Scotland: Politics transformed post-referendum

February 6, 2015
Radical Independence Campaign meeting.

As Scots gathered together at Christmas and Hogmanay last year, conversations inevitably turned to politics. Most were agreed that the year ahead would be an interesting one.

The impact of the independence referendum on September 18 last year, won by the “No” vote, is still being felt throughout Scottish society. Its impact is reverberating across the British state as well.

The impact has hit all political parties in Scotland, but the Labour Party has faced the biggest crisis. Although Labour was on the winning side, a large percentage of its voters turned their back on the party line to vote “Yes” to Scottish independence.

Traditional Labour-voting working-class bastions such as Glasgow and North Lanarkshire voted Yes. This was despite a huge campaign involving all available Labour MP’s invading Glasgow (one wit followed them on a bicycle playing the death march from Star Wars).

Labour pushed the rather cold, establishment-friendly former chancellor and Edinburgh MP Alistair Darling aside and turned to former prime minister Gordon Brown. Despite not being in government, Brown promised to deliver greater powers to the Scottish Parliament if only Scots would vote No.

‘As popular as Ebola’

It was not until the last two weeks of the campaign that Labour began to even take the campaign seriously. This reflected a highly centralised party obsessed with the Westminster village and the London media.

Scottish Labour leader Johanna Lamont expressed these frustrations when she unexpectedly handed in her resignation shortly after the referendum. Lamont complained that the party heads in London did not listen to Scottish Labour, which was treated as a “branch office”.

The picture of Labour as a remote elite, with no understanding or interest in the lives of working-class Scots, could not have been reinforced more strongly.

The other problem for Labour is many viewed it as having chosen the wrong side in the referendum. Labour was seen to back the No campaign’s “Project Fear” and the belief it was naive idiocy to dream of a more equal society where child poverty, food banks and nuclear weapons could be eliminated.

Labour sided with the conservative and the comfortable, while areas with highest the unemployment were most likely to vote Yes.

Crucially, Labour sat side-by-side with the class enemy, the Conservative Party. As the results came in, Labour activists were pictured hugging their new Tory pals in celebration.

The Conservative Party could not be less popular among working-class Scots, with only one Tory from Scotland elected to Westminster.

From the miners’ strike to deindustrialisation of industry under Thatcher, the party is about as popular as Ebola. This was a photo opportunity that Labour should have dodged.

Labour leadership

Scottish Labour now had a vacancy. Three candidates put themselves forward, but it was Westminster MP Jim Murphy who was tipped for the win and was clearly backed by London.

Murphy, however, is not exactly universally popular, even among Labour politicians, with a reputation as a ruthless machine politician.

His record in government is as a relentless Blairite. Murphy was a strong backer of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is a member of Labour Friends of Israel, and, as shadow defence secretary, was a keen advocate of replacing the Trident nuclear submarines.

Many trade unions, local branches and Labour members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) preferred to vote for someone else. Neil Findlay, seen as from the “hard left” of the party and therefore something of an endangered species, won 34.99% to Murphy’s 55.77%.

Within a few weeks of Murphy’s win, it became clear that Labour was facing a tough year.

Several polls have been released for this year’s Westminster elections. These first-past-the-post elections have always favoured Labour in Scotland. It now holds 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats, followed by the Liberal Democrats with 11 and the Scottish National Party (SNP) with six.

The polls now consistently show the SNP as likely to supplant Scottish Labour as the top party. The latest poll shows that the SNP could win 45 out of 59 seats and Labour could be down to four.

This would be an unprecedented earthquake in Scottish politics. Labour’s post-war domination of the Scottish political scene would be over.

The polls also show that trust ratings for all the Westminster leaders are very low, but Labour leader Ed Miliband is even more distrusted than Tory Prime Minister David Cameron. By contrast, Nicola Sturgeon, the new Scottish first minister and SNP leader, is trusted by more than 50% of respondents.

The Tories have tried to capitalise on this with a campaign that says, “Vote Labour — Get SNP”. It features a photoshopped picture of Miliband with his arm around former SNP leader Alex Salmond, who is running for a Westminster seat.

But Labour voters might quite like the kind of social policies the SNP offers.


These polls also reflect the reaction against austerity and the Westminster elite by growing numbers of voters throughout Britain. This takes a reactionary form, with support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) challenging the Tories and Labour parties from the right.

In Scotland, it is the social-democratic SNP providing an alternative.

With more than 90,000 members, in a country of just five million people, after a post-referendum surge, the SNP has a powerful army of grass roots campaigners.

The SNP are nationalists who can appeal to the left and right. The SNP has enacted positive reforms, such as free prescriptions, free care for the elderly and free tuition for higher and further education.

The SNP has protected the Scottish National Health Service from the free-market reforms brought in south of the border and frozen redundancies amongst NHS workers.

But at the same time, it is can be very “business friendly” — it advocates lower rates of corporation tax. Before the banking crisis, the SNP was close to the Scottish financial industry — Salmond was a former Royal Bank of Scotland economist.

The SNP poll boost has come from those Labour voters who voted Yes, many of whom have decided to back the SNP for now. First-past-the-post makes it very difficult for any smaller parties to get elected and voters generally don’t like to “waste” their vote.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Greens are standing in selected constituencies. Smaller left groups, such as the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (backed by the RMT transport union), have indicated that they will too.

It will be interesting to see what impact they can make, but the SNP is likely to swallow up the bulk of the left-of-Labour vote.

Holyrood election

Elections for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood is a potentially different scenario. It gives the left the chance to win some of these voters.

The Holyrood election has two parts, a constituency vote and a vote for a “top-up” party list. If enough SNP voters want to push the party to the left, they could use their proportional list vote to back a left list.

In this scenario the left will be best served by having the most credible, united list possible. The referendum campaign caused many on the left to work together in a positive way for the first time for maybe a decade, largely through the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC).

RIC organised a series of large conferences, built local groups and, crucially, campaigned in working-class areas for a Yes vote. It helped register thousands of voters who had either disappeared from the voters’ roll or had simply never voted.

Local RIC groups also discussed political ideas, policy and strategy. RIC involved, to varying extents, existing left groups, such as the SSP and Greens, as well as some individual SNP members and many, especially young people, who were members of no party.

The RIC’s post-referendum conference in November drew 3000 people and demonstrated that spirits had not dimmed since the vote. It also hosted a meeting to discuss the Scottish Left Project, which aims to build a credible united left.

The meeting was addressed by Cat Boyd, a young trade unionist and a RIC founder, and SSP national chair Frances Curran.

At the meeting, the positive examples from around Europe were often brought up, such as Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece, which has taken the most fragmented and sectarian left in Europe to government.

Left prospects

The recent history of the Scottish left has resulted in bitter divisions. The saga around former SSP leader Tommy Sheridan’s trial and ultimate conviction for perjury has undermined unity and made the left a less credible force in the eyes of voters.

Post-referendum, the SSP has recruited several thousand new members, showing it has begun to overcome these obstacles. But a bigger, more united socialist force could more seriously challenge the established parties.

The Scottish Left Project is at the stage of discussions and will require careful steps. The project’s opening statement says: “There is a need for something truly new and original to be born out of the independence movement … We do not presume to have all of the answers, but we intend to start a conversation around certain core principles that must be represented in politics once more.”

The Scottish Left Project itself is launching a national tour of public meetings to bring the debate to a wider audience.

Momentum is undoubtedly with the SNP for now, but the referendum campaign has heightened the political consciousness of a new layer of activists. Many young people have no interest in past disagreements, but are firmly looking to the future.

[A longer version can be read at Links Intentional Journal of Socialist Renewal. Alister Black is an SSP member.]

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