Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Labour's SNP Lessons

The cataclysm came and Scottish Labour was obliterated. There are calls for Jim Murphy to go, calls that should be heeded for the good of the party. Yet what exactly happened in Scotland? We've visited some of the reasons, but there are wider points Labour needs to take on board from the SNP's success that are of direct relevance to England and Wales as well.

I often hear from comrades in Scotland that we down in England do not understand what's happening. Yours truly has been accused of that myself. But you don't need to strap yourself to a Souter-owned Stagecoach and barrel up to Glasgow to find this stuff out: there's ample material to flick through. Among the things we "don't get" is the toxic swamp Labour floundered into as it buddied up with the Tories to monster the prospect of Scottish independence. There's how the Labour establishment in Scotland (and London) treated Scottish constituencies as fiefdoms good for voting fodder and precious little else. Dull technocracy while in government, a party that gifted its opposition the mantle of progressive politics, and the election of a leader summating everything left-leaning voters in Scotland were against. You might say what's not to get?

There's more to this. The SNP rode the anti-austerity wave without being an anti-austerity party proper, and they combine this with an aspiration for a different, better Scotland. The impulse behind a great deal of its support is progressive as opposed to narrowly separatist, and have successfully mixed that with anti-Westminster politics which, in England and Wales, has mainly realised itself in regressive forms. However, as everyone plotting a Labour leadership campaign is spraying around 'aspiration' like a mid-90s champagne supernova, the SNP have ably tapped into that constituency. The SNP has a positive politics agenda that can make nice middle class people feel, erm, nice. But its practical applications of Labourist statecraft are cunningly strategic. The removal of the EMA for kids in college has helped fund the scrapping of tuition fees, ensuring that students from all backgrounds don't leave university with millstones of debt handing off their necks. This primarily benefits more privileged segments of the population, but is one aspirational policy would-be heirs-to-Blair down here are stubbornly allergic to. The SNP have also kept free prescriptions - introduced by Labour - going, and the less palatable aspects of their record have been hidden under a bushel. Like falling NHS spending on nursing, midwives, and hospital beds. Like cuts to part-time college places. Like moves to create a national identity database.

The key lesson here is, for the moment, the SNP have successfully triangulated the three pillars progressive politics need to support social democracy into government. They have successfully hegemonised social justice, aspiration, and the vision thing. In England and Wales, Labour had a shaky hand on the first, was a touch light on the second, and as for the third ... arguably failure here cost my party the general election. So it can be done. It's not about facing multiple directions at once but rather building a coalition around a story and policy agenda constituted by each. Tony Blair did it, albeit somewhat problematically from my point of view. And the SNP have done it on a slightly different basis. There's no reason why we can't.

What goes up must come down, however. The mass movement unleashed by the Scottish referendum has developed its own campaign outfits and institutions. It has a certain autonomy from the SNP, the two cannot fully be mapped onto one another. But ultimately, simply because it was there as the most convenient vehicle to articulate this movement politically, the party of Scottish independence became the beast it is now. It concentrates a huge amount of momentum, and with this comes a number of potential problems. So far, Nicola Sturgeon has played her cards extremely well. That the SNP are now facing off against an awful, crisis-prone Tory government, their existence as a powerful outsider can and will firm up the coherence of the movement. But ultimately, the contradictions will eventually bite. The cuts in government, its friendly relations with the Murdochs, the Souters, and the Trumps, the desire to slash corporation tax, the very fact that what was a pretty middle of the road bourgeois party of national independence has been swamped is a future mess in the making. What happens when some of its 56 MPs start going AWOL? When the party apparatus moves against people it designates as undesirable? When their opposition to the Tories isn't fully consistent? And how about the big question itself? There are plenty drawn to the SNP because of its current social democratic orientation and not independence, which is why Sturgeon has been very careful to rule out another referendum - except in the special circumstances of the UK voting to leave the EU. Others are far less pragmatic and are bent on independence. Quite how the two strands - social democracy and nationalism - can coexist indefinitely is hard to tell. Something will give in time.

None of this, however, is of immediate concern to the SNP. These are movements that are barely perceptible. Sturgeon is adroit enough to hold her coalition together - far more so than Dave, but it will come unstuck eventually. And how that happens will determine not just the fate of Scottish politics, but the direction it takes in the south too. The job of Labour is to study, to learn, and understand that if it ever hopes to come back in Scotland it needs to avoid the crass mistakes it piled up year after year, decade after decade, grasp the nature of the SNP and its mass support, and have the politics and nous to make the most of its inevitable difficulties.


Vinyl Miner said...

I rejoined Labour the day after the election,Scottish Labour have a year to drive a wedge between the SNP and the working class who will suffer through the result of the GE and get a decent result at Holyrood, Cameron and Crosby conned Sturgeon, and every time she shouted out she would block the Tories from govenment and make Ed PM, the Tories did somersaults of Joy and Murdoch had the Scottish Sun playing her up and the English Sun frightening the shite out of people. The soft left middle classes fearing these nationalists stayed at home or drifted to the Tories and the working classes drifted towards UKIP seeing it as their English Nationalist Party. I have also just been reminded of the Blue Liberals, they went back to Cameron. Sad that due to the lowturn out Cameron can inflict his misrule on the people with the support under 25% of the electorate. I will probably pack it in again after the Holyrood elections, at 63 I can't stand being around all the old codgers, oh, demographics, check out the death rate for the Scottish manual classes, the Scottish Tories are dying off but we are going quicker.

Phil said...

Meanwhile, here's an interesting piece on the declining salience of Scottish national identity. A must read really.



Vinyl Miner said...

Anonymous SNP UPRISING said...

50% of the vote on a 70% turnout indicates that 36% of adults allowed to vote support you.

In the referendum I believe 45% of the vote on a 80% indicated that 35% of the elegable voters supported you. This falls in line with the long term research indicating only 1/3 of adults support independence.

A whole gain of 1% at the cost of Nicola dancing to Lynton Crosby's fiddle. Well SNP Rising, Murdoch bought you the seats, lets wait to see the price you pay, if any of your friends or relatives are on benefits, under 25, sick or disabled, tell them to be afraid.

Hugh H said...

The last part of Vinyl Miner's comment is just too vacuous to allow to escape. OK I get it was a response to pointless gloating, but really??? So it was the Sun wot won it? It's all down to independence supporters being Sun readers? Vinyl Miners is clearly shadow cabinet material with eyes and ears that firmly closed.
Independence supporters knew the price they'd pay for more Tory government all too well. That's one of the main reasons they vote to get out! What part of that is so difficult to process in the Labour ranks? People do not believe Labour will save them from the Tories anymore. It's got nothing to do with what the Sun says. It's got a lot to do with Labour's version of combating the Tories being a grotesque cuddly friendly mirror image of the Tories. Who's going to believe people who defend and even adopt Tory policy are going to save you from it? It's not the Sun who won Scotland for the SNP, it's Labour and attitudes like that just expressed by Vinyl Miners. All the SNP had to do was turn up. Labour won it for them and refusing to face that will just win it for them again.