In the 2015 general election Labour lost 40 of the 41 seats it held in Scotland. In this May’s Holyrood elections it lost 14 of its 38 seats. Four months later, Labour remains in decline.
An opinion poll conducted in early September puts Labour at seven points lower than in May. This decline has been a long-term process. The SNP first won a majority in Holyrood in 2007. But the current collapse in support for Labour dates from the 2014 referendum. The SNP lied throughout the referendum campaign. It lied about a currency union. It lied about a second oil boom. It lied about the state of the Scottish economy. And it lied about the prospects of an independent Scotland joining the EU.
The SNP was defeated in 2014. But the prolonged campaign which preceded the referendum shifted Scottish politics away from social and economic issues and onto the terrain of flag-waving nationalist identity politics. And no-one waves a flag better than the SNP.
Labour helped the SNP’s electoral fortunes by joining up with the Tories and Lib-Dems (themselves in alliance with the Tories at Westminster) in the “Better Together” campaign for a “No” vote. The SNP seized the opportunity to label Scottish Labour as “Red Tories”.
What really angered the SNP was not Labour’s alliance with the Tories. The 2007 SNP minority government had repeatedly relied on Tory votes. The 2011 SNP government was also happy to vote with the Tories against Labour. What really angered the SNP was that they lost.
Nationalism is unpleasant at the best of times. But nationalism defeated and its endless accusations of betrayal, treachery and sell-outs is positively vile. Without doubt, its current activist base have felt at home in the politics of the Weimar Republic.
In late 2014 Scottish Labour sealed its fate in the coming general election by electing Jim Murphy as leader. Murphy represented precisely the Blairite politics guaranteed to drive even more Labour voters into the arms of the SNP. Ed Miliband provided another free gift for the SNP by the way in which he ruled out a Labour-SNP coalition government. Although he was right, the way in which he posed the issue allowed the SNP to portray him as willing to see the Tories re-elected.
The SNP’s own election campaign was as dishonest as their referendum campaign. They demanded that a future Labour government implement the very policies which, in 2014, they had promised would not be implemented in an independent Scotland. And they masqueraded as being anti-austerity while implementing it in Holyrood.
They also waved a lot of Saltires, promising that the SNP would “stand up for Scotland” and be a “stronger voice for Scotland” at Westminster. In the aftermath of the referendum campaign, that kind of vacuous nationalist rhetoric was enough to bring in the votes. The legacy of the 2014 referendum also sealed Labour’s fate in the 2016 Holyrood elections. Labour’s election manifesto was well to the left of that of the SNP. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader should have laid to rest the SNP mythology of “Red Tories”. And the SNP’s record in power over the preceding nine years had been one of manifest failure.
But Scottish politics was, and is, still in the grip of competing nationalisms and national identities. This played into the SNP’s hands. It returned to power as a minority government, although its share of the constituency votes actually increased marginally. This realignment of voting patterns on the basis of national identity also boosted the Tories. Seen as the more consistent and more reliable opponents of independence, they beat Labour for second place in the elections.
The launch of the anti-Corbyn coup by the Parliamentary Labour Party delivered a further blow to Scottish Labour, just as it did to Labour nationally. Ian Murray MP backed the coup by resigning as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. And Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has called for a vote for Owen Smith. This is despite the fact that a clear majority of Scottish CLPs voted to nominate Corbyn. Corbyn’s opponents make great play of his failure to reverse the decline in the party’s fortunes in Scotland (which they themselves helped bring about).
What they do not mention is that polling of the Scottish electorate has found more support for Corbyn as party leader (27%) than for Smith (25%), and that among SNP voters (who need to be won back to Labour) 42% prefer Corbyn as leader, as against 20% who prefer Smith. The SNP itself continues its degeneration into a conservative, intolerant, populist, flag-waving, centralised cult. As one journalist recently put it: “There is no party in Britain quite as fake as the SNP.”
It is the only party in Britain which bans its parliamentarians from publicly criticising party policy and fellow parliamentarians. Its keyboard activists ally with the party’s MPs to stifle journalists and cyberspace criticism of the SNP. Spending on Scottish education has slumped under the SNP. Teacher numbers have been cut. Class sizes have increased. Literacy standards are falling. Class-based differences in levels of educational achievement are increasing. Cuts in Further Education funding have cost 130,000 student places and 3,600 teaching posts. Scottish youth from the poorest backgrounds are now less likely to go to university than their counterparts in England. The SNP has cut health spending in real terms, at a cost of 4,500 jobs in the Scottish NHS.
Holyrood now spends a lower proportion of its budget on health than the Tories. But spending on private healthcare is increasing. SNP cuts in the funding of local authorities are more than double the cut in the Westminster grant to Scotland (24%, as against 10%). While council services and 39,000 jobs have been axed, the SNP’s council tax freeze has “saved” owners of the highest-value properties £300 millions. This is not the record of a “progressive” party committed to fighting austerity and social inequality. It is the record of a party which plays with anti-Tory rhetoric in Westminster while implementing austerity in Scotland, It is the record of a party whose sole goal in life is independence, which it now increasingly presents as an end in itself: “Independence transcends Brexit, oil and the economy.”
Scottish Labour will not revive as an effective political force by trying to forge a suicidal “progressive alliance” with a non-progressive narrow-nationalist party committed to its destruction. Instead, it needs to grasp the opportunity opened up by Corbyn’s victory in 2015, by reasserting the centrality of class politics and mobilising around a radical socialist alternative to SNP nationalism.