Duncan Hamilton: Labour losing its grip as SNP takes on mantle of the people’s party

IS THE SNP now “the people’s party”? The suggestion will enrage Labour activists who valiantly hold to the traditional view that it is Labour – and only Labour – which can defend the interests of ordinary Scots. But the past week offers compelling evidence that the decline and fall of the Labour Empire continues apace.

In truth, the decline of Labour in Scotland has been a process, and not an event. The trend of a growing alienation between the party and elements of its core support emerged shortly after the emergence of New Labour. The natural and effortless affiliation between John Smith and Scottish voters was replaced by an immediately uncomfortable relationship with Tony Blair. It was a relationship not without respect for his talents, but always undermined by mutual suspicion. The attempt to use the devolved Parliament at Holyrood from 1999 to manage and contain Scottish interests, rather than to champion more powers then ceded the initiative to the SNP. The SNP victory in 2007 burst the bubble of Labour electoral invincibility in Scotland. The 2011 rout of Labour was simply an extraordinary confirmation of that trend.

Even so, three events, even in the past week, make plain just how far and how fast that alienation between people and party is developing.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

First, few believed until very recently that we would witness the totemic collapse of Labour in Glasgow City Council. For the first time in 40 years, Labour does not have a majority, albeit the administration can probably limp on until the local elections in May. At that stage, there is the very real prospect that the SNP will win control. Just stop and think about that – an SNP administration running Glasgow!

It raises the real prospect that the Labour party apparatus in Glasgow, which has sustained the party in power for decades, will crumble. The coming election already has the unavoidable feeling of Custer’s Last Stand.

Secondly, Chancellor George Osborne revealed plans for introducing regional pay deals. The idea is that public sector workers in different parts of the UK would no longer receive the same pay. Even if the proposal itself had merit, of which I remain unconvinced, you don’t have to be Keynes to grasp that taking more money out of the Scottish economy at this particular time is entirely the wrong move.

The plan hits at the heart of what the trade unions stand for in terms of collective action and bargaining. The precise details from Osborne remain sketchy, but what is clear is that the Scottish Government will stand with those opposing the move. Doing so will inevitably put the Scottish Government into the front line of defending Scottish civil servants and public sector workers against “Westminster Tory cuts”. The principal political effect, therefore, is further to entrench the SNP in a national leadership role on Scotland’s behalf which was once wholly the preserve of Scottish Labour.

It confirms what every poll or focus group will tell you – that whilst Scotland is still making its mind up on the constitution, we have already decided which party we trust to “stand up for Scotland”. That gives Labour an almost impossible task of trying to wrestle the initiative back.

The Tory cuts are therefore playing entirely into an emerging narrative – whether accurate or not – that Scottish politics is now about an SNP Government in Edinburgh fighting Scotland’s corner against a Tory Party in Westminster. Labour is left doing little more than holding the jackets. Politics is about power, and Labour currently has none.

Thirdly, and almost unnoticed, the STUC has responded to the UK Government Consultation on the Independence Referendum. It is a remarkable sign of the times that in reflecting the mood and will of their members, the STUC has parted company with the Labour Party and largely backed the Scottish Government proposals.

Specifically, the STUC backed the principle of letting 16 and 17-year-olds vote in the referendum, acknowledged the advantages of the vote being held in 2014 and described ruling out a second question (on devo-max) as “inappropriate”. That won’t change the UK Government position, but nevertheless it matters hugely. A decade ago, that statement of support for key planks of SNP thinking simply would not have been issued. The bond between the STUC and Labour would have ensured that the policy of one was broadly the policy of the other on something this big. Now, the STUC emerges as free thinking and reflective, as opposed to simply buttressing every scare story and attack line of the Labour Party. That doesn’t mean the STUC backs independence, but it is unequivocal evidence of a new political landscape.

Doubtless Labour can and will revive at some stage. But only when the party understands that Scotland has outgrown what Labour in Scotland currently offers. There are reflective and serious people like Douglas Alexander and Alistair Darling who grasp, I think, the urgent need to embrace a new radicalism. Failure to do so will simply widen the gap between Labour and the people it used to represent.