‘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

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.

Under Holyrood’s rules, single-party rule was supposed to have been an near-impossibility – if not for Labour then certainly for its main despised SNP rivals. Three years on, Labour in Scotland is now led by Johann Lamont, who fails to match Salmond in the personality stakes even if she has managed, for now, to quieten dissent in her own ranks.

Scottish Labour however has struggled to regain credibility. Salmond won a majority on the back of a competently run minority administration from 2007. Some of Labour’s problems are caused by the very existence of the union, since its most ambitious have always seen glory in Westminster rather than Edinburgh.

In the 1990s, Donald Dewar came back to become Scotland’s first First Minister before an early death claimed him, but since then no other Scottish-born heavyweight has followed. Equally, Scottish Labour under Lamont and Labour in London divide on strategy, with Lamont believing that more devolution must be offered to satisfy the evident demand of Scots for it.

The tribal nature of Scottish politics complicates life for Labour, since the pro-union Better Together campaign, brings it into reluctant alliance with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

For Labour leader Ed Miliband, Scotland’s 41 Labour MPs are crucial to his hopes of winning power in the House of Commons in the May 2015 general election. Again, there is a popular myth that Labour in London has always needed Scottish MPs. It has not. Tony Blair would have had majorities without them, although they bolstered his lead.

Next year is different, however. The vote jointly won by Labour and the Conservatives across Britain is fracturing in the face of gains by smaller parties, particularly Ukip.

In March, Labour proposed that the Scottish government should be able to raise 40 per cent of its budget, including the power to raise the top rate of income tax. Housing benefit rules would be decided by Edinburgh, not London – which would see the end of the Conservatives-Liberal Democrats’ bedroom tax, which penalises council tenants for having too big a house.

Some other minor welfare decisions would fall to Edinburgh, but control over pensions and bigger benefits would stay in Westminster. Equally, Holyrood would not determine corporation tax – a key SNP ambition. Lamont had wanted to go further, but she was overruled by Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls, both of whom are fearful of the messages such devolution would send to the rest of the UK.

If Scotland decides to stay in the union, then the right of Scottish MPs to vote on legislation that affects only England, and to a lesser extent, Wales, will inevitably by questioned further. Known as “the West Lothian question”, it increasingly rankles with some opinion in England. More devolution after a No vote will make that problem visible to those who never noticed it before.

For now, Labour must head off a Yes result. “We are better together and weaker apart. Vote to stay in the UK. Stand up for what you know is best,” Murphy told his Argyll audience, few as they were.