A look at the difference in this election on either side of the border, from Chris Bambery
It’s worth repeating – that was a tale of two very different elections. One in England, the other in Scotland. In the former the unexpected success of Jeremy Corbyn was the story, in Scotland, it was the major hit the ruling Scottish National Party took.
The crucial feature of the Scottish results was that the SNP lost half a million votes compared to their 2015 result when their haul was 56 out of 59 seats at Westminster. On Thursday they lost 21 of those, with high profile scalps including former Scottish First Minster Alex Salmond and the party’s deputy leader, Angus Robertson.
The second crucial, and worrying feature, was that the Tories garnered an extra 300,000 votes and won 13 seats, overcoming the recent belief that they faced extinction north of the border.
But the other big contrast was between Labour’s performance in England and in Scotland. True, Scottish Labour can point to winning seven seats, taking back six from the SNP, but their vote remained virtually static, up just 2.8 percent, and they trail the Tories, whose vote doubled to 28.6 percent. The SNP kept 36.9 percent of the vote.
Scottish Labour benefitted from the Corbyn factor, despite having done little to deserve that. The Labour victor in East Lothian could not bring himself to mention Jeremy’s name, even in his victory speech. The emphasis remained on opposing a second independence referendum.
There is no question that a second independence referendum is off the agenda for the foreseeable future. The SNP realised there was no majority support for this during the campaign and tried to switch onto an anti-Tory track. Clearly, on the doorstep, there were people who were opposed to another referendum, but that alone does not explain the SNP losses and the Tory gains.
Knocking up support among previous SNP voters in East Lothian there were clearly some people who had voted Labour because they liked Corbyn. There were about as many who were not voting because the SNP had not enthused them in the way they had two years ago in the wake of the 2014 referendum, and they were not inspired by the SNP in office. But a bigger chunk were working class people who had clearly voted Tory and my hunch is they had also voted to Leave in the EU referendum.
These were people left orphaned because the SNP never addressed their concerns and worries, and never offered them hope in the way Corbyn did a hundred or so more miles down south, and nor did Scottish Labour. Instead, the Tories were left to take their votes.
And that brings me back to the Tory resurgence. Scotland has seen the emergence of a hard Unionist vote, based on British nationalism, and that is nasty - very nasty. The obvious divide is between the SNP and the Tories, but it goes further. Scottish Labour will be too busy celebrating their relative success - relative compared to their dominance of Scottish politics just a decade plus ago - that they won't notice, that by focusing on opposing a second referendum and championing the Union, they have helped create a Frankenstein’s monster.
For years it has been commonplace to celebrate the idea that Scotland’s a nice, open and inclusive country free from the sort of anti-migrant racism so evident prior to this election down south. No more.
The new Tories aren’t the old landed gentry and staid Edinburgh lawyers of yore. The new breed are metropolitan, young and very ideological. Thatcher’s children or grandchildren. They also have money and are savvy about the media, including social media. They’ll have studied the success of Trump and the Leave vote, and will be drawing lessons from Theresa May’s failure.
In other words, they are looking to drag Scotland rightwards. Not just in terms of parliamentary politics but in terms of social attitudes. It was clear they are happy to play footloose with sectarian forces, although the Orange Order is a shadow of itself it is still a presence and later this month will put 4000 feet on the streets of Prestonpans in East Lothian, a working class town.
In truth, Scotland is not free of racism but it is just that until now the main parties have avoided targeting migrants and have followed the SNP government in taking a softer line than Westminster’s towards the Muslim community. Now we have a Tory presence which can break that consensus.
So what needs to be done?
Firstly if the SNP leadership’s conclusion that their support for a second referendum is to blame for their losses, they are drawing the wrong conclusion. It will alienate still further another tranche of those who backed independence in 2014 and does not address those pro-independence supporters who switched to Labour because of Corbyn. Above all, it doesn’t address the SNP’s own inability to galvanise the surge in membership it gained after the 2014 referendum. At grassroots level, it hasn’t built sufficiently on that success.
But above all the Tories used opposition to indyref2, helped by Labour, to rally the Unionist camp and inject a real sense of bitterness into the campaign. There is nothing to be gained by appeasing them.
Secondly, blaming indyref2 does not address the elephant in the room; The rise of the Unionist right which will cheer on May’s compact with the Democratic Unionist Party and a hard Brexit.
The truth is that Scotland was crying out for the sort of campaign Corbyn ran. He held big rallies in Glasgow and elsewhere but the Scottish Labour leadership stayed away and did none of that. The SNP did have an anti-austerity message but could not take that into working class communities in the way Corbyn did.
Those of us on the pro-independence Left will have to discuss how we are going to work towards independence now, rallying the forces we mobilised in 2014. That means engaging, discussing and planning with left SNP members and supporters. It means there is a space for the likes of RISE.
But we are also going to have to look at how we can work with others who don’t share that position to mobilise against austerity, for the rights of migrants, refugees and EU citizens living here and much more.
Returning to the streets of places like Prestonpans and Tranent, both in East Lothian, and both with proud working class traditions, the need is to mobilise in those working class communities and also in the newer housing developments where work white collar workers live and commute into Edinburgh to work.
This was a bloody awful election for the SNP but Scottish Labour should also be taking note that all is far from well. There is a clear enemy facing us all and we need to stand up and challenge it.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Ernie O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound: books that made me a socialist
- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win