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Labour living on borrowed time

Following Yes majorities in party heartlands and as the knives come out for Darling and Alexander after a disastrous campaign, Chris Bambery examines a Scottish Labour under threat of annihilation.

“Scottish Labour is fucked,” says a shadow cabinet minister, who traveled north to campaign in the referendum. “They’ve proved they can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.” So reports the political commentator Mehdi Hasan.

I could not put it any better. Hasan adds:

“Some senior Labour figures aren’t happy with the style or substance of the pro-union effort. ‘The truth of the matter is that we couldn’t have designed a worse fucking campaign,’ a disgruntled member of the shadow cabinet tells me. ‘It was shocking.’ “

Elsewhere one “high-profile Labour politician” said: “I have never been so grateful for the Tories. They got their supporters out in middle-class areas and saved the Union, while our people were switching to Yes.”

The knives are out in particular for Douglas Alexander, drafted in to run Better Together’s campaign, and Alistair Darling, who fronted it up, for frittering away a 20 percent lead and running a disastrous campaign.

It’s true that Gordon Brown managed to staunch the flow of Labour voters from No to Yes, by campaigning in the final fortnight on a Labour ticket, rather than under the Better Together banner. Being quoted to the effect that Better Together was ‘the problem’, he sought instead to dredge up words like “solidarity” and “socialism” from the distant memory of his youth. But the idea that he is now the kingmaker is way overstretched. He relies on Ed Miliband and David Cameron to deliver the promise he made of a rapid introduction of “Devo-Max,” but neither will want Brown to take the credit for move, while both have difficulties in delivering it.

Cameron in particular sprung a trap on the hapless Miliband with his instant demand on the morning of the referendum outcome for “English votes for English laws” at Westminster. The Labour leadership failed to see this was the natural response to proposals to increase the powers of the Scottish parliament, had not prepared any coherent response and took fright.

Labour can win at Westminster on the basis of English votes as it has done in the past, but Miliband is struggling to look like a winner at next year’s UK general election, while the idea that Scottish MPs could be left with a vote on not much other than foreign policy and defence frightens him.

Some of these hard truths may slowly be hitting home at the Labour conference in Manchester, but no-one seems to be able to confront just how bad the results of the referendum were for Scottish Labour. The Yes vote centred on the party’s traditional bastions on Clydeside and in Dundee. In Labour leader Johann Lamont’s own seat of Glasgow Pollok, the Yes vote was 53.9 per cent. The evidence suggests that it is going to be difficult for Labour to rebuild in these areas.

Who Voted Yes?

Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, points out in Monday’s City AM that:

“Support for Yes came much more from the young than from the old, from men than from women, and from deprived areas than from affluent areas. And while past SNP supporters were naturally in favour, the bulk of Labour and Lib Dem voters were against, as were almost all Tories. A big part of support for independence came from those who hadn’t voted before at all.”

He’s broadly correct but underplays the significance of those Labour voters who opted for Yes. According to Lord Ashcroft’s poll it was 39 percent (Scottish Labour predicted 25 percent) but even that’s probably an underestimate, based as it was on people recalling how they voted in the 2010 Westminster general election.

But what was crucial to the success of the Yes vote in these areas was that it gave a voice to the discontent and disillusionment across swathes of working class Scotland.

Dundee Radical Independence Campaign reports the Yes vote in their target areas: Charleston 70% Yes, Happyhillock 75%, Dryburgh 70%, Kirkton 72%, Fintry 72%, Menzieshill 60%; pointing out “it is clear that communities left behind by Westminster voted Yes”. We await the ward by ward figures for elsewhere but I would wager it’s the same story across the country.

The referendum could have been won if RIC had been stronger and could have doubled or trebled the number of wards it targeted with its mass canvasses. Simply increasing the 75 percent turn out in Glasgow would have boosted the Yes vote.

In key working class areas which came close to voting Yes a RIC presence could have tipped the balance: in Inverclyde 50 percent voted Yes, North Ayrshire 49 percent, Fakirk, South Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire 47 percent,  Clackmannanshire 46 percent, West Lothian and South Lanarkshire 45 percent.

The SNP will try to capture this Yes vote. One reason for Alex Salmond standing down was that he wanted to pass the leadership onto a new generation. His deputy Nicola Sturgeon fits the bill, and having a woman as First Minister represents a major step forward, but the SNP failed to win in its core rural areas and will not find it easy to build on the estates and the former mining and steel towns of the central belt. The Greens had an admirable campaign but the lowest percentage Yes vote was in Kelvin, their strongest area in the city, and, as was shown in the European elections earlier this year, they struggle to win support in these working class areas.

The radical wing of the pro-independence campaign has the potential to get back into these communities, to fill a space created by the car crash of the old Scottish Socialist Party nearly a decade ago. We need to think how we move on now and how any serious electoral challenge must reflect the nature of the Yes vote. For instance the Yes vote may have been lower among women, but women were to the fore in the campaign and that must be recognised. It must give voice and profile to the young, the working class and to the Muslim community, where the Yes vote seems to have won out.

None of this will be achieved easily. But it’s necessary. Meanwhile spare a thought for the big losers gathering in their self-denial in Manchester. Mehdi Hasdan quotes one Labour ‘strategist’ saying that the party is “living on borrowed time. We’re losing working-class supporters all the time; in the north to the Scottish nationalists and in the south to Ukip.”

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