I’ve heard it said a lot recently that Labour are “finished” in Scotland, but what does that really mean? Are they really finished in Scotland? Should they be?
It can’t be denied that for generations now the Labour Party has commanded a huge share of the votes, and parliamentary seats, in Scotland. Recent years have seen the Labour Party’s popularity decrease sharply, however. The Labour Party has turned its back on its own values as well as the needs of the people it claims to represent. Times have changed, since the Thatcher years. We all in Scotland breathed a sigh of relief when Tony Blair’s government won in 1997, but by the time he was illegally invading Iraq, despite the vast majority of the whole UK being against it, it was clear to most that Labour may have changed with the times, but not necessarily in the way we wanted.
It is often said that Scotland is predominantly left wing. I’m not sure. Even if that is true, i think it’s more accurate to say Scotland is predominantly social, politically speaking. We favour values which allow the whole community to thrive, because we know this is best for all of us. Throughout the 20th century, it was easy to see that Labour epitomised that, with their pro-working-class ethic and power-to-the-people attitude, not to mention their stranglehold on the trade unions. But with the working class being at least conceptually replaced by the middle class(es), so to speak, the class based structure of politics had broken down by the beginning of the 21st century, at least in the minds of many voters.
As it happened Scotland successfully got its own parliament about this time as well. Unsurprisingly Labour got a majority of seats and formed a government for a couple of terms. They didn’t do so well at it. Oh, they didn’t do that much wrong, but they treated the Scottish parliament like a sort of big local council, treading water rather than innovating and basically acting like a local branch of the UK government, which was also Labour run at the time. In fact this was the same UK Labour government that saw Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling rack up an enormous budget deficit, ruining Education and Health in the process, as well as several other areas, and ultimately failing to mitigate effectively against the global financial crash.
By that time, however the Scottish National Party had got into power in Scotland, at first by only a small margin, but in their second term, following the 2011 election, with a sweeping majority. The SNP actually legislated for the people of Scotland in a way that Labour had not, and the people had recognised this at the ballot box. In Scotland we have free prescriptions, for instance, many university places are free for Scottish residents, Health is far healthier than its counterparts in England and Wales, and the dreaded “bedroom tax” (which is actually a shortfall in Housing Benefit, which the government expects disabled tenants to top up somehow) is completely mitigated by the Scottish Government, and is not payable by any Scottish resident. The money to pay for this does not, as many English residents believe, come from the UK Treasury, it comes from the SNP’s diversion of funds from one area to another (by downsizing Education, for example, to prop up Health) while in government.
In the UK parliament at Westminster, however, Labour still have a huge majority in Scotland. There are 650 seats in Westminster, and only 59 of those relate to Scotland. Of those, 41 are Labour seats. Traditionally Scotland tends to return a large Labour majority, and perhaps the Scottish people have felt that there is no point voting for the SNP in UK elections, since they only have six seats currently, and would therefore have much less of a voice even than Labour.
We’ve just seen the independence referendum won, fairly narrowly (depending on how you look at it), by those who would remain in the UK. The SNP, Green Party and Scottish Socialist Party aligned with those who wanted independence, while the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats aligned with the unionists, but crucially, these three parties made an alliance with each other in order to campaign on that basis. The Conservative led coalition with the Liberal Democrats which is in power in the UK allowed Labour to take control of the unionist campaign, with mainly Scottish figures such as former Chancellor Alistair Darling, former chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, current Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander (a Liberal Democrat, not a Conservative) all leading the charge, as well as well known Scottish MP (of Bradford!) George Galloway pitching in semi-unofficially as well. The campaign was notable for its absence of Conservative politicians (except Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson), because it is well known that Scotland doesn’t react well to the Conservative Party, and even the absence of English accents in the official No campaign, a subtle reminder that the Westminster parties genuinely believed the Scottish independence movement was anti-English.
In short, Labour thoroughly allied themselves with their bitter historical enemies the Tories, for reasons of their own self interest. They even, towards the end of the campaign, took the position that you should vote No and stay in the union because Labour would win the next UK election (which seems less and less likely by the day actually). Gordon Brown was hyped up in the last week or so of the campaign, and is thought to have swayed voters, and his promises were essentially a large list of additional devolved powers, to be handed to Scotland in the event it stayed in the UK. This was backed up by a pledge, or “vow”, from the three leaders of the “main” UK parties that these additional powers would definitely be handed to Scotland as soon as possible, though the three of them couldn’t actually agree what those powere would be.
Scotland did vote to stay in the UK, and within hours UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron backtracked on his commitments to Scotland, saying England would need to have additional devolution as well and that the whole thing would need to be ratified by the UK parliament (and by the way since we’re coming up for an election in May 2015, it is unlikely we’ll see any movement on this, the unelected House of Lords has the power to delay any legislation till after the election anyway).
So basically, it turns out that neither Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband (current UK Labour leader), Johann Lamont (the current Scottish Labour leader), or any other member of the Labour Party has any authority to turn this “vow” into a reality, except by voting for or against some future Bill in the House of Commons, if it ever gets to that. In fact Gordon Brown has even launched a petition asking Scots to sign, begging for the powers that he promised us, not two weeks ago, were “guaranteed” if we voted to stay in the UK! Most tellingly though, as soon as the vote was over we were already seeing Conservative and Labour politicians disagreeing with each other on every fundamental policy and decision, with their eyes on the battle for the UK elections. This does not suggest to me that these parties have any intention or ability to work together to fulfil their “vow” to Scotland in the harmonious way which we have become accustomed to seeing.
Additionally several local Councils, which are still Labour run, are now trying to chase people for their poll tax debts, debts which are over quarter of a century old, for a tax which was illegally imposed on Scotland a year ahead of the rest of the UK by the then Conservative government. These debts exist not because these people are cheats or frauds, but because they were conscientiously opposing an illegal tax. This debt chasing has only been made possible because of the hugely successful drive to get people to sign up on the electoral roll so they could vote in the independence referendum! In response the SNP Scottish government is bringing in legislation to make sure these debts are written off.
As you can see, at every turn Labour have betrayed the people of Scotland, turned their back on the principles which we in Scotland still hold up as the basis of a fair society, they have repeatedly cooperated with the Conservative Party simply for political ends, with no thought to how it affects their constituents, and they do not deserve a single vote in Scotland, in my view.
The BIG Problem
The big problem with that is that in a UK general election, the first past the post system is used, and that is a system which is designed to ensure minority parties or independent candidates do not get seats at Westminster. The bigger the party, the more likely they will get some seats, and in practice this means the UK government will be formed either by Labour or the Conservatives. Historically Scotland has always voted for Labour, not just because of the reasons above but ultimately, since the Thatcher era, to try and keep the Tories out of power. It often doesn’t work. More than half the years of my lifetime have been spent under a Tory government, despite Scotland rampantly voting Labour in every election. Clearly the system does not work in Scotland’s favour. How could it? Scotland has 59 seats out of 650. For Scotland to hold the balance of power, the rest of the UK would need to be very closely tied, which it usually isn’t. With about 85% of the electorate, the truth is that England usually decides who governs the whole UK. Also the very idea that Scotland could swing the result and impose a Labour government on England if there were a majority of Tory seats returned south of the border is equally unfair.
There’s not much in it this time actually, and i mean that from a policy perspective as well as a voting perspective. Ed Miliband has actually already said he intends to govern like Margaret Thatcher(!), but also that the programme of austerity cuts currently planned by the Tories will go ahead unchanged if Labour are elected. It is possible that Scotland will vote fervently Labour in the forthcoming election in the hope that it might help to vote the Tories out, but this time voting Labour in is just as bad, or more realistically, just the same!
So What’s Best For Scotland Then?
Well here’s what i think, at the end of all that. I feel that given all of the above, a Labour vote is wasted in the UK elections. I think a vote for the SNP is the only vote that counts in the 2015 elections. I know it’s been fashionable for a long time to hate the SNP, but this is largely down to the newspapers, if you think about it. When you read about seperatists this and nationalists that every day, and hear personal slurs on the news about senior party figures, as well as from the good old Labour Party itself, well it sinks in eventually. If you look objectively though you will find that unlike the Labour Party, the SNP have been the only party to have continually done work which has been of benefit to the people of Scotland. The problem with having Scottish versions of UK parties is they really have to look out for the interests of the UK as a whole, or more realistically, for their own interests as a political party. To put it another way Labour does not speak for Scotland, and actually it never has. The SNP have enjoyed a continued growth in popularity by the simple methods of paying attention primarily to the needs of Scotland, and by actually working in the best interests of Scotland’s people, so the people of Scotland have seen fit to support them at Holyrood. Other political parties don’t like it, because it’s not how you play the game, but i think it’s closer to how politics should be done than anything you can see from the Tories, Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party.
Also, importantly, the SNP are in government in the Scottish parliament, with a huge majority, and sending a SNP majority to Westminster will not only send a clear signal to the UK that we do not support Labour or the Conservatives, but it will also protect Scottish interests by showing solidarity across the two parliaments, regardless of whether Labour or the Conservatives win the UK election (which, as we’ve seen above, Scotland can’t really have much say in either way). In important votes, if Scotland has a majority of SNP MPs, and these members vote against the main parties, this will be reported in the media in a way which would never happen if it were simply 40 Labour MPs (who happen to be based in Scotland) voting against the main parties. Scotland has a chance here to stand up and be counted within the UK parliament for once. Isn’t that what No voters wanted? Isn’t it the best that Yes voters can hope for?
A united Scotland is what is needed now, in the wake of the referendum, and i firmly believe, looking at the state of each party now, that a strong SNP result in the UK general election is the only way for Scotland to stand up for its interests, democratically, within the UK at this time.
See also…. “Scottish” Labour – A Clean Sweep?