GREG WILLIAMS warns that there’s no point in Labour trying to ‘out-nat’ the Nats
When I moved to Scotland a couple of years ago, I was pretty ignorant about Scottish nationalism. At that point it was simple to me. I was convinced of the economic arguments that an independent Scotland would fail. So for Scots to actually choose to be worse off, the only explanation was they must really hate the English.
That view was only compounded during the 2010 football World Cup, when I was surprised to find so many Germans, complete with replica shirts, watching England play them in a bar in the west end of Aberdeen. Of course England were thoroughly and deservedly beaten, and the experience culminated in one of the ‘German’ supporters getting right up to the projector screen and passionately entreating the image of a crying eight year old with three lions on his chest to ‘fake orf yee Ing-laish [Jeremy Hunt].’
I later saw some of those same football fans on the doorstep in the Scottish election campaign. We’ve all met this sort of voter, what I would call an identity nationalist:
‘Why are you voting SNP?’
‘Because I’m Scottish.’
‘But we’re the Scottish Labour party!’
‘I’m Scottish. I’m voting SNP.’
‘But what do you think of the SNP’s record in government?’
‘Alex Salmond stands up for Scotland.’
And so the conversation continues circularly until you trudge back to the Voter ID board and report your ‘N’. To win over such Scottish identity voters, the temptation for Labour is to try and out-Scot the SNP. I don’t think this is very wise. Where would we start? Drape our literature in the Saltire even more? Start copying their pin badges? Do we think that voters won’t see through that?
There are party structural changes that we can make to put the issue to bed for the various columnists who are in touch with the job description of the Scottish Labour leader, but this will be largely irrelevant to the person on the street.
Reaching for rebranding suggests we’re missing the point. As a candidate I had geared myself up for a pretty hostile reception from the SNP on account of being English. Yet at the hustings and the count their candidates and activists were polite and talkative; much more so than any other party. Maybe that was magnanimity. But it was telling that in the whole campaign the only person, hundreds of voters included, who asked me why someone born in England was standing for election to the Scottish Parliament was a Labour member during the selections. This just epitomises the problem – we as the Labour party are still grappling how to deal with Scottish Nationalism, whilst SNP have captured the movement and moved way beyond it.
This year, we’ve learned their brand of nationalism has much broader appeal than to just your identity nationalists. The SNP picked up huge swathes of voters who embraced a positive vision for Scotland and a party that talked about a prosperous and exciting future. Their relentless positive rhetoric may have been mocked elsewhere on this website, but we must acknowledge that it appealed to hundreds of thousands of voters who, quite frankly, ‘believed in better.’ I would term this demographic aspirational nationalists, or more accurately, just aspirationalists.
They’re proud to be Scottish, but not blinded by this to the extent your identity nationalist is. Labour just didn’t have an articulate political vision let alone the policies to win over such aspirationalists. Also, when your best unique policy is the popular but arguably negative ‘carry a knife, go to jail’, we were always going to be in trouble.
Whilst I remain convinced that the best thing for Scotland economically is to stay in the Union, we must realise that Labour won’t win another Scottish Parliament election unless we present a unique and positive vision for Scotland to the aspirational electorate. The need to find this vision and policies that embody it is even more pressing considering the way Salmond’s push for independence gives him a blank cheque to spend on headline grabbing electoral freebies.
Towards the end of this parliament, the £4bn black hole in Scotland’s finances will become even more exposed. Yet he’ll just blame this on Westminster, and use the shortfall to strengthen his case for independence. Given how we struggled to land effective blows on Salmond and his unfunded electioneering in the third parliament, we should not bank on being able to do so this time around, especially with largely the same team line-ups on both sides of the chamber.
So this leads me back to the need for an alternative, positive, Labour vision for Scotland to win over these aspirational voters who, not completely blinded by nationalism, will embrace a party that is visionary yet realistic, and doesn’t take them for Saltire waving football supporters.
I learned a lot this year and was pretty humbled by the whole experience. Trouble is I wonder if the heads of the unionist parties in London, tempted to run the independence campaign themselves in light of their Scottish colleagues’ difficulties, have been through the same learning curve.
Greg Williams was Scottish Labour’s candidate in Aberdeen South and North Kincardine in May.