Scottish Labour Voters Could Decide Scotland’s Future

This article is a follow up to an article I wrote last year entitled ‘The beginning of the end for Scottish Labour?’ In this piece I am considering the potential for Labour party supporters to influence the results of Scotland’s Referendum.

The great optimists in the No campaign have valued the benefits of our increasingly discredited union at an astonishingly poor £1 a year. In exchange Scots have been given an unaccountable Tory government, a wide array of punishing cuts that they didn’t vote for and the pledge of a new generation of nuclear weapons on the Clyde that they don’t want. Unfortunately the response of the Scottish Labour Party hasn’t been to oppose this injustice; it’s been to accept it.

As a Scots born Labour Party member who works in London, I despair at the thought of a Scottish Labour Party that argues against free prescriptions, free higher education and nuclear disarmament, yet defends a system that allows a Tory-led government to run the country with less than one third of the vote. The situation is hardly unique, in fact the Scottish electorate has voted against British governments in nine elections since 1945.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my friend John, who’s a member of the Scottish Labour Party, and he told me he was having reservations about the referendum. He still supports the party, but he’s found himself making excuses not to take part in Better Together stalls because he is still undecided on the issue, and he doesn’t like the idea of campaigning alongside the Tories. His concerns definitely aren’t unique, even anecdotally I know of a number of activists who will be looking at their new comrades in Better Together and shaking their heads.

The question Scottish Labour supporters need to ask themselves is whether their aims are better served in a union that allows the Tories to rule with only one MP in the whole country, or in an independent Scotland that has backed progressive change and may well vote for more Labour governments. As the referendum gets closer I would expect them to be looking long and hard at the options before they make their choice. As Westminster’s new welfare reforms bite we can expect large numbers of Labour voters to reconsider what they get from the union. Many will believe that deep down Scotland is a Labour country, and in some ways I agree with them. The reason that so many voters have abandoned Scottish Labour is because the party abandoned them first.

This year the Party will be launching their own campaign for the union. This is clearly a response to people like my friend John who don’t feel that a cross-party campaign with the Tories can speak for them. But does the Yes campaign speak for them either? One side effect of the Scottish debate is that it has entrenched tribalism and polarised the electorate. To some extent this is inevitable, but while it helps the SNP in parliament it doesn’t necessarily help the Yes campaign. Independence can’t be another political football to be kicked around by partisan politicians, it’s far too important for that. With that in mind it’s been great to see the emergence of Scottish Labour Supporters for Independence, who had their first conference last year, and campaigns like Yes Scotland and National Collective that work with members of all parties and none.

There is always a gulf between the views of a party’s representatives and the views of its voters, and the Labour Party is definitely no exception. Put simply, it’s impossible for to win without large numbers of people who currently vote Labour also voting Yes. In 2011 over 630,000 people voted Labour, if even a quarter of them vote Yes then it could make a significant impact on the results. This needs to be underpinned by a voter registration campaign and a focus on increasing turnout in the same working class areas where support for independence is high but far fewer people vote (although this whole area is more than worthy of its own blog.)

When the Scottish Trade Union Congress refused to affiliate to Better Together it surprised a number of people. What it represented wasn’t a mass conversion to nationalism, but rather the pragmatic belief that members should choose for themselves. It’s also a sign that there is little pressure from trade union members to back the campaign. Finally, their refusal puts pressure on the party they fund to step away from the Tories and put forward a progressive case for unionism. Their task of framing the case for the union in progressive terms is being made much harder every time they side with the Tories over cuts. Furthermore, in aiming to dismantle universalism they’re also undermining the most important achievements of past Labour Governments in Hollyrood. If the objective of Lamont and Darling is simply to win the referendum by any means necessary then they may manage, but they could find themselves losing a significant number of their remaining activists and spending a political generation in the wilderness.

Andrew Smith
Author and Communications Professional


There are 9 comments

  1. Anne Donohoe

    “One side effect of the Scottish debate is that it has entrenched tribalism and polarised the electorate”.

    I’m not sure where you get this idea from? Certainly, the tribalism exhibited by Johann Lamont and her cohorts in Holyrood is depressing, but at grassroots level, Yes Scotland has members of SNP, Labour4Indy and no party at all. Allan Grogan, who set up Labour4Indy was warmly received at the demo on 21st September in Edinburgh – a march set up on social media, outwith the usual channels of communication.

    The Yes Declaration has been signed by 143,000 people – more than the membership of all Scottish political parties added together. And all this in the year of the ‘Jubolympics’.

    I would suggest all of this adds up to a rejection of Westminster and a determination to communicate with each other about the Scotland we want to see.

    The Labour Party has put its Scottish members in the position of defending, for instance, last night’s evil Benefits Bill, by saying Scots couldn’t do any better ourselves. No wonder they don’t want to campaign for a No Vote!

    1. Andrew Smith

      Hi Anne

      Thanks for your comments. I agree, the wording wasn’t quite right. The tribalism that has been entrenched is among politicians and parties rather than the wider electorate (part of the reason why FMQs feels more like pMQs every time I watch it). As for polarising the electorate, I think it has to a point, that’s evident in ever passionate kitchen table/ pub debate, but that’s inevitable as it’s a Yes/ No divide.

      In the same paragraph I commended both Yes Scotland and National Collective (and I could have added more) on the grounds that they encourage participation from all groups and none. That’s one of the reasons why the petition has been so successful, because it’s run by a cross-party campaign and not a political party. At a grassroots level things are very positive. I’m glad Allan was well received, because he’s part of a very important campaign.

      1. Anne Donohoe

        That’s okay – I didn’t want to be snippy! I agree with your thesis, that Labour voters are integral to this. I think it’s important that the Labour4Indy people campaign from within the party – they are already being invited to speak to local Labour Party meetings, even tho’ the hierarchy are insisting they’re only two guys and a dug. I have a picture in my head of the whole grassroots of the Labour Party in Scotland walking away and leaving their figureheads in mid-air like Wile E Coyote!
        Personally, I started from a Labour voting, trade union background myself, but have been pi**ed off with them since the 90s, so don’t regard myself as Labour any more. I don’t suppose I’m alone there, either. (I’ve never been a member of a political party, tho’ I was an active trade unionist).

        1. Andrew Smith

          I think it’s really good that they’re being invited. The first test of opinion in the Labour movement has already happened with the STUC, and they were positively pragmatic :-). I agree, there’s no evidence that the grassroots are really engaged in Better Together, which is very positive for us. The fact L4Indy is being invited to address meetings is great and suggests local members are open to the question, even if MSPs are not!

  2. Richard McHarg

    The hard, but simple, truth is that the Labour Party has adopted Conservative principles. This doesn’t sit well in Scotland, even among some Tory voters. Another sad fact is that Labour cannot be trusted to deliver on their manifesto promises. They are as tied into the needs of the city state of London as much as the Tories are. Self-determination is the only way we can guarantee the society we seek. We must put our people first, or we’ll get continuous governments in London of Blue Tories and Red Tories, both slavishly following their neo-liberal agendas; agendas that can only increase the vulnerability of the weakest in society.

    1. Connor

      Sadly, I think a lot of Labour supporters, both in England and Scotland, have failed to notice the party’s significant transformation. And, especially in UK general elections, there are no viable alternatives… Who believes we will ever again see a majority held in Westminster by a party other than the Conservatives or Labour? Scottish independence gives us an incredible opportunity to completely change the political landscape here in the north of Britain. The trouble now is in conveying that message to Labour voters who haven’t been listening so far.

  3. Charles Patrick O'Brien

    Good piece can concur with most of it,enjoyed the read.I would like to add many years ago my father-in-law a shipyard plater on the Clyde,told me that the Labour party had used the working man so that they could become middle-class.35 years ago he started voting SNP.

    1. Andrew Smith

      Thanks Charles, I appreciate that. Your father-in-law’s experience sounds like one many will recognise. As a serious question do you see the SNP as a similar party or do you see them as repeating the same mistakes in terms of using the working man?

  4. Brian Hill

    Two events in 2012 have ensured a strong YES vote in 2014. The first was the founding of LFI and Allan Grogan’s speech at the Independence March and Rally. Historically this will be seen as the final nail in the unionist coffin. And yes, it will lead to a re-emergence of the Labour Party of old – very much pre New Labour and of course the election of Labour Governments in a thriving Independent Scotland a Party which could well include the strong Left from the SNP as general Political alignments take place post Independence.

    The second event was the Catalonians naming 2014 as the year of their Independence Referendum. As a people they are much further down the line of pro Independence thinking that the Scots and their enthusiasm will give thousands of Scots the confidence to take that final step to voting YES – as of course will the many big names from the Trade Unions, Labour Party, Business, Academia and Sport who emerge as Pro Indy over the next 22 months or so.

    We are all on the most exciting political journey of our lives and the last thing we want is to be still sitting in the station come October 2014 and having to trek back to the drudgery of the status quo – or worse.

    NO! Let’s keep it Positive:

    VOTE YES Next Year

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