Monday, 2 March 2015

Scotland seems to have a new party system

Scotland seems to be undergoing a political realignment that nobody could have predicted just a year ago. It is possible that when the dust settles, the SNP will become the new champions of working class political interests north of the River Tweed, whilst Labour becomes the voice of the  comfortable middle class.

Working class voters tend not to switch allegiance very often. In fact they are more inclined not to vote at all when the party that they identify with stops putting forward polices that meet with their approval. That said, occasionally a shift occurs which leads to another party taking a working class constituency, usually in a by-election, and when that happens the new party tends to hold onto the seat for many years. Rochdale was grabbed by the Liberals in 1972 and then held by them until 1997. Bermondsey fell to the same party in 1983, and is held by them to this day, albeit with a slight change of name.

However, the last time that a new party muscled its way forward to take over the representation of the working class as a whole was in 1918, when Labour emerged courtesy of the then hopelessly split Liberals. If the SNP manage the same thing against a Labour Party that is united then that would be an amazing political act, and all the signs indicate that Labour's vote will just collapse. Let's look at some of the reasons for this earthquake.

The first is that unlike England, Labour in Scotland did not undergo a social transformation in the 1970s. The graduates with their local government jobs who now dominate the English Labour parties are not replicated in Scotland. The Scottish party remained in the iron grip of the machine politicians who had always run it, and even though its membership declined nobody cared because they were still winning all the elections.

The party even managed to take seats off the Tories, as Jim Murphy, who currently manages the Scottish branch office proved in 1997 when he captured the once safe Tory seat of East Renfrewshire. This constituency is one of the wealthiest in Scotland, and the victory seems to have been partly due to the loathing that many Scots had developed towards the Tories, as well as the fact that under Tony Blair, Labour was actively courting the votes of the wealthy and privileged denizens of the leafier suburbs. The fact that his Tory predecessor was a nutter who was fined £200 for threatening people with a pickaxe, and following his defeat had to go away to have the voices in his head shushed may also have had something to do with the victory.

However, this zombie party could not stand up to a charge from the left, which is just what happened. As Labour under Blair moved further to the right to mop up all those suburban votes that left an enormous gap in the political spectrum which the SNP moved in smartly to fill. They seem to have realised that their hardline nationalist supporters would support them come what may, so the SNP began to offer things that working class voters found agreeable. 

To be honest, it isn't all that much, but banning the sale of council houses, keeping Education Maintenance Allowance alive and dishing out bus passes to people when they reach 60 instead of making them wait until 65 was more than Labour was offering. Certainly policies and pledges such as these helped the SNP win an overall majority in the 2011 Scottish elections for a parliament that was specifically sent up to ensure that no party would ever have such a majority.

All that aside, what provided the final kick that knocked Labour's shambling corpse over was the referendum. It has to be admitted that the Tories in London played a blinder there, leaving Labour to manage the campaign for a No vote. It worked, but it worked against the backdrop of Labour people appearing on platforms with Tories, the party that had closed down Scotland's industries in the 1980s and which Labour's heartlands had learned to hate. The SNP jibe that Westminster was an out of touch elite that acted against Scotland's interests became more than just a bit of rhetoric: people began to believe it thanks to Labour's willingness to work with its supposed enemies.

Moving across the spectrum, there is increasing evidence that the middle class will follow the lead of the people in East Renfrewshire and start to vote Labour. The problem is that nobody will talk on the record, but one Labour MP in Edinburgh admitted that his vote pledges were down in the working class part, but had risen by 15 percent in the wealthy part of the constituency.

So we are faced with a situation where Scotland could see the creation of a new two-party system, with the SNP representing the council estates and Labour speaking for the leafy suburbs.

As realignments go, this one is pretty earth shaking.

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