‘Culturally’ Labour voters will decide Scottish referendum
Labour Scotland is not the party it once was, as it struggles to regain credibility
Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour Party: for now she has managed to quieten dissent in her own rants. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
Former Labour minister Jim Murphy stood on a couple of red bottle-crates on a street in Argyll to campaign for a No vote in next month’s Scottish independence referendum. “We are trying to make a patriotic argument for Scotland to remain as part of the United Kingdom, ” he said. “This is the most important decision that we will make in our lives.”
The Labour group had first set up at the bandstand, then moved in search of people to a spot in the shade near a bookshop, before finally walking the length of George Street in Dunoon. By the end, however, the number of mildly curious pedestrians who had interrupted their shopping on a sunny afternoon to listen was small, tiny, in fact.
“Has anyone got any questions? No hecklers? Really? This is the softest audience that I have had,” the MP, who is on a “100 Towns in 100 Days” tour to drum up opposition, said.
In popular myth, Scotland was always Labour. In fact, the Conservatives won a majority of Scotland’s House of Commons seats in the 1955 general election. It still held a third of the vote in 1979. Indeed, Labour has never won a majority of the vote there, although first-past-the-post voting rules guaranteed local Soviet-like majorities on local authorities for decades.
Labour’s power base in Scotland weakened with the waning of the unions and traditional industries, along with the fading, if not the disappearance, of the sectarianism that led Catholics to see Labour as their protector.
Meanwhile, local elections there have been decided twice since 2007 by the single transferable vote, consigning “first past the post” to history.
“Voter choice more than doubled, uncontested seats became a thing of the past and the rotten boroughs that once plagued Scotland were undone,” says election expert John Curtice
On September 18th, it is the Labour vote, or those who are “culturally” Labour, who will decide the referendum, particularly in Glasgow and elsewhere in the west of Scotland.
In March, Labour delegates gathered in Perth, barely managing to half-fill the city’s convention centre that had been thronged by the Scottish National Party just a few months before.
Talk of the SNP quickly produced raw emotions from delegates: in their eyes, “the Nats”, once the subject of ridicule, are upstarts who have stolen a proud inheritance. Next to “the Nats” in terms of dislike stood Labour for Independence, a grouping of Labour members, led by Alan Grogan, which campaigns for a Yes vote.
During a fractious fringe meeting, Labour delegates rounded on Grogan, questioning the reality of his links with the party as much, if not more than they questioned his arguments.
In all, Perth revealed an organisation – one that now has fewer than 6,000 members, if some unofficial figures are correct – that has yet to rebuild from the ashes of the May 2011 election. Beginning that campaign, Labour was confident. Then it began to panic, leading Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray to relaunch his stumbling bid for power half way through. Gray’s confidence was shot by then. Canvassing in Glasgow’s Central Station, he was confronted by anti-austerity protesters who chased him into a fast-food shop. The TV pictures broadcast later made him a figure of ridicule. In the election, Labour lost seven seats in the Holyrood parliament – one that it had created in 1999.