After dissatisfaction, hope
Neil Findlay MSP, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, and Tommy Kane, both members of the Red Paper Collective, argue for a Labour response to the referendum result.
After the referendum, a picture based on fact, not myth, wishful thinking or conjecture, is emerging. Of course, the most salient fact we knew only a few hours after the polls closed, when in the early hours of Friday 19th September it became clear that Scotland had decisively rejected the proposed prospectus of mongrelised independence offered by the White Paper.
Never has the sovereign will of the Scottish people spoken with such authority. From a hugely impressive turnout of nearly 85%, over 2 million Scots, 55% of turnout, voted ‘No’ to independence against 1.6 million, or 44.7% of Scots, who voted ‘Yes’ to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
There has been much soul searching from people on all sides since. However, amongst all of the energy expressed in the aftermath, the long and short of it is that insufficient numbers of Scots people were persuaded that independence was in their interest, the interest of their family and the wider community.
Despite this resounding result we have witnessed a series of reactions that have sought to lay the “blame” on others (the BBC, businesses, the Labour Party, Asda, trade unions who voted No, add your scapegoat of choice) rather than acknowledge the failure of the Yes campaign to persuade enough people of the merits of their case. Yet the more noise about fixes, rigged polls, brainwashed, stupid, selfish, spineless and cowardly (fellow) Scots or of the scared or selfish elderly the more those who voted No feel vindicated.
So who were those who voted No? Initially, it was said the young voted Yes and the old voted No. But we now know that only one age group, the 25-39 age group , voted by a majority for Yes. Geographically we know that from North to South and East to West the majority was for No, with only four of thirty two local authorities voting Yes. Another strong, but reductionist and simplistic, narrative suggested that the poorest voted Yes and the better off voted No. Yes, these four authorities who voted Yes are amongst the poorest but it is simply wrong to suggest that only the affluent voted No.
When we consider the working population and their average earnings it really does expose this notion as fanciful. Let us remember that out of a working population of just under 2 million, 90% of Scots earn less than £44,509, with 60% of those earning £25,330 or less. This puts paid to the notion that it was “billionaires and bankers” that voted No. Those who voted No were in the main also ordinary working people.
In this debate the usual rules did not apply. On one side we saw two of the richest men in Scotland – McColl and Soutar – voting Yes along with the Socialist Workers Party whilst the Communist Party of Great Britain and UKIP voted No. The reality is that the debate saw political enemies, for often very different reasons, take up a No or Yes position. But, while people voted No for many reasons, there are some central issues that ultimately cost the Yes vote.
On the currency, people rejected the proposal for a currency union, where the central bank of the very country Scotland would have separated from would be given the final say over taxation, spending, regulation and interest rates. This was a strange version of “independence” to propose as it would have seen another country’s chancellor sign off these critical decisions without any political input or scrutiny from Scottish MPs (who would no longer sit in the UK parliament.)
This was a policy that reeked of focus groups rather than political principle. Indeed the chair of the Yes campaign, Dennis Canavan, and partners in the coalition such as the Greens, the SSP and Jim Sillars all rejected this central plank of the Yes offer – but did all they could to keep quiet about it. The electorate also understood that creating a Scottish currency and building our own reserves would have involved significant and long term pain – something many were not prepared to countenance.
Neither did they want the low wage, low tax economics proposed by the SNP. For all their social democratic talk the only redistributive policy proposed in the White Paper was a shift of cash from the poor to the rich in the shape of a 3% cut to corporate tax. The repeated references to Scotland following Scandinavian models of social democracy simply did not stand up to scrutiny.
But of course neither did people want the status quo – the referendum was a vote for change. In the almost 100 meetings, debates and events that I took part in during the campaign I articulated a “Vote No for change” message. This is where there is common ground between many in the Yes and No camps. People have rejected the slavish obedience to the free market, they rejected the low taxed, deregulated economy. Social justice and how to create a fairer more just economy and society became one of the key themes of the campaign. It is our view that a combination of the currency union, EU deficit rules for new states, the need to build credibility with markets and lenders and the economic uncertainty independence would have created would have delivered turbo charged austerity had there been a Yes vote.
Throughout the campaign we heard it said repeatedly, “aye but its no about the SNP.” A wilfully neglectful position that ignores how the only published blueprint for an independent Scotland was the SNP’s White Paper and that it would have been that party who would have been at the heart of independence negotiations and the writing of the constitution. Alex Salmond indeed stated that people were “voting on the White Paper.” So had it been approved, the nationalists with huge momentum going into the 2016 election would have continued to push the politics of nation, not class, and this would have dominated Scottish politics.
One notable feature of the referendum was that those on the pro-independence left appeared to have abandoned their capacity to conduct a critical analysis of the Scottish National Party and its record in government. Strangely the SNP have gained a reputation of being good at government. Well this reputation has rightfully taken a hit in recent times and the referendum result was also, arguably, a judgement on that. Good government is not centralising government.
This Scottish Government has curbed and diminished local government, epitomised by the council tax freeze – a democratic scandal that has contributed to 40,000 job losses and puts the most money into the hands of those who have the most expensive houses. They have centralised the police, cut thousands of civilian support jobs, and we see the routine arming of officers and stop and search at rates higher than the that of the metropolitan police. Plus we have the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act which in the main criminalises working class young men, and there are plans to end corroboration.
Where have the pro-independence left been on these issues?
In our colleges 130,000 places have been cut, disproportionately affecting working class young women, the disabled and adult learners. In the NHS we see the system teetering on the brink with a crisis in social care, a waiting times increase, growing use of the private sector and staff under more pressure than ever. And of course we see no evidence of any progressive policy initiatives to redistribute cash. These issues and more have exposed the supposed progressive credentials of the SNP but the pro-independence left has stayed silent.
If we examine the last 100 or so years it has been the UK Labour and trade union movement that has been the vehicle for progressive change, providing the impetus that has transformed the material circumstances of working people. Independence was a trap that would have divided workers and therefore diminished our ability to challenge the power of capital in an economy the Scottish government wanted to make “the most competitive in Europe.” For “competitive” read low pay, deregulation, zero hours etc. The majority of Scottish people critiqued the prospectus for independence, weighed up the evidence and didn’t like what they saw.
There is now an overwhelming consensus that politics in Scotland has to move on. But how is that going to happen? Whist the referendum did a tremendous job in developing political discourse and interest, the nationalism running through the Yes side also brought with it division, intolerance and an unwillingness to contemplate an alternative viewpoint.
The absurdity of this was seen a week before the referendum when left wing NUM-sponsored Labour MP Dennis Skinner was joined by Davie Hamilton MP (a former miner jailed during the strike) and Alex Bennett (a sacked miner and former NUM chairman at Monktonhall colliery) on a visit to the mining museum at Newtongrange to meet retired members of the NUM. Upon arrival, Dennis and the others were met with cries of “scab” and “Red Tory” by Yes campaigners.
This incident exemplified the ignorance and arrogance displayed by some on the left during the campaign to those who took a No position. Such a display – and there were many other examples – betrayed a lack of understanding of the nuance of the debate and how you could be a committed socialist and vote No. We can only hope that those Yes campaigners who were motivated by social justice return to the politics of class, and work for the removal of the Tories next year and for more progressive, redistributive politics. We must hope too that the recent political sectarianism directed towards Labour is put to one side, with as much effort put in next year to get rid of Cameron and Clegg.
From a Labour perspective the message received and the next steps appear obvious. Over 1.6 million people were prepared to jump over the cliff in the hope there would be a safe landing. That’s quite an indictment on how dissatisfied people are with the status quo. The political parties can be under no illusions that this expression of dissatisfaction was aimed at all of them.
The Labour Party must now do several things. We must always be the party that represents working people. We must have an organisational response, yes, but more importantly a political and policy response that puts tackling tackling poverty and inequality through redistribution at the heart of our manifesto and core beliefs. We must reject market orthodoxy and develop new public ownership models – the railways a glaring and popular example. We must invest in public services, commit to full employment and be the party of education and the NHS. We cannot continue to run away from the question of local and national taxation.
In short, Labour must reclaim the bold and radical traditions that created the NHS, the welfare state, the national minimum wage and the Scottish Parliament. So while of course we must ensure sufficient constitutional change occurs, such change has to have a purpose. Only then will we be able to credibly tell those No voters that a vote for No was also for change, and in so doing regain the trust of some of those who voted Yes.
A shortened version of this article first appeared in the Scottish left review.