Comment: Issue 64

Just days after a watershed election many observers are struggling to understand what happened. Perhaps they need to learn about Scottish politics.

Well, that certainly caught the attention… Nobody who watches UK politics is in any doubt that something just happened. But what?

Before we begin let’s just set some scope. There are so many questions to be answered in Scotland now – what is the SNP for? What is Labour for? Where does the constitional debate go next? How much of an opportunity is this for the left? And what strategy does open up for the left? And these questions will be the subject of the next issue.

This is written only a few days after the result and everything continues to move at a remarkable pace. So it is certainly too early to be confident about providing many definitive answers. But since that doesn’t usually stop many of our politics-watchers and ‘comentariat’ it is telling that we don’t really have a settled, established sense of what the Scottish Elections results are telling us and why they happened. Bluntly, UK politics is startled and Scottish politics is utterly disorientated. It is going to take some time to properly understand the 2011 election.

Let’s quickly dispose of some of the bits which are easier to understand and assess. The SNP campaign was head-and-shoulders above the others both in terms of analysis, strategy, messaging and organisation. The SNP had a heavy-weight leader which non of the others (bar possibly the Tories) could claim. The Labour team was poor and has been for four years and there is boundless evidence that Labour simply refused to accept that anything important or different happened in 2007 (the General Election result turned denial into personal certainty). The positive message of the SNP was also the only one on offer and so probably had a motivational effect for voters. The Lib Dems didn’t stand a chance as a result of Westminster compromise and the Tories are a pretty marginal party in Scotland. And finally the electoral system can be capricious when it comes to smaller parties and especially if the big parties get their strategy right (the Tories and the SNP really went after second votes, and the SNP in particular appears to have secured a lot of both-vote wins).

Quality, positivity, competence, astuteness and personality versus denial and misguided confidence going head-to-head in a two-horse race are the obvious answers to the ‘Scottish Question’. But they are simply not sufficient to explain what has happened. Because there is another big loser in this election – and that is the aforementioned comentariat. If their full-time job is to watch Scottish politics and analyse what is happening, how did they utterly fail to see what was happening? The answer is that there are at least three major mistakes that have dominated the understanding of Scottish politics in the election campaign, but perhaps more importantly over the last four years of comment by many of the political professionals:

  • They simply didn’t understand the nature of the ‘national question’, seeing it only in the terms set out by unionist parties.
  • Time and again they seemed unwilling to accept that ‘ideological affinity’ or interest in policy played a significant role in Scottish elections.
  • The structures of representative politics make it very difficult for many political professionals to see the field of play through anything other than the prism of political parties.

For more than a decade the Scottish Left Review has been arguing that we are seeing a specific ideological element in Scottish politics that has defined devolution – that a broadly left-of-centre consensus has interacted with a more specific left-focussed strand of the electorate and that this has generated continuing change in Scottish politics which underlies the visible politics of parliament and party. There is plenty to suggest that 2011 is part continuation, part acceleration of this process. So let’s have a look at these issues.

Badly imagined community

One of the best-known theorists of nationalism and the nation state (Benedict Anderson) described nations as ‘imagined communities’. Since there is no real personal connection between most of the citizens in large nations they are held together by a shared belief that they are in some way part of a connected entity, an ‘imagined community’. Well, it now looks like those who were trying to describe the ‘community’ that is Scotland imagined it rather badly.

In some ways this is not surprising. One of the big problems with parliaments and voting is that they are binary – yes/no, this/that, us/them. And this tends to make us think in binary ways when in fact people do not really think in binary terms at all. The overwhelming story about Scotland’s relationship to the UK has been built on one, tiny, binary measure of opinion poll results on who would say ‘yes’ to ‘do you want independence?’. And because only a third or so ever say ‘yes’ that ‘meant’ that a political-unionist analysis is correct. So it is that we have heard with crushing and universal repetition that ‘independence isn’t an issue’ and ‘the people don’t want more constitutional debate’ and so on.

But this narrative has been placed in a bubble. Over the same time period it is accepted that more-or-less everyone in Britain has lost at least some degree of faith in Westminster politics. So we have two stories; in one Scotland is entirely committed to Westminster, in the other everyone is losing a commitment to Westminster. That there has been very little cross-fertilisation between these stories has led to a sort of constitutional blindness. The possibility that (for example) Scotland might want to retain affinity connections with the UK and feel nervous about full separation but be disillusioned with Westminster and to reclaim as much of the decision-making as possible to Scotland was barely discussed. The three unionist parties did not even think this was an issue with which to bother ‘ordinary’ Scots, agreeing between themselves that the minor tweaks of the Scotland Bill was the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people.

It would be easy just to argue ‘and it looks like they got their answer’, but we should perhaps be careful about reading too much into this one way or the other just yet. Since the SNP deliberately insulated the issue of independence by promising a specific referendum it would be wrong to claim that the vote for the SNP definitely marks a watershed in attitudes to independence. But it certainly suggests that the political classes have got it wrong in their assumptions about the relationship between the Scottish people and Westminster. And there is one more important point here – the campaign for the union has been in full swing for years and every scare story possible has been deployed since 1999. And yet there has been almost no campaign for independence. Of course the SNP has made a positive case in favour, but it has shunted the question off into a referendum because it didn’t want to be painted into the corner of having to fight constitutional questions all the time. What happens to Scottish opinion if there is a vibrant Yes campaign? It has already been noted by many that it isn’t really clear what the vision of the No campaign is.

Something has changed, that seems certain. And it hasn’t been driven by love of Westminster or of Westminster politics. It may be that the constitution isn’t quite the marginal issue the professionals thought it was. But what is certain is that the binary story we have been fed for ten years is over. Scotland’s relationship to the UK now appears to be much more complex that the simple slogans we’ve heard.

The story: how the left left the left

But while the UK looking at Scotland is bound to see this in constitutional terms, it is almost certainly not the biggest factor. Indeed, the question of the relationship between Scotland and the UK is more likely to be a symptom than the primary cause of political change in Scotland. To understand this it is worth revisiting the analysis the SLR has put forward in the past.

We have had four elections in devolved Scotland and each of them has seen markedly different voting behaviours. In 1999 the vote for the Scottish Parliament was probably not particularly different than for a Westminster election, with the outcome being a function of the new voting system. Labour got its solid core vote, the SNP did the same, as did the Tories and the Lib Dems, with a couple of new entries who would have had little chance at Westminster (SSP, Green, an independent). OK. But in 2003 things changed. This had been a period in which the left was at the peak of its disillusionment with Labour (the middle of the Iraq war) and the left of the Labour Party vote realised that it could go elsewhere (a good number having already moved in 1999). The SNP had tacked to the right under John Swinney and so most of the vote moved straight to the SSP and the Greens (and a couple of others). So as most of the vote remained static, the left vote delivered a Rainbow Parliament.

For more than a decade the Scottish Left Review has been arguing that we are seeing a specific ideological element in Scottish politics that has defined devolution. There is plenty to suggest that 2011 is part continuation, part acceleration of this process.

(At this point it is worth tracking the Lib Dems. At the time this did not seem as significant because it was more generally accepted that the Lib Dem vote was a liberal-left vote. The Lib Dems in the first Holyrood Coalition were seen to have dragged the Labour Party to the left and at the UK level the Lib Dems were fighting the Iraq War and the civil liberties infringements of Labour. There was very little doubt then that the Lib Dems in the UK had absorbed a reasonable chunk of disillusioned left-liberal Labour voters and readers in Scotland will know of liberal left Labour voters who didn’t feel they could go to the too-radical SSP or the two-nationalist SNP.)

However, while in the 2003-2007 Parliament there was much visibility of Green/SSP MSPs, given a Labour/LibDem coalition with a clear majority it didn’t actually make all that much difference. After Henry McLeish’s experiments with a more radical Scottish Labour agenda, Jack McConnell dragged the party back to a more cautious position slightly to the right and the radicals made little difference. And of course there was the implosion of the SSP. So by 2007 there was another realignment of the left voter. This time the SSP and Green vote moved significantly towards the SNP which had, under Alex Salmond, repositioned itself clearly to the left of Labour on most issues (though with a clear neoliberal bent to its economic policies). By 2007 it is patronising to call these moving voters ‘disillusioned Labour’ – they are really Scotland’s ‘unaligned left’. And here they chose to change the old order. And they did. (Meanwhile, the Lib Dems appeared to continue to hold the left-liberal vote.)

So we have seen a sequence of Parliaments in which you can reasonably argue that there was a solid core for the four main parties and a vote coming from the left of all of them which had tried a number of tactics to change Scottish politics. It tried smaller parties but discovered that if this just left ‘the same coalition’ in power then it hadn’t worked. So it moved to the SNP in some hope of change and broadly seems to have been satisfied.

Which is where the next major change takes place. The Lib Dem voters in Scotland almost certainly remained to the left of Labour on many policies and indeed in the UK General Election quite a number of figures on the left openly voted Lib Dem. And then they went into coalition with the Tories. This was bound to cause them serious problems everywhere, but particularly in anti-Tory Scotland. And it did. But it is highly patronising to this shifting Lib Dem vote to treat it as if it has no political interest, as has been implied by some slightly facile comments on why it went SNP rather than Labour. The answer to the question is fairly straightforward – it is largely a liberal-left vote and it moved to the next most liberal-left party. And that wasn’t the Labour Party. There are three big bell-weather issues which ought to have made this no surprise. Many Lib Dems are professional, public sector workers. Which is exactly the kind of person to whom minimum pricing for alcohol is a winning issue. They are by definition ‘liberal’ and many of them must have been at least sympathetic to the compassionate release of Megrahi. And certainly the ‘lock ‘em up’ madness of Richard Baker and the Labour campaign is anathema to that kind of social liberal. Why on earth would a Lib Dem who made that choice on the basis of social democratic left-leaning liberalism abandon that party when it lost its way in favour of a right-wing populist crime agenda and the cynical, populist pro-cheap-booze agenda of Labour?

So here is a workable thesis: Scotland has four shades of left and one shade of right. The right always votes Tory, returning slight variations on the same block. And despite the assumptions and will of many commentators, the right-of-centre vote in Scotland is static, small and therefore of marginal interest to the big questions of Scottish politics. Then there is a solid block which is clearly socially democratic in nature and finds its allegiance predicated on party – a chunk which is culturally Labour and a chunk which is culturally nationalist. Neither is very different from the other and (with caution) it is possible to suggest that they are not particularly analytical in policy terms – even if there was much to tell between Labour and the SNP in policy. Then there is a strand which does take an interest in policy and is particularly committed to change, a more radical left group which has moved around. And then there is another group interested in policy but with a more liberal-left (rather than radical-left) agenda.

Now this is of course a simplification and it is unsafe to suggest that all Lib Dem voters are ‘non-aligned liberal left’ since there are plenty ‘cultural Lib Dems’. But it helps to explain things in a comprehensible way. There is a desire for change in Scotland which has become wider and increasingly less cautious. That desire found no home in Labour and so has been on the move. It found that a Rainbow Parliament without fundamental change at the top didn’t work so it produced change at the top. And having seen that work it kept going. The party with the strongest combination of left/change agenda and likelihood of power has simply hoovered up more and more strands of vote. It has had its ‘cultural affinity’ voters from the start. Then it picked up much of the more radical left. Then it picked up much of the liberal left. And that – in Scotland – represents three of the five decisive strands of vote. The Tories got the right, Labour got the cultural Labour vote, the SNP swept the rest.

What is interesting about this is that there is plenty to suggest that the electorate is if anything moving to the left, but it also suggests that they are trailing The Left (capitalised, the traditional ‘organised left’ – which is to say ‘many of you’) behind. The organised trade union movement in Scotland has simply had no influence and very little voice. The left parties have gone out of their way to give no-one a reason to vote for them. The Greens discovered a radical left agenda, but sadly only half-way through the election, having played footsie quite publicly with Labour beforehand. Campaigning groups have had little to do with the election campaign. The Scottish electorate is still to the left of its parties, but it has simply had to make a space for itself because no real space has been made for it.

Now, this analysis has been ignored for a decade and will very probably be ignored again. The orthodoxy among the comentariat is that ideology isn’t really an important part of politics any more. It debates what does ‘left’ and ‘right’ mean any more. It often doubts whether it is possible to even make an assessment of who is to the left of whom. It understands process, personality and professional politics. It gets how parties work, it has an undue admiration for what it defines as ‘Good Politicians’, it has the phone numbers of hosts of strategists and hacks. But it (surprisingly) refuses (with a number of honourable exceptions) to open its mind to the possibility that there is a debate over ideology and policy. So this is pro-Salmond, anti-Labour, an accident of a good/bad campaign and so on.

But this will no longer do. If it was OK to treat Scottish politics as a series of events and never a process, that has to change. If we are to understand politics in Scotland there needs to be some effort to find a story which explains ten years and not just ten minutes. ‘Disillusionment’ – the negative story – only takes us so far. Do Scottish voters make a choice or do they just select? Well, everyone accepts that there appears to be a remarkable sophistication among those who vote in Scotland and there seems little reason to believe that any of the outcomes they have achieved in four elections are seen as a ‘mistake’ by voters. So we must assume that what they are getting is something like what they are asking for. Which means we need to listen to what they are asking for and try and understand that better.

The left still dominates Scottish politics and it is still deciding the outcome of our elections. It is strange that The Left as an entity has if anything got weaker.

The end of parties

So, if we can explain this election in part in terms of how Scotland sees itself in relation to the politics of Westminster and in part as an accumulation of different strands of left voter (as well as the accepted issues of quality of campaign, strength of leadership and so on), there has to be an issue of the nature of the parties themselves.

Well, yes and no. Undoubtedly there is much to tell us in the state of the parties about how they went about the business of vision, policy and campaign. And certainly it would be wrong to over-claim the death of the cultural affinity between many Scottish voters and Labour (in particular). But it certainly looks much more like this is about the ending of the parties as we know them. All of the parties in Scotland have been thrown upside-down by this election and they all need to figure out where they are and what they’re for – not least the SNP.

But perhaps more than this we have seen an election in Scotland where party affinity did not decide the outcome and the many people (especially around Labour and the Lib Dems) who saw this election in terms of party were wrong. Shifting party allegiance in Scotland might once have been unthinkable, but now it is routine. In a bizarre way, the more sectarian have become the parties, the less sectarian the electorate. This hasn’t been about party but about direction and change. The SNP has been the primary beneficiary, not because they are ‘the SNP’ but because they seemed to offer the best variety of change.

The SNP had a positive vision, a well-thought-through campaign, a strong leader and team and a professional operation generally. It really led the policy agenda with Labour following in behind its more popular social policies (Council Tax freeze, free university education etc.). But it also moderated its traditionally more neoliberal tone on the economy – no longer the ‘Arc of Prosperity’ (a neoliberal fantasy world) but rather ‘reindustrialisation’. It lead through ideas and message but most people probably still accept that many people who voted SNP would not consider themselves ‘SNP voters’. Need the party worry? Not if it accepts this role. Salmond has talked about ‘a national party’ representing Scotland rather than factions of it. If he can pull that off – sort of dissolving the SNP identity as a protagonist to become a kind of national lobby group – then he could see the SNP in power for a generation. Weakening the party to strengthen it might actually work.

The Labour Party meanwhile is simply nowhere. It is hard to find the words to really capture how dismal Labour in Scotland has become. It is remarkable how far from the perceptions of others has become the Labour perception of itself. Many in the Party really, really didn’t believe they actually lost in 2007 (seeing it as a draw, and a temporary blip). They seemed to think they just had to tough it out for four years and keep insulting the SNP to get back in power. They think they were performing OK (apparently they believe they won all the ‘intellectual arguments’ in Parliament over the last four years, which will be of great surprise to most intellectuals who in fact found the Party virtually brain dead). They saw a historical vision of Scotland, one made up of the iconography of the 1980s and the dominance of the pre- and post-devolution years, and expected that ‘natural centre of gravity’ to pull everything back together again. And they saw good results in some by-elections and a strong General Election showing as evidence.

But they abandoned almost everything else. Scottish Labour has been little short of contemptuous of all but the ‘culturally Labour’ strand of the left in Scotland. Ex-supporters who had left them as the party drifted to the right were just ‘Trots’ or ‘the looney left’. They were simply abandoned like unnecessary flotsam. Then they did almost nothing to attract the middle-class, educated left. Their stance on a number of issues like minimum alcohol pricing, knife crime and Megrahi was all targeted ruthlessly at what they saw as working-class populism. These positions were all basically right-wing, and they were happy to mock the squealing of the socially democratic middle classes. They seemed utterly disinterested in how this would play with public sector professionals (surely the whole of the NHS staff must have been horrified at the position on alcohol pricing). They could not have cared less about the attitudes of those interested in a left-liberal civil liberties agenda. They even thought very seriously about playing the class card on university education (‘make those middle classes pay for their privileges’) before panicking at the last minute.

Labour had no vision, it was all dog-whistles to its own people. Not enough people understand the meaning of ‘Populism’ (with a capital P). Populism means something like “…pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice” (from Twenty-First Century Populism by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell). Populism is best understood as a sort-of rabble-rousing of the many against the few. This is very different from being popular, and this language got utterly confused in the campaign. So freezing the Council Tax may be ‘popular’ but it is not ‘Populist’ – it’s not an ‘us against them’ sort of thing. But making people afraid of knife crime (‘us’) and promising to do bad things to those caught with knifes (‘them’) is Populist (but, it turns out, not all that popular). Labour shot straight and unashamedly for some of the more unpleasant sentiments it thought it identified among ‘its people’. And failed badly.

Labour thought that The Party was strong enough to take them through the election. But it turned out that the Labour Party in itself doesn’t matter, just like the SNP in itself didn’t really matter. It really seems to have been the ideas, the vision which mattered. And that in turn suggests that there is no reason to believe that Scotland necessarily needs Labour any more. Impossible as it is to imagine even today, unless Labour can find a reason to exist beyond simply existing, it is possible to imagine it not existing.

And briefly, the other parties. The Tories, as has been discussed, are what they are and are where they are. Many Tory activists somehow believe that if they could just be a bit more strident, right-wing and pinstriped they would make the breakthrough they deserve. But that is simply a fantasy. Had it not been for Annabelle Goldie’s ability to put a human face on the Tories it would have been worse. The Tories are simply a marginal force in Scotland. The Lib Dems have their own problems and the Clegg Effect has much to do with it. But the Scottish Lib Dems did plenty harm to themselves all on their own. They behaved for much of the last Parliament as if they were still an adjunct to the Labour Party. The outright rejection of working with the SNP was a mistake. Leaving the Tories to look like the one party that would try to be constructive in Parliament was a mistake. The rabid unionism was a mistake (why not reach out a bit to a change agenda, given they are a federal party?). And the sheer opportunistic behaviour was a mistake – if the ferocity of their stance on Megrahi was hard to fully understand coming from liberals, the minimum pricing stance was absolutely inexplicable. Of course, Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott were really quite apolitical and really quite conservative and many of their voters lay to their left. So the collapse is not much of a surprise, and ‘it’s all Nick’s fault’ is short of the mark.

The left parties are all over the place. The state of current relations between the SSP and Solidarity is an embarrassment to all on the left – we should take out a defamation suit agains them both for the harm they have done the ‘brand’ of socialism in Scotland. They have made it easy to claim the left collapsed exactly in one of the most left-leaning elections in recent British history. And given what we currently hear from both, there seems little point in waiting for them to form something worth calling a party. And the bluff appears to have been called on George Galloway’s constantly shifting positioning (backing Iain Gray was not a great idea).

Which leaves the biggest disappointment being the performance of the Greens. Frankly, many (including many Greens) were disappointed at a lack of radicalism from the Greens over the last four years. It seemed to be the strategy to keep their heads down, take no chances, make no mistakes and hope to pick up more seats through the list vote. They seemed to many to pick the wrong fights and to take action like voting down the budget on what seemed like some fairly marginal grounds (reasonable as the case might have been in these areas). And then, for a number of weeks leading up to the election, they seemed to campaign primarily on being part of a Labour coalition – which was hardly an inspiring prospectus. Which is why it felt like such a missed opportunity when we saw their manifesto. If they had something this positive and clear worth voting for, what have they been doing for four years? Is there too big a gap between the ‘head’ of the Greens and the ‘voice’ of the Greens? Many hoped for a Green/SNP coalition. If they could have got some of their manifesto enacted that would perhaps have been the best possible outcome. So why four wasted years?

In no case did party really matter (other than perhaps the Tories). Vision, direction and message mattered. But the professional political classes no longer understand these things. They can only see through ‘party eyes’. But political sectarianism in Scotland may well be in steep decline.

Starting from here

So here we are. This is a remarkable time in Scottish politics. In the next issue of the Scottish Left Review we will look at what this means for delivering a left agenda in Scotland. Some will think there has never been a better time, some will feel that initiative has been lost. Some who should be on the left will be looking inwards, others will be disillusioned, others elated. Some will fear distractions of constitutional debate while others will hope for greater distance from toxic Westminster politics. Some will fear the cult of the personality, others will be glad to hear a strong Scottish voice. But whatever your snap reaction, be calm-headed and look forward with confidence. At least the Westminster way has been not only rejected but discredited in Scotland. Westminster politics is dead. Perhaps only now will we see what devolution really means.

Until we do, and if this analysis is right, there are three lessons the Scottish left must learn if it has not already:

  • There is a mood for change in Scotland and there seems to be more confidence in Scotland to find solutions for itself than from looking south for them. This may or may not mean support for independence, but it does mean that people are looking to home for their answers.
  • Scottish politics is utterly defined by different strands of left vote. Winning Scotland means winning over as much of that left-of-centre vote as possible.
  • Party does not matter any more. People have voted against cultural party allegiance in favour of vision and ideas.

Uniting left thinking, finding new answers for Scotland, putting vision ahead of party. Surely there is at least something in this to unite us?