Scotland in the sun. © Terry Vine/J Patrick Lane/Blend Images/Corbis
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Leader: After the referendum

If Scottish Labour is to be rebuilt, it must draw inspiration from the energy, civic nationalism and creativity demonstrated by the pro-independence movement.

The Scottish independence referendum was one that Labour long believed would never come to pass. Optimists were bullish: the former cabinet minister George Robertson confidently predicted that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. Others, among them Tony Blair, recognised the potential for the Scottish National Party to dominate the new parliament but believed that the proportional electoral system used by Holyrood would deny the party the majority it needed to win a mandate to hold a referendum on independence. Both were wrong.

After forming a minority government in 2007, the SNP achieved a landslide victory in 2011. That result, which we predicted, exposed the enfeebled and hollowed-out state of the Scottish Labour Party in a country it once dominated. Having won nearly a million constituency votes in the first devolved election in 1999, Labour achieved just 630,000 in 2011. Its local branches have the lowest membership of any outside of southern England and it now holds fewer council seats than the SNP. In addition, many intellectuals, writers and artists in Scotland have long since given up on Labour. These people matter because they help to create a climate and a culture.

The SNP, once derided as a fringe party of eccentric nationalists and “tartan Tories”, has prospered by colonising the social-democratic territory historically occupied by Labour. As the frontiers of the welfare state have been rolled back in England, Alex Salmond has rolled them forward in Scotland. Since taking office, his government has scrapped National Health Service prescription charges, abolished university tuition fees and introduced free social care for the elderly. When the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, denounced this settlement as fiscally unsustainable and declared that Scotland could not be “the only something-for-nothing country in the world”, she misjudged the national mood.

From the beginning of the referendum campaign, Mrs Lamont and her colleagues struggled to win over disillusioned voters. Labour’s decision to offer the lowest level of devolution of any of the three main Westminster parties, despite polls showing majority support for “devo max”, left it without an attractive alternative to the status quo, until a desperate late scramble led by Gordon Brown.

With the exception of the quietly effective Douglas Alexander, it was outside the party’s front ranks that the most signs of life were shown. Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary, engaged thousands of voters through his admirable “100 Towns in 100 Days” speaking tour. In an age when stage-managed appearances drain mainstream politicians of all authenticity, Mr Murphy’s unrelenting defence of the Union from a platform made of two Irn-Bru crates was proof of the virtues of traditional campaigning. He has the look of a future Labour leader in Scotland, someone who has the qualities to take on and even defeat Mr Salmond and his popular deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.

Against the expectations of many, Mr Brown thrived in the final weeks of the campaign. Having presciently warned in the summer that Westminster had mistakenly framed the contest as a battle between Scotland and the UK, rather than one about Scotland, he seemed to take charge as the cross-party Better Together campaign floundered.

The former prime minister spoke at public meetings with passion and clarity. It was Mr Brown who reframed the debate by proposing a “modern form of home rule” and who, because of his deep understanding of history, articulated the unique achievement of the Union: the creation of a multinational state in which not merely civil and political freedoms but economic and social rights are shared.

Such was his righteous fury at the SNP’s claim that the Scottish NHS was threatened by Westminster, despite health being a devolved matter, that Mr Brown even vowed to stand for election to Holyrood if the First Minister did not desist. If, as expected, he resigns his Westminster seat in May 2015, he could yet thrive as a political pugilist in a new arena.

Yet if Scottish Labour is to be rebuilt, it will not be through the efforts of individuals such as Mr Brown and Mr Murphy alone. Rather, it must draw inspiration from the energy, civic nationalism and creativity demonstrated by the pro-independence movement. The emergence of what Gerry Hassan, the co-author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, calls the “Third Scotland” has been one of the most inspiring legacies of an invigorating campaign in which a nation asked itself fundamental questions about identity and purpose and, in so doing, inspired a democratic reawakening. 

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.