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The winds of change are blowing through Scotland - and it's not over yet

It feels as if something fundamental has changed in Scotland - and there is more change yet to come.

Scotland feels different. It is as if something fundamental has shifted in how voters see politics, the consequences of their votes, and themselves.

For years a sizeable segment of voters have thought at Westminster elections that the most important issue was voting Labour and holding the line in Scotland in the hope of keeping the Tories out and electing a Labour Government. This sentiment so prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s seems to have dissipated: the dam which once held so firm, has well and truly burst.

Now an SNP wave looks like it will engulf most Scottish Labour seats and notables in a tartan tsunami remaking the political map of Scotland – one with profound implications for the UK.

Yet, as we speak, a little more than a week from polling day, most of Scotland, let alone the UK, does not really fully comprehend why this has happened and what it could mean. This is obvious in the pro-union camp of Labour, Tories and Lib Dems, but also its principal benefactors: the SNP. Nationalist politicians may make great play of how disorientated Labour are by the new mood, but they too are not sure what has changed, only that post-referendum the wind is suddenly blowing in their sails.

One thing which has shifted is how Westminster and British Labour are perceived. It has been revealing that post-referendum Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has continually repeated the mantra that he is ‘not a Westminster politician’, and instead ‘a Scottish politician who goes to Westminster’. Such is the toxicity of the Palace of Westminster.

Scottish Labour is increasingly viewed in a negative light. Beyond the ranks of the Nationalists there is a sense of deep disappointment and even betrayal about its recent trajectory and history. This has become a mantra about the ‘sell out’ of New Labour, the absence of an effective centre-left social democracy in Scotland or Britain, and a yearning for a politics of substance. It mixes an elemental anger about Scottish Labour and an elegy for a past world where politics and choices were more clear and stark.

South of the border something is stirring too. And this is having an impact in Scotland. We have witnessed what at times looks like a kamikaze English Tory campaign which contradicts nearly everything said in the referendum campaign. This has the result of undermining Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader and her party, who has distanced herself from such utterances. But even more seriously, it is weakening by the day the basis of the union.

One interpretation of how Scotland has changed is to see it as becoming post-indyref defined by ‘two tribes’: one SNP, the other unionist, Yes and No. And related to this the SNP advance is understood as the triumph of a ‘faith based politics’ and rise of irrationality over reason.

This is a caricature of modern Scotland and it is telling that the prognosis comes from leading pro-union commentators such as Alex Massie, Iain Martin and Chris Deerin. This section of unionist Scotland is, to put it mildly, disconnected and disaffected at the state of public opinion: referendum won, this whole thing was meant to be safely back in its box. But instead the natives are still restless and the natural order under threat.

The ‘two tribes’ account draws from the historical trope of a ‘divided Scotland’: a nation which couldn’t sit with or overcome its divisions, whether Highland and Lowland, Protestant and Catholic, West and East, and more.

However, this wasn’t underneath the headline figures the experience of the referendum. Under the Yes/No binary choice there were only two small camps on each side which were vociferously tribal and partisan. The strategies of both Yes Scotland and Better Together were predicated on at least 60 per cent of the electorate having soft or potentially changeable views on independence.

The related argument of this is that the rise and untouchability of the SNP is due to the mesmerising hold of their ‘faith based politics’ which have weaved a spell on the minds of Scottish voters. This is supposedly the reason why the limitations of SNP politics and its record in government hasn’t become an issue. Sadly, this misses that voters have consistently seen the SNP in office as competent, while recognising that the government’s overall budget (and scale of cuts) is set by Westminster. Perhaps as important, all politics, credos and political parties involve an uneasy cohabitation between faith and fact.

What hasn’t cut through in the election campaign has been a sequence of increasingly desperate pro-union charges against the SNP. The Labour Party thought it had been given a political weapon early in the campaign when Nicola Sturgeon in one of the first TV debates declared that full fiscal autonomy was a priority for the SNP post-election. This allowed Labour to cite Institute for Fiscal Studies figures showing that this would produce a current deficit between spending and revenue in Scotland of £7.6 billion. But like everything Scottish Labour touches at the moment, it did so in a ham-fisted way which proved implausible beyond the tiny tribe of Labour true believers.

The SNP has presented a positive, progressive vision of Scotland – one that has been aided by the inadequacies of their opponents. Murphy has seemed to think taking the greatest hits from the New Labour manual would suffice, and when it hasn’t worked, has been bereft of any new ideas.

Tory Ruth Davidson has impressed, but is the leader of a future party which doesn’t yet exist and which she has little notion how to bring about. Lib Dem Willie Rennie is leader of a past party which used to exist and shows little sign in the near future of making a comeback. Little wonder that Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie shone so much in the referendum campaign, and fancies his party’s chances in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections; the same being true of the currents around the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign who are rumoured to be setting up a new party for next year.

The attractive, upbeat nature of the SNP and the limitations of their opponents look likely to be enough to see the political map of Scotland turn yellow on May 7. The only doubt now seems to be whether Labour faces a wipeout, or can retain enough of a foothill of support to envisage the possibility of a future comeback.

Yet politics works in mysterious ways. ‘Peak SNP’ if that is what May 7 produces will radically alter the dynamics and contours of Scottish politics. A huge SNP Westminster intake will see the raising of unrealistic expectations which the party will struggle to control. A weak Conservative or Labour government will give the Nationalists the prospect of significant influence, but they cannot be seen to back the former, or bring down the latter.

Moreover, Scotland’s politics changing has altered its place in the union, and the nature of the union itself. This will have all sorts of unintended and unforeseen circumstances. One will be that in Scotland as well as the UK, the SNP’s policy prospectus and record in government will come under more detailed scrutiny. Another is that if Labour faces a Scottish Armageddon the current pro-union majority will coalesce around another, perhaps, more credible and convincing force.

Scottish politics are for the next few years going to be exciting, unpredictable and high profile. The coming SNP wave doesn’t mean that the party can assume its dominance is permanent, or that its interests and those of Scotland are synonymous: an assumption which has been inherent in how Cameron and senior Westminster Tories have talked about the SNP. Whichever way it develops the future shape and politics of Britain look likely to be determined by that of Scotland.

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.