David Jamieson looks at how mass disaffection with austerity led to the SNP's landslide and the prospect of a radical left electoral challenge
Scotland is in the middle of what many commentators are describing as a ‘democratic revolution’. While there isn’t much tear gas billowing over the barricades, the phrase has a certain truth to it.
Five years ago, Scotland seemed destined to be a stateless political backwater forever. The country has been dominated by Labour for a generation, and sported many of Labour’s most stable seats. It was often said that in the West Coast of Scotland if you put a red rosette on a donkey it would be elected.
Today there is just one Scottish Labour MP. 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats are now held by the Scottish National Party. To understand this transformation, and to understand how Scotland could buck the UK general election trend so profoundly, it is necessary to understand that Scotland has been living through its most profound social movement.
Consistent disaffection with the direction of Labour and with Westminster politics in general peaked with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This disaffection re-emerged with the austerity consensus around the UK general election in 2010 that fed into a landslide victory for the SNP in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2011.
The result was remarkable for a number of reasons, not least that the Scottish Parliament had been designed by its Labour architects to prevent any majority government forming and therefore to prevent a Bill for an independence referendum passing through the House.
As soon as the SNP had secured their improbable majority, that referendum became a “when” rather than an “if.” Support for independence has remained fairly low in Scotland over the last hundred years, with never more than a third of those polled in favour. Recognising this, Unionist politicians pushed aggressively for an early referendum. The SNP secured time to campaign with a referendumlate in their term of office – September 2014.
Many on the radical left, seeing the opportunity to campaign for a break with Westminster’s policies of austerity and war, its elitist culture, and the democratic deficit, began organising even before the date the vote was set. A number of campaigns were established, all working in tandem, to advance a left-wing vision of what could be achieved in an independent country. Groups across the country, and organised mass, co-ordinated days of activity. It focused its campaigning work in working-class communities.
Among these were Common Weal, a think tank that researches and promotes progressive policies; Women for Independence which campaigned for women’s interests and sought to end the exclusion of women from the public and political sphere; and National Collective, which sought to integrate cultural and political life.
The most important outfit, however, was undoubtedly the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). After the official Yes campaign, RIC was the largest and most active vehicle working for a Yes vote.
It held a succession of conferences to bring national attention and attract activists, the first numbering around 800 attendees, and the last, 3,000. RIC established around 30 local groups across the country, and organised mass, co-ordinated days of activity. It focused its campaigning work in working-class communities.
These had the smallest stake in British society but also some of the lowest voter turnouts and were, RIC calculated, wide open for the radical independence message. Canvassing and voter registration drives in these areas helped to produce the unprecedented 97% voter registration for the referendum.
The eventual 45% Yes to 55% No outcome was, in reality, a stunning victory for the Yes campaign. Yes support had moved from 28% at the start of the campaign, and RIC had inspired and mobilised hundreds of thousands. By contrast, the No campaign, which was composed almost entirely of the three Westminster parties and the mainstream media with little grassroots organisation, had lost huge amounts of territory, resorting to fearmongering and mudslinging.
The immediate winners of the referendum have been of course the SNP. They have around 110,000 members now, making them, per head of population, one of the largest political parties on the planet. Their electoral victories are powered by the raw energy of the referendum movement and by hundreds of thousands of newly-enfranchised working-class voters. The main losers have been the Unionist parties, most of all Labour.
But Scotland is relatively near the beginning of this “democratic revolution.” It was inevitable that pro-independence and leftist sentiment would swing in behind the SNP in the 2015 general election. The SNP campaigned on two main policies – ending austerity and abolishing Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapon’s system, based in Scotland. This hard left-of-centre stance is the reason the SNP were able to weigh their votes in pounds and stones by 7 May.
But the plurality of the independence movement is still very much in evidence. The Scottish Parliamentary election in 2016 is expected to put this back on display, with both the Greens and, likely, a radical left electoral challenge seeking to provide an new pro-independence and left opposition with the apparently terminal collapse of Labour.
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