Most people think Labour’s hegemony in Scotland ended in May 2007, when the SNP won control of the Holyrood parliament for the first time. But the breaking point actually came four years earlier. At the 2003 election, Labour lost roughly 250,000 constituency and 225,000 list votes, the single biggest fall in its vote share at any point over the devolutionary era. Significantly, it wasn’t the nationalists who benefited from the slump in Labour support (they also lost votes that year). It was the smaller, more radical parties, principally the Greens and the SSP, who were able to capitalise on widespread public opposition to, among other things, the Scottish Executive’s backing for the war in Iraq.
Yet, despite the subsequent collapse of the SSP and the ongoing failure of the Greens to make any meaningful progress, Labour has done very little over the last decade to win these left-leaning voters back. Instead, it has executed a botched volte face over universal benefits, wasted countless hours trying to savage Alex Salmond’s political reputation, and repositioned itself as the dominant voice of Scottish unionism (at the expense, inevitably, of its traditional status as the dominant voice of Scottish home rule).
The results, from a Labour perspective, have not been good. Last week, a new Survation poll gave the SNP a massive 18 point lead over Labour in terms of first-past-the-post voting intentions and an equally massive 15 point lead in terms of regional voting intentions. More worrying still, at the 2011 election, Labour trailed the nationalists by 14 per cent among Scots who identified themselves as working class and by 19 per cent among Scots who qualified as working class according to official criteria. The SNP was also the party of choice for public sector workers, trade unionists and even Catholics, all of whom Labour would once have considered part of its natural constituency.
And it’s not just at the electoral level that Scottish Labour’s base has bled away. Everyone now acknowledges that support for independence among low income Scots is substantially higher than it is among other income groups. Although one recent Ipsos MORI poll showed enthusiasm for independence in deprived neighbourhoods had declined slightly, other surveys indicate that it remains disproportionately high. Large parts of working class Scotland, in other words, have simply lost faith in the UK.
After years of complacency, however, Scottish Labour finally seems to be waking up to its class problem. The re-emergence of Gordon Brown in the last few months represents the most conspicuous attempt yet by the party to reclaim its former heartlands, while Johann Lamont has laid out plans to raise taxes on high earners using the new financial powers she says Holyrood will gain after a No vote. (Incidentally, Labour also seems to have drafted John Reid in to help seize back the left-of-centre ground from the nationalists, which must rank as the single silliest decision of the referendum debate so far.)
But is all this too little too late? Yes activists have been knocking on doors in poor communities for the best part of two years, with the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) leading the charge. Since February, RIC has held a series of mass canvassing sessions in a number of key Glasgow constituencies, including Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Pollok, the results of which should cause Labour some concern. Of the 2100 prospective voters RIC spoke to, 42 per cent said they intended to vote Yes, 41 per cent said they were Undecided and 17 per cent said they intended to vote No. This Sunday, RIC will roll-out its canvassing programme across the country, staging more than 30 separate events Scotland-wide.
The SNP has also stepped-up its efforts to win the working class vote. Following Alex Salmond’s claim last week that independence would “reindustrialise” Scotland, John Swinney told the Herald yesterday that a future SNP government would end the “UK austerity agenda” by borrowing billions to fund new spending projects. This is a hugely significant announcement. It establishes clear red water between the SNP – whose “preference” is now for an annual 3 per cent increase in (post-independence) public expenditure – and Labour, which remains anchored to the coalition’s spending plans. Nationalists are entitled to question how long Brown’s “redistributive union” can survive within the Tories’ fiscal straightjacket.
Labour‘s attempts to craft a plausible narrative for centre left unionism faces another – and in some respects more pressing – challenge: Better Together. Almost everything Better Together says is designed to appeal to “Middle Scotland”. Its core message – that the UK protects Scotland’s home owners, pensioners and businesses from the “risks” of separation – is resolutely (and depressingly) conservative. When Better Together talks about “economic uncertainty”, it means fluctuating oil revenues and increased borrowing costs. When the Yes campaign talks about “economic uncertainty”, it means poorly-paid and insecure work. If Labour is serious about getting what used to be its base back on side before September, it needs to start sounding more like the latter and much less like the former.