The Labour and Unionist party

by Michael Dugher

On Friday afternoon I was sat in traffic on the M1, driving down from Barnsley to the elections count in Leicester. The news broke at about three o’clock that Labour had picked up five seats in Ipswich – including three from the Tories – to take control of the council. It was in Ipswich that Labour’s Chris Mole had been defeated in the general election last year, giving the Conservatives the seat for the first time in nearly 20 years. Despite some very good results for Labour across the country, particularly in the big northern cities and towns, as well as in battleground contests in the midlands and in the south of England, the news on the car radio was bad. We had been heavily defeated in the Scottish parliament elections. Labour had even lost Kirkcaldy, in Gordon Brown’s own backyard, a result that meant Alex Salmond was on course to a majority at Holyrood. The “story” on Friday afternoon was already moving on to include interviews with talking heads about what the SNP win meant, what the constitutional ramifications were, and when the referendum on Scottish independence might be held.

The SNP’s big win, or rather Alex Salmond’s big win (even the ballot paper read “Alex Salmond for First Minister”), is genuinely historic. Conservative-supporting commentators were quick to blame Labour, not only for our defeat by the SNP in the Scottish parliament elections, but for introducing devolution in the first place. They accuse us of opening a Pandora’s box which is paving the way for the end of the Union. Liam Fox did the same on Sunday. It did, though, occur to me that perhaps if Tory voters in Scotland had voted for the Scottish Conservatives in the elections, rather than for the SNP as the main anti-Labour party, then Salmond’s victory might have been avoided.

Right-wing commentators also overlooked what might have happened had Westminster refused to grant a referendum on Scottish devolution after Labour’s 1997 victory, a year when the Tories were wiped out in Scotland, a position from which they have never really recovered. Even those in Labour who were not enthusiastic about devolution at the time recognised that the failure to grant it may well have resulted in an unstoppable bandwagon for outright independence and an end to the Union. As Blair later remarked: “I wasn’t passionate about it (devolution) but thought it was inevitable”.

Anyway, we are where we are. Iain Gray, Labour’s leader in Scotland, quickly signalled that he would be stepping down in the autumn and Ed Miliband said there would be a root-and-branch review into what had happened in the Scottish elections. Yesterday, Alex Salmond confirmed that the Scottish administration in Edinburgh will put forward a referendum on Scottish independence “well into the second half” of the new five-year parliament. So the fight to preserve Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom is on, and it is one that Labour must lead. We may not have it formally in our name, but Labour is very much the Labour and Unionist Party.

Scotland has always produced some of the biggest figures in Labour history and we certainly have the people today to lead and win that campaign against Scottish separatism. Reports at the weekend suggested Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling or John Reid might play leading roles, but while there will undoubtedly be a role for some of Labour’s elder statesmen in the referendum, some of Labour’s biggest hitters in today’s shadow cabinet are Scots, not least Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, and Ann McKechin. Amongst Labour’s 2010 intake too, many of the best talents are from Scotland.

One of the difficulties has always been that so many of the top Scottish Labour politicians make their careers in Westminster, not in Scotland. We should remember that whilst Alex Salmond may be a charismatic figure in the Scottish parliament, he was very much a small fish in a big pond in Westminster. Some of Scottish Labour’s big beasts in London will increasingly be needed in Scotland to take on Salmond.

But if it is imperative that Labour makes the case for the Union in Scotland, there are also pressing reasons to do so south of Hadrian’s Wall. In a poll published today by PoliticsHome and CityAM, some 51 per cent of respondents said Scottish independence would be good for the rest of the UK economy (including 25 per cent saying it would be “very good”) – with just 30 per cent saying it would be bad (including just eleven per cent saying it would be “very bad”).  The Voice of the City poll was conducted from last Tuesday to Friday, just as Scottish voters delivered Alex Salmond’s SNP a landslide majority.  Comments for the survey focused on a belief that Scotland was “subsidised” by the south east of England, for example: “Scotland is a costly burden on the rest of the UK in terms of tax contributions”. Another respondent said: “Let Scotland have their independence, they are always bleating about it. We will then be able to dismantle the Barnett formula, which has been so unfair to the English taxpayers over the years”.

My own constituency in Barnsley East would be described as a traditional Labour heartland in the north of England. A year ago, at the general election, it is fair to say that there were some voters in my Yorkshire constituency who were not overly enthusiastic about having a prime minister from Scotland. Yet the issue of Scotland came up on the doorstep at May 2011 elections. The West Lothian question, which refers to the ability of MPs from constituencies in North Ireland, Scotland and Wales to vote on matters that only affect people living in England, was first raised by Tam Dalyell in November 1977. Yet I was asked about this, and the Barnett formula, on more than one occasion in the local council elections in Barnsley last week.

In January 2006, whilst presenting the Greatest Briton Award and in response to Gordon Brown’s comments about “Britishness”, David Cameron famously said “We don’t do flags on the front lawn”.  Well, increasingly we do.  In recent years, many people in England proudly fly the flag of St George in their gardens or have it emblazoned on their cars – and not just on St George’s Day or when England play in a major football tournament. Equally, the Union Jack is seen – and not just on the day of a Royal Wedding. The politics of identity are increasingly central to British elections in all parts of the United Kingdom. It’s time for Labour to recognise this and make a powerful case for the Union – in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom – before it’s too late.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and a shadow defence minister.

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18 Responses to “The Labour and Unionist party”

  1. Gregor Addison says:

    The win was not just, of course, a win for Alex Salmond (though he remains immensely popular) but a win for the SNP front bench team which has outshone Labour’s. In fact, it was a win for positive politics over the negative politics of a Labour party in Scotland which has run a zero-tolerance campaign for the last four years, with Labour councils working against government policy in an attempt to show them as failing. This was alluded to in an interview with political commentators Lindsay Patterson and Gerry Hassan in an interview on Newsnight Scotland on Saturday. It remains to be seen if Labour will survive the Scottish council elections next year.

    Labour has become the Glasgow and Unionist Party, and therein lies their problem. They failed to appeal to anyone beyond their core vote. As for the SNP, they did not just win seats of the Tories, but many many off of Labour (and a few of those in seats where Labour voters deserted the party), as well as from the Liberal Democrats whose vote collapsed. In my view, there is no way back for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland and I suspect that the SNP will hang onto many of the rural seats it won. Whether or not it hangs onto seats in Glasgow remains to be seen; however, Labour saw the previous election as a blip, believing normal service would be resumed – it has not been, and so they can’t take it for granted that these seats well come back to Labour at the next election in five years time.

    The problem about the Union is that Scottish Labour cannot solve it. The only real option is for the UK to either split, or for wider devolution, with devolution being extended to regions of England. The Devolution settlement was seen as a solution to the problem from the “fringes” of the UK. Yes, us ungrateful unwashed with out begging bowls and desire to spend English tax money on frivolities such as free prescriptions, free education, free care for the elderly, have used Devolution to milk England. Well, that’s one view. One that we read all too often in English newspapers. However, Scotland is not about to give up its parliament. Polls indicate that the majority of Scots voters want more powers. So, the defence of the Union needs a solution that will deliver for England. There is an imbalance in Devolution and the only viable answers to the West Lothian Question are, extend devolution, scrap the Scottish Parliament (it’s not going to happen), or independence.

    Now, although the solution will have to come from England accepting further devolution (something I’m not sure Labour is ready to grasp – even though it could be a lifeline), Scottish Labour need a new identity that allows them to speak for Scotland and more powers, while not breaking up the Union. Labour could be a Unionist party and a federalist party. If they do not make that change, then I suspect the road to Independence, however winding, however long, will end with Scotland splitting from the rest of the UK. One further point, the glib mythologies and mantras that the SNP are “tartan Tories” and not as left wing as Labour are not views held by most Scots. Many Scots think of New Labour as right wing. So I’d suggest not falling back on the easy labels that might themselves be part of the reason your party got “humbled” last Thursday.

  2. Toque says:

    Blair also said that sovereignty rests with the people: “Of course sovereignty does rest with the people, which is why we gave them the chance to vote in a referendum in Scotland, which personally I always thought was a good idea.”

    And acknowledged that if the people of England were asked they would vote for an English parliament.

    Which is, of course, why Labour deny popular sovereignty in England by refusing to offer England the same constitutional choices that the other nations of the UK enjoyed – namely, a referendum on an home rule.

    Blair also remarked: “You can’t have Scotland doing something different from the rest of Britain… I am beginning to see the defects in all this devolution stuff.” Which suggests that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. He wasn’t alone in that, as Canon Kenyon Wright remarked on the Scottish MPs who signed the Scottish Claim of Right: “Most of the MPs didn’t know what they were signing…because they were signing something which was a direct contradiction of the claim of Westminster to absolute sovereignty, within our unwritten constitutional system. Because if the people are sovereign then Parliament still has an important role but it’s not an absolutist role.”

  3. Indy says:

    You sum up very well the reasons why I will vote for independence.

  4. Michael says:

    Honestly, if you believe that the best way to win Scots to Labour is to patronise them like this then you have clearly learned nothing from last Thursday’s humnliation. Keep on like this and the SNP won’t even need to bother campaigning for independence.

  5. Stephen Gash says:

    Aren’t people forgetting Scotland gave a landslide victory to Labour at the 2010 general election. So why all the hang-wringing about the money-grabbing SNP winning in Holyrood?

    There is no mandate for independence because the Scots voted for a unionist party in the UK elections.

    Call Salmond’s bluff and let’s have a referendum this year across the whole of the UK on independence.

  6. So come the Scottish independece referendum presumably we are going to see Labour campaign in favour of the Union against a fellow left of centre party in the form of the Scottish nationalist, SNP?

    Odd that.

    Odd because in Northern Ireland the left of centre SDLP is first and foremost an irish nationalist party. Yet the Labour party call them their ‘sister’ party and refuse to run election candidates against them in Northern Ireland as a result.

    Effectively, therefore, you have labour fighting against one centre left nationalist party in one part of the United Kingdom yet refusing to stand against a centre left nationalist party in another and, not only that, overtly supporting one nationalist party while fighting another!

    Meanwhile, Labour’s own fee-paying members in Northern Ireland are refused permission to stand against that nationalist party or anyone else.

    So, im expecting a good laugh when i hear what excuses the labour leadership will come up with to defend 2 totally opposite positions.

    For it seems to me that Labour has a long way to go to prove its credentials as a Unionist party and am satisfied it’s more concerned at losing over 40 Scottish Westminster MPs, rendering it virtually unelectable, than it is about preserving any Union.

    Though i wait to be proved wrong. 🙂

  7. Gregor Addison says:


    “money grabbing SNP”? Perhaps you’ll explain.

    As for calling a referendum across the whole of the UK, what good would that serve? Are you not confident of getting a no vote in Scotland alone? If England votes no and Scotland votes yes would you argue that the UK had a democratic right to keep Scotland against its will? What kind of Union is that? Let’s have sensible debate, not knee-jerk reactions passed off as wisdom.

  8. JoolsB says:

    To Gregor Addison,
    I would hazard a guess that the opposite would happen should a UKwide referendum be held. Scotland would almost certainly vote NO as most polls confirm but there is a good chance England would vote YES which is why both countries involved in this ‘union’ should be given a vote on the matter. Why should only Scotland be given a say on whether this so called union continues.
    Yes Labour did open a Pandora’s box when they introduced devolution and deliberately chose to ignore England for pure partisan self interest. It’s been a long time coming but the English are beginning to wake up and I suspect this is where the break up of the union will be decided not Scotland.

  9. @dhothersall says:

    I must say I almost entirely disagree. In fact I’ve come to the conclusion that Scottish Labour should position itself as wanting the constitutional issue addressed as a priority, but as dispassionate about the result. Labour values are as applicable in an independent Scotland as they are within the union. Leave the SNP to waste time and money on referenda and pablum; Labour should stick the knitting, and rise above.

    I’ve written more about this on my blog:

  10. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    @Gregor – why on earth should we have devolution to English regions? I heard plenty of people say they were voting for the SNP because they wanted independence for Scotland. I heard precisely nobody say they were voting SNP because they wanted a regional assembly for the East Midlands. I don’t see how making that change would reduce support for independence by even one vote (except perhaps you?)

    Not to mention that the English don’t want it – we tried to convince them and failed.

    Maintenance of the union has nothing to do with constitutional changes in England, and everything to do with convincing England to drop its sense of perpetual grievance and convincing Scotland that Alec Salmond’s words on independence are a mixture of bluster and pure fantasy.

  11. Gregor Addison says:

    Edward Carlsson Browne,

    I voted SNP, so naturally I’d like to see Scottish Independence. My point was that the problem with the current Devolution settlement is that many people in England feel aggrieved. The Scottish Labour party need to offer the Scottish electorate something that will stop short of independence. What will that be? It may be more powers for the Scottish parliament. But yet again, that will incite further hostility from certain sections of the electorate in England. Now it may be that these voices aren’t greatly significant, being a small group, or it may be that they are growing in number. If it is the latter, then it follows that even the solution of giving Scots more powers will lead to increased resentment in England. How do you curb that resentment?

    My suggestion was that the answer to Labour’s woes in Scotland might have to come from Labour in England trying to placate the English electorate with some form of enhanced Devolution in England. This may take the form of regional assemblies (which have been unpopular) or Westminster presiding over English matters without Scottish MPs being present. When it meets to decide on “British” matters, the Scottish MPs could join in. What constitutes a British matter, however, is a tricky issue in itself. You may believe that Scots don’t want independence but many believed that Scots wouldn’t vote for Devolution, or elect an SNP government, let alone elect them twice and the second time with a historic majority. Movement towards independence may not be a certainty but it is clear that a majority of Scots want greater powers and want to be protected from Westminster policies they see as a threat to their own aspirations.

    The solution to Scottish Labour’s problems, then, lies as much with what happens in England as it does with what Scottish Labour can offer Scotland. Unionist parties have to face both ways at once and “convincing England to drop its sense of perpetual grievance” might require more than hoping that Alex Salmond will not convince the Scottish electorate to back an independence referendum. Devolution was meant to allow different policies north and south of the border; that’s what we currently have. So why is that unacceptable to many English people who view the Scots as subsidy junkies and benefit cheats with a begging bowl who are constantly looking to spend more “English” taxes?

  12. Gregor Addison says:


    The independence referendum would be based on the fact that Scotland wishes to secede from the Treaty of Union. If the English wished to secede, then they should have an independence referendum. If the answer to either was yes, I’d be happy! But my point was that you can’t keep a country in a political Union against the democratic wishes of its electorate.

  13. Amber Star says:

    Can we all get a grip, please? Turn out for the Scottish elections was 50% (Westminster 2010 – 64%). Of the 50% turn out, the SNP got 44% of the vote. Therefore 22% of the Scottish electorate voted SNP – & I doubt that more than half of the 22% were voting for independence.

    The sooner the Labour Party wake up to the fact that Scottish voters are not much different to any other voters, the better. Why does Labour only field Scots for the Scottsh Parliament; why all this talk of only Scottish politicians getting involved in winning back Scotland?

    In the leadership contest, I voted for Andy Burnham & Ed Miliband & Ed Balls. I could not care less where they were born. Would I have voted for Douglas Alexander instead, if he’d been on the ballot? Not a snowflake’s chance in hell.

    Why can’t we have Chukka Umunna, Sadiq Khan, Debbie Abrahams or other ‘faces’ campaigning up here in Scotland with our MSPs to show that Labour is a vibrant, inclusive British Party?

    And why did Scotland vote SNP instead of Labour? Because both Parties ran really boring campaigns but the voters decided to punish Labour for being dull because they expected more from us. We’ve just elected a new leader (Ed not Iain) & we should’ve had a fresh, assertive campaign about the major issues.

    What are Scotland’s issues? ….They are pretty much the same as UK issues. The SNP need to be shown up for what it is: A Party that pretends Scotland is “different” to keep itself in a job.

    So what should Labour do? Drop the “Scottish” Labour – just be Labour in Scotland. And win back Scotland by showing (not telling) us, that you know people living in Scotland want the same as everybody else: A varied – or balanced – economy, an efficient & cost effective transport network, an NHS we can be proud of, a 21st century education system, police that are seen but not heard & visits from ‘cool’ politicians during election campaigns… 😉

    …And the Tory-lead Coalition kicked out of Westminster asap.

  14. Gregor Addison says:

    Amber Star,

    I think you missed the point a couple of times there. The SNP may not have polled close to 50% of those who are currently alive and eligible to vote but they did win the election by a great margin than Tony Blair won his “landslide” election. Also, the fact that Labour did not win might not just be down to the fact that their campaign was dull. When you moved onto your list of things to do, you missed the point that many Scots feel that to do these things requires greater powers for the parliament. Already in Scotland, Lord Foulkes has claimed that a federalist solution is needed (a view point I agree with) both for the UK and for the party structure itself. To deliver a better economy, a 21st century education system, an efficient and cost effective transport network, an NHS we can be proud of, requires that the parliament in Edinburgh has the powers to deliver. On the NHS, there are many in England who wish the government was following the same approach as the government in Scotland. Surely you don’t want a solution that involves Scotland having to abide by the same policies as Westminster? If you are a member of the Scottish Labour Party and believe in the NHS, then you must realise that we would currently have to follow the Coalition’s plans for the NHS, rather than stick to our own. If being more British means being at the whim of English voters, then you might not find much support for that position even in the Scottish Labour party.

  15. Amber Star says:

    @ Gregor Addison

    …by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone…

    Would the Tories be attempting to dismantle the NHS, if they had to implement it in the face of protests across the entire UK?

  16. Gregor Addison says:

    Amber Star,

    that’s a nice quote but inaccurate. Scotland has not enjoyed common endeavour and achievement within the Union. In fact, we had over twenty years of Tory rule foisted upon us by England’s constant flirtation with the Tories. We voted Labour and got Tory. This time around, we voted Labour at the Westminster elections and got the Coalition. I suspect that there are two divergent political cultures north and south of the border. Fortunately, the NHS in Scotland is a devolved matter and we are not subject to Coalition experiments. Scots are, therefore, unlikely to protest on your behalf. Currently, Scotland has achieved more through the Scottish Parliament than it did when it was ‘united’ with the rest of the UK under Westminster rule.

  17. Bob Dobbalina says:

    The Labour and Unionist Party? Dear me, the party really has come a long way since Keir Hardie’s pledge on Home Rule for Scotland in 1888, and very few of the changes (especially the most recent changes, like becoming right-wing) have been for the better.

    John Reid is a great choice to fight for the Union, though. Have to admit that the Unionists are playing a very canny game in selecting him for the job. He is undoubtedly an effective political operator, and will worry Salmond quite a bit.

  18. Hey, this was interesting to read, thanks!

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