John Andrews was a Labour voter in the nineties and noughties, and since then has voted for the SNP and for independence. In the first of a series of articles for Labour Hame he puts that journey into its context and sets the current Labour leadership a challenge.
While we were on a family outing recently the sat nav led me through a part of town which at one time was a tabloid favourite for notorious crime families, poverty, hopelessness and lack of aspiration. Today the street I drove down was row upon row of new-build flats and housing, a new school, a health centre and a community centre. Not perfect by any means, but a huge improvement nonetheless. The sort of place typical of former industrial Scotland in the late 1990s, regenerated by a combination of councils, enterprise agencies, community development projects and European Social Fund money.
In that very community centre on that very estate, working as a young reporter in the run up to the 2010 general election, I saw then Prime Minister Gordon Brown give as passionate and barnstorming speech as I’ve ever witnessed. There were no notes or autocue. The only comparable thing I’ve ever seen is the speech I’ve watched more than a few times on YouTube at Labour conference in 2009:
That general election in 2010 was also the last time I voted Labour, after a decade and a half of support since Tony Blair was first elected.
Fast forward one year to 2011 and for the rest of the decade I was to be an SNP voter and supporter, a Yes voter and, for a very brief stint counted in months and days, an SNP member. That was me and, I suspect, hundreds of thousands of former Labour voters in Scotland. So, what happened? The reasons are complex and unique for each person but I suppose I tapped into a wider mood following the banking crisis, the MP expenses scandal, media phone hacking, austerity, and the fall-out from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Broadly out of this mood we saw the Arab Spring, anti-austerity protests across southern Europe, the rise of populism and authoritarian governments in eastern Europe, the Scottish independence referendum, Trump and Brexit. All were amplified by the mass adoption of social media. The common thread, perhaps, was rip it up and start again. Make X great again, with a local accent. A punk do-it-yourself ethos. And in order to create you must first destroy.
My vision of independence, to be honest, was not really independence at all. It was Scotland as an independent state but as part of a federal Europe, with one currency, a single defence policy, freedom of movement and an elected president. It was Churchill’s post-war vision, “a kind of United States of Europe”. And then in the space of two years this vision of hope slammed into two brick walls. Scotland voted to remain in the UK, and then the UK voted to leave the EU. Two dreams evaporated in quick succession.
My reaction to losing both the 2014 independence referendum and the 2016 EU referendum felt like the stages of grief. At first there came denial (we’ll win the next time, the SNP are winning locally, nationally and in Westminster). Anger was there (it’s all Labour’s fault, it’s my trade union’s fault). Depression followed (I’m done with politics, not interested anymore). Then came acceptance, which I think is where I am at now, and a chance to re-evaluate.
And then Covid arrived to bring yet more complexity, after a decade of disruption to everyday politics. Families and workers in public services and businesses are burnt out after the brutal impact of the pandemic over the last two years. Children and young people have lost large chunks of their education and development time, and the impact on the economy and mental health has been significant.
But lockdown and no social life gives you a lot of time to reflect. I’m hopeful that the age of rage is passing. The climate crisis still looms large, and our long-term problems like drug-related deaths, child poverty and closing the attainment gap stubbornly remain. I don’t have the energy for any more major upheaval over this decade. I don’t want to rip it up and start again any more. But I do, perhaps more than ever, want to fix it.
Over to you, Anas and Keir. I’m listening.