Stephen McCarthy writes from Inverness:
The immediate demise of Scottish Labour is predicted on all sides. Not only have the polls been showing a total eclipse of Labour by the Scottish Nationalists but the margin of gain has been increasing as the election gets nearer. The polls predict at least the following outcome. This is a prediction from the middle of March. Numbers in brackets are current seats.
Poll Prediction for May 7th 2015
|Lib Dems||3 (11)|
You can have your pick of predictions based on polls. This is a conservative estimate but it has the advantage of a constituency-by-constituency breakdown for the nerds. The most recent and SNP enthusiastic ones give the SNP 56 and Labour 1 or no seats
http://scotgoespop.blogspot.co.uk/ is an SNP-aligned but very reliable site for all things opinion poll-related in Scotland.
The sense of watching a slow motion train wreck is so overwhelming that we are not paying attention to the longer run of Scottish electoral change.
Up to the 1980s Scotland looked electorally very like the rest of the Britain. A strong Labour Party in the Central Belt, a heavy urbanised and industrialised strip. And like much of industrialised Britain a strong “working class” Tory vote too. In the non-conformist fringe, the Lib Dems retained a presence. This Lib Dem vote is historically interesting. It is the descendant of the radical Liberal vote of the nineteenth century. In urban areas the Labour Party captured this vote and the “transmission belts” of that capture were the trade unions, to misquote Lenin. In areas of weak or non-existent unions the vote stayed with the Liberals and their successors. The Scots Nats representation was about as irrelevant as the Lib Dems.
Westminster Election results 1974 – 2010
The first big change was with the Tory vote. The Poll Tax, guinea-pigged in Scotland, the destruction of British Steel, the closure of the pits after the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s, these and other like policies finished the Tories in Scotland. The collapse of this vote started in the period 1983 to 1987. The really significant thing is that after twenty years there has been absolutely no recovery. There is a much told joke that Tory MPs are rarer than pandas in Scotland. There are two pandas in Edinburgh Zoo but only one Tory MP, in Dumfries Clydesdale and Tweeddale.
When the Labour Party came back to government after the 1997 election they immediately introduced the Devolution Act (1999). The political thinking seems to have been that the Devolution Settlement would take the wind out of the nationalist sails: that the intense anger in Scotland at the destruction visited on them by Thatcher and/or by London, would melt away with a dinky parliament in Holyrood. This has not happened. There have been four Holyrood elections since the Devolution Act and the relevant results are as follows.
Scottish Parliament Results 1999 – 2011
(The Scottish electoral system is a mixture of Constituency MSPs, elected by first past the post and top-up seats decided by the outcome of six regional list votes. It is very proportional, while retaining the direct single MSP link in each constituency.)
The Nationalist rise has been steady. Their number of seats now is twice what it was in the first devolution election in 1999. Their electoral space has been carved from the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem bases. The new SNP voters are not bagpipe-skirling, kilt-dressed Highlanders but normal Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem voters.
The SNP went into minority government in 2007 and the electorate’s opinion of that is seen in the 2011 results. The Nats send their brightest and best to Holyrood, not so the other parties, whose first focus remains Westminster. Donald Dewar led the Labour Party in their first Scottish government. The Devolution Act was seen as the crowning achievement of this Labour politician’s life. But since then their first ministers and their candidates for that job have been non-entities, Henry MacLeish, Jack McConnell, Iain Grey, Johann Lamont ‑ and now Jim Murphy. He’s cut from a different cloth because now the penny has dropped with the Labour Party.
For the first time in 2011 the SNP challenged the Labour Party in its heartlands, the Central Belt, and won. The SNP also in 2011 took out the Lib Dems in their strongholds, the Islands, the west and northeast coasts and the Borders. The Central Belt seats could go back to Labour if Labour ever recovers but it’s hard to see the Lib Dems as a major player again. Since 2011 the SNP has had a majority administration in Scotland. Their performance in government is a vital factor in people trusting them with their Westminster vote. While a large number of Scots were prepared to vote SNP in Holyrood elections they continued to vote Labour in UK, Westminster, elections. That looks like it’s about to change.
Labour is the most deeply embedded of the UK parties in Scotland. But in truth UK Labour is very unlike Scottish Labour. Blair’s reforms were never popular in Scotland and have no real base in Scottish Labour. Party members grumble that they don’t get the government they vote for when the Conservatives are in power and they don’t get the government they vote for when Labour is in power either. Scottish Labour and indeed Scotland is considerably further left than England. They and the country are decidedly anti Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent based near Glasgow and now up for renewal. They and the country are more pro EU, more given to looking for state solutions than market ones, less paranoid about immigrants and “welfare cheats”.
The SNP espouses these issues too. In addition they have implemented a raft of issues that Labour has been obliged to be lukewarm about for fear of upsetting Home Counties Conservatives.
Free prescription charge, free care for the old, free university tuition, a freeze on council tax (local authority taxes), an end to road tolling, a more strategic attitude to oil revenues, an end to public private partnership funding for infrastructure projects and so on. Scottish Labour’s dilemma is that the political focus of the electorate in Scotland is firmly on Holyrood and they, Labour; have to keep looking over their shoulder at English Conservatives. They are denied a full-blooded policy for home consumption that would lose their colleagues votes in England. English Labour is left needing the seats that come from Scotland but will not take Scottish politics seriously and also cannot for fear of the effect on Home Counties voters.
Jim Murphy, the most recent Scottish Labour leader, has been attempting to cut this knot but his hands are tied. He announced, in mid-April, that there would be no further “austerity cuts” in Scotland under a Labour government. Immediately Ed Balls disowned this, saying that Jim Murphy would have no say in constructing the UK budget. Murphy has also suggested a “mansion tax” that would apply mostly in London and to spend the money on nurses for Scotland. Owners of “mansions” won’t vote Labour anyway but the whole effect is very “pork barrel” and hasn’t run very well in Scotland.
Although considered a “big beast” of the Labour Party Murphy is unsuited in many ways to lead Scottish Labour. He is pro-Trident and has been an enthusiastic NHS reformer, both policies normally the kiss of death for a Scottish politician. (The Scottish angle on NHS privatisation is interesting and complicated. There has been no privatisation in Scotland. But privatisation in England consequentially reduces the money available through the “Barnett Formula” for NHS in Scotland. Labour blames the Nats for the squeeze on funding. The Nats blame Labour for continuing the reforms and in Murphy’s case even voting for the Tory ones.) He has elected to fight his Westminster seat in this election, which means Scottish Labour will continue to be run from London. Holyrood elections are due next year and he says he will transfer to Holyrood then. This isn’t exactly the best election platform to endear him to the voters of East Renfrewshire and he could well lose his Westminster seat on May 7th. He has two things going for him, he’s Scottish and he is not a non-entity.
The Tories have been savaging Labour for the support they will need from the SNP to maintain a minority administration. This ignorant attack ignores not only the current and future position of the Tories, dependent on the Lib Dems now and either Ukip and/or the DUP in the next parliament, but also that Gladstone and Asquith and more recently Callaghan and John Major have all been propped up by purely nationalist parties, although in all cases so far the nationalist parties from Ireland. The Tories’ attack on Labour that they are endangerirng the union by depending on the “National Socialists” of the SNP has put English electoral advantage before the very safety of the union they so wish to preserve. The suggestion is that properly elected Scottish MPs, if they are nationalists, can have no role to play in the government of the UK. This attack also nicely shows up Labour’s dilemma. Miliband has been driven by Tory pressure to renounce any future support from the Nats. In Scotland this is read as Miliband would let the Tories back rather than talk to the Nats.
A landslide by the SNP on May 7th looks inevitable. It will have constitutional impacts that are hard to define now. But it surely will make Labour sort out its central problem. Even if Scotland does not become independent in the near to mid-future, five to ten years, Scottish Labour needs to be much more distant from its English counterpart. It needs freedom of manoeuvre in its own political arena. English Labour needs that too.
If the Labour Party and Scottish Labour do not become detached or semi-detached then it’s hard to see how they can avoid a period of decline while the English electorate gets tired of the Tories. The most likely outcome of the election, and one which Labour wishes to avoid would be a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP. They fear they could not resist the drift to independence and would be blamed for losing Scotland. And that indeed may happen. But in terms of day-to-day politics such a government would be popular in Scotland, could be stable and would be very congenial to many English Labour voters too.