There are worse ways to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum than to read, or re-read, Joe Pike’s “Project Fear” – the story of the Better Together campaign and Scottish Labour’s subsequent collapse in the 2015 general election.
Pike was the partner and then husband of the late Gordon Aikman, a Labour Party stalwart and Better Together research director. His book is therefore certainly not a hatchet-job. But that makes its contents all the more damning.
The SNP’s victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections and its creation of a one-party government – which the Holyrood voting system was designed to prevent – made the referendum an inevitability.
By contrast, Scottish Labour’s electoral performance in 2011 was its worst since 1931, the price paid for decades of voters being taken for granted by right-wing-controlled Scottish Labour.
In fact, the Scottish Labour right was so delusional that it had spent election day finalising plans for a negotiating team for a coalition government and its programme for the first hundred days.
The inaugural meeting of Better Together took place in April 2012 at the home of the then Labour MP Alistair Darling, attended by various Tory and LibDem representatives and by the then Labour MPs Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy.
Darling was the figurehead of Better Together for want of anyone better.
A Tory grandee would have been toxic. LibDem leader Charles Kennedy was a recovering alcoholic. A Labour MSP was ruled out by the comatose state of the party after the 2011 elections. Various high-profile Labour MPs were not interested. And Gordon Brown was a hate-figure for the Blairites.
But Alexander and Murphy also disliked each other intensely, a dislike rooted in the size of their egos and their unbridled careerist ambitions. This “dysfunctional duo” could work with the Tories and the LibDems – it was fellow Labour MPs they had problems with.
Thus, the Better Together inaugural meeting was overwhelmed by what Pike calls “the extraordinary unfathomable factionalism of the Scottish Labour Party.” It could not even agree on who would be the Better Together campaign director.
The post was subsequently given to Blair McDougall.
It was never advertised and no formal interview took place. Reflecting the overall undemocratic structure of Better Together – it had no membership and was run by a self-appointed board – he was simply given the job after a few chats with some Labour MPs.
McDougall was a right-wing graduate of Scottish Labour Students who went on to work for Labour MP James Purnell, Tony Blair and David Miliband. He was “a Jim Murphy loyalist.” At the time of his appointment he had been out of Scottish politics for nearly a decade.
In 2017 McDougall was to stand for Labour in the seat lost by Murphy in the 2015 general election. He ran his campaign on his record as the Better Together campaign director. He performed the worst of all Scottish Labour candidates.
The public launch of Better Together, attended by the Labour, Tory and LibDem leaders, took place in June: “The three Scottish party leaders sat side-by-side, smiling.” It quickly proved to be a political and organisational disaster which squandered its then 30-point lead in the polls.
Whereas the Yes campaign encouraged the creation of a myriad of local groups and interest groups, Better Together was a top-down command structure: “A decision was made to keep control centrally, … leaving the energising force and a sense of momentum largely on the Yes side.”
As an alliance of Labour, Tories and the LibDems, Better Together could not offer an agreed positive vision of a future United Kingdom. All it had to offer was Project Fear:
“Negative messages would be central to the Better Together campaign. … The ‘Project Fear’ label stuck and soon the condemnation was coming not just from the campaign’s opponents but from its political allies.”
Run by unelected and unaccountable political ‘professionals’, appointed by an unelected and unaccountable board, Better Together ploughed money into polling and focus groups but neglected grassroots campaigning:
“In two and half years Better Together spent around £800,000 on research from Populus. … Employing campaign organisers was never a priority. Senior figures were fascinated by marketing and strategy, but the basics of campaigning were rarely a focus.”
Better Together media output was a disaster. One political broadcast – a short monologue by a typical ‘Scottish mum’ – was a gift to the Yes campaign:
“A total cringe bag of sexist patronising crap, said one Yes supporter. ‘It was as patronising as the Nats described and fed directly into the nationalist narrative,’ a female Better Together activist said.”
Another advert, produced at a cost of £50,000, was so appalling that it was binned without being aired: “Girders were breaking, oil was spurting out of the sea. There were kids walking up to the edge of a cliff looking over as the UK was being ripped apart.”
For the final hundred days of the campaign Better Together awarded the contract for advertising to M&C Saatchi, creators of the “Labour Isn’t Working” poster which had helped propel the Tories to power in 1979.
It was another gift to the Yes campaign: “M&C Saatchi, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite PR people, helped usher in eighteen years of a Tory government that the people of Scotland rejected. This shows just how out of touch the No campaign are.”
Meetings of the Better Together board “changed from coffee and cake or tea and scones in Alistair’s house to a series of crisis meetings.” Relations between the board and senior staff “broke down”.
Requests by the board for a campaign strategy were never fulfilled. According to one board member: “They (senior staff) would actively tell us little white lie because they hadn’t done stuff. Even donors willing to give tens of thousands of pounds were never replied to.”
Demands by board members for McDougall and director of communications Rob Shorthouse to be sacked were blocked by Darling and Labour MSPs Jackie Baillie and Richard Baker. (Baillie subsequently got her come-uppance when her local authority constituency was one of only three to vote Yes.)
Jim Murphy’s tour of a hundred towns in a hundred days was meant to be the highlight of the Better Together campaign, billed as taking the campaign’s politics to the people – but really part of Murphy’s bid for leadership of Scottish Labour (see below):
“The operation became a disjointed organisational nightmare, falling behind schedule, with Murphy no longer on track to hit the 100th town by his deadline. The tour also became a dumping ground for staff who couldn’t be found roles elsewhere.”
“‘They were fucking inept and had never campaigned beyond student politics,’ said a member of the team, ‘one would turn up wearing a cravat and pocket handkerchief. When they couldn’t be bothered to get balloons sorted, they blamed it on a worldwide shortage of helium.’”
Throughout its existence Better Together suffered from the inevitable Scottish Labour infighting: “Relations between the three pro-UK parties remained perfectly cordial. It was internal ructions in the Labour Party that continued to hamper the campaign’s best efforts.”
Darling did not trust Alexander and Murphy (“I want them where I can see them.”) When Gordon Brown intervened in the campaign, McDougall denounced him as “a cunt” and warned him: “If you do this again, the gloves are off.”
At the same time Murphy and Margaret Curran, the then Labour MP for Glasgow East, were plotting to oust Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Hence the nickname for Murphy’s tour of 100 town in 100 days: “Jim’s leadership tour.”
Curran’s decision to turn the knife in Lamont was particularly odious: They had been the best of friends since being students at Glasgow University. But Curran’s careerism took precedence: “Curran had fallen in love with power and was desperate to hold onto it.”
Curran lost her seat in the 2015 general election. Today she teaches a new generation of careerists on Scottish Labour’s Gordon Aikman Leadership Course. It is truly frightening to think what she teaches them.
As Better Together collapsed into infighting and organisational chaos, and as the Yes campaign relentlessly advanced in the polls, the male-dominated culture of bullying within Better Together (gifted to it by Scottish Labour) steadily intensified:
“It was a horrible working environment. … It was very male-dominated. Most of the women got squeezed out. … The male-dominated campaign leadership was a factor (in deciding to use the typical ‘Scottish mum’ video).”
Pike’s quotes from Better Together staff are full of “fucking” and “cunt” (‘cos that’s what West of Scotland Scottish Labour apparatchiks say in order to demonstrate their proletarian credentials).
“One senior Better Together figure” was thrown out of the 2013 Scottish LibDem conference “after screaming ‘cunts’ at activists who were questioning why they should vote No.”
When Better Together representatives met the BBC prior to a youth-audience debate in which the Better Together speaker was George Galloway (he who considered Julian Assange to be guilty of no more than “bad sexual etiquette”), one of them subsequently boasted: “We were a fantastic tag team of cunts.”
Better Together was one long car crash. But for some it was a highly lucrative one.
“Salaries were stuck up to a ridiculous level.” Shorthouse was on £105,000 a year – nearly double the salary of an MSP. Phil Anderton, taken on as a consultant by Darling, was on £5,000 a month, plus expenses.
One employee on £40,000 had their salary increased to £60,000. £120,000 was spent on Better Together’s response to the White Paper setting out the case for independence. And £27,000 was spent on a referendum night party (including 64 cases of white wine and 50 cases of red).
After referendum day Better Together staff looted their offices of all equipment: “’It was like after Hurricane Katrina – looting!’ remarked one experienced figure. Some staff believed that everything was up for grabs. ‘It was a complete free-for-all,’ observed one staff member.”
And “any staff member with a garage was accommodating acres of free alcohol.”
With the referendum out of the way, the Scottish Labour right could get on with the real business of ousting Lamont as Scottish Labour leader and installing Jim Murphy in her place. By December of 2014 the deed had been done.
As a Westminster MP Murphy had “little knowledge of Holyrood or Labour MSPs.” But this was an irrelevance: “He only wanted to do it (become Scottish Labour leader) if he could be First Minister and he convinced himself he could win it sooner than anyone expected.”
His leadership campaign had been “effectively a Better Together reunion, with Blair McDougall advising on policy and writing speeches. At least six members of staff were employed on significant salaries, including three further members of the No campaign.”
In the week of the referendum, opinion polling had put Labour on 43% and the SNP on 22%. After Murphy’s election as Scottish Labour leader, Labour was down to 24% and the SNP up to 48%.
A poll of ‘Daily Record’ readers conducted during the leadership campaign found that 71% thought that Murphy would not make a good leader for Scottish Labour. Undaunted, and blinded by the size of his own ego, Murphy pressed ahead.
He appointed John McTernan as his Chief of Staff on £84,000 a year. McTernan believed that Thatcher’s greatest achievement had been to beat the miners and advocated that a future Labour government should do the same to the RMT.
Other members of Murphy’s staff were previous Better Together employees, including Blair McDougall, appointed as Scottish Labour’s director of policy. Having trashed Labour in Better Together, the same team was now let loose on trashing Labour’s prospects in the looming general election.
Given that 30% of Labour voters had voted Yes in the referendum – in fact, the decisive shift in favour of Yes in the closing weeks of the referendum campaign had been by Labour voters – Murphy resorted to populism:
“The fightback began with a campaign to re-introduce alcohol at football games. Domestic abuse organisations called the policy ‘absolutely crazy’. A senior Labour figure remarked: ‘It was populism on steroids. And embarrassingly transparent.’”
Murphy also considered running “a high profile anti-immigration line.” This was not dropped as a matter of principle but because “it would be unfair to force activists to knock on doors and advocate a policy so far from the party’s core values.”
Another still-born political initiative was Murphy’s plan for a “Yes for Labour” campaign, to win back Labour voters who had backed Yes. But research demonstrated the futility of the project. When Murphy claimed that he was “not a unionist”, people simply laughed at him.
And after two years of collaboration with the Tories in Better Together, “the endlessly used line ‘Vote Labour to keep the Tories out’ was not going to work.”
McTernan’s bullying behaviour sapped morale: “’He’s the most divisive person I’ve met in my life,’ complained one source. When one junior member of staff was being critical of Murphy, McTernan interrupted: ‘Your point, caller?’”
At strategy meetings “McTernan flew off the handle for no need. He raged: ‘I can’t fucking believe this is fucking happening.’” His advice for dealing with a journalist deemed “troublesome” was: “Phone him up and tell him it’s fucking bollocks and you can’t fucking print it because it’s a fucking lie.”
Murphy had surrounded himself with spineless acolytes who inhabited a fantasy parallel political universe which cut them off from reality:
“Many staff employed by Murphy had ‘bought into the cult of Jim’. They were all ‘die-hard Murphy fans’. Many staff had JimMurphy.scot e-mail addresses and considered themselves working for Murphy, not the Labour Party.”
As electoral catastrophe loomed, Murphy decided to push the divisive and electorally suicidal line that a vote for the SNP was a vote for a second referendum: “’Given that we knew this (i.e. that the slogan would be antagonistic),’ said one source,’ it’s pretty shocking that’s exactly where we ended up.’”
To make matters worse, leaflets equating a vote for the SNP with a vote for second referendum were used in constituencies with a high proportion of Yes voters. As one member of the central campaign team dared to comment:
“They went down like a bag of sick with candidates and activists. They were furious about it. Threatening a second referendum in those areas was mad.”
While Murphy undermined the chances of success of sitting Labour MPs and Labour candidates, he made a point of looking after the select few who counted as his political allies and hangers-on:
“High-profile politicians were kept well-funded. Margaret Curran – who had little chance of winning – was among them. … Murphy and Alexander were furthered bolstered by secret phone banks in London. Others in the party claim they relied on further resources they managed to keep under wraps.”
By the time of the general election, polling found that 70% of those surveyed thought that Murphy was doing a bad job as Scottish Labour leader. Some polls found that he was even less popular than David Cameron.
Faced with impending catastrophe – Scottish Labour was to lose 40 of its 41 Westminster seats in the election – Murphy’s priority was to ensure he remained Scottish Labour leader:
“The day before polling Jim Murphy decided that he would stay on as leader if – as seemed highly likely – he lost his seat. Lawyers had already been consulted and confirmed that there was nothing in the party’s constitution to prevent him staying on.”
The post-election meeting of the Scottish Labour Executive Committee was so spineless that it agreed that Murphy should remain leader. But Murphy resigned anyway: the majority was not big enough nor the support fervent enough to assuage his vanity.
Labour’s rout in the 2011 Holyrood elections, its self-destructive role in Better Together, and its virtual annihilation in the 2015 elections were all stages of a single process: the demise of a Scottish Labour Party under right-wing control.
When – or whether – Scottish Labour can recover from the corrosive grip of this right-wing control remains to be seen. But what is crystal-clear is that those responsible for the demise of Scottish Labour have nothing to contribute to rebuilding it.