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By Jason Michael
Kezia Dugdale, possibly as the last skipper of a sinking ship, likes to hide behind the rise of Scottish nationalism as she clutches for reasons to explain the demise of her party. In fact the truth is that Labour put the rope around its own neck.
In a new era of rampant populism in politics there exists no better example of a party failing so completely to understand its audience than that of Scottish Labour. With Johann Lamont at the helm from December 2011, inheriting – as she did – 37 seats from the May election, the Labour Party in Scotland was already coming apart at the seams. By this time the Scottish National Party had already gained 23 seats on the previous election, gaining over 12 percent on the constituency vote and about 13 on the regional. With Labour entering its period of terminal decline even before Alex Salmond’s January 2012 announcement of his intention to hold an independence referendum two things were becoming clear – the SNP was doing something right and Labour was doing something wrong. The writing was already on the wall.
As can now be seen in the division between Kezia Dugdale and her London boss Jeremy Corbyn, at some point – related no doubt to the so-called “Scottish mafia” in Downing Street during the Blair administration – Labour in Scotland swallowed the Blairite New Labour consensus hook, line, and sinker. In its quest for power the leadership of the Labour Party under Thatcher’s greatest achievement, Tony Blair, rapidly unshackled itself in the mid-to-late 1990s from pretty much all of its socialist appeal to the British working class and embraced a slightly rosé version of Tory neoliberalism.
As a strategy this worked, bringing Labour to government with a landslide victory in the 1997 general election – stripping John Major’s Conservative Party of 145 Westminster seats. Labour had made it. It had at last become attractive to professional and middle class voters, and so could claim an edge over the long winter of Tory domination. All this, however, came at a terrible cost for the traditional constituency of British Labour – the industrial working class and the newly created demolished working class. In its lust for power Labour became New Labour and abandoned them.
It was certainly not the case that Labour in Scotland became the victim of a spontaneous wave of nationalism. This is a fiction, newly invented by a humiliated Scottish Labour, intended to preserve some semblance of bella faccia. Labour was the author of its own decline, and in so doing probably became the principle reason for the early rising support for the National Party. A cursory look at the voting patterns from the middle of the New Labour era in Scotland shows a marked correlation between the fall in support for Labour and a rise in that of the SNP.
Labour’s shift to the right resulted in huge swathes of ordinary working people being left to languish without meaningful representation across the whole of the United Kingdom. Under this Labour regime, to deal with growing working class disaffection, the state became more punitive towards poverty. Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) were introduced to criminalise and so control the young unemployed, greater “flexibility” was introduced into the workplace – enlarging the precariat, and social welfare was recalibrated to be a more effective weapon against those the Labour movement had at first sought defend.
Left without political alternatives in the regions of England, the traditional backbone of Labour support was broken – leading to massive numbers becoming disenchanted with the entire electoral system and voter apathy. In Scotland this was not the case, certainly not after May 1999 when Scotland was again given its own parliament. Unlike the situation south of the border there was an alternative to Blairism in Scotland, and this was felt immediately when the SNP became the first opposition to Scottish Labour in the first Scottish election. By 2007 – almost five years before Salmond’s call for an independence referendum – the SNP were the government party.
Scottish Labour, already on a downward trajectory, backed the No campaign along with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in the 2012-14 referendum – solidifying its allegiance to the Tory establishment neoliberalism it had embraced – and finally cast off the pretence that it was the party of the working class. Scotland’s traditional Labour support flocked to the Yes side, and as a result of the near total amalgamation of Labour and the Tories in Better Together and UKOK the working class in Scotland became the single largest section of the population to vote for independence.
On 19 September 2014 Labour could claim victory, but in reality it was nothing of the sort. It was the victory of an unprecendented Westminster-driven political and media terror campaign, in which Scottish Labour showed itself to be the master’s factor. In the months that followed Jim Murphy – who replaced Lamont – was faced with the full force of Scotland’s anger. The astronomical increase in SNP membership that followed the result was not a protest against the Tories or the Liberal Democrats – from whom nothing better had been expected. It was, so far as the working class is concerned, the result of two things; a powerful reiteration of its determination to liberate itself from the Tory-Labour neoliberalism of Westminster and a counterpunch at what it evidently saw as Labour’s final betrayal of the Scots working class.
In sum then, we can begin to separate the actuality of Labour’s suicidal demise in Scotland from the mythology it has constructed about its defeat on the frontlines against a surge of populist “narrow nationalism.” Labour’s complete failure to stick to its socialist principles across the UK led to a backlash which, in Scotland, pushed voters towards the SNP. Even without an independence referendum it was obvious from 2011 that Labour was dying. Without the referendum this would have been a longer death, but in the crucible of the last referendum it proved incapable returning to the working class and so by the working class it was destroyed.
Jim Murphy gets served his egg breakfast