What happened to Scottish Labour?

Elsa Maishman 10 May 2015

If the results of 7 May are anything to go by, the Scottish National Party has succeeded in being almost all things to almost all people. The current explanatory story doing the rounds in the tabloids is that Scotland has witnessed a great surge in nationalism. The SNP has consistently stood on a platform of reinvigorated Scottish national identity which plays upon the narrative of an excluded sub-population which has been consistently overlooked by Westminster. It’s pushed for a ‘21st-century patriotism’, where one can be a Punjabi Glaswegian or a Polish plumber living in Aberdeen and be wholly welcome in the brave new world of an optimistic, European Scotland.

Whilst this story is an elegant one which plays to much of the SNP’s rhetoric, especially at its most forceful and virulent, it does not tell the whole story. Instead, the SNP ‘surge' wasn’t on the whole a positive vote. It was not the outcome of a shared clear vision of a united, independent nation state. Rather, the SNP’s success on Thursday represents unity around protest against Westminster, and especially against the Labour Party. The Tories were written off north of the border decades ago, but the Labour Party has only just this year seen a loss of support in Scotland such that its seat-count is the same as that of Thatcher’s anti-regionalist Nasty Party.

There are at least three reasons to explain the downfall of Labour in Scotland and the huge gains by the SNP. Labour’s current leadership includes no Scottish major players. It’s made up largely of careerists for whom Scotland is at best a box-ticking issue of peripheral concern. This contrasts with the New Labour administration, which comprised a Scottish-educated Prime Minister and then the Caledonian Gordon Brown, alongside a party spin-doctor who spoke Gaelic and never ceased to remind the electorate that his father was a social climber from Ayrshire and his mother a solid working-class Glaswegian matriarch.

The Labour Party is also the party which led the ‘no’ vote against independence. Let’s be clear: 55.3% of Scots voted against independence in 2014. But that leaves a very significant minority who expressed a preference for nothing short of full independence from the United Kingdom. The Labour Party’s Alistair Darling – again, another New Labourite, another Scot, another senior cabinet minister in the 2000s – steered the ‘Better Together’ campaign. Darling couldn’t help but look out of touch against Alex Salmond’s repeated insistence that this was a referendum to be fought by Scottish grassroots campaigning and away from the clutches of Westminster parties who wanted to retain a United Kingdom for sentimental or, worse still, crudely financial reasons.

Most impressively, the SNP has manufactured consensus, or near-consensus (what’s three seats, anyway?), by being almost all things to almost all people. The deification of the NHS and promise of £3 billion to be spent on mental health centres appeases the bleeding-heart social democrats that Labour managed to mostly keep hold of under Blair and Brown. The promise to end austerity politics makes the SNP look radical, whilst in its place the Labour Party’s alternative is very little real financial reform. And lastly, there’s the narrative of nationalist fervour blind to class and race, very much with one eye on Rabbie Burns and the other on Hardeep Singh Kohli. This makes for an attractive combination, especially when the other major UK parties have generally fled from policies that stray too far from the centre, and especially those that make explicit nods to “divisive” identity categories.

There is some truth in the claim that many Scottish voters want independence. There’s a nationalism of a sort on the rise in Scotland, but it is vastly overexaggerated. The SNP vote was far more often a vote of protest against Westminster elitism, or more generally still, in opposition to the fetishisation of “the centre ground” at the expense of substantive, imaginative political vision. The deep irony is that the SNP doesn’t actually offer a unified package of imaginative policies. However, its ability to stand out as being just slightly more imaginative, and slightly more Scottish, than Miliband’s Labour has sufficed to generate the flood that even Sturgeon in her most resolute couldn’t have foreseen.