Reports of the imminent demise of the Labour Party have been greatly exaggerated. Virtually up until polling day on the 6th May, the majority of commentators had Labour staring a worst defeat than that under Michael Foot in 1983. Despite a revived Liberal-Democrat threat and a washed out, tired looking PM compounded by the disaster that was “bigot-gate”, Labour, albeit loosing many seats, came in a respectable second in the polls, a lot better than what many including those in the Party itself believed would happen.
A hung parliament is upon us and rather than the catastrophe many predict, it may allow the opportunity and space for reflection to deal objectively with the real economic issues facing us, not least the massive public debt burden, which according to the European Union, will actually eclipse that of Greece by December.
Back in Scotland the 2010 general election produced exactly the same results as that of 2005 in both the number of seats won and the share of votes to the parties. The real success story for Labour was in its West of Scotland heartlands. Here its candidates were returned with massive majorities, in some cases increasing their vote with majorities of over 20,000: The political geography of Scotland is now solidly red in the west, with the exception of a Lib-Dem in East Dunbartonshire.
This untrammelled Labour Party domination of the political scene in the west of Scotland is all the more remarkable for a number of reasons. Like the rest of the UK, the area has gone through a recession which in its magnitude may well be as deep as that of the 1930s. Labour itself has been in government for 13 years and, economic recession or no, there is usually a fatigue with parties which have been in government for that length of time. Finally, there has been the expenses scandal which has plunged the already unsavoury reputation of politicians to an all-time low; some of those caught in the expenses trough have been Scottish Labour members. Any one of these factors by themselves should have impacted on a governing party’s chances of re-election; the cumulative effect of all three could easily be insurmountable. Yet Labour not only came second in the country as a whole but actually increased its vote in the west of Scotland!
So what explains this astonishing fidelity to Labour? It is often said that you could put a red rosette around a monkey’s neck and declare the poor animal a Labour candidate and it would get elected in Glasgow, Lanarkshire or Ayrshire. But that merely defers an explanation. More pertinently, any discussion around the Tories’ dreadful showing in Scottish elections is usually reduced to one name: that of Margaret Thatcher. If there is a folk-devil in Scottish politics then it is she. As Prime Minister from 1979-90 she presided over a deeply unpopular government and pursued free market policies which destroyed much of Scotland’s industrial infrastructure, including most of her manufacturing sector. Unemployment soared and was long-lasting. The 80s’ are remembered as a grim decade in Scotland. To cap it all, in the last years of her government she used Scotland as a guinea pig to try out her extremely unpopular and unfair experiment in the community charge, universally reviled as the “poll tax”. It is this grim legacy that is irredeemably associated with the Tories in Scotland and makes them persona non grata when it comes to elections, even for people whose leanings would otherwise cause them to vote for a centre-right party.
And yet for all the eagerness to lay blame on the Tories’ problems in Scotland on one person, this isn’t quite the whole picture by any means. For one thing, in 1983 when Mrs Thatcher won a landslide victory in England there were still 21 Tory MPs returned in Scotland. It was only after Mrs Thatcher resigned in 1990 that Tory representation declined catastrophically until it reached its zenith with the Tory “meltdown” at the 1997 election with not one Conservative MP in Scotland.
Moreover, while unemployment was long and hard in the 1980s, new industries did emerge in the service and electronics sectors and, against the grain of popular mythology, public spending on services actually increased over the period. There was considerable expansion in areas such as social work and social care generally and the basis of today’s huge care and therapeutic services was in fact laid during that decade. Furthermore, the decline in manufacturing industry stolidly blamed at Thatcher’s door has continued relentlessly under both her Conservative and Labour successors. Mrs Thatcher’s was a combative and abrasive personality who took no hostages, and she has a lot to answer for, but to blame all of Scotland’s social ills then and now on her head alone is too simplistic.
So, apart from the convenient scapegoat that is Margaret Thatcher, why do the Tories do so badly in Scotland at present, particularly in the west of Scotland? A clue can be gleaned from the fact that, over the period from 1979 to 1992 employment in manufacturing fell by 42% in Glasgow and west central Scotland. Put another way, in 1972 72% of the economically active population of the city of Glasgow were employed in manufacturing and construction. By 2006 this had fallen to 22% or from just under three-quarters of the city’s workforce to under a quarter in the space of thirty-four years: That is an industrial ‘shake-out’ of stupendous proportions
In other words the one-time second city of the empire’s extensive industrial base of shipbuilding, iron and steel and chemical industries with a large coal-mining industry in its hinterland has been wiped out, with the exception of a few surviving enclaves. These traditional industries were the basis for two contrasting political movements: A left-wing history of industrial militancy exemplified in the slogan “red Clydeside”. And a strong Conservative following, transcending class differences and associated robustly with unionist and religious affiliations, which in sectors such as shipbuilding could almost replicate that of Northern Ireland. Both ‘traditions’ have effectively disappeared along with the industrial circumstances that gave rise to them (though the latter still occasionally manifests itself on the streets and the football terraces).
The virtual collapse of the manufacturing sector in the west of Scotland has been replaced by the public sector (Glasgow City Council is the largest employer in the city followed by the National Health Service) and service industries. Every one job in the public sector supports up to two or three in the private or voluntary sectors. And jobs in services, particularly retail and entertainment, are critically dependent on those legions of public sector employees having some disposable income to spend.
The Labour Governments from 1997 onwards have presided over a sustained expansion in public spending and a booming private market economy with no seeming tensions or conflict between the two. Even though the expansion in public sector employment long predated the advent of the Labour Government, it has become indelibly associated with them in the minds of the overwhelming majority of people in west central Scotland largely because the short-fall in employment, which resulted from the contraction of manufacturing through the 1990s and into the last decade, was largely replaced by public sector jobs underwritten by successive Labour governments..
Labour successfully glossed over the fact that, any government which took power post May 6th will have to make huge cuts in public spending in the form of taxes, spending and public sector jobs. In most people’s minds then economic anxieties and fears about jobs were placed firmly on the Tories. And in a local economy dominated by the public sector this was the prime factor that motivated people to stay with the devil they knew apart from any residual traditional affiliations to Labour or horrendous folk-memories of the 80s’ and the Tories personified by Thatcher; to quote Bill Clinton: “It was the economy stupid”.
But, in actual fact, Glasgow and the west of Scotland have thus far been spared any real cuts in public spending and the employment consequences and negative impact it will have on the local economy. This is all still to come; regretfully, we’ve seen nothing yet. And this is the point. Should Labour manage to cobble together a minority government with the Lib-Dems or others, those cuts will still have to be made and with their name on them. The pain and effect these will have will likely cause disillusionment and a reaction against Labour which could shatter its hitherto unbroken sway over the majority of voters in the west of Scotland and might rebound to other’s benefit, especially the Nationalists, if the Lib-Dems are in office with the Tories.
On the other hand, if Labour relinquish power and all the pain and misery can be attributed to a Tory-Lib-Dem government then that hold over west of Scotland voters, bolstered by tradition and a fair amount of myth, can continue for a few more years yet. Shrewd Labour party politicos and officials might decide then that a few years on the back-benches while the country howls in pain and reels from the cutbacks might be much more comfortable than all the misery and negative reaction that will accrue to whoever is in Downing Street for the next while