‘What could actually get worse?’

First published on Progressonline 

Labour’s lead role in the Better Together campaign represents a huge, yet untapped, opportunity for our party. People previously uninterested in politics, or whose primary attachment was to another party, turned out to campaign, wearing our stickers and T-shirts. One GP I met when canvassing was wearing a Labour ‘No’ campaign T-shirt. I asked if he was a member. ‘No, to be honest I move between Labour and the Tories but I wanted to help. Now I have met the new candidate I am seriously considering joining Labour,’ came the reply.

Another man who I spent four hours with on polling day had, what might seem to many, a somewhat novel explanation for his political affiliations. ‘I am the union shop steward at work. Everyone tells me I should be Labour but I am a Rangers fan. All the Celtic fans vote Labour so I vote for anyone else just to stick it to them.’ At one point, Jim Murphy receives a mention. ‘He is everything I hate: Celtic, west coast, Catholic.’ My fellow campaigner pauses before continuing: ‘But hasn’t he done good in this campaign, kept us together and stuck it to the nats? He makes me think I have been wrong for all these years about Labour.’ As he talked himself out of his own sectarianism, this man revealed more and more about himself that was solid Labour.

But alongside opportunities, I also spotted vulnerabilities. I have never been involved in a campaign where you could tell what a voter was going to say from the minute you touched the gate, let alone the door. One Labour member of parliament captured it brilliantly. ‘If they cut their lawn and kept their house nice, they were with us, voting for the union. If they didn’t, and felt no stake in their community, they were voting “Yes”.’

One such occasion sticks in my mind. A supposedly undecided voter expressed his anger using many of the arguments of the ‘Yes’ campaign. When I responded to him with what I thought to be the killer line – ‘Is it worth the risk?’ – he did not miss a beat: ‘Mate, there is damp in my kids’ bedroom, I live in this shithole, I have no job and no prospect of a job. What could actually get worse?’

I was out on an estate with a Labour member of parliament who barely recognised parts of his own constituency – and in whole areas of which his constituents certainly did not recognise him. This is at the heart of the problem for Labour in Scotland. We abandoned our communities and, despite displaying considerable patience, they eventually abandoned us. We still do not seem to have noticed that we lost in 2007 and again in 2011. Nationally, Labour always does worse in the election which follows its initial ejection from power – think 1955 and 1983 – and this is a tradition which Holyrood Labour has continued. And if Labour does not do some serious reconnection north of the border, the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections might feel rather too much like 1959 and 1987.

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