It’s a cliché to say that election campaigns are different in Scotland. Sometimes Labour activists in England look up enviously at our political system where the Tories are close to irrelevant and three parties claiming to be centre-left argue over progressive territory. Sometimes people find it hard to understand the depth of antipathy between Labour and the SNP.
Next year’s European elections will, true to form, be a very different beast north of the border. Unlike the recent local elections in England, UKIP are invisible. Euroscepticism doesn’t feature in political debate. The election will likely be a run-off between Labour and the SNP to see who gets the highest vote share.
And yet… The European elections, coming as they will just three and a half months before the referendum on whether Scotland should separate from the rest of the UK, will be a test of strength for the pro-independence and pro-UK camps, the two electoral machines and the mood of the voters. More, they will enable us to highlight the failings of the SNP as a party of government, and put into focus the deep difference between democratic socialism and nationalism as political philosophies. Because nationalism is by its nature in opposition to much of what is good about the European Union.
First, the campaign. Come the September referendum Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories will be on the same side urging a vote to stay part of Britain, with the SNP and the Greens advocating a split. In the Euro elections we’ll all be wearing our own party colours. But the truth is that a successful vote against separatism will depend critically on Labour voters, Labour’s campaign machine and a Labour message. The SNP have long known that to win they must borrow Labour supporters for their cause. The good news at the moment is that the polls show no sign of it happening, but we know that the SNP have big financial resources – they’ll be doing a lot of voter contact under the radar and both turnout and vote share in the Euros will be an important indicator of the state of play three months out.
Second, the ideological battle. Nationalism can cloak itself in the colours of both left and right, and no-one is suggesting an equivalence between the SNP and UKIP or the more distasteful nationalism of the right (although Scottish nationalism does have some pretty unpleasant online supporters.) But the essence of nationalism – its very core – is a belief that my people matter more than others, that the principal way to divide up the human race is by accident of birth, and that nation matters more than class, gender or the policies for which you stand. In the context of the EU – conceived and continued to end conflict and bring nations together – it stands out like an ideological sore thumb. That’s why, while Labour MEPs take their place in the international social democrat family, the SNP are left every five years to scrabble for mates from the fringe to make up a group in the European Parliament. Scotland deserves better than that in Brussels.
So that’s why next year’s European elections matter in Scotland. They matter in their own right, but also as a staging post to keeping Scotland in the UK and as a chance to show why we are Labour and the SNP are something very different. And all of these are vital milestones on the way to a Labour return to power – in Scotland and the UK as a whole.
Derek Munn is a prospective Scottish Labour candidate for next year’s European elections. In his time in Scottish Labour he’s been branch and CLP secretary, National Policy Forum rep, worked at Party HQ in the 97 election, run Labour’s office in the Scottish Parliament and been special adviser to First Minister Jack McConnell.
He tweets at @derek4europe