What’s happened to Scottish Labour?
Stephen McCarthy writes: Last week Scottish Labour polled 18 per cent of the vote in an important election. That’s their lowest result since 1910. This is obviously not something which is explicable simply in terms of Brexit, or Corbyn’s appeal or lack of it. And this is not an outlier result. It is only the latest low point in a graph that has been heading, inexorably, in one direction. Downhill.
Of course Corbyn’s unpopularity with ordinary, non-ideological, people didn’t help and his party’s inability to take a position on the biggest issue in politics in this generation was a disaster. But something more is going on in Scotland. And in a word that is independence.
Working class people in Scotland, more than any other social group, are in favour of independence. The last coherent voice with a chance of reversing this was that of Brian Wilson. He has been a Labour MP, but he consistently warned Labour in the ’90s that giving in to the devolution argument would inevitably fuel the nationalist fire. His was a lone voice. Devolution started with a Labour/Lib Dem coalition. (The voting system for the Scottish parliament almost guarantees that no party will have an overall majority. What Lloyd George thought he was doing to Irish nationalism when he insisted on the single transferrable vote and multi-member constituencies Donald Dewar thought he would try again with Scottish nationalism, although with a different, more simplified, voting system. Neither Lloyd George nor Dewar were successful. There is a lesson there.)
Then the SNP were elected as the biggest party and as none of the other parties would work with them, they formed a minority government. Having done their apprenticeship, they achieved the unthinkable, almost impossible, result, an overall majority. In the next election they almost repeated it. They needed and got the support of the single Green MSP. As they proved their mettle in government they broke apart another perceived truth about Scottish politics, that Scots would indulge themselves in devolution elections but would remain sensible when it came to Westminster elections. So the more capable and sensible the SNP proved themselves to be in Holyrood the more they mopped up the Westminster vote. With the result we have seen last Friday the 13th.
There is another matter, but it is of lesser importance. The Labour Party in Scotland behaved as if they owned the seats they represented. As if they had a right to represent these seats and these voters. This has grated for a long time. But if the party was also doing its job politically, it was put up with. It was better than the alternatives. But when the party stopped representing its voters that sense of entitlement really started annoying people.
What were the Labour Party’s options in this twenty-year tale of decline? The devolution issue can’t obviously be revisited. But as the shift to the SNP began to take shape among Labour voters its ever-increasing hostility to Scottish independence, with a small i, seemed doomed to produce the result it did. At each stage of the process Labour failed to deliver wider and better devolution. Deeper devolution was extracted finally by the SNP from the Tories.
Despite increasing discontent in the Labour Party itself with the subsidiary and subordinate role assigned to the Scottish party by HQ in London efforts were made to distance the Scottish wing from Millbank. These efforts were seen to be ineffectual. Scottish Labour remained a branch office and its needs subsidiary to the party’s as a whole, that is to England’s.
Finally, when the SNP came close (46 per cent) to winning the independence referendum, even then the policy of more and better devolution ran out of steam. One final effort was made to salvage a workable position for Scottish Labour. Gordon Brown, who is still revered in Scotland, and not only in the Labour Party, led a revision of party policy leading to the adoption of Full Federalism. But although Brown obviously saw this as ground to stand and fight on and the party adopted it because Gordon asked them to they had no belief in it. It sank without a trace and was never mentioned again, not even by Gordon Brown.
That’s almost how we got here. The Labour Party refusing to see what their natural supporters want and have consistently made clear that they want. Now add in Brexit and Corbyn and we are up to date.
Stephen McCarthy’s blog first appeared in the Dublin review of Books