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Scottish Labour, increasingly cash-strapped, have withdrawn resources from some seats they hold to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland.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.

Scotland’s Labour party dominance and UK vote tumult

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Scotland’s Labour party leader Jim Murphy [Reuters]

Glasgow, Scotland – There is an old adage that in Glasgow, Labour votes are weighed not counted, such is the party’s historical dominance of Scotland’s largest city.

Labour has controlled Glasgow city council for all but five of the last 63 years. All seven Glasgow MPs were elected with a red rosette pinned to their lapel.

But there are signs that Labour’s supremacy in Glasgow – and Scotland – could be coming to an end, with huge repercussions for the whole of the United Kingdom.

In the 2010 general elections, Labour won 42 percent of the vote in Scotland, and up to 68 percent in some Glasgow constituencies.

But recent polls put the Scottish National Party (SNP) on course to win a crushing victory in May’s UK vote, ending Labour’s monopoly on power north of the border and jeopardising Labour leader Ed Miliband’s prospects of becoming prime minister.

Glasgow Central is the kind of seat Labour once held almost without trying. A diverse constituency taking in the luxury flats of the Merchant City and the tower blocks of the Gorbals, Glasgow Central has been united by one factor – Labour.

Crumbling support

In the last general election, Labour’s Anas Sarwar won more than half the vote.

People in Glasgow have voted Labour for generations and finally they are starting to wake up to the fact that the Labour Party are not the party they thought they were.

Alison Thewliss, SNP candidate

In Glasgow Central, the SNP polled barely one-third of the Labour vote in 2010. A recent poll, however, puts the nationalists 10 points ahead in the seat.

“People in Glasgow have voted Labour for generations, and finally they are starting to wake up to the fact that the Labour Party are not the party they thought they were,” said the SNP candidate, local councillor Alison Thewliss.

The most obvious reason for this dramatic turnaround is September’s independence referendum.

Although Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom, every constituency in Glasgow voted to leave.

Labour was at the forefront of the pro-union “Better Together” campaign, but some 190,000 Labour supporters backed independence.

Most are now expected to vote Scottish nationalist, turning a raft of once-red Labour heartlands to SNP canary yellow.

“People say Labour ganged up with the Tories during the referendum. That has really sickened them,” said Thewliss.

Defeat for Labour in seats such as Glasgow Central would make the task of winning control in Westminster much more difficult.

But on a cold weekday afternoon, there is little enthusiasm for the traditional party.

“I’m voting SNP. Labour seems to have the same policies as the Tories,” said a middle-aged Asian man, who requested anonymity, in Govanhill, home to one of Scotland’s largest immigrant communities and once a bedrock of Labour support.

Even those who voted “no” to independence are uncertain about Labour.

“I always voted Labour – but not now,” said Anne, who returned home to Glasgow six years ago after several decades in Canada. She said she likes SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, but “cringes” when she watches Ed Miliband on television.

Interests of Scotland

Across Scotland, Labour faces similar problems.

The SNP enjoy leads of up to 20 points in the polls. Recently elected Scottish leader Jim Murphy has not brought the electoral bounce many expected.

Ed Miliband has refused to rule out a deal with the SNP after the general election, much to the chagrin of many of Labour’s 40 Scottish MPs who face being washed away in a nationalist tsunami on May 7.

Writer Gerry Hassan said the stark decline of Labour in Scotland has deeper roots than just their alliance with the Conservatives in last year’s referendum campaign.

In an upmarket café on the edge of Pollokshields East, one of Anas Sarwar’s strongest areas in the constituency, the author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland explained: “This is a long-term thing. Getting into bed with the Tories has hurt Labour, but it’s not the biggest thing.

“They haven’t answered the question of what Scottish Labour is for, beyond its own self-preservation.”

Labour has failed to appreciate that most Scots actually like the SNP, said Hassan.

“Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP.

“They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour party doesn’t understand that.”

Glasgow and Labour have long been synonymous in the Scottish political psyche, but Hassan said the party’s grip on the city has often been more imaginary than real.

“I don’t think there ever was a golden age for Scottish Labour. The Labour vote has died and moved,” said Hassan, citing the halving of Glasgow’s population since World War II, and dwindling election turnouts.

Labour’s Anas Sarwar succeeded his father Mohammad, Britain’s first Muslim MP, in 2005. The 32-year-old dentistry graduate said he is “confident, not complacent” of holding his seat in two month’s time.

Sarwar’s pitch is an unambiguous one – vote Labour to keep the Conservatives out. The Tories, who draw most of their support in the south of England, are unpopular in Scotland, and practically toxic in Glasgow.

Just one of Glasgow’s 79 councillors is Conservative.

“I know a Tory government is bad for Glasgow. I know what Glasgow needs is a Labour government, not a Tory one, and I want to make sure by accident that we don’t end up a Tory government,” said Sarwar.

But Cass MacGregor, Scottish Greens candidate in Glasgow Central, said voters are “fed up” being told to back Labour to keep the Tories out.

“People have to vote for what they believe in. Trying to vote based on the people you don’t want to win is what has got us into this mess in the first place,” said MacGregor.

The Greens are unlikely to win but could attract plenty of support, particularly from students in a constituency that includes a large student body.

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Nationalist supporters demonstrate outside a Scottish Labour party conference [Getty Images]

Alex Mosson is testament to how much politics in Glasgow has changed. The former Lord Provost spent 23 years as a Labour councillor in the city, 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,” said Mosson, who left the Labour party and voted for independence last year.

“They want someone who speaks for their views. There has been a sea-change in people’s thinking.

“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.”

Whether this shift will be enough to deliver a sweeping SNP victory in May remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain – the days when scales were needed to tally Labour votes in Glasgow are coming to an end.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

UK elections and the shift from ‘tribal’ politics

feafea349263405dad36c9ac9efa79df_18The historic multi-party debates in the UK have rekindled political diversity [Reuters]

Glasgow, UK – Some seven million viewers across Britain tuned into the first, and only, televised multi-party debate ahead of May’s general election. What they saw on April 2 was a stark illustration of how much UK politics has changed in recent years.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron fielded questions from the live studio audience, and parried blows from opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband.

But the real winners were the five smaller parties also on the stage.

Polls declared Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon the victor of the night, followed by the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage.

British politics has long been a two-horse race. But the field for May’s general election is increasingly open, potentially spelling a permanent end to centuries of single-party majority rule at Westminster.

In 1951, 97 percent of the UK electorate voted Labour or Conservative. At the last general election, in 2010, that figure was just two in three, leading to a historic coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

This time around, the prospects of one party winning overall control look even slimmer.

We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern.

John Curtice, Strathclyde University professor

Labour and Conservatives are tied at 34 percent each, according to aBBC poll of polls.

The Labour party would need a lead of around five points to win a majority, said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University.

Due to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the Tories, who draw most of their support in the richer south, would require a seven-point margin of victory to emerge with the 326 seats needed to command a majority in the House of Commons.

The reality, said Curtice, is there is unlikely to be a clear winner on May 7. “We have never seen an election like this.”

“We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern. You can go all the way back to 1832 and you won’t beat it,” Curtice said.

Horse-trading and deal-brokering

A hung parliament would necessitate something on which British politics has traditionally not been strong: horse-trading and deal-brokering.

The coalition government has long been the norm on the continent, but in the UK it is still a relative novelty. A predicted collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote – and theFixed Term Parliaments Act introduced in 2011 to make dissolving Westminster almost impossible – could make the business of forming a new government even more tricky.

This all means that the party that emerges in the strongest position may have to reach an arrangement – either a formal coalition or a looser deal – with one or more of the UK’s insurgent parties.

The most likely kingmaker is the SNP, which is campaigning on an anti-austerity message. Despite defeat in last September’s independence referendum, the nationalists have seen their support surge.

Membership has quadrupled to more than 100,000. Polls suggest that the SNP may win dozens of seats from Labour, making it far more difficult for Miliband to secure a majority.

Last year’s independence referendum fundamentally changed Scottish politics, said political commentator Gerry Hassan.

“Something has profoundly changed about how the Scottish public see and do politics and their role in the union. Passivity, acceptance and belief in traditional elites – Labour included – now seem a thing of the past.”

UK parties have struggled to understand the SNP surge.

Last weekend a leaked memo purportedly revealing that nationalist leader Sturgeon had told a French diplomat that she would prefer another Tory administration, appeared in the right-wing Daily Telegraph.

But the smear appears to have backfired, with both sides flatly denying the claims. Questions have been raised about how the civil service document was released. An inquiry will now be held.

 


While the SNP will take votes from Labour in Scotland, the Conservatives in particular face a threat from the UKIP. The party, which campaigns on a hard-right platform based on clamping down on immigration and leaving the European Union, is particularly popular with socially conservative, white working class voters.

Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in a bid to stem the UKIP tide. UKIP’s best chances of success rest with its colourful leader Farage in South Thanet.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Greens believe this could be their breakthrough year. Having polled barely one percent in the 2010 general elections, the left-wing environmentalists are hoping to add to their solitary seat in Brighton Pavilion. 

However, the winner takes all nature of the British electoral system means both UKIP and the Greens are struggling to win more than a handful of seats.

All the same

Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society, says that the “lottery” nature of the May’s election shows that the time has come to replace first-past-the-post with a more proportional voting system.

Regardless of the prospects of electoral reform, the duopoly in British politics could be coming to an end as voters leave Labour and Conservatives for small, identity-based parties.

Across the UK, traditional class structures, and the political affiliations that went with them, are breaking down, says Professor Curtice.

“Fewer people now feel a strong sense of identification with a political party. There are fewer people who say ‘I am Labour, I am Tory or whatever.’ We are less tribal about our politics.”

At the same time, voters see little to choose between Miliband and Cameron, or between their respective parties.

“The Conservatives and Labour in recent elections have tended to look more similar to each other in the eyes of the electorate,” says Curtice.

Whoever wins in May, the likelihood is that when the UK general election next swings around in 2020 television producers will need to invest in larger studios. The panel of party leaders could be even bigger.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

On the Campaign Trail

On Saturday, with only days to go before the independence referendum, thousands of Yes supporters gathered on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, waving Saltires and singing ‘Flower of Scotland’. At around the same time, more than ten thousand Orangemen staged a pro-union march in Edinburgh. The standards at the head of the flute bands hailed from Portadown and Coatbridge, London and Liverpool, Leeds and Stockport.

Elements of the Yes campaign – including the egg-throwing and name-calling – are disquieting. The Panglossian vision of a post-independent Scotland has been accused of silencing dissenting voices. But on the other side of the fence, Better Together has run one of the most vacuous, cynical campaigns in British political history. Beyond the tawdry threats to erect border posts at Coldstream or the ludicrous suggestion that the pandas in Edinburgh zoo would be deported if Scotland votes Yes tomorrow, the No campaign has failed to make a case for the union that wouldn’t fit in the ledger of a Fife accountant. The ‘Let’s Stay Together’ rally in Trafalgar Square on Monday was treated with contempt by everyone I met in Glasgow. ‘If they love us so much why don’t they come up here?’

On Sunday, I visited a stall festooned with blue Yes balloons on a street corner a mile from my flat. Passing cars beeped their horns. The organiser was a local SNP councillor, helped by a middle-aged woman who worked in a bio-tech firm. She said she’d never been involved in a political campaign before but had spent months knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and standing in the cold talking to people. Thousands of political neophytes with little or no party allegiances have mobilised in the largest grassroots campaign the country has ever seen. Activists at my local train station have been handing out flyers, balloons and stickers. I recently spent an afternoon in Easterhouse, one of Glasgow’s most deprived housing schemes, with an eloquent 17-year-old socialist. He has spent months canvassing and organising voter registration drives in an area where fewer than 35 per cent voted in the 2011 Holyrood election.

On Monday, the former home secretary John Reid and the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont held a press conference with shipyard workers and union leaders across the Clyde from BAE Systems’ Govan yard. On a dreich morning, Lamont and Reid descended from ‘the indyref express’ to be met by banks of photographers and party hacks in matching blue Better Together rainwear trying to pass as concerned citizens. Reid did most of the talking to the press. Afterwards I grabbed a word with a ‘continuous improvement coach’ at BAE. He was voting No, but not because he thought he would lose his job: ‘I’m saying no to division. I don’t like the concept of nationalism.’

But what are the seemingly unending stream of ‘emotional pleas’ that David Cameron et al have inflicted on Scots in recent weeks if not nationalism? On Monday night, Tom Nairn made a rare public appearance, in a haar-enveloped Edinburgh. ‘The moment is right for Scotland to have, in a relatively short time, the chance to contribute to nationality politics and not nationalism in the old, traditional sense,’ he said. There was lots of passion from the floor, but a feeling, too, that most people there were preparing themselves for disappointment.

The choice tomorrow didn’t have to be binary, but the third option – more powers for Holyrood without full independence – was left off the ballot paper. Then on Tuesday, just two days before the vote, Scotland woke to news that ‘devo max’ was back on if they voted No. The specifics of the additional powers seem both vague and unworkable, but the medium was more important than the message. The pledge, which could effectively usher in federalism across the UK, was delivered not after months of discussion, or even in person by the prime minister. Instead, ‘the vow’ was splashed across the Daily Record. If Westminster thinks that the front page of a tabloid is the best way to talk to Scotland in 2014 then it really has learned nothing from the referendum.

This piece originally appeared in the London Review of Books.

Brian Cowen ducks out as Ireland prepares for crisis election

The English writer JB Priestley once compared opinion polls to “children in a garden, digging things up all the time to see how they’re growing.”

While the latest polls in Scotland have unearthed surprisingly good news for the incumbent Alex Salmond, across the Irish Sea it was opposition leader Enda Kenny who woke yesterday morning to discover that his plot has been far more productive than many previously thought.

A Millward Brown Lansdowne poll in yesterday’s Irish Independent put support for Mr Kenny’s Fine Gael on 38 per cent, a share of the vote which, if repeated at the polls on 25 February, would see his party win an unprecedented 78 seats in the Dail, putting it within a whisker of the 83 TDs required for an overall majority.

The potential import of these polling figures has not been lost on many in the Republic of Ireland. In its 77-year history Fine Gael has never ruled without a coalition partner; indeed the party has been out for power for the past 13 years, and hit its electoral nadir as recently as 2002, when it won just 31 seats.

Mr Kenny, who lacks the populism of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and is a less than impressive public speaker, has also seen his popularity steadily increase during the two weeks of the election campaign.

Nevertheless, Fine Gael party apparatchiks will be wary of placing too much faith in opinion polls: in the run-up to the last general election, in 2007, the party was neck-and-neck with Mr Ahern’s Fianna Fail before falling away badly at the ballot box to finish with 51 seats. Then Fianna Fail formed a government with the assistance of the Green Party and a handful of independents.

This time around, however, the response biases that have tended to slightly under-represent Fianna Fail in Irish polls are unlikely to be present. Having overseen – and even exacerbated – a catastrophic economic collapse in which hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and almost as many have been forced to emigrate, Ireland’s most successful political party looks certain to bear the brunt of the electorate’s opprobrium.

The replacement of the deeply unpopular Brain Cowen with former foreign minister Micheál Martin as leader last month has done little to detoxify the Fianna Fail brand. According to yesterday’s poll, the party of De Valera is set to retain just 13 of the 77 seats it won in 2007.

The outlook for the Labour Party is, arguably, not much better. At 23 per cent of the vote and a projected 42 seats this could be Labour’s best ever performance but it will feel like a defeat for Eamon Gilmore’s party.
Having led in opinion polls for the first time in its history less than six months ago, Labour faces the prospect of either missing out on ministerial office completely or being a very junior partner to a resurgent Fine Gael.

Sinn Fein has also seen its hopes of holding the balance of power on both sides of the Irish border dwindle. The party’s support has fallen badly to around 10 per cent, which, while doubling their representation to 12, would leave Gerry Adams and Co propping up the opposition benches.

The republicans might expect to pick up floating voters over the next week and a half – Gerry Adams was arguably the standout performer in a rather lackadaisical and uninspiring televised leaders’ debate this week, which took place after the Irish Independent poll was conducted – but nothing less than a miracle between now and election day will save the Greens from annihilation. Every poll since the new year predicts that the party will lose all its six seats.

Whether Fine Gael manage to win an overall majority, a notoriously difficult ask under Ireland’s proportional representation system, or is forced to form a coalition, most likely with Labour, the medium-term outlook for Ireland is decidedly gloomy.

According to recent reports in the Wall Street Journal, the €70 billon IMF bailout will only cover about half of Ireland’s financing needs to 2013. Meanwhile, both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have pledged to recapitalise the country’s ailing banks, while joblessness is growing, with over 200,000 households in negative equity and the numbers in mortgage arrears spiralling.

The latest opinion poll has dug up plenty of cheer for Fine Gael but if Mr Kenny does become Taoiseach he is unlikely to find everything so rosy in the government garden.

This article appeared in the Scotsman 17 February