As the SNP tacks left, Scottish Labour faces a deepening existential crisis, as well as a few charisma issues, says George Kerevan
On Monday night I attended my first SNP branch meeting since the referendum. It was held in the local Miners Welfare hall where, once upon a time, I used to attend Labour Party functions when I was a Labour town councillor. We had to move the branch meeting to the Miners Welfare because over 900 new members have signed up locally since last month.
I’ve never seen so many folk at a branch function. I spoke to one chap who had torn up his Labour Party membership card the day after the referendum and immediately applied to join the SNP. He wasn’t alone. I shared a joke with an ex-election agent for the constituency’s sitting Labour MP. We agreed that – even at the height of the opposition to Maggie Thatcher – we’d never had as many folk turn out to a Labour meeting at this same venue.
These scenes are being replicated across Scotland. They could sound the death knell for Scottish Labour unless the party can find a new sense of purpose, never mind revive its demoralised organisation. As one new member said at our SNP branch meeting: “It feels as if we won and Labour lost.”
A blind Labour leadership is stubbornly refusing to accept that it faces an SNP that is moving to the left under pressure from its massive new membership. Scottish politics is now dominated by two social democratic parties. Labour can pretend otherwise, but only if it wants to commit electoral suicide.
Scottish politics could take on a dynamic similar to that of the Irish Republic. There the presence of two big parties of similar ideological hue means elections are decided more by personalities and organisation. In such a universe, the SNP has the advantage of a membership heading towards 100,000 compared to a paper 13,000 for Scottish Labour. The SNP also has the popular and charismatic Nicola Sturgeon, Labour has Johann Lamont.
For those reasons, I doubt if such a political duopoly would be stable in Scotland. For another, the Tories in Scotland now constitute a wild card. If the SNP moves significantly leftwards (to crush Labour), that will open a gap for the Conservatives. To date, they have been kept in their box by Conservative animosity to devolution. If David Cameron outflanks Labour by delivering Scottish home rule, that could change – posing another headache for Ed Miliband (assuming he’s noticed) and Johann Lamont.
Of course, Scottish Labour has the tactical option of moving rightwards and colonising the vote of what we might call the “Blairite aspirational middle class”. This is the option favoured by John McTernan, latterly advisor to Jim Murphy, when he was Scottish secretary of state. I like but he can sometimes seem like a role model for fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, in The Thick of It.
He argues that the significant result on 18 September was not that working-class Glasgow voted by 53 per cent to 47 for independence but that middle-class Edinburgh rejected it by 61 per cent to 39. This, says McTernan, should point Scottish Labour in the direction of replicating the Blairite “New Labour coalition”, appealing to the “new middle classes” (ie white collar professionals) and “Labour’s heartland vote” in the working class.
Even leaving aside what looks like contempt for working-class socialism, this tired old formula won’t work. New Labour was a chimera produced by the dangerous financial boom of the late 1990s and early Noughties. Labour rode the whirlwind by promoting the great fictional expansion, with its bankers’ bonuses and massive debt. Actually, most people’s incomes flat-lined but easy credit gave the illusion of progress. Thus working class and middle class were temporarily united in voting for that economic wizard, Gordon Brown. That is not a set of circumstances Ed Balls or Johann Lamont can ever replicate.
Instead, Labour is promising more austerity if Ed Miliband gets to Number 10. But the Scottish working class have already rejected that, which is the principal reason Glasgow voted Yes. Equally, my hunch is that if the “silent” Edinburgh middle class want to curb welfare spending they will vote Tory, not Scottish Labour.
More austerity will bring a clash with the trade unions. It is an open secret that many senior union officials in Scotland voted Yes. While the big UK unions were platonically opposed to independence, they did not support the No campaign as aggressively as many on the Yes side had feared. It did not take a genius to detect that the Scottish working class was anti-London and anti-austerity. Yet if Scottish Labour loses its union financing, what does it have left?
When in trouble, parties change their leader. There are already calls for Jim Murphy to head for Holyrood. His abrasiveness aside, Mr Murphy exemplifies Scottish Labour’s other big problem: its ostensible talent prefers the bright lights of Westminster to the hard graft of Holyrood. The fact that the Westminster heavies – Darling, Brown and Murphy – parachuted into Scotland for the referendum and then headed back to London has not gone unnoticed in Easterhouse, Drumchapel and Raploch.
In Germany, being the leader of one of the state governments is the usual path to becoming federal chancellor. Memo to Lord Smith, whose devolution commission meets today for the first time: Why not seat the first ministers and senior politicians of each devolved parliament in the House of Lords (and Nations)? That would give all the nations a voice as of right in UK affairs. And it would give Scottish Labour politicians no excuse to leave home.
In the final resort, if Scottish Labour really wants to recover its political soul – not to mention popular support – it will need to embrace home rule. Not to dish the SNP but because it genuinely believes in bringing power to the people. But there are a lot of ex-Labour members in my SNP branch who remain to be convinced.