Have the Unionists won the battle…but lost the war?

The Alex Salmond era at Holyrood ends this weekend as Nicola Sturgeon will be confirmed as the SNP’s new leader – she is the only candidate – and next week will be elected Scotland’s fifth First Minister since the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999. That of course has been predicted ever since Salmond resigned the day after the referendum. But post-referendum Scottish politics has not gone the way most people had predicted and if it goes on the way it is going we could end up with another referendum a lot sooner than we think.
Most people expected Sturgeon to take over a demoralised party – after all the SNP had seen the whole reason for its existence rejected by the Scottish voters – but instead the SNP has gained 75,000 new members post referendum. Meanwhile the Scottish Labour party is in total disarray. Last month its leader Johann Lamont quit and while doing so fired a broadside at UK leader Ed Miliband saying he treated the Scottish Labour Party as a “branch office” of London. To show what a shambles this party is Lamont’s successor will be Scottish Labour’s seventh leader in fifteen years. And their poll ratings are awful. The election prediction website Electoral Calculus (http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/scotland.html) has the SNP at 43.48% and Labour at 26.61%. If that happened at next May’s UK General Election the SNP would have 47 seats (up from 6) and Labour just 11 (down from 41). And that is an average of the October polls. One was so bad for Labour that it would mean the SNP won 54 seats and Labour just 4. How on earth did we get into this position?
There are a number of factors here. I suspect the new SNP members are those people who voted “Yes” in the referendum but had never voted before and the referendum had ignited an interest in politics they hadn’t had before. As for Labour there are two factors at work here. One recent, the other long-term. Labour made a dreadful mistake joining up with the Tories in the “No” campaign. What you have to understand is that Scotland hates the Tories and any party that helps them gets the odium of Scotland’s voters. The SNP well know this. In March 1979 they helped to bring down the Labour Government. Their 11 MPs voted with the Tories and Labour lost the vote by one. As a reward, at the subsequent election the SNP vote went down by 13.1% and their seats went from 11 to 2. And they suffered for years after that. As former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars said (in Iain MacWhirter’s book “Road to Referendum” page 174) “there was pure hatred on the doorsteps…for letting the Tories in”. More recently the Lib Dem vote in Scotland has collapsed ever since 2010 when they went into coalition with the Tories. At the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections they went from 16 seats to 5 and if they keep more than 2 of their 11 Scottish seats in the UK General Election next May I’ll be amazed. Labour should not have joined up with the Tories as it has enabled the SNP to do to them what they did to the SNP after 1979. Labour called the SNP “Tartan Tories”. The SNP now call Labour the “Red Tories”.
Labour’s other mistake is more long term. They never really wanted a Scottish Parliament at all. In August 1974 UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson more or less forced the Scottish Labour Party to support a Scottish Parliament at an infamous conference at Dalintober Street in Glasgow. That was because in the election the previous February, the SNP had gone from 1 MP to 7, and its vote had gone up from 11.4% to 21.9%. As Wilson had no majority there was going to be another election soon, and Wilson supported devolution only to cut down the risk of the SNP gaining Labour seats. Short term it worked – in the October election the SNP went from 7 seats to 11 and their vote went up to 30.4% but none of their 4 gains came from Labour. But the problem was that because devolution’s only purpose was to stop the SNP when the Scottish Parliament was finally set up Labour according to MacWhirter (page 211) “didn’t know what it wanted to do with the Parliament it created”. Further more because Labour didn’t regard the Scottish Parliament as important its big names – Brown, Cook, Reid Darling etc – stayed in London and Labour had their “B” team at Holyrood against the SNP’s “A” team – with predictable results which lead to their disaster in 2011.
Some will think this only matters to the Labour Party. But it does not. it matters to the whole of the UK. The aforementioned Electoral Calculus predicts that if the UK General Election was held now Labour would have 302 seats, the Tories 263, the Lib Dems 16 and the SNP 47 – and their allies Plaid Cymru* 3. (with other parties winning 19). This means Labour could only rule with SNP support (the SNP’s constitution bans coalition with the Tories. They learned their 1979 lesson well). What would the SNP demand?
To make maters worse Alex Salmond could lead the SNP at Westminster. There are rumours he will try to win the Lib Dem seat of Gordon (majority 6,748). Judged by the polls that would be a formality. So we could have the nightmare scenario of Alex Salmond dictating terms to the UK parties. He could demand a second independence referendum in return for supporting Labour.
All this means the Scottish Labour Party needs to get its act together pronto. There are three candidates for leader – Jim Murphy, Neil Finlay and Sarah Boyack. They must pick the beat person for the job. And that is Jim Murphy. They must also pick Kezia Dugdale as his deputy. These two are the best in a depressingly shallow pool of Scottish Labour talent. So poor is the Scottish Labour party’s pool of talent they had to drag ex PM Gordon Brown out of mothballs to help win the referendum.
If Scottish Labour do not get this choice right they could face wipe out next year. And Scotland could be heading for another independence referendum very soon. And if that happened, could it be a case of the Unionists winning the battle but losing the war?
*Plaid Cymru (in English “The Party of Wales”) are the Welsh Nationalists. They and the SNP form a parliamentary bloc at Westminster.

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