Should we be on the look out for the ‘lesser- spotted’ Labour Scot?
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. For a brief interlude following the decision of Scots to stay within the Union the political world looked as if it was on the move. Within hours the Prime Minister had left Ed Miliband trailing in his wake on devolution before Tory Party conference was itself overshadowed by the defection of Mark Reckless to Ukip. For those of us with a neophobic nature, it was somewhat comforting when Brooks Newmark gave the perfect paisley metaphor for Conservative attempts at modernisation.
Yet were such a scandal to occur within the ranks of Scottish Labour it would breathe some life into a party that has been described as a ‘zombie’ by Alex Massie and ‘dying’ by Kevin McKenna. Neither the margin of victory nor its geographical spread can obfuscate the fact that it was the Labour heartlands of Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire that joined Dundee in voting to secede. More worryingly, Lord Ashcroft’s initial polling suggests that 37% of those who voted Labour at the last general election voted for independence. While it is unlikely that the Labour supporter is at risk of becoming ‘lesser spotted’ within Scotland, there are the beginnings of electoral headwinds of which it should take heed.
Back in 2004, Dr David Seawright charted the importance of the decoupling of Toryism from Scottish identity in the party’s downturn in electoral fortunes. The Liberal, Labour and Nationalist parties proved successful, with some aid from Thatcher, in portraying the Conservative party as un- Scottish or alien. It is a stratagem that was utilised again throughout the referendum campaign. Alex Salmond referred time and again to announcements from David Cameron or George Osborne as ‘diktats from on high’ or as having as much relevance to Scottish politics as pandas.
The label is one that the Labour Party in Scotland has not been wholly successful in avoiding. At the SNP spring conference, Nicola Sturgeon called for working class Labour voters to vote yes in order to ”reclaim the Labour party’. At the time, The Daily Telegraph put the proportion of Labour supporters considering voting yes at around 25%. By the referendum, this seems to crystallised at 37%. YouGov and Survation put the figure somewhat lower amongst those who voted Labour at the last Holyrood election, 19% and 25% respectively. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that there was a large chunk of its vote that Labour proved unable to deliver. When we go on to consider that Lord Ashcroft’s poll also points to disaffection with Westminster being the strongest single driver amongst yes voters (74%), it is probable that Joan McAlpine is not alone in perceiving the current Labour Party as the Red Tories.
The final few days of campaigning can only have strengthened this perception. The descent of Ed Miliband on Scotland appears to have had little tangible impact. YouGov suggests that the Labour leader was trusted by around 25% of voters in the run-up to polling day, sitting one point behind the Prime Minister. While it should be noted that David Cameron was more the more distrusted, Johann Lamont’s trust rating sat even lower at 23%. Perhaps more damningly, another 23% had not even made up their mind on Lamont despite two years campaigning. The greatest impact of Jim Murphy’s tour was that made by the egg whilst Anas Sawar became most notable for his demotion to leader of the referendum battle bus.
In short, the Scottish Labour Party’s referendum campaign can be characterised by a lack of significant impact. It is worth remembering that when Gordon Brown’s paraphrasing of Marx blew the doors off in Glasgow, he held no position of note in wither Scottish Labour or Better Together.
Looking towards the next election, it is not yet apparent how the surge in membership for the Yes parties, particularly the SNP and Greens, will manifest itself. It is probable that the increase will put pressure on the Labour heartland seats already discussed. Against this, the Labour hierarchy will be hoping that the prospect of another Tory government is enough to drive that 37% back into the fold, at least for 2015.
However, in 2016, at the next Holyrood election, the traditionally low voter turnout may allow this new raft of activists to achieve more substantial gains at Labour’s expense. Diminishing representation within the Scottish Parliament could only add to the perception of Labour as a party that is alien to Scotland. The referendum has demonstrated that political discourse in Scotland takes place along markedly different lines than the rest of the UK. Scottish Labour needs to utilise the opportunities presented by the new powers coming to Scotland to convince the public that it speaks to their concerns and not those of England or Westminster.