Thursday 6 October 2022

Labour's Scottish Comeback?

With the polls turning decisively against the Tories, how might Labour be fairing north of the border where the SNP presents a properly formidable opponent? Polling done for The Times finds the SNP on 46% with Labour rising to 30%, and the Tories collapsing to 15%. This is, apparently, Labour's best score since March 2015. Additionally, Keir Starmer has a better personal rating than Nicola Sturgeon: +13 versus +11. For comparison's sake, Liz Truss is on -70. Can Labour at last think the unthinkable? Is the party on its way back in Scotland?

Only to a limited extent. We're now eight years after the Scottish independence referendum and seven since the almost total wipe out of the unionist parties, and still the Labour mainstream haven't produced an analysis of what happened, how it happened, and how the party could recover and become Scotland's dominant political force again. Indeed, at the last round of Holyrood elections Scottish Labour under Anas Sarwar reached new lows. It's not difficult to appreciate why: the party is running on vapours, sociologically speaking. Its old constituency was broken up along with Scottish industry, and what is left are retired elements and legacy votes. Sarwar's prospectus, during his leadership campaign, was a couple of shuffling steps to the left of Starmer (which is hardly difficult) but was all about Scottish Labour's comfort zone: winning back the unionist vote.

To borrow the language of Blairism, this was a core vote strategy. In 2015 the SNP ripped away swathes of Labour's base, and under the canny strategies pushed by Ruth Davidson the Tories made a good fist of cannibalising what was left of Labour's unionist vote. And now, as Tory fortunes sink through the floor Labour are taking some of it back. But as a strategy for winning loads of Westminster seats and forming a government at Holyrood, it's a non-starter. It has an inherent ceiling. And, like conservatism across these islands, unionism is in long-term decline. It's possible that a renewed unionism could be built on clear tangible benefits accruing to Scotland from remaining in the UK. For instance, if Boris Johnson had been serious about levelling up or if Starmer's very mild, very Fabian programme delivers on its promises. But until then, the tendency is downward, producing a spectacle not dissimilar to the folically challenged scrapping over a comb. Second, the unionist vote is split between Labour, the Tories, and the Liberal Democrats. While these parties might be squeezed they do have an irreducibly loyal core that would never vote Labour, even if it's a toss up between them and the SNP. Should Labour maintain its position as the unionist party, which seems likely this side of the next election, it can't take enough votes from its weakened and smaller rivals to make much of a dent in the SNP's dominance.

And here is the central problem. Scottish Labour has shut its ears to its former voters, and appears uninterested in winning their support again. It meets the Scottish government with the most dismal economism and complaints about the education system, because putting Labour on a firmer footing effectively means leaving its existing, union base to wither. What Corbynism was was a manifestation of the rising new layers of the working class, the burgeoning strata of immaterial workers well on its way to becoming the majority of wage and salary earners in this country, if it's not the case already. This was consolidating behind Scottish Labour and giving the patry a new base, but the party's arrogant and indistinguishable-from-the-Tories campaigning during the independence referendum showed that "their" party was nothing of the sort, and was uninterested in their backing. These erstwhile Labour voters got the message loud and clear, and duly supported the SNP in droves in 2015. Winning here means dumping the pathetic and grotesque socially conservative messaging (such as Rachel Reeves criticising Suella Braverman from the right for not deporting enough people), committing to a green strategy that is more than an environmentally friendly PFI scheme with a British badged holding company managing energy market investments, ensuring workers rights from day one are realised, that job prospects and new industries are invested in, and that the constitutional settlement grants, at the very least, more significant powers to the Scottish government.

In other words, Scottish Labour has to appeal directly to what is now the SNP base. That's the hard politics, and the road the party's leadership time and again refuses to take. And until it makes efforts to break out of its self-imposed unionist ghetto, no matter how badly the Tories do Labour can only ever play second fiddle in Scottish politics.

Image Credit

1 comment:

Ken said...

Ah, the Labour Party, whose leader wraps himself in Union Jacks, leading a party which sings the English National anthem at its conference, and the Scottish branch office with apparently no objection to any of this.
Last year I was abroad and was eating out with a large extended Scottish family. The younger members were precisely the kind of newer workers you mention. The IT manager of an insurance company, his wife who headed HR elsewhere, a retired teacher, and included an older relative who had been in the marines, who now supported the SNP and marched with it on events like a pride having been won over my his daughter. At one point they all sang Flowers of Scotland, with gusto.
They all believe that the Union is dead and the brain dead Unionism of Scottish Labour is not going to win them over. To my knowledge, the Labour Party in either England or Scotland has ever debated this issue, so where does this position come from which is defended so strongly?
BTW “position” was auto corrected to “poison”, maybe correctly.