Weather metaphors have been considerably overused by those analysing the SNP’s general election landslide. In seeking to understand the events of the past two weeks, the metaphor of the juggernaut seems more appropriate. Tsunamis and earthquakes are difficult to predict, create massive damage and involve lengthy rebuilding processes. Only that last element of a freak weather disaster applies, particularly for Scottish Labour, with internal self-destruction adding to external pressures.
Juggernauts are powerful vehicles that represent people’s hopes and prayers, literally pulled along by thousands of people as a symbol of collective hope. Not to take this metaphor too far, of course, but mass participation in the political process during the independence referendum produced engagement on a scale redolent of the birth of the labour movement and that led to the SNP landslide. No wonder many professional pundits and Labour ‘strategists’ failed to grasp the new political dynamic in Scotland, rooted as they are in the narrow machine student politics of the 1980s and 1990s.
What many observers outwith Scotland did not appreciate is the long slow process that produced 56 SNP MPs elected on massive swings on a scale unprecedented in British political history. It’s arguable that the decline of Labour and the rise of SNP has its roots in the 1970s – the point at which political change became inevitable in a rapidly shifting post-industrial landscape.
The problem for Labour arose when the party became led by fixers, not visionaries, whose paramount concern has been controlling the party machine and agenda. The party became closed to all possibilities other than what serves the needs of the leadership and hostile to any other views or alternative visions.
No wonder civic Scotland looked askance upon being informed that Labour ‘delivered’ the Scottish parliament. This rather overlooked the role anyone else played. Devolution created new opportunities for dialogue, a space outside the Westminster bubble where alternative views could be heard and proportional representation delivered diversity in party dynamics in Holyrood and local government.
All this time the sands were shifting under Labour and the 2011 result is testament to their failure to engage and realise there was a disconnect with the people that was more fundamental than results in electoral cycles. Then came the indyref. The mobilisation of previously disengaged people by the ‘Yes’ campaign uncovered a hunger for change and the campaign effectively used social media and more conventional meetings to reach many who previously had no idea that other people shared their views to question the status quo.
Bypassing the mainstream media which was largely hostile to independence was a necessity that enabled a profoundly empowering process as small groups of people started to interact with one another without being guided by power brokers. It was nothing less than a collective self-generating movement of political education and organisation via Twitter and Facebook.
The reality of the ‘No’ vote meant many woke up on the morning of September 19 disappointed, but not defeated. What many in the political class and commentariat failed to grasp was that ‘Yes’ energy and activism was now looking for an outlet. There was a surge in membership of all parties who campaigned for ‘Yes’, and the unions experienced mass requests for opt-outs from Labour at the same time as the SNP trade union group membership exploded.
Many people made a conscious choice in the lead up and on May 7 to join and/or vote SNP to send a message to Labour and the political elites that they didn’t believe the status quo was good enough. We know that many have ‘lent’ us their vote and support and are looking for us to deliver, and reserve their right to exercise different choices in the future.
This is the challenge we face, to stay grounded and remember that people have placed their trust in us as the party that can redress inequality and injustice at a time when the most ideological Conservative government is preparing an all out assault on the rights and freedoms won by the labour movement.
The SNP trade union group now has more members than Scottish Labour and next month will convene to decide how to move forward both in organisational and political terms. It is not a union but a network of SNP members who are in unions and do not believe that the historical Labour link is working.
This is an argument which some of us have been making for a long time, and is increasingly shared across the spectrum on the left in Scotland. I would also add that there are those in other parts of the UK that question the validity and relevance of the link – my comrades in Plaid and non-Labour party activists in England for example. The FBU and RMT have already concluded that their campaigning and negotiating is best done independently.
We are poised to see a historical realignment of union structures and funding change to reflect their views of their members who no longer trust in Labour per se. Where I believe there is a constructive way forward is if all who wish to resist the attacks on working people and their rights are able to come together and seek that common ground to fight the austerity agenda.
Scottish Labour’s greatest failure is to deny the possibility that other parties, especially the SNP, have something to offer in that struggle. Tribalism is destroying Labour in Scotland, but in order to be an effective opposition to the Tories in Westminster, I hope it recognises it has an opportunity to work with us to seek that common ground for common good.
Chris Stephens is the (SNP) MP for Glasgow South West. He was previously a senior UNISON lay official in Glasgow City Council.