The union is once again at risk – thanks to Labour
The Observer, By Kevin McKenna
The party doesn’t understand that by siding with the Tories on the referendum it alienated many voters forever.
And so, 18 September 2014, didn’t bring us the end of the United Kingdom; merely the beginning of the end. The buglers even now are sounding a renewed call to arms – Nelson in The Spectator, Hastings in the Daily Mail and Kettle in The Guardian.
Soon the pale horses will have cleared the Roman wall and the thunder of hooves will be heard all the way up the M74, just as they were last September when the union was last deemed to be in mortal danger. Then they thought they had seen the last of Scottish truculence and it was back to business as normal: administering the unfair and unequal British state. But now a Tory lord has produced figures which confirm that the social, political and cultural fires which lit up Scotland in the two years before the referendum burn still.
Lord Ashcroft’s polling figures last week predicted that the SNP may be on course to take more than 50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats on 7 May. The previous month, he polled in areas of the country which had been most in favour of independence and these pointed to a nationalist landslide, too. His second poll indicated that even in unionist strongholds such as Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and Charles Kennedy’s Ross, Skye and Lochaber an SNP windfall awaits. What will unfold between now and the election is not merely about how many seats Labour in Scotland can salvage, but whether or not Labour has a sustainable future in Scotland. And if it goes down then the union is in danger of going down with it, for the Scottish nationalists will, for the first time, have control of some of the UK’s levers of power.
Ashcroft’s numbers, and those of the clutch of national polls which preceded them, point to the fact that the political landscape of Scotland is undergoing a profound and generational change. The referendum on Scottish independence may only have been a staging post on the journey. Nationalists have managed to bridle the winds of change, while Labour in Scotland is in grave danger of being blown away by them. It has failed to understand what has happened in Scotland and this has been woefully apparent in its immediate response to the Ashcroft poll. With barely two months until the general election and with the party facing an apocalypse in Scotland its response was, once more, to attempt to scare their own voters.
Jim Murphy, whose own safe seat in East Renfrewshire is threatened, said: “These polls are great news for David Cameron.” This empty and meaningless mantra was repeated ad nauseam throughout the day. In the last eight years, Labour in Scotland has lost two elections, one of them a landslide, to the SNP. It saw more than 30% of supporters vote Yes in the referendum and now it faces being left with fewer than a handful of seats in its heartlands. Yet, in the face of this, its only response was: “Vote SNP, get Tories.” It was pathetic and displayed a fundamental ignorance of what has been happening in its backyards.
That old ship sailed a long, long time ago. The multitudes of former Labour supporters who have migrated to the SNP now believe that Labour and the Tories are indivisible.
The voters aren’t stupid. The Scottish electorate is more sophisticated and more knowledgeable than any previous generation. Scots under the age of 30 voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence and they have access to more streams of information and are consuming their politics from more vivid, rock’n’roll providers. They have ceased to trust what they were being fed by traditional media and have turned to websites such as Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia and Newsnet Scotland. The numbers following these websites are approaching six figures and their crowd-funding enterprises have allowed them budgets to rival those of many newspaper commissioning editors. They can no longer be regarded as peripheral players on Scotland’s media terrain and their forensic scrutiny of the claims of politicians and newspapers is driving tens of thousands of voters away from Labour.
Labour in Scotland doesn’t understand that it is being punished for campaigning with the Tories every inch of the way to defeat independence. It failed to produce its own model of a socially progressive United Kingdom for the 21st century that stood alone. Instead, it hitched its wagons to a discredited one in which disproportionate influence is still wielded by a tiny elite and where the financial incontinence of wealth producers goes unchecked.
Labour has been judged by the new nationalists not to have opposed this system sufficiently well at Westminster and that perceived failure is reaping a bitter harvest for it in Scotland. No amount of policy initiatives by Ed Miliband can dislodge this thought from the minds of Labour’s lost Scottish generation.
If the party is to be spared in Scotland then it needs to come out fighting and remind supporters that every yard of social progress that has been achieved in this country was won by a radical Labour party that once challenged the hegemony of privilege and unearned wealth in the UK. It needs to do this again and not by producing an austerity-lite programme. When younger voters are told that a period of austerity will nurse us all back to economic health, they simply want to see evidence that we are all in it together. Instead, they see rich Conservatives bidding hundreds of thousands to shop with Theresa May or take tea with Boris Johnson.
They see HSBC help our richest citizens to avoid paying their fair share and RBS bosses continuing to award themselves grotesque millions. This happens in an environment where social mobility and self-improvement is limited to what the ruling elite finds comfortable and thus our place near the top of the table of Europe’s most unequal societies is preserved. If it’s to be austerity it must be austerity for all.
If UK Labour can’t or won’t carry out this task then the Scottish party must uncouple from Westminster, take up the standard and dare to be radical once more in restoring balance within our uneven society. I fear that it may be too late, though.