Scottish Labour stopped the unthinkable austerity and calamity of leaving the union. The new leader must remember how, and why, to win again in Scotland, argues Blair McDougall
“Again!!??’ That was the message I got from a friend in London when yet another leader of Scottish Labour resigned. Given we are now picking our ninth leader since devolution, I can forgive people for looking at the Scottish party with exasperation, but the feeling should be one of excitement.
We have an opportunity to escape the dead end of nationalism and return real politics to Scotland. The Scottish National party looks more vulnerable now than at any time since it came to power a decade ago. In large part that is because its driving cause is in disarray.
The nationalists had hoped that the disaster of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union would push sceptical Scots towards independence. However, a large proportion of those who voted ‘Yes’ to leave the United Kingdom in 2014 also voted to ‘Leave’ the EU in 2016. Others are looking at the complexity and pain of leaving the EU and are thinking again at adding to the chaos by leaving another union which is even more important in economic, political and social terms.
Meanwhile, the economic arguments for independence have collapsed along with the price of oil worldwide. This year alone, what would have been the first as an independent state had 2014 gone differently, remaining in the UK was worth some £10bn in additional public spending, money transferred to Scotland from the rest of the UK. Unable to make an argument based on economic reality, SNP politicians now debase themselves with a tawdry attempt to attack the facts themselves.
To this backdrop, support for independence is gradually falling in the opinion polls. Voters have lost patience with the SNP’s dismal record in running public services and expect them to do the job of government rather than running a campaign that Nicola Sturgeon promised was ‘once in a lifetime’.
In June, the SNP heartlands in rural Scotland returned to the Conservatives. Having been routed on its right-flank, the SNP now sees a fresh threat to the left, in the seats it won from Labour in its three landslide victories of 2011, 2015 and 2016. Scottish Labour’s corpse, danced over so inelegantly by the SNP, twitched back to life and surprised everyone.
For a party that has seen so many drubbings it is hard to express the utter joy at seeing seven brilliant Labour members of parliament elected. But we were so relieved at the partial revival in our fortunes that most in the party missed what had actually happened. Despite the SNP’s vote share falling by 13 points, Labour’s vote share increased by only three points. Despite winning back so many voters who left us in 2015, our net gain in voters across Scotland was less than 10,000 votes.
So what happened? In the 25 seats where Labour is now in second place to the nationalists in Scotland, 21 of them saw a surge in Tory votes which was greater than the eventual SNP majority. That increase was largely at the expense of Labour. It has been said that Ruth Davidson saved Theresa May by producing Tory gains at the general election. What has been missed is that she also cost Labour gains across the whole of central Scotland.
The strength of the change that Jeremy Corbyn offered to Yes voters was almost perfectly cancelled out by our perceived weakness on the union among ‘No’ voters.
Labour is weary after years of sterile identity politics and, encouraged by the SNP giving up on a second referendum, we are desperate to believe that the next elections in Scotland can be fought on social justice once more. No one doubts that is where we need to get to, but we are not there yet.
The Tories and the SNP have a shared interest in continuing the zombie debate on independence as they seek to defend what they now hold. While these parties proclaim opposition to each other as the core of their belief, the reality is that they are now in a symbiotic relationship. They will both keep reviving the independence issue because neither party has an alternative strategy for winning.
The key test for Yes voters who were attracted by a ‘change’ message in 2014 and who left Labour in 2015 is whether Labour represents clear change and difference from the Tories. Corbyn’s image as an outsider challenging the elite has allowed us to offer that in a way that we failed to do in recent times. It is a remarkable turnaround. We have begun to separate the true-believing nationalists from the left-of-centre voters who happened to vote Yes.
However, for another set of traditional Labour voters, those who voted No, the test at the general election was who could stand strong against another referendum. In not wanting to offend previously pro-independence voters, Labour sounded to anti-independence voters that we had ‘gone soft’ on the union. To them it sounded like were answering ‘mibbe’ to what is still a Yes/No question. These voters did not become Tories overnight, they simply wanted the opportunity to restate their No vote.
We know that support for the union is not an alternative to socialist progress in Scotland. It is, in fact, a prerequisite for it. We lost huge numbers of Labour voters in 2015 because we allowed support for the union to be painted as incompatible with change. Today that problem has been turned on its head.
Labour needs to stop treating the only Scottish campaign which Labour has won in over a decade as something to apologise for. It was Labour that saved working people from unthinkable austerity. We avoided the calamity of leaving the union without a real plan for any of the fundamentals. We stood against nationalism just as it was poisoning the rest of the world. Labour led that campaign and we should be proud of that.
We may well be facing a three-way split in the next parliamentary elections, where any one of the main parties could emerge narrow winners. Our best chance of winning is a strategy that is both unequivocally socialist and unambiguous on the union.
Blair McDougall was the candidate for Renfrewshire East and director of the pro-union campaign Stronger Together in 2014. He tweets at @blairmcdougall