I have a complicated relationship with the Labour party…
I remember staying up all night with my mum to watch the results of New Labour’s landslide general election victory in 1997. She let me stay off school the next day because she said I would learn more that way than I possibly could at any class. She was right. I was 13 years old and had shown no interest in politics before but my mum’s excitement was infectious. We watched one Tory grandee after another fall as Tony Blair swept into power (I recall a particularly colourful outburst when David Mellor lost his seat) and my mum told me all about Labour, what it stood for and her history with the party. I was hooked on politics from that night onwards. I became a bit obsessed with Tony Blair for a while, probably because of the sense of joy I felt from my mum and the people on TV grasping to shake his hand in victory. I guess in a way I was like a lot of other people in the country at that point, swept up in the moment.
I don’t remember politics being much of a dinner table discussion topic in my house but I would talk to my mum and my dad about things I heard in the news, try to process them and come to my own conclusions. I'm pretty certain that my dad was an SNP supporter and I know that he has always believed in Scottish Independence. From my perspective, for all my parents had the same principles, they had different politics, and both shaped the way I saw the world in more or less equal measure.
When the first Scottish parliamentary election came along in 1999 it just killed me that I couldn't vote. I knew I wanted Scotland to be independent so I would probably have voted SNP. Another general election snuck by me with Labour’s “quiet landslide” in 2001 (I was too young to vote by 6 days) so I had to wait till the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2002. I voted SNP and, although I was disappointed when Labour won quite comfortably, the sheer act of casting a ballot felt like an enormous privilege. I've voted SNP in every election since with two notable exceptions: an ill-advised, and much regretted, anti-war vote for the Lib-Dems in 2005; and shamefully forgetting to register a proxy vote for last year’s European election in which UKIP got their only seat in Scotland. There have been other parties along the way in a ‘single-transferable-vote’ kind of way, but nothing really to write home about.
Despite not voting for them I don’t remember ever hating the Labour party. They were in power since I was a teenager so they were always the establishment to rail against, but I always had a residual affection. This changed in 2003 with the war in Iraq. There is an amazing practised art amongst Labour politicians and supporters of rolling their eyes at any mention of Iraq, as if to say ‘oh this again, we've all moved on now, that’s just student politics’. I can feel people reading this now and thinking exactly that. It’s a neat trick and a clever way of brushing over a horrifying catalogue of human-rights violations, corruption, deceit and abuse of power. To be honest I can’t really imagine what it will take to cleanse Iraq from my view of the Labour party.
These problems seemed to be primarily embodied by Tony Blair. So when Blair was replaced by Gordon Brown in 2007 the feeling from my mum and other Labour supporters hurting over Iraq seemed to be that the Labour party was recovering its soul. But it didn't seem to play out that way. This was not long after the SNP won the Scottish election by a single seat, and it was about this time that the strange death of the Labour party in Scotland really gathered pace. The party spectacularly threw its toys out the pram and made a mess out of opposition in Holyrood that nobody could possibly have envisaged. I have struggled to understand just about every Scottish Labour action since then. For almost a decade they have stumbled around Scottish politics, falling from one self-inflicted disaster to another, a pantomime of illogical opposition, internal squabbling and unlearned lessons. Despite a handsome general election in 2010 which reminded everyone that ‘Vote Labour or get the Tories’ still worked in Scotland, the Labour party undermined itself by campaigning for three years hand in glove with the Tories during the referendum. And not just campaigning on the same side as the Tories, but running a campaign that was essentially conservative at heart: focused on the interests of large corporations and financial institutions. The traditional Labour working men and women were told to eat their cereal and vote with the bosses or their jobs would be forfeit. When, despite their best efforts, the Labour party did manage to win the supposedly unlosable referendum, they set about immediately turning this victory to their own disadvantage. In Jim Murphy they have appointed the worst possible person as leader. Not only is Murphy a politician of staggering insincerity, but he has vilified, attacked, insulted and alienated huge swathes of traditional Labour voters for the sin of voting, or merely contemplating voting, ‘Yes’. And when the Scots failed to collectively swoon at his damascene conversion from an ultra-Blairite Westminster establishment figure, to dyed-in-the-wool firebrand socialist, it supposedly just showed that we have all lost our minds. Labour really should have asked themselves why Murphy’s ascension to the throne was so enthusiastically and unanimously supported by all the Tory press.
It has always seemed that the Labour party are too busy fighting against the party that they wish the SNP was, rather than the party that they actually are. It has historically been easy for them to talk snidely about ‘nationalists’ and make implicit and often explicit comparisons between the desire for Scottish self-determination and violent, fascistic, ethnic nationalist movements across history. And in fairness, it’s been effective. I've believed in Scottish Independence for my entire adult life but, until the Referendum, have struggled to admit it in public or discuss it in front of people I didn't know. It felt like a dirty secret. But that doesn't wash any more, the referendum has opened up independence as a mainstream political belief and nobody believes that Nicola Sturgeon is Nigel Farage. The Labour party has for so long and so vehemently reviled people of the left who believe in Independence that they haven’t noticed that many of those people have come from within their own party. The more popular the SNP became the louder the Labour party would scream, but it was always going to be a (Godwin’s) law of diminishing returns.
Since 2007 it has felt as if the Scottish people have been trying to tell the Labour party pretty clearly that they want change. I always suspected that the SNP were just a party that the Scots would flirt with to make Labour jealous in the hope they would get their act together. In my head, once Scotland became independent, people would come back to Labour and there would be no need for the SNP. Labour’s pig-headed refusal to listen has been jaw-dropping. They did not have to support independence, they have a right to their ‘principles’ such as they are, but they needed to respect the democratic legitimacy of the people who did. As the winds of change have altered the Scottish political landscape, Labour have run around looking for ever deeper sand into which to bury their heads.
Probably most of my life I have wanted the Labour party to be the party that mum told me about in 1997. But I think we’re all just making fools of ourselves waiting for it. They take the votes of the people on the left for granted (‘Vote Labour or get the Tories’) and slide as far to the right as they think they can get away with to capture Tory votes. It’s a political strategy called triangulation and it is anathema to ideology and principle. Never has this been clearer than Labour’s key election pledge to ‘control immigration’. Carved into Ed Miliband’s preposterous big rock — required to remind him to actually keep his word — it is a meaningless pledge and an unmeasurable outcome. Calculated to sound just racist enough to keep the racists on-side, but not too racist to put off the non-racists. My problem with Labour is that, despite the fact that they probably don’t really have a problem with immigration, they’re more than happy to throw the immigrants under the bus to help them win the election. In contrast the SNP, a party always derided as populist, has always run a consistently pro-immigration message despite Scottish attitude to immigration being just as hostile as elsewhere in the UK. Political parties are meant to lead public opinion, not blindly follow it, but these days it feels like Labour’s policies are devised by polling experts rather than politicians.
After what I believe was a great deal of personal introspection, my mum decided to vote Yes in last year’s referendum. As overjoyed as I was by her decision, I take no credit for it. I harangued her for years and got nowhere. She made up her own mind. My mum voted Labour in 2010 and cried when she watched Gordon Brown leave Downing Street. Now she is voting SNP and is a member of the party. Labour need to ask themselves why this is, how they could lose someone like my mum. I suspect she is just another bloody Nat to them now.
My mum has told me that she tries hard not to hate the Labour party, and so do I. I have no affection left for the Labour party, but I have enormous affection for Labour’s history, its traditions and the people who keep those traditions alive. The loyalty that people hold (or have held) for the Labour party in Scotland, despite being frustrating to those of us who have wanted change, is a beautiful thing. I think I essentially share the principles of the traditional Scottish Labour voter, I just disagree with the party on independence. I think in another world I could have been a Labour voter, I probably could even have been a Labour voter and believed in independence if they didn't seem to hate me so much for it.
I've written a lot about the party that I'm not voting for and not much about the party that I support. I'm voting for the SNP for their opposition to Trident; their opposition to austerity; their plan to abolish the House of Lords; their humanitarian attitude to immigration. I believe they can be agents of reform and modernisation in the deeply corrupt Westminster political system. I share their belief in independence so I trust them to work out the best possible devolution deal for Scotland for as long as we remain in the Union. Such token left wing policies as Labour have offered, i.e. mansion tax, 50p tax rate, and an end to ‘exploitative’ zero-hour contracts, are also supported by the SNP in their manifesto so they do nothing to sway me. The SNP won’t be the party that runs the government, I accept that much. Unfortunately our friends in England haven’t had the benefit of a proportionately representative parliament to help show them that there is politics beyond the death-embrace of the Labour-Tory dichotomy. This means that we are still tied to their undemocratic two-party first-part the post system for now. But if we vote smarter than we ever have before, we can actually deliver real change to the political system at Westminster for the benefit of everyone in the UK. If Scotland as a whole votes for the SNP then we can keep the Labour party honest and hold them to the principles of the people whose loyalty they have squandered. Just being ‘not the Tories’ is just not good enough any more.
The Labour party is an empty machine which exists only to get into power, not to do anything with it. The Labour party is just a weathervane now, pointing whichever way the wind is blowing. Our job is to be the wind that blows them in the right direction. The SNP are the current custodians of the incredible energy for change that is sweeping through Scotland and if they squander that responsibility then they will be accountable to the Scottish people.
I have a complicated relationship with the Labour party. The Labour party seems to hate me but the feeling is not, and never has been mutual. It’s not so much that I'm angry with Labour anymore, I'm just disappointed.
I've just voted SNP.
You should too.