You’d be forgiven for thinking, listening to the Labour Party over the last few days, that the Better Together campaign has been a predominantly Tory enterprise. Gordon Brown’s saving the union, we’re told – thank the Lord for former Labour Prime Ministers.
In reality, though, it’s worth remembering the degree to which the current situation in Scotland is Labour’s fault.
The root of the current referendum is Blair and Brown’s failed devolution strategy from the late 1990s. They thought that giving a parliament and a bit of power would sate Scottish nationalism and kill the SNP – an approach intended not only to preserve the union but to see off a threat to Labour in heartland territory. They could not have been more wrong – partial devolution gave a tantalising taste and only served to egg on the nationalists to push for full independence, while the continuation of the Barnett Formula handed Holyrood artificially inflated resources to make itself look good.
The electoral system they chose for the new Scottish Parliament was another error. It was meant to be a backstop against the SNP – supposedly guaranteeing eternal minority administrations or coalitions rather than allowing any party to secure an outright majority. In 2011, Salmond’s party won the election outright, formed Scotland’s first majority government, and thus we have a referendum.
When the time came to fight for Scotland’s votes, Labour took centre stage. As Paul reviewed this morning, the Scottish Conservatives weren’t in a position to lead the campaign – that’s not disputed. The problem came when Labour over-promised and under-delivered on Better Together. Citing their own grassroots strength, their many senior Scottish figures and their supposedly deep understanding of Scottish culture and politics, they asked for Tory funding in return for providing the strategy and the boots on the ground.
The money, and the agreement to let Labour lead the charge, was forthcoming. But they haven’t really delivered their part of the bargain.
YouGov polling suggests Better Together haven’t been as effective as the Yes campaign in contacting voters – be it through leaflets, letters, door-knocking, posters, stalls, email or social media. Where are the army of activists Labour promised?
Strategically, Labour’s leadership hasn’t proved much better. Their national messaging (that everything the Coalition does is awful, all of the time) presented a huge opportunity for Salmond to make this referendum about throwing off the Tory yoke, or sacking “Team Westminster” – the inaccuracy of the Labour message, and their refusal to admit that it is wrong, was a huge gift to the Yes campaign. Listen to Salmond’s favourites riffs about NHS privatisation, toffs robbing the poor and so on – their effectiveness rests on the fact that they are cribbed from Labour, who are unwilling to contradict them.
The very fact that the big shift in opinion towards Yes appears to be among Labour voters highlights how badly that party has failed. The whole premise of their pitch to run Better Together was that the voters who would decide the referendum were their voters, so they understood them best and could talk to them most persuasively. The swing of recent weeks shows that they were right about which voters were important – but wrong to think that they would simply follow the Labour banner on referendum day (echoes of the 2004 North East referendum, anyone?).
Then there’s the disfunction of those much-vaunted senior Scottish Labour figures. The tension between Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown, all-Scotland grudge-bearing champion for the last 15 years running, has been all too visible in the misfiring campaign. Others like Jim Murphy, who could have been put to better use, appear to have given up on the official campaign altogether and instead set off on their own personal efforts.
Scotland may still vote No. For what it’s worth, I suspect there are a few percentage points of voters who don’t tell anyone, even pollsters, how they plan to vote, due to the remarkably poisonous reaction unionists routinely receive from Yes activists. But it shouldn’t ever have got this close in the first place – whether the Union separates next week or it limps over the line after a last ditch effort, we shouldn’t forget it was Labour that messed up from the start.