#IndyRef: “A similar, but more demanding, act of political dexterity will be required from Labour now”

This is one of the sanest pieces of writing I’ve seen on #IndyRef (h/t Tom Griffin) from Associate Professor Ben Jackson.

First this…

It is extremely difficult, absent a deep economic or social crisis, to break up an existing democratic state. The fact that Scottish independence got so close to winning a majority tells us something about how toxic the political and economic environment has now become for the traditional ruling parties in Scotland – and probably in Britain as well. But in the end the environment was not quite toxic enough for the advocates of Scottish independence, because there were many Scots who thought they still had a lot to lose from a radical rupture in Scotland’s constitutional position.

Whatever one thinks about this belief, the fact that elements of the ‘Yes’ campaign (though not, I suspect, the SNP leadership) regarded a mobilisation of deprived working class Scots as sufficient to swing the vote their way suggests a misunderstanding of the political dynamics of affluent post-industrial economies such as Scotland’s. The electoral arithmetic of the class composition of Scotland is such that the only way to build a successful majority for ‘Yes’, or for that matter for parliamentary elections, is through constructing a broad cross-class coalition.

The electoral glory days of the Scottish Labour Party in the 1990s and early 2000s were founded on precisely this insight, by marrying together working class support with the votes of middle class public sector workers and professionals, all of whom came to see Labour as the party that best expressed their worldview and interests.

And it is good to hear this point articulately so clearly, because it seemed to me at least to have been one of the most obvious delimiters of the Yes appeal:

The ‘Yes’ campaign was clearly a magical experience for those involved in it: the rallies, the meetings, the street campaigning, the conversations. Its energy and enthusiasm was inspiring. But to some extent it ended up preaching to the converted, leaving those outside the movement to feel, as Miss Jean Brodie remarked to her pupils about the question of joining the Girl Guides, ‘for those who like that sort of thing, then that is the sort of thing they like.’

Participants in the ‘Yes’ campaign might consider in retrospect whether their evangelical political style actually prevented meaningful discussion with undecided or ‘No’ voters or even alienated possible supporters from their cause. To take a small but revealing example: it was often noted that people wearing ‘Yes’ stickers or displaying ‘Yes’ signs in windows vastly outnumbered those from the ‘No Thanks’ campaign. When I walked around the centre of Glasgow a few days before the vote, there was hardly a single ‘No Thanks’ sticker to be spotted amid the profusion of public displays for the other side.

There are a number of reasons for this, but I have no doubt that one important factor was that some ‘No’ supporters simply concluded that it wasn’t worth the hassle of, at a minimum, receiving unsolicited political heckling from fired up supporters of the other side. In this sense, while the creation of the wider ‘Yes’ movement was a great democratic achievement, in certain respects it also circumscribed the room for serious democratic dialogue with opponents and limited the campaign’s appeal.

The readiness with which the language of ‘traitors’ and ‘quislings’ circulated and was used by the fringes of the ‘Yes’ campaign against their opponents should have been a sobering warning sign for the decent majority of the independence movement, but amid the hurly burly of the campaign seems to have been simply brushed off as all part of a rich tradition of high spirited and robust political exchange.

For the avoidance of doubt, it is not, and should have been loudly and clearly repudiated if the ‘Yes’ campaign wanted to be heard by the widest possible audience. [Emphasis added]

But here’s the kicker, the political hangover if you like. And it’s not the SNP’s problem, or indeed the Tories…

Scottish Labour now faces a serious political problem in preventing its working class vote in the West of Scotland, and perhaps elsewhere, moving over to the SNP. Obituaries for the Scottish Labour Party are premature, because it retains significant assets, not least of which is the diminishing but still powerful historical bond between the party and the communities it represents (witness the ‘Yes’ campaign’s insistence that independence was desirable precisely because it would enable Scotland to have a good old fashioned Labour government once again).

But Scottish Labour undoubtedly has a major battle on its hands if it is to hold on to its existing parliamentary seats and, more ambitiously, regain its place as the leading party in Scottish politics. Labour in the 1980s and 1990s was able to outmanoeuvre the SNP by positioning itself as the party that would deliver devolution. A similar, but more demanding, act of political dexterity will be required from Labour now.

Do read the whole thing

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