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A Labour SNP progressive alliance is the only way to kick out the Tories

New analysis shows Scotland's centre-left must ditch their civil war. 

The Fabian Society started 2017 with a wake-up call for Labour. Its research found the party has no chance of winning a general election on its own. Instead, the Fabian Society urged Labour to concentrate on a progressive alliance that could win enough seats to force out the Tories.

The call met with a fairly predictable response in Scotland, where Labour and SNP hatred runs deep. The animosity is more akin to the historic enmity between the two moderately conservative Irish parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael than anything that exists south of the Border.

The fact the Scottish parties are fighting over the same electorate further fuels the enmity. It is striking that voters in Scotland tend to fall into SNP/Labour and Conservative/Lib Dem polling groups without entering into the animosity felt by the party activists. Rather than considering the overlaps on most policy issues, activists have instead intensified the debate over the one where there is a big difference - the constitution. 

While the constitutional question has always existed, the independence referendum made it a priority. Ironically, the most virulent in the nationalist community are often former Labour members. For those who hoped for change through independence, the defeat was sore, not least because of Labour's collusion with the Tories.

For the No side, a victory in the referendum was followed by a beating by the SNP in many areas they viewed as their political territory. Many of the strongest supporters of independence were dyed-in-the-wool Labour voters. Labour paid a heavy price for its positioning, but the wounded leadership has responded by increasing its level of antipathy to the SNP.

As the battle on the centre left has escalated, the Tories have marched steadily on. They’ve usurped the Labour party as the opposition in Holyrood. However, SNP cannot rest on its laurels. It too will suffer as the rejuvenated Tories win back historic seats. That started in the Holyrood elections last year and will continue in the council elections of 2017.

The Tories' current success is limited. Even in 2016, the party enjoyed a lower vote share than that enjoyed by John Major in 1992, and given the longstanding antipathy to the party in Scotland, there is likely to be a natural ceiling on its vote share. A Tory surge will, however, give greater legitimacy to Tory policies in Westminster, and further harm the interests of the poor and vulnerable that both the SNP and Labour wish to protect. For this reason alone, they must heed the calls for a progressive alliance and agree a truce in this centre-left civil war. 

Moreover, the world has changed north of the Border, as elsewhere, post Brexit. Though the prospect of a second independence referendum has been floated by the First Minister, the complexities have increased. Factors that were critical in the first referendum, currency and the economy, seem even less favourable to the independence movement at present. New issues such as a hard border have also arisen.

The Brexit vote has also created new fractures. The 62 per cent Remain vote saw many No voters from middle-class areas rally to the Scottish government's call. Equally, though, voters in many peripheral and disadvantaged areas in Scotland acted no differently to those south of the border. Many of the strongest Yes areas also saw significant Leave votes predicated on voters' belief that immigration and the EU were to blame for their fate.

Meanwhile, the most incompetent UK government in living memory is allowed to sail steadily on, thanks to electoral problems looming for both SNP and Labour. As the Fabian analysis has shown, the latter party cannot win without a progressive alliance. Votes from the SNP block will be needed. It’s hard to see anything other than continued SNP dominance north of the border, though the challenge will be from the Tories. 

In Ireland, electoral necessity saw the historic civil war parties work together, albeit contest each other in elections. In Scotland, the time has come to do likewise. Remove the Tories, and alleviate the suffering for ordinary people. Then have either a multi-option referendum or enshrine the right of the Scottish Parliament to call one on independence. There is more that unites SNP and Labour than divides. Indulging in hatred simply harms both parties' chances of removing the Tories - on both sides of the border.


Kenny MacAskill is a former SNP MSP and was Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014. He tweets @KennyMacAskill and is the author of The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era