On the face of it, Labour’s general election manifesto would seem tailor-made for those who identify with Scotland’s radical tradition of politics. The country’s left wants a greater role for the state – Jeremy Corbyn is promising just this, pledging to nationalise the railways, broadband infrastructure, the Royal Mail, energy utilities and water. He’s offering a state drug company, a ban on new private prisons, higher taxes on the wealthy and on businesses, and an ethical realignment of UK foreign policy. Outsourced council services will be returned in-house.
Then there’s the green stuff – a pretty prominent shade in modern Scottish radicalism. Labour is launching a “Green New Deal” under which it would aim, among other pledges, to achieve the “substantial majority” of planned carbon emissions reductions by 2030. On top of all this, all the right people are angry. The Tories and business and the Daily Mail hate it. It’s a robust challenge to the “elite” way of running the country, and when the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Paul Johnson describes the manifesto’s spending commitments as “enormous, colossal in the context of anything we have seen in the last…ever really”, this surely only recommends it further.
For those Scots who found Blair too Tory, and Brown too conflicted, who raged and roared against the Tory hegemony of the late 1980s, Corbyn’s Labour is surely what they wanted all along. He could well be prime minister by 13 December. So here’s the question: why won’t they vote for him?
Despite all of the above, Labour is widely predicted to receive a thumping in Scotland at this election. There’s even talk they could match their 2015 nadir, when they were humiliated by the loss of 40 seats, leaving them with just one. They only have seven MPs at present, but yet again Edinburgh South’s Ian Murray could be the only one left standing (ironically, he’s among the most anti-Corbyn Labour MPs).
It’s not just the opinion polls suggesting doom. A council by-election in Aberdeen this week saw the SNP vote increase by 12 per cent, the Conservative share rise by 2 per cent, and Labour’s fall by 13 per cent. This is not the performance of a party sweeping back to power.
The first thing to note is that for a sizeable number of Scottish socialists, the Union is gone. They severed their link with Labour during the Blair years, often due to Iraq and/or the party’s business-friendly approach. The 2014 independence referendum brought many of them to the view that Scotland should go it alone. Having made that leap, it is psychologically difficult for people to unmake it.
There is a loss of faith in the UK as a vehicle for installing left-wing governments that pursue social justice, for obvious historical reasons. For better or worse, Scotland doesn’t have the same level of turbo-charged capitalism found in south-east England, and has a more deeply rooted and romanticised sense of its working-class heritage. Its political narrative is to the left of England’s. Scotland, its socialist radicals believe, provides a more suitable and plausible petri dish for their societal and economic experiments.
The SNP will publish its own manifesto in the middle of next week, and it won’t be anything like as radical as Labour’s. The Nats have been in power in Edinburgh for 12 years and have run a largely moderate administration. When Holyrood was given control of income tax, the SNP introduced a modest tweak that took a bit more cash from higher earners, but went nowhere near the ambitions of Corbyn’s plan. Sturgeon once said the following to me: “I’m not principally opposed to a 50p top rate of tax. I’ve taken a pragmatic view… I have independent analysis from the civil service saying ‘this could actually lose you money’. When you’re in government and you actually have to worry about the money to fund your public services you can’t ignore that. You’ve got to have pragmatism as well as principle.” Can you imagine Corbyn saying the same?
In power, Sturgeon has been exactly that: pragmatic; cautious, even. She has set some ambitious environmental goals, and sought to mitigate the impact of Conservative policies on welfare, but she has hardly been a reformist firebrand. And yet the SNP expects a landslide victory on 12 December.
The pollster Mark Diffley agrees that Labour might have expected to do better. “On the face of it Corbyn has policies that should be a positive for Labour in Scotland,” he says. “But I think he’s been overtaken by events. He appears agnostic on the two big questions, independence and Brexit, when others are offering clear positions. And I think there’s scepticism that any politician could deliver a programme on the scale he’s proposing.”
When Corbyn became leader in 2015, Diffley says, there was enthusiasm on the Scottish left. “People were saying ‘now Labour’s fightback begins up here’. This simply hasn’t happened. “The differences between the views of Scots and English people aren’t as stark as is sometimes suggested.”
Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University has a blunt view of the reasons for Corbyn’s failure to connect: “The simple truth is that Scots are not very left wing. Of course, there are some people who will be attracted to this manifesto but not many. Scottish Labour was at its peak when it was moderate, cautious to the point of timid, and social democratic. The party that inhabits that space today is the SNP.”
Most Scots, then, want credible, moderate social-democratic government, rather than the revolution offered by Labour. And as for the socialists, their priority now appears to be that second independence referendum, followed by “Scexit”. Even among his home crowd, it seems, Corbyn is too late.