Reflections on the SNP surge: Does Westminster finally have an opposition worthy of the name?

by Ellenor Hutson

8 June 2015

Thinking back to election night, Paisley and Renfrewshire was everyone’s favourite moment. Defending his 16,000 majority, Douglas Alexander, shadow defence minister and Labour’s national election coordinator spectacularly lost his seat to Mhairi Black, a 20 year old fighting her first election.

Taking to the podium, she slayed Alexander all over again with an acceptance speech that, while keeping to the parliamentary custom of conciliation, could not help but be utterly patronising under the circumstances: “While I appreciate that this is a blow for Douglas Alexander, I truly hope he will remain to see his future in politics once he has recovered from this result.”

We all know Labour isn’t going to recover from the result. The Scottish National Party has broken the swingometer, growing from six MPs to 56 in one night with swings of 30%, 40% even – it’s unprecedented. Labour brought this on itself: from the decision in the Blair years to fuck off traditional working class support in order to chase upwardly mobile votes in the south east of England, to the alliance with the Tories in an unrelentingly negative campaign against independence – this had been on the cards for a while.

Meanwhile in the SNP, the left wing took control of the party and shaped it into an old fashioned defender of social democracy. Not socialist, but left wing enough to be completely outside of the Westminster consensus. Believers in welfare, the NHS and re-industrialisation in renewable energy, the SNP began to look more like the Labour party of the past. A turning point was taking a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, a massive achievement considering it was designed to run by coalition.

In London, my Scottish partner proposed we move to Glasgow to “help build a new country.” I readily agreed. We were paying £700 a month for a bedsit and joining the working class exodus out of the capital was an inevitability. The London SNP branch saw us off with much talk about what they would do “if they were younger men.” It’s been quite a ride since then. In power, the SNP did what it could, within its devolved powers, to mitigate against Tory rule. They scrapped prescription charges, kept higher education free, maintained Council Tax Benefit (while the rest of the UK cut it drastically) and capitulated gracefully to the grassroots anti-bedroom tax campaign: funding councils to provide Discretionary Housing Payments to everyone affected.

By the time the independence referendum was announced, the idea of Scotland as a progressive social democracy along the lines of Sweden or Norway had gained legitimacy. Left wing voices such as the Jimmy Reid foundation had the government’s ear and a white paper drew up plausible plans for Keynesianism in an independent Scotland. A vote for Yes was a vote against austerity and for a fairer future.

During the referendum, activists from the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) leafleted job centres. The leaflets explained that an independent Scotland would end benefits sanctions, Atos and the bedroom tax, and raise the minimum wage and win decent jobs for working people – all costed policies from the white paper. Duncan Hothersall, a prominent online Labour party activist condemned RIC as “exploiting vulnerable people with unachievable promises,” unintentionally summing up the state of Labour’s attitude towards the working class. Meanwhile a Labour source in the Better Together campaign was quoted as saying “people with mattresses in their front garden don’t win elections” just as the proportion of registered voters hit 87% and queues formed around the block to register.

In the run up to the vote, crowds gathered in Glasgow’s George Square every day and night. A city centre pub renamed itself ‘The Yesbar’. Paul Mason’s reports from Glasgow capture the mood well. People voted in the referendum who had never voted before – they draped themselves in saltires for the occasion and arrived in groups, singing songs. I went to bed on the night of 18 September 2014 convinced we had won. As it turned out Glasgow had polled 53.49%; a ballot box from my estate contained an extraordinary 87% Yes vote. The Yes campaign had built the vote for independence from 30% to 45% in 18 months, but ultimately it wasn’t quite enough.

After the initial depression, the independence movement refused to go away. The SNP’s membership increased from 20,000 to over 100,000. On 22 November 2014, 14,000 people filled Glasgow’s Hydro arena to hear Nicola Sturgeon speak. Over the road at the SECC, 3,000 left wing activists attended the Radical Independence conference.

The reasons for the SNP landslide are three-fold. Firstly, a deserved disillusionment with Labour and the Lib-Dems – both for their lack of progressive policies and their shameful collusion with the Tories, whether in government or the Better Together campaign. Secondly, the SNP’s sound record in the Scottish parliament. Thirdly, large numbers of first time voters – amounting to around half of the SNP’s vote. These are the people who have been enfranchised and politicised by the referendum. They understand themselves as part of a working class movement against austerity and for social democracy, and they are not going away. This term, Scotland will have an opposition in Westminster worthy of the name.

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