Ben Smith argues that the SNP are running scared of once-derided ‘Red Tory’ Labour
Despite attempts by the SNP to tag us as Red Tories, the recent surge in support for the Labour Party has given me hope. Ever since the independence referendum in 2014, a sharp spike in SNP support seemed to coincide with a surge of hatred for all things Labour. The party was punished with the loss of forty Scottish MPs in 2015, and I was left deflated after what felt like an age of divisive elections. Ever since, Scottish Labour have seemed bruised, bitter and divided. The ‘Red Tory’ slogan was seen by many an SNP member as the nail in the coffin of Scottish Labour.
Alas, they were very wrong.
To understand why I and so many other Labour supporters squirm at being lambasted as a ‘Red Tory’, it helps to remember how the SNP became the ‘Tartan Tories’. In 1979, Thatcher put down a motion of no-confidence in the Labour government led by Jim Callaghan. As Labour had been a minority government for over two years, the Tories smelt their chance: in a fit of pique over a failed referendum on Labour’s devolution proposals, 11 SNP MPs voted with the Tories and brought forward a general election. ‘Turkeys voting for an early Christmas’ was how Jim Callaghan described those eleven ‘Scots’ that sided with Thatcher, and they paid the price for doing so at the May 1979 General Election when they were reduced to a rump of two MPs. Here, the ‘Tartan Tories’ were born and a sense of betrayal ricocheted across Scotland; many felt that those eleven SNPs had helped to usher in 18 years of Tory rule.
This is somewhat comparable to the pain felt by the 45% who voted for independence in the 2014 referendum. As Scottish Labour had campaigned ardently for a ‘No’ vote with other major parties – including the Conservatives – in the ‘Better Together’ campaign, anger was directed towards the Labour Party as a whole.
My final year at school and first few years of university were tarnished by my peers suspiciously scrutinising my political motives, as though I secretly had a tattoo on my chest of David Cameron under my Tony Benn t-shirt. Most of my friends and colleagues found the ‘civic nationalism’ of the SNP attractive, and the aftermath of the 2015 election disaster made Scottish Labour look like a lost cause. Scottish Labour was carefully painted by the SNP and Scottish Conservatives alike as a platform for a small group of stalwarts, myself included, to harp on the sidelines whilst the freshly buoyant Tories and the dominant SNP locked horns. I wondered, perplexed and frustrated, how so many Scots struggled to see the difference between the Labour Party and the Conservatives. Then along came Jeremy Corbyn.
At this year’s unexpected general election, Jeremy Corbyn was the surprise hit. He may not have looked particularly impressive but his sincerity attracted people up and down the country. At last, there was someone who could convey the arguments I felt so strongly about to people my age with passion and enthusiasm.
The excitement surrounding Corbyn didn’t just threaten the Tories: the SNP’s monopoly on my friend’s votes was also under threat. No longer outsiders attacking the establishment, after 10 years in power the SNP were the establishment: their poor records on education and the NHS especially were held to scrutiny. Jeremy Corbyn’s message about investment in schools and the NHS and across the public services chimed in with what many Scots felt was needed. As a result, Corbyn came out swinging as the true radical up against lacklustre Theresa May and defensive incumbent Nicola Sturgeon.
One Labour MP became seven, and although far from a victory, it isn’t the death throes of a party in decline either. Since the election, Labour has consistently led in UK opinion polls and Corbyn is now viewed as the most favourable leader by the public. My once galvanised nationalist friends now find themselves trying to defend the position of being by far the biggest casualty of the election across the UK. Jeremy Corbyn had shaken the political establishment so vigorously that even the most zealous red-tory-chanter now viewed me as a political ally. Across campuses throughout Scotland the obsession with Nicola Sturgeon had been replaced by an enthusiasm for all things Corbyn. Although the MP for the University of Glasgow’s constituency is still SNP, I couldn’t help but notice that the feeling on campus was of a sudden realisation that Corbyn could indeed be Prime Minister in the not-too-distant future.
In these turbulent times no political party has a certain future. Theresa May discovered this the hard way. Who would’ve thought at the beginning of the general election campaign that the fortunes of the ‘Red Tories’ would’ve been saved by an old fashioned English Labour MP? I admire the solidarity young people share with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Now more than ever, I’m confident that Labour’s future has been saved by my generation, and the ‘Tartan Tories’ are beginning to panic.