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Labour’s SNP Lessons

SNP demoThe cataclysm came and Scottish Labour was obliterated. There are calls for Jim Murphy to go, calls that should be heeded for the good of the party. Yet what exactly happened in Scotland? We’ve visited some of the reasons, but there are wider points Labour needs to take on board from the SNP’s success that are of direct relevance to England and Wales as well.

I often hear from comrades in Scotland that we down in England do not understand what’s happening. Yours truly has been accused of that myself. But you don’t need to strap yourself to a Souter-owned Stagecoach and barrel up to Glasgow to find this stuff out: there’s ample material to flick through.

Among the things we “don’t get” is the toxic swamp Labour floundered into as it buddied up with the Tories to monster the prospect of Scottish independence. There’s how the Labour establishment in Scotland (and London) treated Scottish constituencies as fiefdoms good for voting fodder and precious little else. Dull technocracy while in government, a party that gifted its opposition the mantle of progressive politics, and the election of a leader summating everything left-leaning voters in Scotland were against. You might say what’s not to get?

There’s more to this. The SNP rode the anti-austerity wave without being an anti-austerity party proper. They combine an aspiration for a different, better Scotland. The impulse behind a great deal of its support is progressive as opposed to narrowly separatist, and have successfully mixed that with anti-Westminster politics which, in England and Wales, has mainly realised itself in regressive forms.

However, as everyone plotting a Labour leadership campaign is spraying around ‘aspiration’ like a mid-90s champagne supernova, the SNP have ably tapped into that constituency. The SNP has a positive politics agenda that can make nice middle class people feel, erm, nice. But its practical applications of Labourist statecraft are cunningly strategic.

The removal of the EMA for kids in college has helped fund the scrapping of tuition fees, ensuring that students from all backgrounds don’t leave university with millstones of debt handing off their necks. This primarily benefits more privileged segments of the population, but is one aspirational policy would-be heirs-to-Blair down here are stubbornly allergic to.

The SNP have also kept free prescriptions – introduced by Labour – going, and the less palatable aspects of their record have been hidden under a bushel. Like falling NHS spending on nursing, midwives, and hospital beds. Like cuts to part-time college places. Like moves to create a national identity database.

The key lesson here is, for the moment, the SNP have successfully triangulated the three pillars progressive politics need to support social democracy into government. They have successfully hegemonised social justice, aspiration, and the vision thing. In England and Wales, Labour had a shaky hand on the first, was a touch light on the second, and as for the third … arguably failure here cost my party the general election. So it can be done. It’s not about facing multiple directions at once but rather building a coalition around a story and policy agenda constituted by each. Tony Blair did it, albeit somewhat problematically from my point of view. And the SNP have done it on a slightly different basis. There’s no reason why we can’t.

What goes up must come down, however. The mass movement unleashed by the Scottish referendum has developed its own campaign outfits and institutions. It has a certain autonomy from the SNP, the two cannot fully be mapped onto one another. But ultimately, simply because it was there as the most convenient vehicle to articulate this movement politically, the party of Scottish independence became the beast it is now. It concentrates a huge amount of momentum, and with this comes a number of potential problems. So far, Nicola Sturgeon has played her cards extremely well. That the SNP are now facing off against an awful, crisis-prone Tory government, their existence as a powerful outsider can and will firm up the coherence of the movement. But ultimately, the contradictions will eventually bite.

The cuts in government, its friendly relations with the Murdochs, the Souters, and the Trumps, the desire to slash corporation tax, the very fact that what was a pretty middle of the road bourgeois party of national independence has been swamped is a future mess in the making. What happens when some of its 56 MPs start going AWOL? When the party apparatus moves against people it designates as undesirable? When their opposition to the Tories isn’t fully consistent? And how about the big question itself? There are plenty drawn to the SNP because of its current social democratic orientation and notindependence, which is why Sturgeon has been very careful to rule out another referendum – except in the special circumstances of the UK voting to leave the EU. Others are far less pragmatic and are bent on independence. Quite how the two strands – social democracy and nationalism – can coexist indefinitely is hard to tell. Something will give in time.

None of this, however, is of immediate concern to the SNP. These are movements that are barely perceptible. Sturgeon is adroit enough to hold her coalition together – far more so than Dave, but it will come unstuck eventually. And how that happens will determine not just the fate of Scottish politics, but the direction it takes in the south too. The job of Labour is to study, to learn, and understand that if it ever hopes to come back in Scotland it needs to avoid the crass mistakes it piled up year after year, decade after decade, grasp the nature of the SNP and its mass support, and have the politics and nous to make the most of its inevitable difficulties.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image credit: BBC


  1. David Pavett says:

    I in no way want to defend Scottish Labour which looked moribund to me long before the general election. Appointing Jim Murphy seemed to indicate some kind of death wish.

    All the same we need to have some precision in the way we discuss the electoral wipe out of Labour. Jon says “The cataclysm came and Scottish Labour was obliterated”. Well, not exactly. Labour in Scotland got 24.3% of the vote. In England it got 30.4%. The electoral wipe out is a result of FPTP which is still defended by many members of the Labour Party. Lets not confuse Westminster politics with politics in general. In fact wasn’t that one of the problems of Scottish Labour?

    Standing back a little one might surely say that 24.3% is a pretty good basis for a fightback. The issue is people and policies. Scottish Labour seems to be lacking both and that is a real problem. Scottish Labour has not been obliterated. It has fallen below the FPTP threshold. More importantly it is like Labour in general it has no clear vision of what it stands for and few policies with any real radical edge.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I mistakenly replied as if the author was “Jon” instead of Phil B-C. Sorry about that (I was dashing to get to a meeting and didn’t pay enough attention).

  2. Chris says:

    We were right and Scottish voters were wrong. They should have voted Labour.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Scottish Labour had earned its defeat so it had every right to get it.

      1. Robert says:

        Murphy has just resigned he’s now history, he will now move on to the BBC with his mate Purnell or maybe the NHS

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