This i(indy)Tune is for Labour ears

0
410

  By David Torrance

One of the dominant themes of last weekend’s SNP conference were continuing attempts to woo Labour voters. On Friday Nicola Sturgeon urged them to ‘reclaim’ their party by voting ‘yes’ in September and the following day Alex Salmond stressed that independence wasn’t about him or the SNP.

This strategy is as old as Salmond’s leadership of the party (he made a similar point after becoming convener in 1990), but actually dates back to the late 1970s.

  By David Torrance

One of the dominant themes of last weekend’s SNP conference were continuing attempts to woo Labour voters. On Friday Nicola Sturgeon urged them to ‘reclaim’ their party by voting ‘yes’ in September and the following day Alex Salmond stressed that independence wasn’t about him or the SNP.

This strategy is as old as Salmond’s leadership of the party (he made a similar point after becoming convener in 1990), but actually dates back to the late 1970s. Until then the SNP had stressed its ideological neutrality in order to broaden its appeal, and although it captured a few traditionally Labour seats (Hamilton in 1967, Govan in 1973), it also won several former Conservative constituencies in the two general elections of 1974.

Only after a poor showing in the 1979 election did the party rethink its strategy, with the ’79 Group’ (in which a young Mr Salmond was a leading light) arguing that the SNP had to outflank Labour on the Left in order to recover electorally. Although the more conservative leadership of Gordon Wilson resisted this, it gradually became orthodoxy, particularly so after Salmond succeeded him.

Then it was about winning more Labour seats (Jim Sillars’ 1988 victory in Govan suggested the strategy was working), but in 2014 it’s obviously about winning as many ‘yes’ votes as possible. While it’s clear that thousands of Labour voters were persuaded to ‘lend’ the SNP their votes in 2007 and (particularly) 2011, it’s been less certain they’d be equally willing to defy their traditional allegiances and vote for independence.

Sure, polls stretching back to the 1990s have shown that a big chunk of Labour voters are sympathetic to independence, although there has been a tendency to exaggerate this (some argue it’s as high as 50 per cent). In truth it’s difficult to quantify, but just as it’s likely many Labour voters will vote ‘yes’, so too is it the case that many SNP supporters will vote ‘no’. Support for independence does not tidily follow party lines. One survey even showed that 3 per cent of Tories would be willing to back independence!

Anecdotally, the present SNP strategy appears to be working. As I prepared to write this piece the Scotsman reported that Mike Dyer, chairman of the Anniesland constituency Labour Party, had told the STUC conference that the ‘relentless negativity’ of the No campaign had made him decide to vote ‘yes’ later this year. He said he believed that independence would lead to a ‘fairer’ Scotland, which of course is another argument posited by the Yes campaign.

Now obviously Dyer is but one Labour activist, although he joins a growing list of reasonably prominent party figures – both past and present – who have reached the same conclusion, for example former Strathclyde Regional Council convener Charles Gray and ex Glasgow Lord Provost Alex Mosson. That they’ve all been willing to say so publicly is quite striking, and obviously not very helpful for the No campaign (of which Labour is a central part).

I’ve also spoken to Labour figures who admit privately (and with obvious concern) that many of their local activists are planning to do likewise through a combination of disillusion with their party and the feeling that a ‘yes’ vote, though not a panacea, offers the best hope for change.

Unhappiness with the Scottish Labour Party (as distinct from the UK party, of which more below) is completely understandable. Judging by last month’s Perth conference any genuine revival in policy or strategy remains elusive. A beautifully-produced document – inevitably dubbed the ‘Red Paper’ – was distributed to journalists but contained little of any substance. Its devolution proposals, debated at conference, were muddled and unconvincing.

There still seems to be a collective feeling that 2007 (and presumably also 2011) was an electoral aberration and that once Scots have done the sensible thing and rejected independence then Scottish politics, in the words of Jim Murphy, will ‘get back to normal’; normality obviously being Labour in government at Holyrood and Westminster. This, to say the least, is a considerable misreading of the political dynamic.

Labour’s contribution to Better Together, meanwhile, continues to prove far from compelling. Last week the Daily Record reported that the party was preparing to mobilise its ‘old guard’ in the House of Lords ‘in a bid to boost the fortunes’ of the No campaign, a pretty sad indictment of their campaigning prowess. Lord Robertson, a former Defence Secretary and NATO chief, duly obliged with a deeply silly speech in Washington which spoke of independence unleashing the ‘forces of darkness’.

Far from boosting Better Together’s fortunes it simply unleashed critical editorials in most Scottish newspapers (proof they’re not as ‘biased’ as some believe) and barely luke-warm support from Lord Robertson’s colleagues. It also provided Alex Salmond with some enjoyable warm-up material for his peroration in Aberdeen on Saturday afternoon. If I were the Yes campaign, I’d be encouraging the noble Lords Robertson, Foulkes, Liddell et al to make as many speeches as possible.

Labour, however, does have a credible counter to the Yes campaign’s pitch, for Ed Miliband’s repositioning of his party away from uncritical admiration of the City and a renewed focus on the cost of living, energy bills, English decentralisation, etc, is a reasonable (though far from perfect) platform with which Labour sympathisers in Scotland might be persuaded to back a future UK Labour government rather than vote ‘yes’.

Nicola Sturgeon’s pitch that independence will help Labour supporters ‘reclaim’ their party is also predicated on the view that while the Labour Party has ditched its principles and drifted to the Right, the SNP has somehow been utterly consistent throughout its 80-year history. No political party remains constant, and just as Labour has embraced free market economics since the late 1980s, so too has the SNP. Sure, the latter’s commitment to the welfare state is now much stronger than Labour’s, but in the late 1940s (for example) Nationalists were decidedly skeptical about the NHS and other Attlee reforms, so these things come and go.

But that the SNP feels able to make such an ostentatious appeal to their historic opponents indicates just how confident they now are about the referendum. At the Aberdeen conference I detected, for the first time, genuine optimism that support for ‘yes’ will continue to grow by enough to secure victory. Of course senior Nationalists have always professed confidence, but only now are they doing so with absolute sincerity. And if the Yes campaign does pull it off on 18 September, Labour voters will have played a decisive role in what will be a remarkable result.