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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.

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.