Labour struggles to define itself post referendum as the SNP continue to rise

Scottish Labour's bilingualism used to be a good thing - but the relationship between Westminster and Scotland has changed.

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It wasn’t meant to be like this. The referendum was won for the Union. The issue was supposed to be, as David Cameron said a few weeks ago, “settled”. And yet every Scotland-wide poll since last September has put the Scottish National Party significantly ahead of the unionist Labour Party. The latest poll, conducted by Michael Ashcroft, predicted Labour would lose up to 36 of its 41 seats north of the border at the general election on 7 May.

It doesn’t seem to matter how often Labour mentions the mansion tax or the 50p top rate of tax – both of which are Labour (and not SNP) policies: Scottish voters continue to see the SNP as a more convincing vehicle for redistribution and social justice. The nationalists’ shift from an abrasive and divisive populism under Alex Salmond to Nicola Sturgeon’s ecumenical, centre-left approach has helped them. As has the state of British Labour, Ed Miliband’s leadership and a poor opinion of Westminster.

The official line from the Labour Party is to emphasise the need for every vote and every seat in order to form a Labour government. A vote for anyone else, including the SNP, could allow Cameron to remain in Downing Street, it argues. Yet its inability to comment on a deal with the SNP makes its weakness clear. Saying one or the other would cost it dearly – trapped as it is between enemies to the right and left.

Labour is up against a party full of enthusiasm with just short of 100,000 members. The nationalists have money, resources and a feeling that the political wind blows in their favour. Labour, on the other hand, has an antiquated organisation and an ageing membership (it hasn’t declared its numbers in four years). On the plus side, Jim Murphy, the leader of Scottish Labour, has in typical New Labour fashion been raising lots of money from party sympathisers.

Murphy has been required to define himself according to terms set by the SNP’s success. At Scottish Labour’s one-day conference in Edinburgh on 7 March, a new constitution was voted through declaring it a “patriotic party”. Murphy has also stated that he is “not a unionist” (a statement that has historic connotations in the west of Scotland). Lately, he went as far as to claim that he is “not a Westminster politician” – stressing that he is merely a Scottish Labour politician who happens to go to Westminster. This is a politics of redefinition stretched to the point of absurdity and retreat.

A recent BBC Newsnight item illustrated the historic predicament engulfing Scottish Labour. In a discussion between two thirtysomething Glasgow men, one said about Labour and Murphy: “It is no longer good enough to talk one language – socialism in Scotland – and the opposite at Westminster. Jim Murphy is just the latest example of this.”

Scottish Labour’s ability to talk two different languages – one in Scotland and the other in Westminster – used to be a positive thing. It meant the party could act as a bridge-builder between Scotland and the UK, selling the benefits of the Union to Scotland while advocating for Scotland’s interests in the Union. But this balancing act was based on an instrumental understanding of the Union, one that has now, after three decades of Thatcherism and New Labour, finally broken down.

One of the pivotal dilemmas that Labour faced in the Scottish referendum was the complete absence of a progressive case for the Union. It was there to be made by a party that dared to acknowledge the inequalities and divisions affecting the UK as a whole, arguing for deep economic and social as well as constitutional change as a solution. The party that will make this case, at present, is not the Scottish Labour Party. 

This article appears in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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