How Labour Lost Ground to the Scottish National Party

“Which way will you be voting in May?” I ask a table laden with lunchtime half pints and nips in the members’ bar at Loanhead Miners Welfare and Social Club in Midlothian, half a dozen miles or so from Edinburgh. “We’re all Labour,” says one man with a broad smile.

“Are we fuck!” roars his drinking companion across the table. The sound of televised horse racing fills the room, breaking the momentary silence.

“This has been a Labour seat for years. That’s the way it will stay,” says Henry. His shoulders are noticeably hunched from almost three decades down the pits.

Across the table, Bill, a Scottish National Party supporter, shakes his head. “No way, no way.”

Midlothian has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. Thirty years ago, Loanhead Miners club was at the coalface of the ultimately futile battle against Margaret Thatcher to keep Scotland’s mining industry alive. Today, it is quieter, more sedate. There is a flawlessly manicured bowling lawn. Posters advertise Thai Chi and country music. In the main function hall the weekly bingo session has just finished.

This unremarkable room has an important place in the modern political history of Scotland. It was here, on September 8 of last year, that Gordon Brown made a promise for greater devolution if Scots rejected independence. What became “the Vow” was credited by many with swinging the referendum in the union’s favor.

But just seven months later, Midlothian is an SNP target seat. Local Labour MP David Hamilton, who spent months on remand 1980s miners’ strike, is standing down. Polls suggest it is a straight two-way tussle between Labour and the Scottish Nationalists next month.

Such unlikely electoral clashes are being repeated across Scotland as tens of thousands of one-time Labour supporters flock to the SNP. Labour has long been the dominant force in Scottish politics. The nationalists currently have just six MPs. Labour has 40.

Labour’s popularity has plummeted after joining forces with the Conservatives—a toxic brand in Scotland—to campaign against independence. This earned them the moniker “Red Tories.” Recent polls suggest the SNP could win 50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Today, a poll suggested they could win 57 seats, leaving Labour with just one MP.

Scottish Labour, increasingly cash-strapped, have withdrawn resources from some seats they hold to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. A sitting Scottish Labour MP recently described the state of the party as “now set to defcon fucked.”

Among the former Labour voters now swinging behind the SNP is Keith Aitchison. As a young man growing up in Glasgow, Aitchison was a staunch Labour supporter. At general election time he even campaigned for the party. Now retired and living in the Highland city of Inverness, Aitchison will be voting Scottish Nationalist on May 7.

“I came to the conclusion that within the Westminster political system you can’t change things because everything is pointed towards the need for votes in the south of England,” says Aitchison in Inverness’s “Yes” shop—a city center store created before last September’s independence referendum.

Despite that defeat, the shop is still open, selling badges and key rings, and even SNP dog neckerchiefs and high-vis jackets. “The only party around that has a proper attitude towards creating social justice seems to be the SNP,” he says.

Alex Mosson spent 23 years as a Labour councillor in Glasgow but no longer backs the party he joined as a Clyde shipyard worker in 1978.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the Labour party,” says Mosson, a former Lord Provost of Glasgow who supported independence. “In the months leading up to the referendum there was a mood among people. There was a feeling that something could be done. That will not change now.”

Even Labour supporters who voted no in September seem uncertain about the party. “I always voted Labour but not now,” says Anne, who returned to Glasgow six years ago after several decades in Canada. She likes SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon but “cringes” when she watches Ed Miliband on television.

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, appointed late last year, has been unable to stem the bleeding. Polls suggest that Sturgeon is far more popular with voters than the former Blairite Scotland secretary.

The SNP has aimed its election pitch squarely at Labour supporters. Nicola Sturgeon has promised an end to austerity and a greater rise in the minimum wage than Labour. At the SNP manifesto launch in Edinburgh last Monday, the Scottish First Minister Sturgeon pledged that nationalist MPs would “lock out” the Conservatives from government and “help Labour be bolder.” That message chimes with many Scottish voters.

“The SNP is a soft-left, social-democratic party on the mainstream European model and they have a constitutionally radical position. The combination of these two things is an attractive proposition,” says the New Statesman’s Jamie Maxwell.

“Labour in Scotland has one election slogan and one election platform: ‘Vote SNP, Get Tories.’ I think they’ve miscalculated this.”

Labour’s sudden decline in Scotland looks stark. The party won 42 percent of the vote here in the last general election, in 2010. The SNP finished third on barely a fifth.

But Labour’s supremacy in the devolved Scottish parliament has been on the wane for over the last decade and a half. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of the 73 Scottish Parliament constituency seats. In 2011, the party won just 11, with only “top up” list seats saving it from annihilation.

Meanwhile, many of Labour’s Scottish “big beasts,” including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are leaving the Westminster political scene. Their departures have further weakened the party’s appeal to its one-time supporters as it looks like a sad tribute act.

The weakening of Labour in Scotland might not be all bad news for the party, says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. Labour has long been over reliant on its Scottish contingent, he says. “Some Labour people think that if the party was more English it would help it.”

Jim Sillars, a former Labour MP who left the party in the mid 1970s and eventually joined the SNP, says that defeat for Labour in Scotland next month could hasten independence. “If we can remove Labour from central Scotland this will be transformational and could lead to independence in a much shorter time frame than people realize.”

That’s something Labour will be keen to avoid, but the more immediate problem for Scottish Labour isn’t the death of the union, so much as staying alive as a political force.

This piece originally appeared on Vice.