Magazine article Soundings

When the Party Is Over: Labour in Scotland and Britain: Labour Needs New Thinking on the Future of Social Democracy, and of Twenty-First Century Nation States - Both in Scotland and Britain

Magazine article Soundings

When the Party Is Over: Labour in Scotland and Britain: Labour Needs New Thinking on the Future of Social Democracy, and of Twenty-First Century Nation States - Both in Scotland and Britain

Article excerpt

Scottish Labour has a long, proud history. It is one of the original and most influential parts of what we used to call 'the British labour movement'. It has a lineage of having contributed to the birth of British Labour, while also having a distinct Scottish dimension, stretching back to Keir Hardie, the Mid-Lanark by-election, and the founding of the original Scottish Labour Party in 1888, five years prior to the ILP. This was a powerful party, in Scotland and as part of the Labour coalition across Britain.

But the appeal and strength of Scottish Labour should not be exaggerated. There were always, throughout the twentieth century, clear limits to the constituencies of support for Labour in Scotland, which were rarely understood north of the border, let alone in the rest of the UK. Scottish Labour has never won a majority of the popular vote at any national election (unlike Welsh Labour, or for that matter the Scottish Tories). It came nearest - winning 49.9 per cent - in 1966, Wilson's high noon, the moment before the long crisis and final demise of British social democracy. Having said that, it has been Scotland's leading party since 1922: though it fell back in the 1931 disaster and 1950s Tory Indian summer, it re-emerged from the late 1950s, as Scotland began to move to a different political dynamic from the rest of the UK. This dynamic saw Labour gain, the Tories suffer, and the Scottish Nationalists slowly replace the Tories as Labour's main opponents. The Scottish party mattered hugely in terms of Westminster representation during this period, contributing a sizeable block of Labour MPs to Westminster.

The 2011 Scottish Parliament elections are a watershed for Scottish politics. They saw the Scottish Nationalists win 45.4 per cent versus 31.7 per cent for Scottish Labour in the constituency vote, and 44.0 per cent versus 26.3 per cent on the regional vote: leads of 13.7 per cent and 17.7 per cent respectively. This electoral landslide gave the SNP an overall majority in the Parliament, with 69 seats out of 129. The historic nature of the result can be illustrated by the fact that it was not until the 2007 Scottish Parliament election that the SNP ever managed to defeat the Labour Party. And even then the result was by the narrowest of margins, 32.9 per cent to 32.2 per cent on the constituency vote, and 31.0 per cent to 29.0 per cent on the regional vote. This gave the SNP 47 seats to Labour's 46, and allowed Alex Salmond to head up a minority administration for four years.

The decline of Scottish Labour

Part of the dynamic driving the changes in Scottish politics has been the rise of the SNP, beginning with their electoral breakthrough in 1967 at Hamilton and 1973-74 at Westminster. This transformed Scottish politics and dragged Labour - nervously and through expediency - back to supporting devolution. Another factor has been the inadequacies, ineptness and lack of resources within Scottish Labour, which have prevented them from developing a distinct, dynamic and pluralist politics that could nurture devolution or a wider Scottish dimension. However, more profound social change and transformation is also at work. (1) Scottish society has dramatically altered during the post-war era, and in particular over the last thirty to forty years. The Scottish economy has become much less dependent on traditional manufacturing and industrial jobs, and more shaped by smaller firms, the service sector, and less masculinised work. Scottish society has become less deferential, hierarchical and status-obsessed - although we still have more to change and challenge. In many respects, in other words, Scotland has become a bit like everywhere else in the Western world: opened, changed and challenged by forces which are summarised as 'globalisation'. Society has become more individualised, less collective, more diverse and pluralist on some levels, but also more fragmented, insecure and unequal: a society where it is easier to be middle-class, affluent and gay, but which is brutal and unforgiving if you are poor, living on a housing estate, and in receipt of incapacity benefit. …

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