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Labour must act in Scotland no matter the outcome of the referendum

Independence or not, Labour in Scotland needs to feel distinctly separate these days, when so many in a land once seen as red in tooth and claw are supporting the nationalist cause.

By Douglas Beattie

Suddenly this referendum lark looks like being a right old rammie – or fight – to the finish. With that bombshell poll over the weekend showing the Yes campaign in the lead for the first time it’s clear Labour voters north of the border will be pivotal to the outcome on 18 September.

The future of the Union is about as big as it gets when it comes to political scraps. However my party, more than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, faces another major test in the event of a victory for Better Together (should that occur).

If the psephologists are correct 35 to 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate traditionally allied to Labour are likely to eschew the party line and vote Yes.

So why are so many in a land once seen as red in tooth and claw contemplating throwing in their lot with the nationalist cause?

Firstly the Tories are in power at Westminster and their brand remains as toxic as ever. But hard to stomach as it may be there’s also a widespread perception that Labour has, as is routinely said, ‘lost its way’.

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A few weeks back one of my former school teachers told me while happily manning a Yes street stall, “ach don’t worry, I’m still a socialist, but I want independence.” That just about sums it up.

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Many working class Scots who have long voted Labour are sickened by the bedroom tax, baffled by euroscepticism and angry about austerity. Most of all they are deeply fearful about greater privatisation in the NHS.

Crucially they not only blame Cameron and Osborne but seem to have concluded that Labour is not the beast it once was when it comes to countering the excesses of the market and delivering strong social policy. Think here of those ‘tougher than the Tories on welfare’ headlines pinned to Rachel Reeves last year.

When I suggested to Tony Blair’s former special adviser, John McTernan, that Scotland was getting the chance to bury Thatcherism forever he responded by saying that it had already been “buried by Labour 1997-2010.”

Few on the left in Scotland would agree. This remains a country of Old Labour values, where radicals of yesteryear such as James Maxton, Manny Shinwell and Jimmy Reid live on in the popular imagination.

So while Labour at Westminster kits itself out to win the south of England – undeniably crucial to electoral success – their Scots voters remain stubbornly unmoved by the social democratic tendency.

Lose this most momentous poll and Labour will gain nothing more than a new sister party above the Tweed. Win and thoughts will immediately turn to the mighty task of bringing a hefty chunk of the electorate back onside for the fast-approaching general election.

Gordon Brown certainly knows this and has spoken of his desire to lead a Commons debate on delivering greater powers to Holyrood; a kind of federalist super devolution known as “devo-max” suddenly very much in vogue.

Such a move may even entice some big-hitters, the likes of Alistair Darling or Jim Murphy, into the Edinburgh parliament, something which has happened all too rarely since 1999.

There is also an obvious opportunity here to decouple Scottish Labour from the mainstream of the party. In organisational terms, London’s apron strings must be well and truly cut and a fully autonomous Scottish leader put in place.

Independence or not, Labour in Scotland needs to feel distinctly separate these days.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author and Labour Councillor based in London. He grew up in the Scottish borders