Everyone knows by now the existential trouble the Labour Party faces in Scotland, post indy referendum. Different estimates give the SNP a dozen, two dozen, fifty, every seat in Scotland – take your pick. The counter-narrative runs thus: they’ve got a solid chap in Jim Murphy running the show up there now, and besides, we’ve all heard this before. Some incumbent party is going to sweep all before them in a general election, blah, blah, blah; then on the day, First Past the Post comes along and crushes them into the dirt.
But as you can imagine, there are several factors at work in Scotland regarding the possible changing of the guard from a country dominated by Labour to one ruled by the mighty Nats. The most important by a long way is the way the unions play things; which until very, very recently, one would not even have begun to question as to where their sympathies would lie, party politics-wise. Rumour now has it that several branches of a particular, large trade union in Scotland are seriously toying with the idea of backing the SNP formally at the general election. Now, these are just rumours mind you, the sort of Westminster gossip that comes and goes. I’m not going to spend the rest of this article deciphering whether they are true or not, which would be a fools errand. Instead, I’m going to focus on what would happen if this did actually go down.
For a start, in order to do this, the branches of the union in question would have to formally disaffiliate. Which would set a precedent, one which you can imagine the Labour Party wouldn’t be keen to see set. But that’s only the long-term problem. The much more immediate problem for Labour is the fact that should the unions decide not to support them in Scotland, they effectively have no ground war there.
I’m going to divert here momentarily. I’ve heard from many a Labour supporting friend that should the unions ever get serious about disaffiliation from Labour, the party would go on. They say the money would come from elsewhere. Putting aside the holes in this idea for a second, the big problem for Labour if the unions found another place to call home wouldn’t be the loss of revenue; it would be the loss of manpower. Labour’s machine-like ground wars depend heavily on union muscle.
In Scotland this is trebly so. Some of the constituencies they will be defending in May, which have been Labour since Gordon Brown’s grandfather first set eyes on a Tory and wrinkled his nose, have CLPs which consist of two blokes, a dog, and some old dried up haggis. They are already bracing themselves for an onslaught of fresh-faced 45ers. Imagine if the unions turn to the Nats too. Perhaps that fifty seat bonanza is on its way.
Like I say, probably just Westminster whispers, nothing more. I’ve heard about the unions backing another party before and seen it come to nought. But if they tried this on in Scotland, it would genuinely change the election. Conclusion: anyone who thinks the trade unions don’t have any power these days is kidding themselves.