John McTernan: Labour can preserve the Union

A tightening of the polls means the party has to take the lead in reclaiming core voters, and unity must be the rallying cry, writes John McTernan
The SNP has focused on the NHS in an attempt to win Yes votes. Picture: Jon SavageThe SNP has focused on the NHS in an attempt to win Yes votes. Picture: Jon Savage
The SNP has focused on the NHS in an attempt to win Yes votes. Picture: Jon Savage

In the end the referendum debate has come down to the Labour Party. It was always going to. The party that made modern Scotland is the one that has to save it.

There is a buzz in the air now that the polls have tightened. For all that this was anticipated by both sides it has still jolted Better Together and invigorated the SNP. Of course, the six point lead that No had in the recent YouGov poll would be considered crushing in a General Election, but for all that it is game on. What, then, does Labour need to do?

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The first step in dealing with a problem is accepting that you have one. So, to be clear, there has been late movement to Yes – and it has undoubtedly come from traditional Labour voters.

The second step is to take responsibility. It was right for Labour to join the multi-party Better Together campaign and indeed to provide the spine of its staffing and, through Alistair Darling, its leadership.

But Gordon Brown was also right to observe early on that this could cost the party as it would be in danger of losing its distinctive voice. Typically and stubbornly Brown held out for a Labour-only campaign. That has been targeted, but low-key up until now – for the next two weeks it has to be the driving force. That’s just the housekeeping, but it must be done.

Now for the substance. This fight has to be defined by passion, politics and personality. Like many Scots, I am angered by the campaign of fear and smear being conducted by the SNP. But I can’t complain – after all, politics is a contact sport and as I often say, negative campaigns are used by political parties because they work. The point is not to complain, but to fight back – with a disproportionate response.

As Sean Connery said in The Untouchables: “If they put one of your men in the hospital, put one of theirs in the morgue.” The lies about the NHS are easily disproved, but the old saying is true – “a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has laced its boots”. The NHS scare has cut through, so now it’s a game of Whack-a-Mole for Labour – clobbering the lie whenever it raises its ugly head.

The unions should be in the forefront of this fight. The best people to carry the fight to the SNP are Unison members – ideally nurses in uniform.

The fear campaign angers me, but the smear campaign disgusts me. To hear Alex Salmond claiming the Labour Party and the Tories are one and the same makes me want to boak. Salmond is only First Minister because of one of the many huge differences between Labour and the Tories – the commitment to, and delivery of, a Scottish Parliament. The list of what Labour achieved because it defeated the Tories – and which they opposed – goes on. The National Minimum Wage. Tax credits. Civil partnerships.

Doubling spending on public services. Raising NHS spending to the EU average. Where the Tories agree with Labour it is only because Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the British voters forced them to abandon their long-cherished beliefs. The SNP need to be hounded, mocked and defeated for this one smear alone. A smear which contains an atrocious condescension to Scottish voters. They know the difference between Labour and the Tories – that’s why over a million Scots voted Labour in 2010.

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The guilt by association attack derives from a fundamental fact of Scottish politics – a huge number of voters never want to see a Tory government ever again. For tribal Labour voters this is a seductive prospect. And it’s one Labour can now promise them – without breaking up Britain. The impact of the Clacton by-election on Scottish politics is not fully understood, but what it means is that the Tories cannot now win the next General Election. Whether Carswell wins his seat back or not the Tories will be riven by splits on Europe – and no disunited party wins an election.

Worse for them, this is not a rerun of the SDP split with Labour in the 80s which in the end forced Labour to reform. This is a re-run of Bennism with its insanity of seeing no enemies to the Left and its burning ideological purity that would rather see the party lose than have the “wrong” leadership. Ukip are Militant – unappeasable absolutists. This is an unhealable schism. Labour’s line must be: If you’re Labour and want to get shot of the Tories and get a Labour government, you’re in luck. Don’t vote for independence and hope that Labour can win in 2016. Vote No on the 18th and Labour in May. The Tories are for Christmas, independence is forever.’

So much for the message, what about the message carriers? Well, I want to see one man more than any other up in Scotland – Len McCluskey. Now, Len and I don’t agree on many things – though, after a beer or two I reckon it’s fewer things than either of us think.

But he is Labour – both party and movement – to his fingertips. And he can make the direct appeal to Labour’s core voters. Solidarity Forever is the story of the union and of the story of the unions. Let’s hear it. But it’s not just Len, it’s all the preachers of old time religion – from John Prescott and Dennis Skinner to Owen Jones – who need to be up here, on street corners, in schemes, in tenants’ halls across the country. A core vote strategy needs core vote voices and Labour should use the best.

Above all this is a time for unity – of voice, of message and of effort. The loss of Scotland would be catastrophic for the UK – as the union slogan goes “Unity is Strength”. Now’s the time and now’s the hour.