Labour’s Love Lost? The problems for the Scottish Labour Party


The demolition of Ravenscraig towers

The demolition of Ravenscraig towers

In the midst of last year’s Scottish independence referendum campaign, a friend and fellow historian of modern Britain, visiting from the north west of England, recounted his Damascene moment in grasping the national conversation in Scotland. He had been visiting friends several weeks before and was taken to a bar one night in a former mining village in central Scotland. There he had been struck by the overwhelming number of those in the bar, whose politics he typically associated with the Labour Party, who openly declared they would be voting in favour of Scottish independence. My friend’s account reminded me of the remark made by one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in, socialist Jimmy Reid, when asked about his decision to vote SNP in 2008: ‘It wasn’t so much that I left Labour. I felt that they left me’. Over the past year, much to the elation of pro-independence supporters, seven of Reid’s fellow UCS leaders, along with the former works convenor at the Ravenscraig strip mill, Tommy Brennan, declared themselves in support of independence and the SNP. This apparent disaffection with Labour from within their core constituency was voiced in Blantyre in Lanarkshire when Ed Miliband visited, in one of the Party’s attempts to shore up the vote for the Better Together campaign; ‘Labour Tories’, remarked one resident, while another, campaigning for Yes, remarked:

We’re all ex-Labour supporters – but now they’re just Tories in red ties. Mr Miliband’s come up today to a place he doesn’t even know – he probably couldn’t even put a finger on a map of where it is. He told us two months ago he’d come up to Scotland and spend the last six weeks living here. But they never even told us he was coming to Blantyre today.

This was symbolic. Blantyre is a former mining and textile community, and site of one of Scotland’s most legendary mining disasters in 1877, which took the lives of 207 miners; an event put to song in the famous Blantyre explosion so beloved of labour movement get-togethers. Ultimately, around one third of self-identified Labour Party members voted in favour of independence in the referendum vote. Labour is said to lack canvassing infrastructure; to be losing candidates to both the SNP and the Greens; to have been damaged by appearing on the same platform as the Tories in the referendum Better Together campaign; and to be generally out of touch with Scottish voters (for instance, remaining Labour activists questioned the wisdom of having Tony Blair support Scottish Labour candidates, considering his pariah status). Many column inches have been dedicated to Scotland’s lost love of Labour in recent weeks, but these explanations are rooted in very recent developments.

As a historian who has worked on the long-term effects of deindustrialisation on Scottish society and national psyche, as well as being politically engaged with the 2014 referendum and upcoming general election, I suggest that there are more profound historical reasons that might also help to explain the decline of Labour in Scotland.