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