As we saw in the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 19, deindustrialization still affects political loyalties in Scotland. Social class influenced the way many people voted, and this has major implications for the future politics of Scotland and the UK. Although 55% voted to remain within the UK, the campaign for independence, Yes Scotland, won 45% and carried several areas that continue to feel the effects of deindustrialization (exacerbated by UK government austerity measures) particularly acutely — the largest city, Glasgow, the populous areas of North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire in the west of Scotland, and the city of Dundee in the east. In North Ayrshire and Inverclyde, the results were within in a hair’s breadth between the two sides. These former industrial heartlands are also the constituencies that gave the Labour Party dominance in Scotland. As historian Chris Harvie observed in 1998: “It is this unknown Scotland, not in the guidebooks, away from the motorway, seen fleetingly from the express that holds the key to the modern politics of the country.”
All of the parties in Scotland – unionist and secessionist alike – deployed deindustrialization as a key motif in the Independence Referendum. In earlier UK and Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2010 and 2011 respectively, both the Conservatives and Labour held rallies at the site of the former British Steel strip mill at Ravenscraig, a significant national site of memory. Gordon Brown, the former UK Labour Prime Minister, signaled the importance of old industrial Scotland as a key battleground when he chose Loanhead miners’ club outside Edinburgh to launch his defense of the UK and to promise more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Brown received a warmer reception than his successor as leader of the Party, Ed Miliband, when the latter visited the former mining village of Blantyre, the birthplace of one of the founders of the Labour Party, James Keir Hardie. It has an added significance for the labor movement as the site of one of Scotland’s most legendary mining disasters. “Labour Tories,” quipped one resident, while another remarked,
We’re all ex-Labour supporters – but now they’re just Tories in red ties. Mr Miliband’s come up today to a place he doesn’t even know – he probably couldn’t even put a finger on a map of where it is. He told us two months ago he’d come up to Scotland and spend the last six weeks living here. But they never even told us he was coming to Blantyre today.
Such comments reflected the growing disaffection of Labour voters in Scotland. The scale of the potential crisis confronting the Party in Scotland is illustrated by the fact that 40 of the 59 Scottish MPs at Westminster sit on the Labour benches; loss of these seats could scupper any chance of Labour maintaining a UK majority. The Party is belatedly stirring to this threat. Eric Joyce, the Labour MP for another former industrial town, recently observed, “Unless dramatic measures are taken, and fast, Labour will continue to be punished for the strategic error of neglecting its machinery in Scotland and for taking voters for granted.”
What has prompted this crisis for Labour in Scotland, a country in which it has held a majority since 1945? In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, the Party lost long-term members frustrated by Blair’s involvement in the Iraq War, privatization of public services, and the financial crisis. Added to this, Labour stood with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties as part of the No campaign and supported the UK coalition’s austerity measures and attacks on welfare that further impoverish low income families, disproportionately located in these former industrial heartlands.
In contrast, Yes Scotland – which involved the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), as well as a host of other radical platforms – mounted an explicitly broad based left-leaning campaign, placing social justice at the core of an independent Scotland, protecting the public sector and National Health Service from privatization, expelling the UK’s Trident armed submarine fleet from its base in Scotland, and having an independent foreign policy.
However, Labour’s problems in Scotland also stem from the legacy of deindustrialization in Scotland and the associated shift in political loyalties in these former industrial heartlands. As Jim Phillips and I have argued elsewhere, deindustrialized communities, such as in the coalfields, continue to be plagued by the social legacy of the closures. Deindustrialization and its impacts over time have exercised a profound effect on the shifting working-class political loyalties in Scotland from the late 1960s onwards. Labour has subsequently, and hurriedly, assembled a plan to support development initiatives to regenerate former industrial areas. It is recognizing too late that the heartlands can no longer see a promised land in Labour pledges. As the late Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm observed in 1978:
… If the labour and socialist movement is to recover its soul, its dynamism, and its historical initiative, we, as marxists, must … recognise the novel situation in which we find ourselves, to analyse it realistically and concretely, to analyse the reasons, historical and otherwise, for the failures as well as the successes of the labour movement, and to formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done. We should have done this even while we were waiting for British capitalism to enter its period of dramatic crisis.
The thousands of working-class voters who engaged in grassroots debates during the Scottish referendum, and the broad left, have recognized the potential for greater democracy and empowering communities against global capitalism. The Labour Party has not. As a result working-class voters have deserted the Party in droves for the prospect of a more socially equitable society wedded to traditional “Labourist” values. As the Scottish socialist, and one of the leaders of the Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in in 1971-2, Jimmy Reid famously observed when opting to support the SNP in 2008, “It wasn’t so much that I left Labour. I felt that they left me.” Reid died in 2010, but seven of his fellow leaders from the UCS work-in came out in support of Scottish independence. That says much about where working-class political loyalties now lie in Scotland. While these concerns are surely shared by many voters in England, the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament (unlike Westminster) has facilitated greater representation for the Scottish Greens and the SSP, alongside the SNP.
In the days since the result – with the unionist parties of the Conservatives and Labour reneging on their vow of new powers – there has been a flood of former Labour voters to pro-independence parties; within 24 hours of the result, the SNP, the Scottish Greens, and the SSP, respectively saw 5000, 2000, and 1000 new members join up. Within a week, the SNP added over 39,000 new members, and Scottish Green membership rose by 375% on 2013. Amongst those deserting the Labour Party will also be a section who voted No in the referendum based on the assurances given them by the Party leadership that the Scottish Parliament would be given more power to promote social justice and protect public services. A Yes Alliance of the SNP, Scottish Greens and SSP now plan to vote tactically at the UK, and Scottish Parliamentary, elections in 2015 and 2016, to oust unionist party candidates standing for seats in Scotland. Already pollsters are speculating that Labour could lose more than half of their Scottish seats to the SNP in next year’s General Election.
Scottish working-class voters increasingly see their future lying within a separate state and with alternative parties who share essentially “Labourist” values, which the Labour Party has long since abandoned. We may well be witnessing the not so strange death of Labour Scotland.
Andrew Perchard teaches history at the University of Strathclyde and is a member of Academics for Yes.