition to those three threats, two tactical errors are worth mentioning:

  • Penny on tax
    John McTernan may be correct that explicitly promising to raise tax never works; the New Labour governments raised taxes but never promised to do so. The SNP did badly in the “penny for Scotland” in 2003 so decided never to risk it again. One of the reasons that Europe’s most successful political party did not seek a second referendum in its manifesto risking the possibility that many of its 115,000 members will march back down the hill, was its sense that without oil it would have to ask for tax increases and that consequently it would lose.
  • Performance
    The word performance doesn’t appear in the Scottish Labour manifesto despite systematic declines in performance of key public services under the SNP. If we are outraged at the recent decline in innumeracy and literacy among poorer pupils it didn’t make the manifesto or more importantly the campaign.
    The solution to this and the other examples of under performance was more resources despite the fact that the SNP failed to use the existing resources which Labour sweated blood to provide, efficiently. This tactic appeals to 20% who work in the public sector but for the 80% who don’t they would prefer a performance boost from their colleagues. Also recall Ulsterisation, half of Scotland isn’t in the business of voting for a Unionist party so the market for failing to point out public sector under performance is half of 20%.
    We can never come back on the basis of one in ten workers so let us end the pandering and say what has to be said. Ruth Davidson is about to colonise that ground and we can think of no good reason to let her.


It was a monumental and risky decision to postpone the second independence referednum until the next parliament, but the SNP calculate that Labour has to die before they can win. Labour will die if we don’t as a minimum agree the shape and depth of the hole we are in.

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20 thoughts on “The hole we are in

  1. Best keep well back from Northern Irish politics comrade.

  2. Well, the hole is the proverbial six foot deep, and with the same old rejected crew unwilling to stop digging deeper.

    Sarwar, of course, is a very comfortable unionist.

  3. I enjoyed it Martin. Not much wrong with your analysis as far as I can see. Let’s face it, life is pretty s*** for us right now and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The SNP do what they do and they do really well. How they keep the lid on their divisions internally (North Lanarkshire apart) is the stuff of legend.

    I expect the thrashing to continue right up until May 2017 and we lose the citadel and the every other council to the SNP or find ourselves sat next to the Lib Dem rumps in SNP led NOCs.

    I fully expect to lose the GE of 2020 and struggle to win votes in Holyrood 21.

    We have to have this debate now and we have to understand that we are not defending any interests now except our history.

    There are plenty on here who will tell you the Labour movement is dead and it was mortally wounded by the SNP in 2014. Many of those same voices can’t wait to dance on the grave.

    I’m OK with what I believe in – and that includes remaining part of the Union, retaining Trident, maintaining the welfare state, keeping education in Scotland in local authority control, returning education to local authority control in England & Wales, keeping the NHS free at the point of need and ensuring the tax burden is spread fairly and proportionately amongst all sections of society and the business community. Ideology alone won’t create jobs or keep the lights on.

    In short, Jackie Baillie fought the election based on much of the above and was victorious. Because everyone who voted for or against her knew exactly where she stood.

  4. It doesn’t help to refer to Ulsterisation when our party in Falkirk are funding an Orange march. Do we have a big self destruct button somewhere.

    1. Well, Falkirk does have about £21M spare after cancelling the new Council HQ. The work done pre-cancellation only cost about half a million, so there’s plenty left.

      I had hoped the self-destruct button had been locked safely away after that debacle but apparently not…

      There’s also a shiny new ASN school in Grangemouth which has gone up from £10M to £17.8M in the last couple of years. Money can always be found for a worthy cause.

  5. ‘The hole we are in’ is called Free Enterprise; We can’t produce sufficient goods cheaply enough to provide the jobs and decent wages our people need. The only sensible option open to us is to concentrate on the goods which we cannot do without such as housing,medicine social care,clean water etc., from the abundance of the factors of production here at our disposal, taking due care of our planet at the same time. What could be simpler?

  6. We’re all really going for the “Ulsterisation” theme….

    Firstly “Ulserisation” was a term imposed by the British army as they handed over routine armed patrols to the RUC…in an attempt to shift the casualty rate from British soldiers …

    Thats the first glaringly obvious flaw right there ….there never has been an armed presense of Soldiers on patrol in the streets of Scotland, there was never a hand over to the armed police. There is no paramilitary organisations running amok in Scotland….

    You use this term in a manner that is an afront to those who died on both sides in an entirely different situation. In doing so you risk damaging relations ….

    1. No he doesn’t. This is a hysterical over-reaction. Get a grip. The polarising of voters along the independence/unionist axis as opposed to left/right is a conspicuous reality in Scotland. Remove the sectarian element and the description is accurate.

      1. Removing the sectarian/ethnic element from Ulsterisation is like removing the sausage from a hot dog – it’s removes the entire point of the comparison. Ulsterisation without the sectarian element is meaningless and bland; it’s barely even Belgium, never mind Ulster.

        Of course, we can see in Falkirk there’s no obvious intent from Labour of removing the sectarian element anyway, and element the Tories’ fanship of the ‘Queen’s XI’ have already proven themselves all too comfortable with…

        In other words, if there is an element of Ulsterisation, it’s not coming from the Nats, and it’s not bloody welcome…

      2. “Remove the sectarian element and the description is accurate.”


        Removing the Sectarian element? – from Ulster?

        Also if you had read the post…at no point did I mention anything about sectarianism…I defined “Ulsterisation” as the British army defined the term when they implemented it.

  7. Utter tripe. Ulsterisation? How disrespectful to both the people if Ulster who suffered decades of violence, and to the peaceful process in Scotland.If this is meaningful discourse, the death of SLAB can’t come quickly enough.

    1. Wishing for the death of a political party because you don’t like how a word has been used. What are you a doctor of? Ludicrously over-egged offence?

      1. But the use of a word like “Ulsterisation” is fine by you, even with all the violence and sectarianism that is associated with that word, even when their is absolutely no factual basis for it within Scotland.

        How low does yersel and labour have to go to justify that.

        1. You are a tiresome troll and I usually ignore you, but let me say this:

          I do not associate the word “Ulsterisation” with violence and sectarianism, mainly because I don’t associate the word “Ulster”, or indeed the place Northern Ireland, with those things. Running through so much of the opportunist and insincere “offence” around the use of this term from people like you is in fact a genuinely offensive view – the view that Ulster is shorthand for violence. It isn’t. It’s a vibrant place with a brilliant culture. But what it does have is a broken politics.

          And running through every complaint about the comparison of the broken politics in Ulster and the broken politics in Scotland is the thread of nationalists like you who don’t want Scotland’s broken politics to be noticed or fixed. Well tough. I’m not going to censor the use of the word, and the more angry idiots like you complain about it the more I’ll be convinced that I’m right.

          1. Theirs a slight problem with all this false indignation of yours Duncan, the introduction of the word “Ulsterisation” into the Scottish political discourse has only been by labour & unionist supporters.

            And the meaning they have been putting to the word is certainly not about a “vibrant place with a brilliant culture”.

            And truth be told the only broken politics in Scotland is yersels, after two absolute hammerings from the voters of Scotland the penny has still not dropped.

            The sad fact of the use of the word Ulsterisation into Scotland and its politics, is you and your ilk don’t see the shame and disgust of it.

  8. Duncan ? , did you not notice your justification for the use of Ulsterisation in the article by Professor Walker, that in his article he is actually trying to sell his NEW BOOK.

    Do you not honestly think ! he may just be using the phrase “Ulsterisation” to generate some cheap publicity and he could not give a monkeys about how it is perceived in Scotland. If you unionists are using that article/advert for your use of “Ulsterisation” you can’t be surprised if people in Scotland don’t vote for labour.

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