How Labour lost Scotland
Andrew McFadyen writes for Al Jazeera Magazine on the decline and fall of Scottish Labour. We’re very grateful for permission to reproduce his article here.
Glasgow has a reputation for passionate football, hard-drinking and fiery left-wing politics. The legend of Red Clydeside is part of the city’s identity.
In 1919, the British government, fearful of revolution, deployed tanks in the streets to quell unrest. Three years later, the strike leaders were seen off to Westminster as Labour MPs by a crowd of up to 120,000 people singing the Red Flag and the Internationale.
It has taken nearly a century for Labour’s hold on Glasgow politics to be broken. But the revolutionaries eventually turned into the establishment they had once threatened.
On May 7th, the voters gave Labour a Glaswegian death stare and stonily executed the ultimate sentence. All seven Glasgow constituencies went to the Scottish National Party. Speaking at the count in the Emirates Arena, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon described her party’s triumph as “a historic shift in Scottish political priorities”.
It is tempting to interpret this result as part of a clamour for Scottish independence, but the real story is how the SNP won the fight for the soul of the Scottish left.
A Night of Political Drama
260 journalists were accredited for the election count at Glasgow’s Emirate Arena, some from as far away as Japan. Al Jazeera’s Phil Lavelle was doing live spots from the balcony overlooking the tables where the ballot papers were being counted by hand.
We were witnesses to a night of extraordinary political drama.
Before the ballot boxes were brought from the polling stations, Labour activists were optimistic that they might hold on in Glasgow North East, where their candidate, Willie Bain, took 68% of the vote in 2010. It was the safest Labour seat in the whole of Scotland.
One local councillor who had spent the day canvassing voters said, “Willie’s going to be fine”. It soon became clear that he wasn’t.
By the time Nicola Sturgeon arrived, shortly after two o’clock in the morning, senior party figures were confidently predicting that the SNP were winning across the city. She was met at the entrance to the arena by a throng of cheering supporters.
Sturgeon hugged her candidates, shook hands with activists and posed for selfies.
Someone produced a Scottish flag and a Labour councillor, who is married to one of the victorious SNP candidates, looked down from the balcony with tears in her eyes.
When the results were declared, the SNP won Glasgow North East with a majority of 9,222. They had achieved a record-breaking swing of 39 per cent, it was literally off the scale, so big that it broke the BBC’s swingometer.
The greatest swing ever seen before at a UK General Election, 21 per cent, was in Merthyr Tydfil in 1970.
A few miles further along the Clyde, in Paisley, Douglas Alexander, the man who would have been Foreign Secretary in a new Labour Government, was beaten by a 20-year-old student. She is the youngest MP in the House of Commons since the nineteenth century.
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy also lost his seat. The teetotal politician (or ex-politician) was pictured drowning his sorrows with a can of In Bru. SNP activists bunched in front of the big screen chanted “cheerio, cheerio” when his speech was broadcast.
As the scale of the defeat became clear, senior Labour figures looked dazed, struggling to take in the result or offer an explanation for what had happened to them. When asked how the party would recover, one defeated candidate said simply, “I don’t know”.
The Decline of ‘Labour Scotland’
There are long-term structural reasons for Labour’s decline in Scotland. The institutional pillars that supported the party’s political hegemony have been rusting away for decades.
Glasgow is no longer the city of shipyards and engineering workshops that it used to be. The giant Finnieston Crane that towers 53 metres over the River Clyde, and once lifted steam locomotives onto ships, is only kept as a symbolic steel reminder of the past.
In 1981, 55 per cent of Scottish workers belonged to trade unions. But the destruction of Scotland’s heavy industries during the Thatcher years saw membership crumble. By 2013, less than a third of the workforce was unionised.
Successive closures have undermined both the identity of ‘Labour Scotland’ and the party’s ability to organise in communities that have lost their major employers.
One of the most powerful examples is in New Cumnock, a former pit village just down the road from the home of Labour’s founder, Keir Hardie. There are less than a handful of elderly members remaining and the local party is going the same way as the coal industry.
Labour has also lost its grip on local government. During the 1980s and 90s, Scotland’s municipal map was predominantly red. As recently as 2003, the party won 71 out of 79 seats on Glasgow City Council.
However, the introduction of proportional representation for local elections, in 2007, led to a dramatic change in the composition of Scottish councils, largely at Labour’s expense.
In the first election that followed, the number of Labour councillors dropped from 509 to 348. In contrast, the SNP doubled their representation from 181 to 363, despite increasing their vote by just 3.8 per cent.
Those extra Nationalist councillors helped the SNP to put down roots in communities that had traditionally supported Labour.
Gerry Hassan, whose books include The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, described Scottish Labour as a national political establishment that had failed to adapt.
“Scottish Labour’s crisis is one with both home grown elements and part of a much bigger global story,” he told Al Jazeera, “There is the wider and profound global issue of the crisis and hollowing out of the social democratic tradition”.
The rise of the SNP can be seen as part of the same challenge to the old European left as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain.
Scottish Labour MPs built their own funeral pyre when they decided to campaign alongside the Conservatives for a No vote in last September’s referendum on Scottish independence. This was the most important political event in most people’s lifetimes.
A few days before the vote, I met a group of trainee hairdressers at Reid Kerr College, in Easterhouse, a sprawling housing scheme in Glasgow’s east end.
These were young women in their late teens and early twenties, standing outside the library having a cigarette between classes. They weren’t talking about hairstyles, they were talking about the referendum.
“You can’t believe what you see on the telly, it’s all lies”, one told her friend. She was trying to persuade her to vote ‘Yes’.
Easterhouse is one of the most deprived communities in Europe. At 69.7 years, male life expectancy is lower than in Albania, the poorest country on the continent.
One-in-three adults are on out of work benefits and over 40 per cent of children grow up in poverty.
Rosemary Dickson, the Chief Executive of FARE, a charity that works with young people, told me that it was different from any other campaign she had experienced.
“It doesn’t matter where you go, the shopping centre’s behind the counter or the person serving you in the cafe or the person you meet in the street everybody is engaged in this conversation.”
On polling day, people came out to vote in unprecedented numbers to decide on Scotland’s future. In some districts, turnout topped 90 per cent.
The national result showed a slim majority wanted Scotland to stay in the UK, but every constituency in Glasgow voted Yes. Support for independence was highest among working class voters who had traditionally looked to Labour to speak for them.
Those 1.6 million votes to breakaway from Westminster were a deafening call for change in the way that politics is done in Scotland.
The Biggest Moment of the Campaign
When Jim Murphy was elected as Scottish Labour leader, in December, he used his acceptance speech to appeal to Labour voters who supported independence in the referendum.
“Know this: I share far more with many of you who voted Yes than I do with some of the political leaders who campaigned for No,” he said.
The idea seemed to be to love-bomb Yes voters and bring them home. Barely a month before polling day, Labour switched tactics.
The key event was the BBC’s televised election debate from Aberdeen, on April 9th. One Labour spinner described it as the “biggest moment of the campaign so far”.
He was right, but not for the reasons he expected.
The cause of Labour’s apparent glee was an admission from Nicola Sturgeon that she would introduce full fiscal autonomy for Scotland within a year if Westminster gave her the opportunity.
What this means is that the Scottish Government would get control of nearly all taxes instead of relying on a block grant from Westminster for most of its revenue.
The problem for the SNP is that the plunging price of oil has left a black hole in the figures. The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence based its calculations for the finances of an independent Scotland on an oil price of $110 per barrel.
The current price of Brent Crude is not much more than half that at $59 per barrel.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the immediate shortfall in Scotland’s finances would be £7.6 billion. Labour wanted to know where that money would come from. Schools? Or hospitals, perhaps?
In the days that followed the party dusted down Better Together’s referendum campaign handbook and bludgeoned the SNP with an onslaught of negative stories about cuts.
This was a strategy that turned probable defeat into catastrophe.
Instead of persuading voters to leave the independence debate to one side, Labour reinforced the referendum as the key dividing line in the election.
One senior Scottish Labour councillor said, “The Labour brand in Scotland has been tarnished. They think we have betrayed them by siding with the Tories in the referendum. It is almost like revenge and the best way to take revenge is to take all our seats.”
Workers Make Glasgow
May Day is the most important date in Glasgow’s socialist calendar.
This year’s parade took place the Sunday before polling day. Despite the pouring rain, trade union activists and campaigners had begun to gather in George Square shortly before eleven o’clock.
This is the political heart of the city. During the referendum, thousands came here to rally in support of independence. Scottish nationalists now call it ‘Freedom Square’, a name that confuses foreign journalists because it doesn’t appear on any maps.
The red flag was flying over the City Chambers in solidarity with the workers, but it was clear from the people I spoke with that old allegiances were fraying.
Willie Gardner is a cornet player in the Kinneil brass band.
The band was founded in 1858 by miners at the Kinneil pit in West Lothian. The colliery closed twenty years ago, but the band survives with financial support from the trade union Unison.
Most of the musicians are wearing purple plastic capes to protect themselves from the rain.
“I think it is important that the workers display a bit of unity on a beautiful day like this,” Willie says with a smile.
He comments that playing at events like this makes them feel proud and appreciated and Glasgow doesn’t let them down. As they march through the city centre one onlooker shouts, “Come on the f***** workers.”
Willie was among the majority of working class Scots who voted Yes in last year’s referendum. In the past he had voted Labour, but now he was leaning towards the SNP.
“I think the policies the SNP are putting forward, have got a lot more appeal. They are a bit more progressive. They are looking to support the local man.”
18-year-old Duncan Fleming felt the same way.
The Strathclyde University student was with a group of activists from the Radical Independence Campaign. They all had red t-shirts with the slogan “Workers make Glasgow”. It is a variation of the city’s official corporate branding “People make Glasgow”.
He said, “There has been a change in Scottish politics and the working class are making their voice heard instead of mindlessly voting Labour.”
Fleming lives in the constituency of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy.
“He’s one of the worst offenders, he claims to be a socialist and working class, but if you look at his voting history and what he actually stands for he doesn’t represent the Labour movement at all. So, I’m voting SNP to get him out.”
Since last September, the SNP trade union group has grown from 1,000 members to 15,000.
The massive increase is an indication of how many on the left had come to see the Nationalists as the party that represents change. In their eyes, Labour had become the establishment that it was created to challenge.
Of course, not everyone shared this view.
Frank Toner is a Labour councillor from West Lothian. He said, “The UK Labour Party and the Scottish Labour Party have a workplace manifesto. It talks about breaking down exploitative contracts and zero hours contracts, it talks about raising the minimum wage.”
These are policies that should resonate with the marchers shouting “zero hours, no way, make the greedy bosses pay”. But Labour couldn’t get a hearing. They were fighting a mood.
David Moxham, Assistant General Secretary of the Scottish Trade Union Congress, says people lost faith in the party.
“I think it has happened because for a long time Labour took its electorate in Scotland for granted. I still think that the Iraq War caused enormous damage amongst the activist base.”
He added, “The failure of trust is not something that can be recovered overnight. You can’t push an avalanche back up a hill without very significant effort.”
It’s Borgen not Braveheart
While Jim Murphy struggled to breathe life into Labour’s campaign, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon was fast becoming the most popular politician in Britain.
The international image of Scottish Nationalism is defined by Mel Gibson screaming ‘Freedom’ as he is disemboweled by the English. In fact, the SNP is more Borgen than Braveheart.
The Danish political drama was a huge hit with Scotland’s political classes. Nationalists want people to believe that Edinburgh could be a little more like Copenhagen, embracing Scandinavian-style social democracy over London’s casino capitalism.
Sturgeon is Scotland’s Birgitte Nyborg, the series’ stylish star.
Her confident and assured television performances against David Cameron and Ed Miliband showed her as a powerful advocate against austerity.
The polling organisation YouGov identified her as the outright winner of the first debate, with 28 per cent of people across the whole of the UK saying she had given the best performance.
The Daily Mail branded her the “most dangerous woman in Britain”.
In Scotland, she was reviving old-fashioned street politics, attracting huge crowds of enthusiastic supporters at events across the country.
The Friday before polling, over 320 people packed into the function hall at Kabana, a popular Indian restaurant on Glasgow’s south side, for a rally organised by Scots Asians for Independence.
Nighat Hanif, who was one of the first to arrive, said she admired Sturgeon as a strong female role model, “I was saying to my husband she is another iron lady just like Margaret Thatcher.”
She added, “Margaret Thatcher is number one, so Nicola is number two.”
This was meant as a compliment, but the SNP leader might have some reservations about being compared to one of the Conservative’s greatest heroines. Her pitch was firmly to the left.
The SNP leader was introduced by 22-year-old Glasgow University law student, Anum Qaiser, whose red tartan sari was a perfect metaphor for the fusion of cultures represented in the room.
Sturgeon told her audience, “Labour has lost its roots and lost its values. The SNP will vote to get the Tories out and keep the Tories out, but do you know what, once we’ve done that, if the numbers allow us to do it, we will also use our influence to make sure the Tories are replaced with something better.”
She got her biggest cheer of the night when she said that people would be using their votes to say loudly and clearly that they did not want to spend £100 billion on weapons of mass destruction.
Her comments show how Scotland’s political culture has diverged from England, where few mainstream politicians have the courage to publicly oppose Trident.
Rosa Zambonini, a single mother who runs her own business, is a former Labour member who voted Yes in the referendum and recently joined the SNP.
She said, “I think the SNP are almost a modern version of what Labour started out being.”
“Yes there is Trident and all the big things, but for me you have to end austerity. When kids are not well fed, well educated and properly clothed you have to stop.”
Time for a Shake-Up
Since the referendum, SNP membership has surged to over 110,000.
The campaign headquarters in Glasgow’s Paisley Road West had a by-election feel. The shop window was decorated with yellow SNP bunting and there weren’t enough seats for all the volunteers.
52-year-old Keith Gibb is one of the veterans. When he joined the party in 1994 they had just three out of Scotland’s 72 MPs.
“It is just beyond my wildest expectations”, he says “We used to have meetings where four people turned up and we had to cancel because we were inquorate.”
He was among a group of seven activists enjoying a cup of tea before they went out canvassing. Five of them were new members and four admitted with embarrassed smiles that they had actually voted Labour at the last election in 2010.
The table was a microcosm of the whole election campaign. The referendum engaged people, got them to think about politics and then change their behaviour.
Alex Wilson, a welfare appeals officer with tattooed arms and a bushy red beard, explained why he switched his allegiance:
“I joined immediately afterwards because I was disgusted by the behaviour of Labour and the way they joined forces with the Conservative Party. Basically, I felt that they sold Scotland out on a very strong thing that I believed in, so I couldn’t possibly vote for Labour again after that.”
The team took a short five minute drive to canvass voters in Southpark Village, a new estate of semi-detached brick houses with well-kept gardens.
The tulips are just coming into bloom, but SNP candidate Chris Stephens is wearing a black cagoule to protect himself from the rain. It is embroidered with the logo of the SNP trade union group, a yellow swirl and a hand grasping a spanner.
“Will you vote for me?” he asks three young lads who pass on the street. “Too right man”, comes the enthusiastic reply.
The canvassers are using what’s called the Kilmarnock card system. Every voter has a personalised card printed with Stephens’ pledges to oppose austerity, vote against the renewal of Trident and hold regular welfare and advice surgeries in the constituency.
“I have never seen a Westminster election like this where the SNP support is so high,” he said.
“In the referendum we see a clear identification that when it comes to issues of inequality and addressing inequality, the people during the referendum campaign thought that we were arguing for that change rather than the Labour Party or the other establishment parties.”
At one door, an elderly lady who said she voted No in the referendum explained that she was now putting her faith in the SNP.
“I do not think Labour did anything for us. I think they are getting more like the Tories. It is time for a shake-up.”
She paused and then added, “It killed me to do it. I come from a right socialist background.”
For many people, the decision to abandon Labour felt like a betrayal of their parents and grandparents.
One former supporter, who had been a member of the party for over 20 years, told me how he sat in his car and cried after voting for the SNP.
This was about class as much as it was about nationhood.
A century after the government sent tanks into George Square to put down a revolution, Glasgow is still the most left-wing city in Britain, but now it is the SNP, not Labour, who will carry that message to Westminster.
At least for as long as Scotland remains part of the UK.