Kenny Farquharson: Labour won’t regain lost Scots

For all Jim Murphy's attempts to reconnect with the electorate, many are either lost. Picture: John Devlin
For all Jim Murphy's attempts to reconnect with the electorate, many are either lost. Picture: John Devlin
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ONLY one thing can bring masses of former Labour voters back to the fold a return to local politics, writes Kenny Farquharson.

I once risked my life for the SNP while campaigning for them in a general election. True story.

Nothing Jim Murphy can say can therefore change their minds, because Jim Murphy is Labour

It was October 1974 and I was 12. Not unlike now, Scotland was in the grip of an unprecedented SNP surge that had Labour panicking.

The SNP campaign was brash and bold – more American than Scottish in tone – and it entirely captured my young imagination.

In my pocket as I went to school was a roll of SNP stickers bearing the name of Dundee West candidate Jim Fairlie. Not one lamp-post or pillar box on my route was spared.

Just then the Labour battle bus – bright red with the name of candidate Peter Doig plastered down its side – passed me in the street.

I gave chase. When the van slowed down, I ran alongside and put SNP stickers on the front and rear hubcaps while it was still moving.

Don’t try this at home, kids. One slip and I would have been under the wheels. But I survived to tell the tale.

The buzz of youthful triumph I felt at that moment has seldom been matched since.

And yet, fast forward a couple of years and I was campaigning in those same streets for the Labour Party with just as much enthusiasm.

Switching from the SNP to Labour and back again has always come naturally to a great many Scottish voters. Alternately motivated by two instincts – patriotism and social justice – a large chunk of the electorate has always felt these parties to be two sides of the same Scottish coin.

And this has pretty much been the story of modern Scottish politics. Until now.

The question now is whether this switching mechanism has been switched off. Almost half the electorate intends to vote for the SNP on 7 May, following the Yes campaign’s 45 per cent in the independence referendum. The expected swing back to Labour for the general election has not materialised.

So is this the new normal?

I’ve been speaking to Labour campaigners and getting a sense of just how bleak things are looking for them.

Their verdict? Bleaker than the Friday before payday.

Ex-Labour voters turning to the SNP are tending to fall into two distinct groups.

The first consists of people who seem permanently and irrevocably lost to Labour. For these voters, choosing Yes was nothing short of a transformative life event, a crossing of a line.

For them, the certainties of identity politics, with its upbeat sense of possibility and common purpose, fills a deep emotional need. It presses the buttons of “us” and “we” in a way the Labour Party can no longer match. Not for these people anyway.

They have not simply moved along an ideological scale from one party to another – they have rejected one kind of politics and replaced it with another. This new politics has different reference points and dividing lines.

They have moved so far from the old way of looking at a UK general election they genuinely see no difference between “Red Tories” and “Blue Tories”. Nothing Jim Murphy can say can therefore change their minds, because Jim Murphy is Labour, and therefore part of the problem.

There can be no Unionist solution. End of.

The second group is less hostile and probably larger, but that shouldn’t be much of a reassurance for Labour. These people voted Yes more in sorrow than in anger. A Yes was not for them a votive offering. It was a simple measurement of their distance from a Labour Party they felt had let them down.

Their disillusionment is not just with Labour, it is with politics in general. It may manifest itself in different ways – a lack of faith in Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister; a disappointment in Labour’s position during and after the referendum. But it boils down to a deep-felt cynicism that politics as they once knew it no longer works, and that the answer to the Tories is no longer a vote for Labour.

These voters are not irretrievably lost to the party, but to be won back they would need to be persuaded that politics as they used to know it actually works. It would take nothing less than a philosophical reversion back to old certainties.

With time and patience, that is a big ask. With polling day just six weeks away it is well-nigh impossible.

So are all Scottish Labour MPs doomed? Not necessarily. What some MPs are finding is that they can re-engage the voters by going local.

People still respond to politicians who are seen to be making a difference – or at least making a noise about making a difference – on tangible aspects of the lives they live in their own neighbourhoods and towns.

Labour has long sneered at the pavement politics of the Liberal Democrats. Why bother about dog fouling and potholes and wheelie-bins when you could be wresting with geopolitics and the class struggle?

Well, they ken noo.

Old-school local advocacy may now be Scottish Labour MPs’ only lifeline to political survival.

But there’s a catch. This will only work for those MPs who are personally respected in their constituencies, who are already engaged with the communities they represent and are already known and admired for fighting for the people they represent.

How can I put this delicately? Not every Scottish Labour MP can legitimately claim to fit this bill.

Bottom line? Some of the good Labour MPs – the ones who haven’t taken their constituents for granted for the last couple of decades – might well find themselves still in a job on 8 May.

And the rest? They’ll be the ones asking their young researchers how LinkedIn works.

The red battle bus may still be moving, but it has SNP stickers on the hubcaps.

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