Hanging in the balance

Written by on 2 February 2015 in Editor's note

While Jim Murphy may try to turn around Labour’s fortunes in Scotland in time for May perhaps he should chill and let events take their potential natural course

With the countdown to the General Election started in earnest, we know just one thing for sure: this parliament will be hung [literally, say some].

Whether the Tories or Labour end up in No.10 is yet to be determined but with the notion of no clear winner comes a clear advantage for those Scots who still feel they were robbed in the referendum. 

In just four months, none of the fizzing energy of the referendum has dissipated for them – for the 45. As the losers, they act like winners and still there is an anger that burns strong. Windows emblazoned with Yes have still to see a lick of Windolene, Saltires still fly in tenement stairs, groups gather, candidate selection contests are passionately fought, and memories of an opportunity missed are not as quick to fade as some of the fag-packet pledges made in the last-gasp hours of September 18th. For some, with the battle over, the war has only just begun.

And now, with less than 100 days to decide on the shape of the next UK Government, Scotland has an electorate politically literate like never before. They ask questions and don’t take platitudes in return. The days of a red rosette-wearing monkey getting voted in are over and they see this next election as a potential referendum re-run. Telling them that if they vote SNP they’ll usher the Tories in is a concept not so easily swallowed by Scots who put their faith in Labour in times gone by and got the Tories in. Plus ça change!

Polls that tease of a Labour wipeout and the prospect of the SNP holding the balance of power are bound to be at least a little wide of the mark. But with just six current MPs, the SNP have a bar set so low that they have little to lose and much to win.

But while the referendum inspired an unprecedented political engagement – 97 per cent registration and 84 per cent turnout – in just four months, that high watermark has already gone. Apathy remains the stalking horse for parties chasing the vote and turnout looks set to return to business as usual, with figures already down some 20 per cent on September’s fun. Already, more than half of the young people who voted in the referendum and are eligible to vote in May’s General Election have indicated that they won’t turn out. That is clearly a tragedy. 

"A motley crew of troubadours at Westminster won’t do Nicola Sturgeon’s claim to responsible government any favours"

But who benefits from this retreat? Political analysts tell us the big difference is in whether people were Yes or No. If you voted ‘Yes’, you think there has been a shift in politics in Scotland, that the electorate as a whole is going to be more engaged and that you personally will participate. General Election here you come. If you voted ‘No’, then you think life will just go back to normal and you are less likely to vote. Labour annihilation here you come.

This is not rocket-science. Scots held control of their lives. If just for one day. And they liked it. For many, the result was not the one they fought for but it gave them a glimmer of hope and that’s seductive.

Some have been so enamoured by the process that they’ve thrown their hat in the ring. They are going to Westminster. And they believe that is where they will make the change.
But when faced with half a decade [thank you fixed terms] of sitting on the green leather seats, propping up a government that none of them supports, how long before the inspired become cynical, the impatient become bored, and before party discipline dissolves into an independence of mind but not of an SNP making? 

With just six MPs, discipline has not been an issue for the SNP group at Westminster and yet still mistakes have been made. Remember the Bedroom Tax vote no-shows? What more trip-ups could occur with a parcel of inexperienced parliamentarians whose sole intent of independence is the only accelerant that’s driven them London bound?

And in a Westminster that is 100 per cent hostile territory for the SNP, there are many traps to be laid. Its traditions, process and formality are not designed for those of independent mind who have got used to hearing their own voices heard and their opinions matter. If only among like-minded folk. 

The establishment does not look kindly on mavericks, not least those that have dared to threaten to tear their institutions down. Reflect on the fate of the Red Clydesiders in 1922, sent off to Westminster with rebel songs ringing in their ears only to find an initial radical upsurge diluted into acquiescence, boredom and even into the House of Lords. Westminster is no cake-walk for non-conformists.

How then will that reflect on a party striving to win again at Holyrood and on a second pitch for a referendum? A motley crew of troubadours at Westminster won’t do Nicola Sturgeon’s claim to responsible government any favours.

So while Jim Murphy may try to turn around Labour’s fortunes in Scotland in time for May – and he’s not making a bad fist of giving the perception of setting the agenda – perhaps he should chill and let events take their potential natural course.

It could be the SNP itself that offers Murphy some reprieve. How the new intake perform between now and May 2016 and the Scottish Parliament elections could help seal the deal for Labour at Holyrood and put a second referendum on ice.

One of the big lessons from the referendum is that parties have to recognise that the question as to what they stand for has subtly but seismically changed into who they stand for. If, as the polls suggest, the SNP comes to dominate political discourse at a Westminster level then its newly elected MPs, some only drawn to elected politics through the referendum, will also need to recognise that they are there to represent the all and not just the few. No matter what inspired them to go there. 

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