Deputy Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and First Minister Alex Salmond campaign in Piershill Square on September 10, 2014 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Salmond's departure won't weaken the SNP

Under the talented and popular Nicola Sturgeon, the party will become stronger still. Labour is on the run. 

Those unionists celebrating the resignation of Alex Salmond should pause a moment. Salmond is certainly the most impressive politician in these islands, a visionary leader and strategist. A great bruiser and street fighter, too. But his departure won’t now weaken the SNP or the independence cause, and I’ll explain why.

The New Statesman collaborated with the First Minister several times during the campaign – on a special issue of the magazine in February – you can read his essay here - and he came to London at our invitation in March to deliver the New Statesman lecture, “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands” (You can watch the lecture and a Newsnight discussion about it here). It was then that he popularised the metaphor of London as the "dark star", inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy. I had also visited him in June last year at Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh, where we had a long conversation about the forthcoming referendum campaign.

Over dinner with us, in London, Salmond was delightful company: candid, learned, sarcastic, generous to former opponents (he spoke particularly fondly of John Major) and remorseless in his condemnation of those he least respected (George Osborne was mentioned more than once). Under his leadership the SNP was transformed from a protest party into the natural party of government in Scotland. He smashed Labour hegemony. And he watched delightedly as the party lost the backing first of much of Scotland’s leftish intelligentsia and then began to haemorrhage support in its old heartlands. And he persuaded his party, against some fierce opposition, that it would be right for an independent Scotland to join NATO.

Yet, as I said, the SNP will be stronger without Salmond, because his successor will be Nicola Sturgeon, who is adored by the party’s grassroots. A former lawyer, Sturgeon is a social democrat, politically to the left of Salmond, who is a free marketeer (his wish to cut corporation tax is unpopular with the SNP left) with some dodgy allies on the right. Sturgeon is building a power base in Glasgow, which voted Yes to independence. She is a formidable machine politician and an excellent platform speaker and media performer. She is a fine debater who speaks in complete sentences and knows exactly what she wants to say and how to say it. Labour in Scotland has no one of her calibre – or zeal. And she emerges from the referendum campaign with her reputation enhanced and her public profile as high as it has ever been.  

I was relieved that the 307-year old Union was not shattered. But here’s the thing: 45 per cent of Scots who voted still voted for independence. That’s a lot of people who wanted to break from Britain. And there is no quick fix. Deep, structural forces are cleaving our United Kingdom. Scottish nationalism, the Ukip insurgency in England as well the general anti-politics, "stuff them" mood are all symptoms of the need not only for constitutional reform and a reconfigured Union but for far-reaching economic and social change.  

From the beginning of the referendum campaign, Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, and her colleagues struggled to win over disillusioned voters – until a desperate, late scramble led by Gordon Brown pulled some of them back into the fold. Even so, Labour was routed in many of its old strongholds in Glasgow and Dundee. It also seems as if many working class Catholics in Glasgow voted for independence and have switched allegiance to the SNP, which was once perceived to be an anti-Catholic party.

Gordon Brown’s speech in Glasgow, on the eve of the vote, was the most inspiring exposition of the values of the Union and of Britishness I have read or heard in recent times. He took the fight to Alex Salmond and the pro-independence movement with all the fervor of an old-style Presbyterian preacher. And people loved it.

Here was the passion and emotion absent for so long from the Better Together campaign, which was too arid and technocratic. At times, it was as if Alistair Darling was afraid even to speak the word "British"

Is there any chance of a Labour revival in Scotland? Not yet. It would have been unthinkable even five years ago for Labour to take such a beating on independence in Glasgow.

Yet Gordon Brown offered a glimpse of the way ahead for Labour. Because of his deep understanding of history and economics, he 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.

If it is to recover, Labour must once again become the party of the masses in Scotland. It needs dynamic leadership and willing campaigners and activists on the ground.

For now, the SNP are in the ascendant and will become stronger still under the leadership of Sturgeon, who will succeed Alex Salmond in November.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.