Scottish voters are abandoning Labour for the SNP. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scottish Labour abandoned social democracy to the SNP – and now it's paying the price

How the party is being "Pasokified".

Before last year's independence referendum, there was a broad consensus among unionists. A defeat for the Yes campaign would rob nationalism of its momentum. With the SNP humbled, Scottish politics could return to a more stable dynamic: Labour dominant at Westminster and – at the very least – competitive at Holyrood.

Jim Murphy's election as Scottish Labour leader was the first sign that normalcy was reasserting itself. In contrast to his underwhelming (and overwhelmed) predecessor, the East Renfrewshire MP was a substantial politician. As a member of the shadow cabinet and former minister in both the Blair and Brown governments, he had the experience to match Nicola Sturgeon.

Murphy himself encouraged this view. Despite a series of polls showing the SNP with an unprecedented double-digit lead in terms of Westminster voting intentions, he confidently predicted Labour would retain every one of its 40 Scottish seats at the general election in May. Indeed, as recently as two weeks ago, Murphy derided the nationalists for their apparent complacency. "I’m just astonished by how quickly they’ve run out of ideas", he told the website BuzzFeed. "[They are] sluggish, lethargic, and off the pace".

But any lingering hope that the old rules still apply in post-referendum Scotland evaporated last Wednesday with the publication of Lord Ashcroft's constituency surveys. Scottish Labour's urban fortresses are crumbling in the face of a sustained SNP surge. Dozens of once unassailable Labour seats now look set to switch from red to yellow in three months' time.

It's difficult to exaggerate the significance of Ashcroft's findings. The SNP's best result (so far) at a UK general election came in October 1974, when the party won 11 seats and 30 per cent of the vote. That was 41 years ago. Scotland was in the first blush of an oil revolution, its industrial economy was grinding to a halt and nationalism remained a relatively novel force. Since then, the SNP has been repeatedly squeezed at Westminster. In 2010, Alex Salmond set a target of 20 SNP MPs. He ended up with six. The fact that 20 now seems like a modest ambition for the former first minister illustrates how dramatically the Scottish political landscape has changed.

Some commentators think Scottish Labour's collapse is the result of a) its decision to cooperate with the Tories as part of Better Together during the referendum and/or b) its failure to stop the SNP positioning itself as an anti-Westminster insurgent. Others see it as symptomatic of Ed Miliband's weak leadership. "Labour’s credibility in Scotland rests on whether it is a plausible government in waiting", argues The Guardian's Martin Kettle. "If Scots believe that Labour will form a government, the Labour vote will remain reasonably solid".

All these things factor into the mix. But Scottish Labour is suffering from a much deeper – and to some extent self-inflicted – process of attrition. The process began in the mid-1990s, as Blair and Brown exchanged Labour's post-war interventionism for a programme of liberalised markets and finance-led growth. In response, Salmond carefully manoeuvred the SNP into the vacant left-of-centre space. The strategy worked. Research from the period confirms that Scots started to view the SNP as a progressive alternative to Blairism.

The first big break came at the 2003 Holyrood election: Labour lost 250,000 constituency and 225,000 list votes, the single biggest fall in its vote share at any point over the devolutionary era. Left-leaning voters – notably Catholics, trade unionists and public sectors – bled-away from Labour, moving first towards smaller, more radical parties such as the Greens and the SSP, and then towards the SNP, resulting in ever-larger electoral gains for Salmond.

The decisive rupture occurred last year, when traditional Labour strongholds such as Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and Dundee rejected the party line and voted in favour of independence. Appalled by the flaccid conservatism of the Better Together campaign, large numbers of working-class Scots (although by no means all) embraced constitutional radicalism. On 18 September, Scottish Labour won the referendum and saved the Union, but it did so at the cost of Labour Scotland.

The only appropriate term for what is happening to Scottish Labour is "Pasokification". Just as Greek voters abandoned PASOK, the established party of Greek social democracy, for Syriza, so Scottish voters are abandoning Labour for the SNP (albeit more gradually and under less acute conditions). Clearly, neither Salmond nor Sturgeon is Alexis Tsipras, and the current Scottish government can be frustratingly cautious in its approach to reform. But the overarching trend is unmistakable: in Scotland, the old left hegemony is breaking down and a new one forming in its place.

Murphy has a two part plan to tackle this crisis. First, he intends to strengthen Scottish Labour's patriotic and working-class identity, hence his headline-grabbing pledge to use the revenues generated by Miliband's proposed tax on mansions (the bulk of which are located in London and the south east) to hire 1000 more Scottish nurses. Second, he aims to remind people that the SNP is – and has been now for the best part of eight years – a party of government. "They’ve managed to have this kind of dual identity, of being the government and the opposition", he says. "But in the public’s mind I want to put the SNP where they’ve rarely been, which is responsible for their own mistakes."

The irony, however, is that Murphy himself embodies many of Scottish Labour's most egregious mistakes. Like other talented Labour Scots, he overlooked Holyrood in order to build a career at Westminster. Until late last year, he was a champion of Blairite modernisation. He is an outspoken Atlanticist who supported the Iraq war and wants Trident – the bête noire of progressive Scotland – renewed in full, whatever the cost. Worse yet, he campaigned alongside Tory activists at a grassroots level to deliver a No vote in September. One way or the other, Jim Murphy is tied to everything currently working against Scottish Labour's long-term chances of survival. That's not to say it won't survive the upcoming election. The polls will narrow between now and May, as the prospect of a Tory victory consolidates Labour's core vote. But beyond that, who knows? Scotland simply, almost dispassionately, seems to be moving on.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496