Why has Labour become so unpopular in Scotland? Today’s election will show how far the fall in the party’s support has gone, but won’t explain the reasons.
To get an inkling of those, I talked to people in Johnstone, a small town to the west of Glasgow: it lies in the constituency of Paisley and Renfrewshire South, which was held for Labour in 2010 by Douglas Alexander with the seemingly impregnable majority of 16,614 over the Scottish National Party. Alexander’s constituents are divided about whether he will hang on this time, but many of them are extremely angry with Labour.
James Downie, a 49-year-old builder who used to vote Labour, explained why he now supports the SNP: “It’s quite simple, especially when you get Miliband saying he’d rather not be in government with the SNP. To me that means he thinks of us as a second-class nation. He thinks our opinions are not worth a monkey’s. Miliband rejecting coalition with the SNP is just a total slaughtering of the Scottish people. He’s basically just saying he doesn’t want us to have a say in anything.”
A second ex-Labour man, who declined to give his name, said that this time he would be voting for the Nats, “because England thinks we’re stupid and we can’t govern ourselves”. He does not blame the present generation of Labour politicians: “Tony Blair put me off. Blair was always for the business side. That’s when Labour lost it: the Blair years. It’s not Jim Murphy’s fault. It’s not Ed Miliband’s fault.”
Downie was in a mood to blame (though in a curiously buoyant tone of voice) pretty much everything that has gone wrong on Labour: “Things have changed quite dramatically. There’s an awful lot of unhappy people. I think people are just generally unhappy. You can pick any subject. The state of the roads. There’s nothing going right.”
He lamented that foreign workers have pushed down the income of builders such as himself: “It’s a bad day when I go to a cash machine and I have to select from seven different languages. It’s mostly Poles: the Polish seems to doing all the rough cast and the insulation in the housing. They’re cutting everyone’s prices because they’re paying half the wages.”
Lindsay Brown, who is unemployed, said of Labour: “They’ve lost their soul. That’s why the families that supported Labour all the time decided to turn against them. They lost their socialist values. The miners’ strike, years ago, why wasn’t Kinnock standing in solidarity with the miners? Why did he never stand on a picket line saying ‘We’ll support you’?
“Douglas Alexander has represented this area for too long [since 1997]. He’s misrepresented this area. He’s a career politician. He’s more interested in flying round the world as shadow Foreign Secretary than representing his constituents. You don’t see him in the High Street doing a stall and getting people’s views.”
Brown used to vote Labour, then moved to the SNP, and now campaigns for the Scottish Socialist Party, which advocates “a £10 minimum wage so people won’t need to top up their benefits”. He lamented that out-of-town shopping has hit places like Johnstone, which have been left with “pound shops and bookies” instead of “up-market shopping”.
On Tuesday, when these conversations took place, heavy rain certainly lent Johnstone High Street a somewhat dismal air, and McPherson Memorials, where one can buy a granite tombstone, was perhaps the most up-market shop. But in the hospitable interiors of Sandro’s Fish and Chip shop and the Black Cart pub (Black Cart Water being the local river), people could not have been kinder to a stray Englishman who wanted to ask them about politics.
Alexander will still get some votes. A nice lady at the bus stop said: “I’ll be voting for him and I think he’s got a good chance.” In the Black Cart, a man who used to work in local government spoke well of Alexander: “He came to my door. He comes across as quite approachable. I’ll be voting for him. I found the referendum was very divisive. My brother voted Yes and I didn’t want to tell him I voted against.”
A joiner declared: “I’ll vote Labour. I really always have, to tell you the truth. The SNP are bringing in all sorts of illegal immigrants, promising them jobs we haven’t got. I’ve paid 50 years’ tax and National Insurance. I don’t want to waste it on people like that. I’m a Unionist. I’m British through and through. I’ve got a British passport. Proud to have it.”
So does he think Alexander is doing a good job? “No,” the Labour-voting joiner replied. “I’m very disappointed with him. He’s a disgrace.” The joiner mentioned a change to the local bus service of which he himself disapproves: “Alexander didn’t even tell us the reason why. All you see of him is at election time. Otherwise he’s away down south.”
And yet this man will still vote Labour: “I want to stay together. I don’t want there to be a break up. If we break up we become weaker – divide and conquer – we’re stronger as a nation together.”
Barry Dooey, proprietor of the Fish and Chip shop, said Labour lost his support by trying to get people like him to “toe the party line” and vote No in the referendum: “Labour were totally looking after their self-interest for England. Because without the Scottish vote, Labour were struggling. For me, the vote for the referendum should have been a completely free vote. Labour MPs coming up here to bully the people – it was fundamentally wrong. We weren’t here at Ed Miliband’s beck and call to be getting votes for Westminster. I was in Buchanan Street [in Glasgow]. They imported 50 Labour MPs off the train – it was just morally wrong.”
And yet Dooey is torn about today’s poll: “I hope Labour get a bloody nose, but win the election. I want Miliband to learn his lesson and reconnect with the people.” He is worried by what voters north of the border who desert Labour could end up doing: “Scotland is going to win David Cameron another term. My prediction is we’re split and the Conservatives and Lib Dems are going to make another coalition. It’s not what I want. I could never vote Conservative. I will vote SNP.” And yet he does not want another referendum either: although he voted Yes in the last one, “If you asked me now, I think fundamentally the SNP are sometimes wrong.”
Perhaps the main reason why Labour is in such desperate trouble in Scotland is that it is believed to have put its interests in England first. This infuriates the Scots: when not being ordered around, they reckon they have just been taken for granted, and neither attitude is considered in the slightest bit acceptable. Today they may well seize the chance to register a massive protest vote against Labour.
Two women said they will vote Tory, because that is what they normally do. Another woman said (and rather enjoyed saying): “I’ve no idea what I’m going to do on Thursday, because I think they’re all lying, cheating gits. Every single one of them.”