The SNP have the biggest margin of victory since the Scottish parliament came into being, taking seats that were considered Labour heartlands. Ben Wray looks at why it all went so horribly wrong for Labour.

Alex Salmond

Only a few months ago, the result of the Scottish election looked to be following Labour’s script. The theory went that a Conservative led government in Westminster bent on all out class war combined with the SNP presiding over four years of economic despair would be enough to see Labour to the finishing line.

Britain needs a powerful opposition to the Con-Dems and victory in Holyrood will be the perfect platform to start the fightback, so the story went. And it was backed up by poll figures, with the Sunday Herald’s poll on February 27th suggesting that Labour were ‘on course for a resounding victory’.

Sixty-six days later, the SNP have the biggest margin of victory since the Scottish parliament came into being, they have taken seats across Scotland that were considered Labour heartlands- including five in Glasgow. Alex Salmond is not wrong when he calls the victory ‘historic’, never before have Labour been so emphatically dismantled. So why did it go so horribly off script?

Gray’s gaffe

The Salmond factor has been talked up, and there’s no doubt that his personal talents are far superior to the entirely unpleasant, charmless Iain Gray. But this only begs a bigger question: how did Labour get sucked into a straight contest between Gray and Salmond? The sight of Scottish Labour’s leader dashing from Glasgow Central station into the nearest sandwich bar (Subway, inevitably) to escape the wrath of a few anti-cuts protesters did not just provide a few laughs at Gray’s buffoonery, it exposed an ugly truth: Labour are completely incapable of redefining themselves after thirteen years at the helm in Westminster.

You can imagine the confusion Gray’s gaffe caused amongst Labour hacks, spin-doctor’s and think tank’s: ‘Ok, that was a mistake, but how do you respond to a couple of elderly radicals with a homemade banner and an enthusiastic tone shouting about Tory cuts when the camera’s rolling?’ The student revolt and half a million on the TUC demo haven’t convinced Labour’s top dogs that the answer may be to turn round and explain to the concerned people of citizen’s against public cuts that they won’t simply enforce the Tory cuts in Glasgow.

The response to the Con-Dem’s of ‘too hard, too fast’ sums up the crisis within Labour: they want to get past New Labour but ‘Red Ed’ is trapped within a right-wing parliamentary party and he along with the rest of his allies have no intellectual alternative to put forward to the age of austerity, with a neoliberal consensus spanning across the party’s factions.

The union vote for the younger Miliband was intended to increase trade union weight in the party, instead it has prompted Labour’s not so bright young hope to constantly emphasise distance between him and the radical words of the likes of Len McCluskey, the new leader of Labour’s biggest backer, UNITE. Consequently Ed ends up hurting his base of support in the party, even going as far as to hint that the very voting system that got him elected should be changed for the next Labour leadership election to limit the Union link.

At the same time he recently appeared as the keynote speaker at the ‘Progress’ think-tank’s conference- the very think-tank that did so much to get his brother David elected and feeds the right-wing of the party with ideas and information. Ed is stuck between an understanding that Labour needs to reinvent itself without having any of the tools to make it happen. The outcome of this bind is Gray- negative, grumpy and boring.

Outflanking Labour

Labour has barely been able to lay a glove on the SNP over the past four years and have no distinctive economic or social policies to the nationalists that can muster the enthusiasm of its working class base. There may never have been an election previously where the two main parties have went in with such similiar manifesto’s, and in that situation the Scottish electorate look to their recent history: the SNP can point to a few progressive achievements in Holyrood (no tuition fees, no NHS prescription charges, free personal care for the elderly, free school meals for all 5-8 year olds, as well as rhetorical opposition to war and Trident); when one thinks Labour thirteen years of war, privatisation and finally economic crisis under Blair and Brown spring to mind.

The SNP have, remarkably, been able to outflank Labour to the left. Not so long ago that didn’t seem very likely: Salmond pre-crash made a big deal of Ireland and Iceland’s ‘arc of prosperity’ as an example to follow and that Scotland’s banks were respected worldwide. Despite these glaring contradictions, voters that broke from Labour in 2007 for the first time have been given no reason to return and left Lib-Dem voters fleeing Clegg’s shipwreck saw the SNP as a more natural home than Labour.

But let’s be clear- the SNP have been successful at appearing left primarily by rhetoric and skillful use of minority government, as opposed to any principled basis. They are opportunists and are dedicated to the needs of finance capital: ‘the Sun’ doesn’t flip from all out war on the nationalists in 2007 to calling for a vote for them in 2011 unless Mr Murdoch believes that capitalism’s interests are at heart. Big business doesn’t want a Labour government in Scotland as it puts too much heat on the Con-Dems in London.

The financial elites are confident the SNP won’t put up any serious opposition to the cuts agenda (none of their actions have suggested they would so far) and they are banking on Salmond being unable to turn a minority for independence into a majority at a referendum. They have been helped by the fact that Osborne agreed to respect the SNP’s budget when the Con-Dems came to power and consequently Scots are yet to suffer as much as in England, with the real pain on its way. But this is no fluke; they have played the classic populist game to perfection- pose left whilst keeping big business happy, thus outflanking Labour on both sides of the political spectrum.

Scottish distinction

However, there remains one question: if that was the case in the 2011 election why did Labour convincingly beat the SNP in Scotland in the 2010 general election? The reality that can no longer be ignored is that the Scottish electorate vote on the basis of whether they’re electing a British government or a Scottish one.

This may sound obvious but, as I said in my introduction, the consensus was that a Labour campaign based on being the only people that can challenge the Eton boys would be a no brainer. Labour strategists believed this too, with a campaign focusing on Westminster only abandoned when it was clear the plan was heading for disaster. It was an understandable strategy, after all the same Scots elected just one Tory to Westminster in 2010.

But, as the statistician John Curtice has analysed, there is a consistent trend of Scottish voters taking the Scottish parliament seriously. This shouldn’t be confused with rising support for independence, as Curtice points out ‘24% backed independence when the SNP came to power, slightly below the 27% who did so in 1999.’ What it does suggest, however, is that the SNP under devolution are working under much more favourable terrain than pre-1997 as there now exists a Scottish political establishment which opens up a space within Scottish society for a distinctive Scottish politics, or as Curtice puts it a ‘forum for the mobilisation of Scottish identity’.

Combine this with the fact that the PR electoral system substantially increases SNP representation and that the nationalists in government can pose as the opposition to unpopular policies from Westminster, and you can see why Tony Blair privately admits he made a huge mistake in giving Scotland and Wales devolution.

Reformism displaced

SNP governments will not be a short-term trend whilst the current devolution agreement stands. This doesn’t mean that there will be an invincible march to independence, the trend may follow that of Quebec where the nationalists are continually elected to power but continually lose referendums on independence. However, it does mean that the traditional grip of Labour over Scotland has been decisively broken, as the momentum is towards further devolution, rather than back to the Union.

Consequently, reformism as an organised force in Scottish society is weakening- many working class people who have looked to Labour as the source of social change have become displaced. Where else can these people (who constitute potentially hundreds of thousands) go? The Scottish Socialist Party provided a radical home for many before its meltdown in 2005, which the SNP and the Greens have taken most advantage of.

We are now six years on from the left’s implosion and the need for a Scotland wide voice that argues the capitalists should pay the price for the crisis and that the solution is a bigger, not smaller, public sector is paramount. It is easy to forget that both SNP and Labour have systematically concealed what cuts they will make in their election manifesto’s as it is such common practice, but we should be under no illusion: the welfare state is going to face a massacre and if the left is going to rebuild it has to first prove it’s worth its salt.

George Galloway’s vote of 6335 was respectable considering he was stuck in the middle of a Labour-SNP war in Glasgow, but it only serves to underline the fact that there is no magic wand to solving the left’s problems: We have lost our roots within working class areas, Galloway’s vote in the East of Glasgow (where youth unemployment is running at 50%) and Pollok were particularly weak.

We have a big challenge- widen the cracks in the Con-Dem government to breaking point and make the opportunists in Holyrood feel like they can’t afford to do the Tories dirty work in Scotland- but if we live up to it, the left, as well as the working class, will reap the rewards. By providing the necessary leadership and unity to build an anti-cuts movement that is both broad and militant, we can seize the initiative just as the pain of austerity starts to bite in Scotland.

By Ben Wray (International Socialist Group)

This article is from the website of the newly formed International Socialist Group. The website will be launched on Wednesday 11th May 2011. For more information go to or our Facebook page