With two weeks before polling, myself and my agent were discussing our strategy for the count and when we’d call for a recount. We both thought I was in danger of losing, because despite some positive canvassing, we were picking up warning signs. Early on, more people were self-identifying as Tory voters. This was over and above the normal ‘Unionist’ vote. We found solid ‘No’ voters whose main issue was the prospect of a second referendum voting Tory in the belief they were best placed to defend the Union. The Tory vote share jumped from 5% to 15%.
From my own experience and observing material Labour put out in Glasgow South West, and in stark contrast to its national campaign, the constitutional issue was barely being mentioned. In the more prosperous areas where voters heard that message it opted for the Tories, to the detriment of some experienced and well-known SNP MPs. I’ve also heard tales of tacit nod and wink agreements where Labour stood back and didn’t run campaigns firing on all cylinders precisely to bring down SNP candidates where the Tories, or in some cases LibDems, were the main challenger – something that Dugdale tried to deny she implied in a Sky News interview but the slip-up is on the record.
There were two Labour campaigns in Scotland – one led by Dugdale, the other promoting Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity message and the latter only kicked in towards the end of the campaign but was sufficient to attract enough indy left supporters to switch to Labour that cut majorities and cost my party seats. It wasn’t the only factor though. Although May wanted the election to be about Brexit and political commentators thought it would be about the constitution in Scotland, we ended up with an election about public services and trust.
The British Tory campaign was complacent and arrogant, giving the distinct impression it was blissfully unaware what actually happens in workplaces, public services, homes, and for those relying on social care. Yet they still managed got 43% of votes. But Tory austerity came back to haunt them because it’s clear voters are fed up being told what cannot be achieved, or that the austerity vision of workplace practice is the only game in town.
The brutal reality is that no matter who the Labour candidate was, in certain constituencies many people were voting for Corbyn. Even if the candidate had signed a letter calling for Corbyn to go, and even where a candidate had consistently voted for outsourcing and privatisation as a councillor, that didn’t matter.
There has been some talk of hitting a reset button since 8 June, but I wonder how much was beyond anyone in Scotland’s control in that in a Westminster election has historically been Tory/Labour contest. 2015 has now to be seen as an outlier rather than a trend – ‘yes’ voters translated into SNP votes in 2015, when we were the insurgents, but this didn’t happen in June on the same scale. What we have learned is that in British general elections, we must update our offer into a radical and bold vision of what we can do at Westminster.
In Glasgow South West, we campaigned to re-elect a left wing, anti-austerity candidate, who had argued the trade union corner, consistently represented the Waspi women, argued for shipbuilding on the Clyde, and for funding of public services and the benefits this has on the economy and everyday life. So where do we go from here?
Our opponents’ biggest mistake is to say this was a setback for independence. Independence support still remains consistently higher than support for a referendum. We cannot allow ourselves to be boxed into process arguments and must make the case as to why independence will deliver for people in Scotland. The ‘yes’ coalition can do this by articulating a vision of why independence rather than Westminster dependence can achieve this
Sturgeon pressing the ‘reset’ button was the start, but most exciting for me is the promise of a bold and radical programme for government. Every political party and government needs a refresh at certain points, and this should allow the SNP to present a more attractive offer to the electorate.
The first opportunity is to present a vision of a fairer, more respectful vision for delivering social security. I welcomed the promise to make phone calls to the Scottish social security service free – it will be a relief to those currently pay over the odds to contact the DWP when sanctioned, chasing up claims and payments.
Returning to a parliament of minorities, the opportunities for MPs like myself are limitless and this should now be the justice parliament. Justice for women who are now having to work in some cases an additional 6 years before they reach retirement. Justice for those who are victims of, or family members who have lost loved ones to contaminated blood. Justice for former miners and those blacklisted.
This parliament should pursue fair rights at work to be protected in the Brexit process. And, we need to make the case for socialism and social protection in a Scottish context and need to do more to communicate what we can do if given the opportunity.
Both the general election and council results have proved there are voters in Scotland who will vote for the de-toxified Tories, and there are enough ‘Labour no matter what’ combined with young voters with no direct memory of ‘new’ Labour to give Labour a second look. Internal Labour contradictions cannot be papered over as Brexit takes place and the powerlessness of Scottish Tory MPs has already been exposed by the DUP grubby deal. However, the SNP must not focus on the failings of other parties but present a bold vision to generate enthusiasm for independence as a positive choice worth making. The results in June are a warning shot, message received and understood.
Chris Stephens is the SNP MP for Glasgow South West