Before last year’s independence referendum, there was a broad consensus among unionists. A defeat for the Yes campaign would rob nationalism of its momentum. With the SNP humbled, Scottish politics could return to a more stable dynamic: Labour dominant at Westminster and—at the very least—competitive at Holyrood.
Jim Murphy’s election as Scottish Labour leader in December was meant to be the first sign of normalcy reasserting itself. In contrast to Johann Lamont—his underwhelming (and overwhelmed) predecessor—the East Renfrewshire MP was a “substantial” politician. As a member of the shadow cabinet and former minister in both the Blair and Brown governments, he had the “experience” to match Nicola Sturgeon.
Inevitably enough, Murphy himself encouraged this view. Despite a series of polls showing the SNP with unprecedented double-digit leads over Labour, he confidently predicted that his party would retain every one of its 40 Scottish seats at the general election in May. Indeed, as recently as two weeks ago, Murphy derided the nationalists for their apparent complacency. “I’m just astonished by how quickly they’ve run out of ideas,” he told BuzzFeed. “[They are] sluggish, lethargic, and off the pace.”
But any lingering hope that the old political rules still apply in post-referendum Scotland evaporated last Wednesday with the publication of Lord Ashcroft’s bombshell constituency surveys. Scottish Labour’s urban fortresses are crumbling in the face of a sustained SNP surge. Dozens of once unassailable Labour seats now look set to switch from red to yellow in three months’ time.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the significance of these findings. So far, the SNP’s best result at a UK general election was in October 1974, when the party won 11 seats and 30 percent of the vote. That was 41 years ago. Scotland was in the first blush of an oil revolution, its industrial economy was grinding to a halt, and nationalism was still a relatively novel force. Since then, the SNP has been repeatedly squeezed at Westminster. In 2010, Alex Salmond set a target of 20 SNP MPs. He ended up with six. The fact that 20 now seems like a modest ambition for the party illustrates how dramatically Scottish politics has changed of late.
Some commentators attribute Scottish Labour’s burgeoning collapse to the party’s close work with the Tories during the referendum. Others see it as symptomatic of Ed Miliband’s weak leadership. “Labour’s credibility in Scotland rests on whether it is a plausible government in waiting,” argues The Guardian‘s Martin Kettle. “If Scots believe that Labour will form a government, the Labour vote will remain reasonably solid.”
These factors matter. But ultimately, Scottish Labour is suffering from a much deeper—and very much self-inflicted—process of attrition. The process began in the mid-1990s when Blair and Brown ditched Labour’s post-war interventionism for a programme of liberalised markets and finance-led growth. In response, Salmond manoeuvred the SNP into the vacant left-of-centre space—and the strategy worked. Research from the period confirms that Scots gradually started to view the SNP as a progressive alternative to Blairism.
The first big break came at the 2003 Holyrood election: Labour lost 250,000 constituency and 225,000 list votes, the single biggest fall in its vote share at any point in the devolutionary era. Left-leaning voters—notably Scots-Irish Catholics, trade unionists, and public sector workers—bled-away from Labour, moving first towards smaller, more radical parties like the Greens and the SSP, and then towards the SNP, resulting in ever-larger gains for Salmond.
The decisive rupture occurred last year when traditional Labour strongholds—including Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, and Dundee—voted in favour of independence. Appalled by the conservatism of the Better Together campaign, large numbers of working-class Scots embraced constitutional radicalism. On 18 September, Scottish Labour won the referendum and saved the Union—but it did so at the cost of Labour Scotland.
The only appropriate term for what’s happening to Scottish Labour is “Pasokification.” Just as Greek voters abandoned PASOK, the established party of Greek social democracy, for SYRIZA, so Scottish voters are now abandoning Labour for the SNP—albeit under less acute economic conditions. Alex Salmond is obviously no Alexis Tsipras, and the current Scottish government can be frustratingly cautious in its approach to reform. But the overarching trend is unmistakable: in Scotland, the old left hegemony is breaking down and a new one forming in its place.
Murphy has a two-part plan to tackle this crisis. First, he intends to strengthen Scottish Labour’s “patriotic” and “working-class” identity, hence his headline-grabbing pledge to use the revenues generated by Miliband’s proposed tax on mansions in London and the South East to hire 1000 additional Scottish nurses. Second, he wants to remind people that the SNP is, and has been now for eight years, a party of government. “They’ve managed to have this kind of dual identity, of being the government and the opposition”, he told Buzzfeed. “But in the public’s mind, I want to put the SNP where they’ve rarely been, which is responsible for their own mistakes.”
The irony here, however, is that Murphy himself embodies much of what working class and leftwing Scotland hate about the Labour Party. Like other supposedly “talented” Labour Scots, he overlooked Holyrood in order to build a career at Westminster. Until late last year, he was a champion of Blairite modernisation. He’s an outspoken Atlanticist who supported the Iraq war and wants Trident—the bête noire of progressive Scotland—renewed in full, whatever the cost. Worse yet, he eagerly campaigned alongside Tory activists at the grassroots level to deliver a No vote in September. In other words, Murphy’s career is symbolic of everything currently working against Scottish Labour’s immediate chances of survival.
That’s not to say it won’t survive the upcoming election. The polls could narrow between now and May, as the prospect of a Tory victory in England consolidates Labour’s core vote in Scotland. Beyond that, though, the party’s horizons look bleak. Scotland is very simply—almost dispassionately—moving on.