The Scotland that helped return Blair’s landslide no longer exists

cm-march on holyrood-17 sept 2014

ROAD TO INDEPENDENCE: as memberships of the pro-indy parties rocket upwards, Labour Party membership has stagnated

by John McAllion, ex-Labour MP and MSP, now with the Scottish Socialist Party At the time of writing, the most recent opinion poll in Scotland gave the SNP a 15 point lead over Labour in voting intentions for the 2015 general election. An average of the latest polls predicted that the SNP would gain 36 seats winning a total of 42 or around 70 per cent of all Scotland’s Westminster seats. The same average of polls predicted Labour would lose 28 of its Westminster seats, leaving it with just 13 of 59 Scottish seats. With the latest UK poll showing Labour and the Tories level on 32 per cent each less than six months out from polling day on 7 May 2015, most pundits are now predicting a hung parliament.

The Coalition Government’s failure to tackle a redistribution of seats in England means that such a dead heat in the popular vote would likely leave Labour as the biggest party in terms of seats but still well short of a working majority in the Commons.

If all of these predictions are fulfilled, then an Alex Salmond-led and 42-strong group of nationalist MPs could then either make or break a would-be Miliband-led government.

To make matters worse for Scottish Labour, there is the small matter of SNP, Scottish Greens and SSP memberships all rocketing upwards while their own party membership stagnates. Embarrassed and desperate to attract new members, Scottish Labour even offered a vote in their current leadership elections to anyone over the age of 14 who was prepared to pay the reduced membership fee of £5 and who joined before 1 December.

Having voted down votes for 16 and 17-year-olds when in government, it is a sign of the growing panic in Labour ranks that they are now offering a vote to 14 and 15-year-olds in their own internal elections.

It is against this toxic political backdrop that the party is now engaged in a bitter struggle over its future direction. The main Labour affiliated trade union leaderships have at last broken with the party establishment to recommend support for the only left-wing candidate Neil Findlay.

He has promised to put “clear red water” between Labour and the SNP by moving the party decisively to the left. Despite this unexpected development, the frontrunner and still bookies’ favourite remains Jim Murphy an unashamed right-winger who is promising to rebuild what he believes will be a winning Blairite coalition north of the border.

Whichever way the contest finally breaks, Scottish and UK Labour will still face massive political problems. A Findlay victory would leave the Scottish and UK party leaderships at loggerheads.

As Scottish leader in the run-up to a UK general election, Finlay would be unable to square his own anti-austerity and anti-Trident position with his necessary public support for a UK Labour leadership that is both pro-austerity and pro-Trident.

He would also find himself in the position of having to support Labour’s Westminster candidates, the vast majority of whom voted for his rival Murphy.

A Murphy victory would draw a collective sigh of relief from the party establishment on both sides of the border. He enjoys the support of the bulk of Scottish parliamentarians in Westminster and Holyrood alike. He has recently been publicly endorsed by Lord Kinnock who is known to be close to UK leader Ed Miliband.

Lord McConnell, a leading light in the party’s Scottish establishment, has also warned against any attempt to move the Scottish party to the left, widely seen as code for support for Murphy. Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran has also publicly backed him. Yet what Murphy stands for politically is in essence what has caused the erosion of Labour support in Scotland over the last decade. Neither of these leadership outcomes is likely to make campaigning for Labour easy in Scotland in the run-up to next year’s election.

Either Findlay will lead a party that remains bitterly divided between right and left and in which the key policy levers remain rooted in Westminster beyond the reach of the Scottish leader, or Murphy will lead a party that has moved decisively to the right and away from the centre-left political ground currently occupied so successfully by the SNP.

The latter of these two outcomes remains the more realistic eventuality. In any case, Scottish Labour will have to face a resurgent SNP with a membership and activist base that dwarves anything Labour can put on the ground.

Beyond the SNP, the revitalised SSP and Scottish Greens will further eat into Labour’s diminishing electoral base in Scotland. The referendum campaign also saw the emergence across Scotland of a cross party and non-party national movement for independence well beyond the reach of any unionist party.

Women for Independence, the Radical Independence Campaign, Common Weal, the Jimmy Reid Foundation and many other grassroots movements will continue to exert enormous political influence long after the result on 18 September has become history.

The Scotland that helped to deliver the New Labour landslide in 1997 no longer exists. It appears that among the last to understand that reality is the Labour Party itself.

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