Class and Power: Scotland’s Changing Politics

Nicola Sturgeon is now the first woman to lead the SNP, and will shortly become the first woman to lead Scotland as First Minister. Her first speech to SNP conference as party leader made it clear where her priorities lie for leadership: a determination to tackle poverty, to extend the living wage, to tackle gender inequality, to institute radical land reform, to raise the NHS revenue budget in real terms, and to fund a massive investment in education infrastructure to allow an increase in free childcare.

One passage of Nicola’s speech states her sense of purpose clearly:

“The need for a strong economy to support a fairer society is well understood. But I want our national conversation to recognise, just as clearly, that the reverse is true as well. A strong economy depends on a having a healthy, happy, well-educated and well-paid population, to provide the workforce and the customers that businesses need to succeed.

“Right now, 1 million of our citizens – 220,000 of our children – are living in poverty. In the 14th richest country in the world, that is quite frankly a scandal. So let me promise you this. Tackling poverty and inequality – and improving opportunity for all – will be my personal mission as your First Minister.”

The context of Nicola’s transition to leadership is remarkable. Despite the referendum loss, or perhaps because of it, the SNP has seen an astonishing growth in membership and support in opinion polls. Meanwhile the Labour leadership is deeply unpopular at a UK level and non-existent at a Scottish level, with both Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar resigning from their positions shortly after the referendum.

Labour are now involved in a highly public spat between the left and right of the party, with the trade unions hoping that the little known Neil Findlay can overcome the high-profile and ultra-Blairite Jim Murphy in the leadership election. But more broadly, the party is undergoing something of an identity crisis. Since 2007, Labour’s inability to outline a credible alternative has seen them alternately oppose and adopt SNP policy. On council tax, for example, Labour routinely attack the council tax freeze as a regressive policy (an extremely dubious claim), despite making a manifesto commitment to freezing the council tax in 2011, supporting it as recently as the 2013 Dunfermline by-election and vehemently opposing a progressive alternative to the council tax in the last parliament.

But the bigger structural issue for Labour is their loss of support amongst the working-class, outlined earlier this year by Jamie Maxwell. The Scottish working-class not only now prefer the SNP to Labour but were the strongest supporters of independence, threatening to carve a permanent divide between Labour and their traditional constituency of support.

The referendum result told us what we already knew. Support for independence cut across Scottish society, but it was strongest in deprived, urban communities. This was unsurprising partially because Yes campaigners had focused a huge amount of energy on these areas. Much has been said about the role played by the organised left through the Radical Independence Campaign and their high-profile mass canvasses of Scotland’s housing schemes. But beyond that, local Yes groups across the country were often focusing their efforts on these areas, understanding that working-class voters were more likely to vote Yes but also less likely to be registered and less likely to turn out to vote.

But even without this targeted effort, the class dynamic of the campaign was predictable simply by looking at history. This was Scotland’s third referendum on constitutional change, and each time it has been working-class Scotland that has voted most enthusiastically in favour.

The aftermath of the first referendum prompted a significant and now deep-rooted change in the Scottish national movement. The 1979 referendum is now infamous – a majority of those who voted in the devolution referendum voted in favour, but turnout failed to reach an arbitrary and undemocratic threshold. Afterwards, the small but influential 79 Group were established by young radicals within the SNP, who argued that the SNP should seek to build on the working-class support for devolution by replacing Labour as the natural party of the left.

The 79 Group were expelled from the party within a few years, but the short-lived faction left a legacy of ideas and personnel that have defined the national movement since – Alex Salmond, Kenny MacAskill, Roseanna Cunningham, Margo MacDonald and Jim Sillars were all prominent members. The success of the modern SNP has been the implementation of the central 79 Group strategy of winning support in the Labour heartlands. It is no coincidence that the party is now led by a Glasgow MSP, while her Depute is a Dundee MP.

But there is an important lesson for the left in the referendum result. While our support was concentrated in the working-class, Yes never reached the same saturation of support or turnout in the poorest areas as No did in the most affluent. Or, to put it another way: there are as many Scots in the top 20% of wealth and income as in the bottom 20%, but the top 20% will always turn out in bigger numbers and vote more uniformly in their interest.

This poses a challenge for those of us who see politics as a tool for transforming the lives of the working-class. It is almost certain that we will see another independence referendum within our lifetimes. A whole generation of working-class Scots now see the creation of a just society as inextricably linked with constitutional change. But victory next time round will likely depend on winning over middle-class Scotland on a scale we’ve so far been unable to do.

Nicola has acknowledged that part of building support for independence is ensuring a competent devolved government. But what could be more crucial is improving confidence in Scotland’s economy. Pointing to GDP and export figures was not enough. Confidence in Scotland’s economy will come when people feel better off, secure in their employment and able to pursue opportunity. And, as our First Minister-in waiting has argued, building a stronger economy will require us to use any devolution of economic powers to improve the lives of our poorest citizens, who voted Yes in hope of exactly that.