Investigations into referendum voting intentions show that Labour supporters, and people who traditionally vote Labour, remain firmly opposed to voting Yes. Unmoved by promises of great national wealth, and often hostile to the SNP and its leader, these voters will not succumb to nationalist takeover and are unconvinced by anything the SNP has to offer.
The SNP cannot win these votes itself – partly because as a bourgeois party it favours consensus and seeks to represent all classes, while Labour is a party of working people, whose interests are compromised by concession to business. The SNP’s hubristic habit of contempt for Labour makes them insensitive to their own weakness: that every criticism of Labour is self-defeating – it sets back the campaign for independence. On the other hand, were the SNP to solve this problem they would aid the construction of their own antithesis – a force that could defeat the SNP and claim an independent Scotland for Labour control.
As for the radical-popular cohorts, their lack of any awareness of their damage to the campaign when they attack Labour is evident at most town-hall meetings since summer, where Labour-bashing has been the default crowd-pleaser. The motley radical-bourgeois groups are unable/unwilling to target Labour voters (or, which shows even more naivety, they think they are already doing it). Instead, these groups have shown themselves to be more interested in gaining a position that fits within the SNP’s inadequate strategy – partly again because of political ineptitude, party through pursuit of future power, partly because they do not share (and may reject) the politics of Labour.
So the Scottish National Party, having led the campaign thus far, cannot secure what is required to win because the votes are attached to Labour values, and invested in the Labour Party’s success. The maverick, unruly radicals cannot be deployed to win these votes, nor has the SNP mustered any suitable replacements to carry out the required role. In order to keep their supporters on the No side, Labour, the most dogged and stubborn obstacle to a Yes vote, needs only to sit tight and lob the occasional grenade into the fray.
The main things Labour voters need to hear is that a Yes vote can be an anti-SNP vote, and that the Labour Party will win the 2016 election or one shortly after. No group on the pro-independence left realises that in order to win we have to strike against the SNP, stand for labour values, and commit to working for a Labour government after independence. While this is strategically important, it is also a crucial preparation for what will follow a Yes vote, because a strong Labour government after independence is the only way to be free of the SNP’s traditional party rule.
So we need a counter-movement to the SNP, and we need to demonstrate to a skeptical and sizable minority of Scottish people that a strong Labour party can win power in the 2016 election that will follow a Yes vote, and use its power for far-reaching social and economic change.
The case we make must answer the concerns articulated by the Labour Party, which resonates with voters. Many within Labour oppose independence because they fear that the National Party will, after independence, tighten its grip on the nation’s politics, leaving both the Labour party and ordinary people helpless to use the powers that would be won. Many fear that the kind of changes that would make independence worthwhile would not be achieved for many years; or else they believe the kind of bourgeois reform on offer does not represent a marked improvement on the present situation in the UK, at least not enough to risk years of governance by an economically impotent Nationalist Government, and to plunge British Labour into uncharted waters.
We need an answer to the fear that Labour cannot beat the SNP in the first elections after independence. This fear is based on the idea that the SNP is strong, and by being the ‘owners’ of independence a Yes vote will strengthen them further in the run-up to 2016, allowing them to set the agenda and tone for the election campaign. On the other hand, the Scottish Labour Party is weak and battered, and, being opposed to independence, a Yes vote will weaken them further; and, moreover, by not even being engaged in the positive independence debate, they will be set back even further if Yes wins.
We therefore need to make arguments to undermine the SNP – to argue that though the SNP are strong they have exposed their weakness in the campaign. The SNP’s need to appeal to a majority of people, many of whom do not vote, has strained them. They have been unable to pursue a party agenda to lead simply to a Holyrood majority, and have instead made promises to every interest group and section of society, promises that they will not be able to keep, or that will take a very long time to obtain. They have promised a fairer Scotland – but in an independent SNP Scotland zero-hour contracts will still be common. They promise shared prosperity – but corporation tax is to be lowered.
This brings us to the third problem: Scottish Labour are weak. Their talents still are deployed to Westminster, where they remain for much of the year, occasionally gracing Scottish political life. At an operational level, the speaking abilities of MSPs are dismal, sniping negativity gives supporters little to hope for, and First Ministers’ Questions has become a farce. Idealistically, what do Scottish Labour stand for? They have not managed to get across their argument for the prudent direction of scarce resources where they are most needed, having ended up tarred with the ‘something for nothing’ slogan.
So the strength of Scottish Labour, both operationally and idealistically, must come from other sources, especially younger members. At Glasgow University, under the banner of ‘serious about socialism’, its members have marched through the streets, stood on pickets, and suffered the throng of Blairites at British-wide conferences. At National Organisation of Labour Students conferences the Scottish delegation are generally among the most radical. Among younger members trade union links are strong, strengthening as activists have turned away from constitutional politics to engage with union struggles.
There is also potential for wider re-engagement of the labour movement. In general, Scottish Labour links with trade unions are stronger than down south, and the party could use these links and work with unions like Unite to build up membership and recognize the trade unions in a way that is not possible as long as they remain attached to Westminster.
Moreover, at a grassroots level Labour is still strong, and so too has the Labour vote been historically strong across communities, with a large number of voters who will vote Labour if and whenever they see something to vote for in it. In spite of the messenger, Labour has tradition and support that can take it far, especially once voters who moved to the SNP return to Labour.
Which takes us to the fourth, and most difficult, problem. For Labour is not even engaging in debate about possible and real policy prospects for a post-independent Scotland, and indeed is not even engaging in discussion at all, so how are we to believe it is one of the forces that will form an independent Scotland? It sometimes even gives the impression that it will shrug its shoulders and wander off after a Yes vote.
If we are to believe Labour can bring a new programme for an independent Scotland, we must look not so much to the party itself as to the Labour and socialist sentiment of its history and tradition, and we must believe not so much in its councillors and MSPs as those in the real labour and socialist movements, especially the industrial wing but also in socialist societies and the membership, for these are the people who can remake the party.
For this we will have to engender the belief that the reason Labour no longer runs Scotland is not because of its Scottish form but because of its Scottish leadership and public image – mostly due to two things: first, their move, probably dragged by New Labour, to the right; and second, the lack of public discussion by the Scottish Party of economics, work, and industrial relations, given the exclusion of these issues from the Scottish Parliament’s remit.
We will have to demonstrate that the Labour sentiment, remains, as every member knows, at the Party’s heart; and we must find a way of expressing this sentiment with the few resources we have, to show people that a proud tradition will carry on through the referendum, and that on the other side the Party will have a wealth of support and sentimental investment with which to renew itself. How to make this case credible without a large and active group is what I will explore next. It is enough for now that most Labour members, whether opposed to independence or ambivalent, know it to be true – even if they will never say it.
Of course most will stand with the Party in opposition to a No vote even if they intend to vote Yes. Though hard to accept, this is as it should be for a party that rests on solidarity and common endeavour. So the groundswell aspiring for a Labour government will start small. But when this source, already a trickle, becomes a stream, and when it flows into the growing mass of support for a Yes vote, it will grow and colour our movement into the reddening tide we need not just to achieve a Yes vote, but to erode the grip of bourgeois nationalism on a people who, betrayed for so long, have so much to build.