In the Yorkshire Post (January 16), Lord Jack McConnell called upon Scottish Labour to occupy the centre ground of Scottish politics. A key ally of Tony Blair, it could be said his record in office laid the foundations for Labour’s denouement in Scotland, so he may not be the best source of advice for Keir Starmer or for the new leader of Scottish Labour. But this isn’t about who leads Scottish Labour. It’s about what Labour stands for.
In 1997, Labour won 1.3 million Scottish votes. They took 50 Westminster seats to the SNP’s 6. In the 2019 General election, the positions switched. The SNP took 47 seats and Labour, only 1. The Labour vote fell to 500,000. McConnell’s record and current advice needs to be seen in this historical context.
When he took over as First Minister of Scotland, from the late, great Donald Dewar and his successor Henry McLeish, Jack was handed a golden legacy. Scotland WAS Labour, not only in charge at Westminster but also the biggest party in Holyrood. McConnell took over in 2002 and after only 5 years, he’d lost Holyrood and resigned.
To be fair, it wasn’t all his fault. The Labour Party nationally had switched from a Left of centre party with a clear Socialist vision to a Centrist party promoting PFI, increased privatisation of the NHS and unquestioning allegiance to the United States leading to the disaster that was Iraq. In 2007, Scottish voters rejected the Blairitant Tendency.
Enter Alex Salmond with a masterstroke.
For years, SNP victories, with the odd exception, were confined to former Tory heartlands earning them the nickname ‘The Tartan Tories’. They just could not beat Labour. They failed to break down Labour’s red, Scottish wall at Westminster. But following the war in Iraq, Alex Salmond recognised that Labour had abandoned the traditional Left wing of Scottish politics and he re-positioned the SNP as the Party of the Left. No more ‘Tartan Tories’ but ‘Tartan Socialists’. Scottish Labour voters now moved to the SNP, just as they did in the North of England in 2019. Salmond won the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2007 leading to McConnell’s departure.
So, Labour’s eventual collapse at Holyrood and Westminster can’t all be laid at McConnell’s door. In 1997, the 1.3 million votes won by Tony Blair in Scotland represented 45% of the vote. By 2005 Labour had lost 400,000 votes in Scotland, and lost another 200,000 in the next 10 years. But for most of that time Labour held its seats albeit with shrinking majorities. Labour’s Westminster collapse actually happened in 2015 when crucially most of the votes went straight to the SNP.
The Independence referendum in 2014, had shown there was a real desire in Scotland for separation. Although the SNP lost, they had persuaded 45% of voters on an incredible 85% turnout. Ed Miliband’s disastrous ‘Better Together’ campaign reinforced the perception that Labour had abandoned the Left. Years of Tory austerity and cuts to services boosted SNP support and apart from a short-lived recovery under Jeremy Corbyn, when Labour Westminster MPs went from 1 to 8, Labour is again at rock bottom with only 1 MP and just 18% of the vote.
The final straw was when England voted to leave the EU. The so-called partnership of equals found England’s will being imposed on the people of Scotland who had voted Remain. Keir Starmer has said that the Brexit debate is over. But he’s also ruled out an early second referendum on independence.
So, can Labour comeback by establishing itself as the party of the centre? I don’t think so. In Scotland, the centre is small and it’s already occupied by the Lib Dems. Key, is the mindset of the Scottish electorate most of which identifies with Left values.
Keir Starmer will have only one shot at winning No 10. It’s clear that moving the deckchairs won’t stop the Titanic sinking. Scotland wants a new boat and Scotland wants a fresh vote. For Keir to win at Westminster he must rebuild Scottish Labour. Fight for the Union, yes. But he must agree to an early Independence referendum. Sir Keir must now listen to the voice of voters in Scotland and not to that of Gentleman Jack.
Note: George McManus was Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Beverley and Holderness at the general election in 2005 and for the seat of Haltemprice and Howden in 1997. He was elected to represent Yorkshire and the Humber Labour members on the Party’s National Policy Forum between 1997 and 2018, when he lost his seat due to Antisemitism allegations.
George McManus, 7 Whins Lane, HU11 5JS 07720 847819. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org