openDemocracyUK

The referendum has transformed Scotland. Labour should be afraid.

The tectonic plates of Scottish politics have shifted, and Labour are left straddling the gap - they can no longer take Scotland for granted.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
23 September 2014
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After an election, I've always found, people go through the same pattern. Initially, they aren't ready to stop their campaign routine. They continue going to meetings, maybe they deliver a “thank you” leaflet. But, gradually, over a couple of weeks, things ease off. All of the day to day tasks of life re-emerge. The sum of these returns to normality is the petering out of a movement.

I have never been convinced that this is exactly what will happen with the Yes movement, for two simple reasons. First, politics is addictive. People who've been involved rarely disappear entirely, and there are so many new people involved, that even a slower movement will still mean a changed Scotland. Second, movements, like people, need deadlines. And the general election is just around the corner.

In the past few days, since the referendum, more than 30,000 people have joined the SNP. 4000 have joined the Scottish Green Party. 2000 have joined the Scottish Socialist Party. This means that the SNP now has more members than the UK Lib Dems and is Britain's third biggest party – more than 1% of Scots are a member - almost a thousand people per Westminster constituency. Likewise, the Scottish Greens have more than doubled in membership in a weekend.

I have long argued that, for a number of reasons, there is a good chance that the 2015 election will deliver a significant number of SNP MPs to Westminster. It's worth considering, in this context, that the SNP will now have many times as many members as the Scottish Labour Party, that this grassroots movement will be battle-hardened, experienced doorstep campaigners, looking for action, and that the SNP base pretty much universally united behind yes by the end of the campaign, whilst more than a third of the people who usually vote Labour voted yes.

Or consider the Scottish Green Party. Its size now exceeds the lower estimate of Scottish Labour membership. It has chosen one seat to target in Scotland – Edinburgh East. The candidate – my good friend Peter McColl, is rector of Edinburgh University, which sits in the constituency – I wouldn't bet on him winning, but I wouldn't write him off.

More important, though, is what voters think. My impression is that there are many people who voted no but who feel the same way as one woman I met in Leith “it broke my heart”, or a relation who told me they voted no by post “then felt sick with regret for two weeks”. I've heard many similar stories.

For many of these people, they justified to themselves a no vote on the basis of a promise of more powers before the General Election – a promise which is already hanging by a thread. I've lost count of how many of my no voting friends are now calling for a united movement to demand these promised powers.

What will these people do in the election? If the yes parties make a case that Scots need to vote for them to ensure Westminster delivers its promises – if they pledge that they will vote to keep Cameron out of Downing Street, but that they will hold Miliband's feet to the fire, if the election is not about who wants independence, but who will stand up to the Tories and to Westminster, then who does well out of that?

Likewise, look at how the dynamics will have changed through a vast increase in registration and in political engagement. Who will benefit from this? And remember this – in 2010, Labour was represented at a UK level by Gordon Brown, who had positive approval ratings in Scotland. Now, they have Miliband who, to put it politely, doesn't.

There's a flip side to all of this: Scottish Labour. My distinct impression throughout the referendum is that they cashed in a huge chunk of their political capital in order to win. I lost track of the number of people who told me that they would never vote Labour again – including No voters, angered by the bullying and patronising tone of the party. If it hadn't been for the focus on the referendum, more people may have noticed how they plummeted in the polls in Scotland after Balls' currency speech.

In the end, more than a third of people who have normally voted Labour voted yes. Many more will have voted no in the expectation of serious new powers from Westminster. If these aren't forthcoming, then this isn't just a wonky constitutional issue. It's a question of trust. Miliband will have signed a pledge to the Scottish people, then broken it. Imagine the way students feel about Nick Clegg and you're only just starting to understand the rage many people will feel.

And speaking of Nick Clegg, remember that the Lib Dems are more proportionately dependent on Scotland for their MPs than is Labour – they have 11 seats here. And in 2011, the SNP won almost all of them at Holyrood. Whilst some of those voters will now go Labour, surely the SNP have a good chance of winning a few of them? And if the Yes and No votes do split down party lines, in these seats – particularly if some kind of temporary deal can be done with Greens, and any other left yes parties which may or may not emerge – then the No vote will shatter between the three Westminster parties, leaving the SNP to win over the rest of the electorate.

There isn't an official break down of which constituencies voted which way in every region (it was done by local authority area). But activists sampling ballot boxes claim those which voted yes include seats held by former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour Anas Sarwar and shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran. I have yet to find a Westminster constituency in which the share of the yes vote was lower than the share of the vote the SNP got in 2010 – including the six seats the SNP hold. Remember, it's a very rare first past the post seat in which 40% isn't enough to be elected.

There is a final thing to consider. I have spoken to numerous activists in recent days who report local Labour MPs saying things on the doorstep like “if you vote yes on Thursday, your pension will be cancelled on Friday”. If they did say this, it was clearly a lie. And whether or not they did, there is a perception among many, many people that Labour MPs were actively lying to their constituents in a desperate attempt to keep their own jobs.

What does all of this mean? Labour have made a huge political blunder if they think they can rely on Scotland to deliver them the usual swathe of MPs after this transformative referendum. They may manage to fight hard to hang onto their seats. Most likely, they will lose significant numbers of them – not because they backed a no vote, but because of how they went about it.

As the aforementioned Peter McColl has pointed out, there are millions of people who thought that Tony Blair was a megalomaniac and an anomaly, and that Labour couldn't be blamed for him. In Scotland, I get the distinct impression that, because of the lack of a charismatic figurehead to take the rap, the party as a whole has exposed itself. Thousands upon thousands of people who may in the past have supported them have seen them up close, and have no desire to ever go near them again.

On top of this there are, at the very least, hundreds of newly hardened activists who feel like Labour have spent two years bullying, sneering, patronising, and lying, and who will dedicate the next seven months to wiping Johann Lamont's party off the Scottish electoral map.

Last week, I met a former researcher for a London Labour MP. Their boss said to them, over the summer “make sure your friends all vote no”. “Why?” they replied. “Because we'll find it harder to get into government without Scotland” came the response. If Labour still think they can take Scotland for granted in 2015, they have another thing coming.

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