Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary and Labour Leadership candidate has declared the SNP, along with the Tories and UKIP, exploited ‘anger, fear and division’ to win the general election in Scotland. She is, flatly, wrong.
She further suggested that Labour needed to advance a message of ‘hope’, ‘optimism’ and ‘confidence’. I could not agree more with this second point. However, the implication is that Labour have the opportunity to grab the reins of hope, optimism and, confidence, because the SNP have failed to do so. This is a fundamental misreading of the election campaign in Scotland, and the crushing defeat the centre-left nationalists inflicted on the Labour Party.
The day Scottish politics changed for good was the 18th of September 2014; the day of the independence referendum. On that day, the people of Scotland rejected the SNP’s offer of independent statehood by 55.3% to 44.7%. That, the unionist parties thought, would be the end of it for at least, as Alex Salmond said, a generation. They could not have been more wrong.
The aftermath of the referendum saw the SNP explode in popularity. It rocketed to 115,000 members by April, making it the third-largest party in the country despite Scotland having less than a tenth of the UK’s population, and the polls clearly predicted a landslide win for months before the election itself. The spectacular success of winning 56 seats on the 7th of May, all but three in the country and an increase of 50 over their 2010 total, only confirmed what most people had known for a long time: the SNP, despite their failure to secure independence, are to be the dominant force in Scottish politics for some time to come.
The SNP have claimed the political heart of the Scottish nation not by exploiting anger and fostering division, but rather by offering the very hope that Labour has summarily failed to provide. The supposedly left-wing party failed throughout the last parliament to offer a convincing counter-narrative to the Coalition’s ‘Austerity Britain’ and UKIP’s ‘Little England’, allowing the former party to dominate the economic conversation and the latter to set the debate on immigration.
The SNP, on the other hand, has pushed against the prevailing ideology of swinging cuts and a slammed drawbridge to Europe. Nicola Sturgeon called for an end to austerity, and made the effort to reach out to other parties who wanted similar things; her calls for a ‘Progressive Alliance’ went unheeded by Labour. The SNP also argued, along with Plaid Cymru and the Greens, for a rational immigration policy that does not limit the desperately-needed flow of talent and labour into the country, and instead deals directly with the infrastructure and public service issues which are people’s real concerns. Labour, again, were silent.
It is clear that the heart of the grassroots Labour Party lies to the left; it is also clear, through the results of numerous polls and surveys, that there is considerable appetite among many voters for an alternative to the neoliberal orthodoxy that dominates modern British politics. Labour failed to benefit from this because they were unable to make people believe that they could deliver that alternative. In Scotland, the SNP showed that they could, and that is why Scots voted for them in their droves.
If the SNP victory is due to anger, it is anger at Labour’s failure to challenge the Tories effectively; if it is due to fear, it is fear of what might happen to Scotland if the Tories remain unchallenged; and if there is division, it is division between the Scots who have realised there is an alternative to Lib-Lab-Con neoliberalism and the English, Welsh and Northern Irish who, sadly, have yet to reach that conclusion. In short, the SNP won because they, not Labour, offered Scotland hope.
I hope that Yvette Cooper and others like her within the Labour Party come to understand that, and help return the party to its left-wing roots. Otherwise, it is doomed to irrelevance.
This article is cross-posted with the author’s blog, Cynical Optimist