Is Scottish Labour Having a Good Independence Referendum?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 9th 2014

Scotland is on the move. The polls have shown a significant shift towards Yes. One poll so far has produced a Yes lead, a watershed moment not just in the campaign, but also in the history of Scotland and the UK.

Change is all around us. There is the enthusiasm of Yes; the incompetence and fear of No; the distrust in Westminster, Cameron and Miliband (the latter two earning each 23% trust ratings in Scotland), and the quiet sentiment that the Scottish Parliament is best suited to take the legislative decisions which affect the people of this land.

Yes and No are both running dual campaigns. With Yes there is the SNP (and its extension Yes Scotland) and the unofficial ‘third Scotland’; whereas with No there is the division between Better Together and Downing Street. The two Yes camps work in an uneasy, creative partnership, while the two No camps are characterised by tension, miscommunication and misunderstanding.

It isn’t an accident that the historic YouGov poll putting Yes ahead for the first time was met by two contradictory responses: Chancellor George Osborne promising ‘more powers’ and Better Together head Alistair Darling ruling these out ; while to confuse matters further the sole trader in the indyref Gordon Brown came up with his own timetable of reform.

There is the campaign mood and momentum. If this were a by-election it is clear that Yes would win. They have the wind behind their sails. Yes have grabbed the mantle of change and insurgency, despite the SNP being in office for seven years. No have been left with the albatross of incumbency hanging round their necks.

This is with Labour being in opposition in Scotland and the UK; instead the incumbents have become synonymous with the Tories and Westminster. This is an important development, for all over the world people turn to insurgents and punish incumbents to challenge the status quo and to say how unhappy they are with the existing state of affairs.

One of the dynamics of the increasingly close race has been the rising number of Labour voters supporting independence: up to 35% in the last YouGov poll. It isn’t quite going to be the legend of ‘It was Labour wot won it’ or ‘It was Labour wot lost it’, but the battle for Labour voters and West of Scotland working class voters goes beyond politics and numbers: it is about the how the nation sees itself and its future, and who makes it.

The three year independence campaign rollercoaster has been one Labour have misplayed at nearly every single opportunity. That hasn’t been bad luck; or because Alex Salmond and the SNP have some omnipotent power. It tells us something about how Scottish Labour don’t really get modern Scotland.

There has been a consistent lack of political intelligence and strategy on show in Labour. For the forty plus years the SNP have been a serious presence in Scotland, Labour have responded to this by consciously and freely choosing to caricature and stereotype them: from Willie Ross and ‘tartan Tories’ to going on for decades about how SNP MPs brought down the Callaghan Labour Government and ushered in a decade of Thatcherism.

All of this has coloured their view of independence. Labour politicians such as Johann Lamont and Margaret Curran have never seriously thought about the case for independence for one second. They are just instinctively and tribally against it, which means not understanding it. Thus, they are singularly ill-equipped to develop coherent, sophisticated arguments.

If that wasn’t bad enough there is a deep-seated denial of what Labour turned into in its years running the nation and why the voters turned them out. Douglas Alexander, Scottish Labour’s brightest star, in an otherwise engaging review of my book ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ in the ‘New Statesman’ could not understand the difference between ‘Labour Scotland’ and ‘Scottish Labour’. The former was the political order of patronage, deals and preferment which provided the glue of the party-state system of dominance, something very distinct from the party. The former was the means by which a party without mass membership or powerful resources could so dominate Scotland. The death of ‘Labour Scotland’ precipitated the decline of the party: a point seemingly beyond Alexander.

Another problem for the party has been the limits of Labour’s appeal and its failure to have any grasp or interest in the voters and cultures of non-Labour Scotland. For all its apparent years of strength Scottish Labour never won a majority of the vote, even in Wilson’s 1966 high mark or Blair’s 1997 triumph.

The party then over-read its appeal with its Westminster MPs thinking that their number (elected through the distortive FPTP system) was an accurate reflection of their popular strength. This led them to not comprehend or care about non-Labour Scotland; some MPs still act and think like this.

The above circumstances have then been exasperated by the limited autonomy of the Scottish party which despite a decade plus of devolution and a review of these issues post-2011 which created the post of the Scottish party and the election of Johann Lamont, has seen little progress. For example, the policy terrain which the party can now make decisions is still heavily constrained and excludes non-devolved areas such as defence and Trident: which Scottish Labour ridiculously does not have a position on, leaving such issues to the wisdom of British Labour.

It is not surprising taken all of the above into consideration that Scottish Labour has not succeeded in adapting and prospering since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Instead, it has found itself floundering, losing its raison d’etre, and being outflanked by an SNP which has appeared modern, progressive and competent in comparison. Worse still, all of this has been magnified by Scottish Labour being in collective denial about how the political climate has so utterly changed.

The party has now run three disastrous campaigns, each one worse than the last: 2007, 2011 and now 2014 (and also over-interpreted its 2010 Westminster victory as voters ‘coming home to Labour’). In the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, the Jack McConnell administration limped to a sad conclusion, handicapped by the contest being overshadowed by the fag end of the Blair era; in the 2011 elections, Labour under Iain Gray’s leadership threw away a 16% lead which metamorphosed into a 14% SNP victory in a campaign spectacularly incompetent and misjudged.

That was until now. The current debacle in the No camp which has seen a bigger lead overturned – a No lead of 25% changed into a Yes lead of 2% – has been aided by the ineptitude of Scottish Labour and the factors listed. All have contributed to a campaign that has fought a mythical, imagined set of Nationalists who promote a completely outdated version of separatism. Problem is, of course, that neither of these assumptions correspond to the reality of the 2014 independence campaign, meaning that time and time again, Labour’s salvos have fallen onto empty ground and gone unheeded.

This has been magnified by Scottish Labour’s ill-ease at articulating a language of Britishness, invoking any kind of unionism, and its intense dislike of Toryism, which is only exceeded by its pathological hatred of the SNP. This has all coalesced into a campaign, which even if No narrowly pull off a victory which is still distinctly possible, has been one of the most inept in the party’s history, and which given the stakes, could be seen as worse than Labour’s suicide mission of 1983.

One recurring meme of this debate is that a Yes vote could regalvinise the Scottish party, freeing it from London control, and allowing it to return to its radical roots. This could be called the Jim Sillars strategy, but it is in reality a pipe dream.

The future of Scottish Labour has been laid out in the last few years: by the party throwing away any devolution dividend it might have gained, by its timid autonomy, by its continued obsessional hatred of the SNP and Alex Salmond, and by the bad choices it has made in 2007, 2011 and the current independence debate. This doesn’t auger well for the prospect of a party suddenly liberated finding its true voice and contributing to the radical imagination of Scottish politics.

Scottish Labour for too long has been a party shaped by patronage and power, insularity and its own demons, uninterested in ideas or reform, and profoundly conservative in how it sees politics and Scotland. There is still some evidence of small pockets of life in the party, particularly in the trade union movement, but anyone contemplating a Scotland after a Yes vote should realise that the prospect of saving Scottish Labour is a project for at least a decade, if not a generation.

The leadership of the party still has little understanding about why they have ended up in the sorry state they are in, about why they have been rejected by the voters, and became a party of vested interests and the status quo. Scottish politics has lost something by this state of affairs, as has the SNP, who have been deprived of a coherent, strategic alternative, holding them to account.

Whether Scotland votes Yes or No, it is more than possible that the SNP will make the final transition into becoming the new establishment, which leaves unoccupied the terrain of an anti-system centre-left party. That ground should belong naturally to Scottish Labour, but it has betrayed and squandered its legacy and traditions over the last ten to fifteen years, and shows no sign yet of understanding what it has done to itself.

If it does not begin to learn – a process which could be aided by a Yes vote – others will move into that vacuum and begin to articulate the radical, progressive, democratic vision which a large part of Scotland yearns to hear advocated and nurtured. It is a voice which has been missing for too long in our public life.