Scottish Labour Changes its Position Yet Again on the Independence Vote!
Open Democracy, September 28th 2009
Just as British Labour is gearing itself up as best as it can for the forthcoming election, without money, resources or much hope – the Scottish Labour Party is doing the same. The attack lines are being drawn and the old battle cries dusted off and rehearsed.
The Monday of Labour Party Conference saw addresses from Jim Murphy, Scottish Secretary of State, and Iain Gray, technically, ‘Leader of the Labour Group of the Scottish Parliament’ lay out the ground of Labour versus Conservative and the supposed irrelevance of the SNP in the forthcoming Westminster elections.
Murphy’s address reflected his part reflective, part fighting talk, part gallows humour that he has been showing these last few months, a mood that does allow you on some level to make the best of a bad situation. Murphy has survived three times in a once Tory and heavily marginal seat – East Renfrewshire (current Labour majority 6,657) and proclaimed, ‘I quite enjoy being the underdog’, in Mandelson style – only with a bit more conviction (1).
For Murphy, the choice at the next election was between Labour and Conservatives with the SNP ‘a sideshow’. He claimed that Iain Gray was a ‘brilliant leader’, a line he has had to constantly recite in the last few days, illustrating the predicament Gray is in. He dismissed as ‘nonsense’, concerns over Gray’s non-existent profile in Scotland, which wasn’t aided by Gray’s admission in a ‘Scotsman’ interview earlier in the month that ‘Scots still don’t know who I am’ (2).
Gray in his own address attacked Alex Salmond, his SNP government and the idea of an independent referendum, claiming that Salmond has ‘no mandate, no majority and no shame’ (3).
This is the sort of typical vituperative language Gray has used about the SNP and in particular, personally about Salmond since becoming leader. It has had little political effect, beyond to underline the animosity Gray feels for Salmond and the wider lack of a Scottish Labour strategy to combat the Nationalists.
Typical of this sort of approach he claimed that ‘the SNP are not a government, they are a campaign’, and then laid out a Labour policy change on an independence referendum without signalling it as a policy change.
The day may well come when the people of Scotland want a referendum to settle their constitutional future once and for all, but not in the midst of a recession and not on a question rigged and fixed by the SNP.
This is charitably the fifth policy position of Scottish Labour on the independence question in two years. First, they were against it. Then they were bounced into supporting it by Wendy Alexander with Gordon Brown initially in favour, then unsure, and finally against. Then they officially weren’t sure. The Gray leadership then took them back to being against a vote, but now it has moved again.
The current position of being against a vote not on principle, but expediency of timing and the Nats having the temerity to decide the vote hardly looks a stable position, and the issue will be how long it will be party policy before we are on to the sixth policy.
Scottish Labour illustrated the depths of a crisis it is in – in terms of identity, strategy, positioning and future prospects after the Westminster elections in the run-up to the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. Murphy and Gray stood on Brighton beach, draped in a saltire (4), supposedly according to press briefings the new symbol of the party north of the border.
The challenge the Scottish party faces was evident in a ‘Compass’ publication, ‘The Last Labour Government’ which polled on voting intentions in a forthcoming independence vote. This found only 31% in favour of independence and 53% against, but a whooping 34% of Scots becoming more favourable to independence with the prospect of a Tory Government (5).
This is the major faultline of Scottish politics. The Scots at the moment show little sign of being pro-independence, but they don’t want to see the return of a Tory Government with ‘no Scottish mandate’, no Cameron bounce north of the border, and with a couple of MPs to show its paltry support. This is Alex Salmond’s hope and Scottish Labour’s fear, future and predicament.
1. BBC News, ‘Murphy’s Plea to Labour Faithful’, September 28th 2009,
2. David Maddox, ‘Scots still don’t know who I am’, The Scotsman, September 7th 2009,
3. BBC News, ‘Wrong Time to Have a Referendum’, September 28th 2009,
4. BBC News, ‘Scottish Labour leaders rally party’, September 28th 2009,
5. Compass, ‘The Last Labour Government’, September 27th 2009,