Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Harsh realities

The referendum campaign exposed Scottish Labour’s many flaws, writes Willie Sullivan

I voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum as did several other, some prominent, members of the Scottish Labour party. I am not writing here to explain that decision but readers should know that fact before I give my take on the state of Scottish Labour.

I was recently on a train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It was a journey I shared with two well-respected, thoughtful Labour party members who had been involved in the ‘No’ campaign. Listening to them talk about the referendum it suddenly occurred to me that they were speaking as if they had lost. Phrases about how this or that ‘should have been done differently’ or ‘if only we had done that or used that person more’ peppered their conversation.

But, surely, a 10-point margin of victory in an election is a massive win in anyone’s book? So why did they feel like this? The obvious explanation, of course, was that this was a referendum, not an election. In elections parties may win by a landslide but the choice is still a consensus on the fundamentals of the state. In fact, almost every vote cast is an endorsement of its legitimacy, a vote for the system within the boundaries defined by the parties. However, in September 45 per cent of Scots, on an unheard-of electoral turnout of over 85 per cent, voted not for a party, but for a rejection of that state as it is currently configured. And that 45 per cent was not delivered by a political party campaign, but by a mongrel alliance of crowd-sourced online media, self-organised campaign groups and newly formed thinktanks – what Gerry Hassan has termed the ‘third Scotland’: ‘self-organising, self-determined and suspicious of the SNP’.

Viewing the result through this lens makes it possible to understand why the institutions and establishment of that state may feel a degree of existential angst. And, make no mistake, the Scottish Labour party is, and is seen as, a central pillar of the Scottish-British establishment. Scottish Labour has sustained a number of wounds. None on their own is fatal, but, together, they put the party in mortal danger.

What happened to this force that only a short time ago dominated not just Scotland’s politics but Britain’s? The Scottish Labour party has been in trouble for some time. In this respect, it is no different from many long-standing political parties in older democracies. The Conservative party is also in trouble, as are the Liberal Democrats. This is expressed in fewer people voting for them as a share of the population and in general levels of trust and respect, as well as plummeting membership. That the Scottish National party, the Scottish Greens and the United Kingdom Independence party are thriving is all part of a landscape that Scottish Labour has been unable, or refused, to understand.

It is not only political parties but many other institutions of the state that are struggling to make sense of the new power relationships which have been brought about by changes in technology. A more democratic form of access to, and the ability to spread, information can change everything. This is apparent today in the impact of social media in the referendum campaign. Compare that to the public relations industry, an industry created to manage information about the elite and the powerful. Its techniques were warmly embraced by political parties’ campaigns because they, too, are organisations run by elites. They have had to be, thanks to the paternal nature of the state, whether run by left or right. But the notion of ‘trust us because we know best’ has been fatally undermined. People have more information now from all sorts of sources and it has exposed the difference between what we pretended to be and what we are, resulting in an erosion of trust.

The Scottish Labour party is a hugely centralised, hierarchical organisation peopled by an increasingly narrow subsection of Scottish society. It looks, feels and acts like something from a different age. No wonder it finds it very difficult to assess or understand the changes in Scottish society: it is only very superficially connected to most of it. And, sadly, the bit it is not connected to at all are the people in the housing schemes of Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and Dundee who voted ‘Yes’. These are the people that needed social justice the most but who stopped voting because we ignored them. We ignored them because they lived in safe Labour seats, where turnout was low and we could guarantee large majorities. Then we ignored them because they stopped voting altogether as their wages fell, housing costs went up and Labour was the only choice, but we had not done anything about it. Our only comfort is that everybody else ignored them as well.

This all came to a head in the final weeks of the referendum. The supermarkets and the banks that we labelled ‘predatory capitalism’ suddenly seemed to be our allies. Scots do not like to be threatened and do not like the people that threaten them. To many, telling us our food and mortgages will cost more if we voted for independence felt like a threat. It says something that, despite all the major political parties, their leaders and the supermarkets and banks hitting hard with negative messages, 45 per cent of people still voted ‘Yes’. The result should be a good one for Labour but we failed to distance ourselves from that establishment of the rich and the powerful and that is why most of us, both those who voted ‘Yes’ and those who voted ‘No’, feel very uncomfortable.

We have a long way to come back and it looks almost impossible. My analysis is far from flawless, but understanding some painful truths could be a starting point.


Willie Sullivan is director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and writes here in a personal capacity


Photo: Scottish Labour

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Willie Sullivan

is director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland


  • Agree with much of this. The notion, apparently espoused by Mandelson, that Labour could safely ignore those on the left as they had nowhere else to go is being shown up for its short-sightedness in Scotland, and, to a lesser extent so far, elsewhere.

  • Very realistic article and ordinary people fed up with the banks, establishment and fat cats and are looking for strong charismatic and positive leadership. Who is there in our Labour ranks in Scotland to provide that? Seems very empty after John Smith and Donald Dewer. Perhaps folk coming through the younger ranks? Worrying the complaints made against Ed and the London Office.Somebody somewhere get a grip otherwise seats there will be lost.

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