It was not supposed to be like this. The big winner in the aftermath of the referendum appears to be the SNP. With its membership soaring towards 100,000, it is now the fastest growing and third largest political force in the UK. Its latest conference saw what the Financial Times described as a “triumphal leadership transition”, with Alex Salmond stepping aside and his replacement Nicola Sturgeon telling the thousand plus delegates packed into the Perth Concert Hall that they were now “Scotland’s party”.
On the other hand, the biggest loser is certainly Scottish Labour. With its membership in collapse, it trails the SNP badly in voting intentions for next year’s general election. Six months out from what could be a political wipe-out in north of the border, it has embarked upon a divisive and fiercely fought contest for the Scottish leadership.
Even in the unlikely event of the left wing challenge of Neil Findlay and Katy Clark succeeding, the new leadership would then be forced to endorse a UK Labour ticket in 2015 that was committed to £25billion of austerity cuts in the following year. That is no basis for political revival.
Yet these first post-referendum impressions may be misleading. The tens of thousands signing up to membership of the main Yes parties are motivated not so much by what these parties stand for as by their own lived experience during the referendum campaign itself.
2014 brought politics back on to the streets and back into the heart of previously marginalised working class communities. Working class people who for a generation had been shut out from an elite neoliberal political consensus rediscovered their political voice and direction. They are now unlikely to allow that voice or that direction to be lost again inside internal party bureaucracies.
This reality has consequences for all parties in Scotland. In particular, it has fundamental implications for our two biggest parties. It will no longer be enough for the SNP to position itself slightly to the left of New Labour on social policy while continuing to woo the business vote through core neoliberal economic policies.
The party’s new membership massively outnumbers its older traditional membership. It also springs from that grassroots Yes insurgency. If the SNP is serious about holding on to this new generation of social activists then its economic policies will have to shift decisively to the left.
For their part Scottish Labour will struggle to rebuild a working class base in Scotland so long as it remains subservient to a UK party in competition with the Tories and UKIP for votes in the more prosperous and densely populated South-East of England. As UK Labour tacks to the right on immigration and shadows the Coalition’s cuts agenda in pursuit of austerity and deficit reduction, it becomes just another party of the neoliberal consensus against which working class Scotland is in open revolt.
To win again in Scotland Scottish Labour will have to take on and defeat what the rest of UK Labour represents. It is telling that the political establishments in both of these parties shared common assumptions about what might constitute a winning formula during the referendum campaign. Both were pro-monarchy, pro-NATO, pro-EU, pro-sterling and pro-financial stability as overriding priorities in shaping the new Scotland.
The re-awakening Scottish working class shared few if any of these prejudices. Working class priorities were and are different. It was the iniquity of poverty, inequality, food banks, benefit sanctions and ATOS’ work capability tests that echoed around the grassroots community based meetings that became such a defining characteristic of Scotland’s growing demand for change.
The nationalist-minded journalist, George Kerevan summed up this new mood succinctly when he commented “…by the end, the Yes campaign had morphed into the beginnings of a genuine populist, anti-austerity movement.”
All of Scotland’s political parties will have to come to terms with this new reality. There can be no return to the old politics of the pre-referendum age. No return to passive electorates giving politicians in suits a four to five year carte blanche to do as they like in between elections.
Working class voters have re-engaged with the political process and they are not going away. Either the SNP and Labour become part of this mass anti-austerity movement or they become irrelevant to it. The tens of thousands of activists swelling the ranks of the SNP have not signed up for a tartan version of austerity.
Scottish Labour cannot reconstitute itself on the promise of balancing Westminster’s books. The new Scotland rising from the ashes of a lost referendum cannot and will not be put back in its box in the name of British-style austerity.