A Scottish Labour Wipeout – The independence generation’s next step?
Make no mistake, the Labour Party in Scotland are worried – very worried.
In 2007, the Scottish National Party finally beat their main rival and Alex Salmond successfully steered a minority nationalist government through a term which his Unionist opponents were determined, yet failed, to crush. It was a master class compared to what Holyrood had seen before from previous administrations and Scots knew it.
The Unionist establishment was in shock as it no longer had politics all its own way. In Scotland Labour was traumatised and in denial – it still is. For decades Scots could be depended upon to return Labour MPs to Westminster. Labour was Scotland or so it thought/thinks and Scotland was Labour. Then arrived the SNP’s 2011 landslide Holyrood victory however Labour still had its Westminster MPs so it limped on and still in denial.
Last week’s independence referendum may go down in history as a pyrrhic victory for Labour. They are as its former First Minister Henry McLeish said close to death. The Yes campaign won in Labour’s West-coast core constituency heartlands; Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire. Many Labour voters defected from the party line and voted for independence. And many of those Labour voters are angry with their party. Not just because the party backed a No vote but the manner in which it fought the campaign – bullying, scaremongering and in cahoots with the Tories. Without a real leader, the party itself was exposed and people got a good look at its tactics and its bedfellows. Legions of them are outraged and furious.
Yet there is no mercy for the party any more than there is for the poor it once stood for. Perhaps even more devastating for Labour in Scotland is that those who do not normally vote in poor areas – those who perhaps became disillusioned with Labour a long time ago, registered to vote Yes. Before this referendum Labour could cope electorally with the apathetic in their constituencies because it didn’t threaten their seats. That’s no longer the case.
Which brings us to what might now be viewed as the Union’s last stand. Should Labour lose next year’s general election in Scotland MPs under threat include Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown, Margaret Curran, Douglas Alexander et al.
Those are the very scalps an angry independence generation are now eyeing up. Strategically it makes sense. The Tories and the LibDems are no longer serious forces to be reckoned with. Politically decapitating Labour’s leadership in Scotland would not only deal a mortal blow to the Union but provide an enormous amount of satisfaction to those who feel thoroughly betrayed after generations of loyalty.
This new mass movement has one question on its mind more than any other – how can it politically take Labour out? Inside the SNP and across the much broader Yes campaign activist base there is now a healthy debate over this very strategy.
The SNP is delighted to see its already burgeoning membership more than double in less than a week. On the surface this incredible phenomenon is giving activists a renewed hope for the future after the disappointment of the referendum result. However for the SNP leadership there is undoubted concern about what this new giant activist base means and how they should respond to it.
Many activists and politicians have pointed to the undoubtedly biased media, manipulation of the referendum campaign by the UK government and scaremongering as reasons why Yes lost. Some of these reasons have more credibility than others but it must not be forgotten that Yes did lose and it must look at itself – its errors in policies and strategy.
This rapidly expanding SNP grassroots support is not endorsing SNP policy or strategy or even its leadership. Instead it is looking for a vehicle that will win independence as soon as possible. The passion of these new members was ignited in the heat of the campaign out in the schemes, towns and villages of Scotland. It was not the SNP’s electoral message that nothing much will change after independence but things will gradually improve that attracted this new support. No, the campaign that set the heather alight was the grassroots’ organisations which told people that independence would create fundamental changes to their lives through a radical overhaul of the way the country is run. The SNP has done well but left to its campaign alone Yes would have lost heavily and the independence issue would indeed now be settled for a generation.
Some policy mistakes will require to be acknowledged. The sterling zone idea was a flop and it effectively ceded the economic argument and perhaps ultimately the election. Some might disagree however policy reviews are urgently required and a more inclusive intellectual apparatus designed for this purpose. Perhaps also a restructuring would better position the party? The SNP might benefit from a leader who is not First Minister. The FM would focus on devolutionary matters while the party leader focuses on being the party statesman or stateswoman who focuses on overall independence and mass movement strategy.
It simply must be acknowledged that it was Women for Independence, Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and other organisations as well as barnstorming performances in community halls around Scotland by Jim Sillars and others including Tommy Sheridan that transformed the Yes campaign into an astonishing mass grassroots’ democratic movement that is an inspiration for the world. The SNP must be honest about this if it is to win the trust of its new members.
Those 27,000+ new members will want to see the SNP rising to the occasion. If the party retrenches into its devolutionary comfort zones there will be anger at MSPs viewed as though they prefer their Holyrood salaries to their struggle for independence. Perhaps this would be an unfair criticism but such is the mood of the wider movement that they want results and sooner rather than later.
With only 7 months to go till the general election, tens of thousands of activists are now turning their attention to new targets. They are hungry and salivating at the prospect of a roast Labour dinner.
Two strands of thought appear to be emerging:
The first is that the SNP led by Sturgeon steady the ship and try to take more seats off Labour then focus on the Holyrood election. During this time, the stress will be on forcing the UK to deliver on Devo Max. The SNP vote is far behind Labour in its heartlands and it would require a large swing in order for the SNP to win a majority of seats. This would be a safe option and it would help secure Sturgeon’s leadership over the party, devolved politics and her place in the history books.
The second and fascinating option is the formation of an alliance of pro-independence parties. Such a scenario would see established pro-independence parties agree not to stand against each other and instead agree on candidates they would endorse as ‘Independence Alliance’ candidates. On the ballot paper you would have Joe Bloggs (SNP/Independence Alliance) or Ann Smith (Scottish Greens/Independence Alliance). This alliance would require honest brokering of course. Most candidates will already be selected and most from the SNP with some from smaller parties and some unaligned. The momentum and sheer scale of the Yes campaign could then be galvanised and it could, with sound reason, target every Westminster seat in Scotland. All pro-Union MPs could be wiped out. The Yes branches already exist and would form the activist base for this new alliance.
Given the results in the West of Scotland there would be a very good chance under this ‘Rebel Alliance’ option that Labour would be decimated and its leaders with it. Considering this option, it is vital to understand the new UK situation – Labour no longer has the electoral argument that voting nationalist would let the Tories in because of the English votes for English laws reforms to be enacted in Westminster. With Scottish Labour MPs being marginalised there is no case for arguing that they could make a difference in unseating the Tories. The election campaign emphasis – in Scotland – would therefore be off the London leaders and back on Scotland where the media will realise that Labour faces extinction.
With a a majority of Alliance MPs at Westminster and with Labour finished, the following Holyrood election in 2016 may therefore be viewed as a mandate for independence or should the Holyrood election lead to another landslide pro-independence majority, the conditions would be ripe to hold a snap independence referendum especially so if the UK is looking set to leave the EU.
Whatever strategy wins out there is no question that the independence campaign has spawned something that looks like becoming a mass movement. For the moment, the SNP has a brief opportunity to channel that. The nationalists however are in uncharted territory and the old wisdoms are perhaps no longer relevant. It can either settle back into its Holyrood trenches and wait or seize the day by confidently reaching out to bestride Scotland like a colossus.
Post script: A poll taken since the referendum shows that in Westminster voting intentions, the SNP has closed the gap on Labour however Labour still lead and that lead is likely to grow as the media focus on the London party narrative. With no alliance it is likely that Labour dominance will continue. See poll tables: http://survation.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Where-Next-for-Scotland-Tables.pdf