GLASGOW, Scotland – Ed Miliband's crusade to bring the Labour Party back to power after five years in opposition has struck a roadblock in Scotland, where the party is experiencing a dramatic drop in support in what had long been a reliable stronghold.
In the aftermath of a spirited referendum on independence last fall, Scotland is moving away from its traditional Labour Party voting habits in favor of the Scottish National Party, which favors splitting off from the rest of Britain.
Polls show a substantial movement away from Labour, which may lose enough once-safe seats to dash its hopes of winning an outright majority in the May 7 general election now one month away. Labour's crisis in Scotland is fueling Prime Minister David Cameron's hopes of maintaining his residence at Number 10 Downing Street.
Michael Paterson, a former factory worker who has been out of work for the last six years, is, like many working class Scottish voters, fed up with what they call Labour's patronizing attitude.
"Labour doesn't look out for ordinary people anymore," said Paterson, 58, who lives in Anniesland, a suburb of Glasgow that has four food banks supplying an increasing number of families who can't afford to make ends meet.
The Scottish nationalists fell short of their goal of winning the September referendum on independence, but they are winning the aftermath as voters embrace the party's role as outspoken advocates for Scotland's rights. In contrast, the Labour Party and Miliband — who along with Cameron lobbied hard against the independence forces — have fallen from favor.
The pro-independence party mustered 45 percent in favor of breaking away from the rest of Britain, well short of the majority needed, but that level of support is enough to win many seats in the British Parliament, which uses a "first past the post" system in each district. That means the party that wants to leave Britain may play a king-making role in forming the next government if no party wins a majority, an outcome many experts predict.
The Scottish vote is crucial. The Labour Party has relied on Scotland's 59 parliamentary districts for almost a century to bolster their total of MPs in the House of Commons. It used to be said that some districts would vote for a donkey if it was wearing a Labour Party red rosette, but that attitude has gone the same way of many other ancient powerful clan fortresses, the ruins of which still dot the landscape.
"All my family were Labour Party supporters," Paterson said. "My dad was and so was my granddad, but where has it got us? Labour has had 80 years to stand up for Scotland but the only time they are interested in what ordinary people have to say is during an election when they take our support for granted. Well, they're not getting my vote this time."
Even though he doesn't want to vote for Labour, Paterson and many others in Scotland would like to see a Labour government in Britain supported by a strong team of SNP legislators to ensure that promises of more powers being given to Scotland are delivered.
Scottish voters, invigorated by the debate over whether their country should end its 300-year-old union with England, are re-evaluating old allegiances, said John Curtice, a politics professor at Strathclyde University.
"Every Labour MP who is standing in Scotland is effectively fighting for their political career," he said. "I doubt they will lose all of their seats but the Labour Party cannot presume that any constituency is going to present them with a safe victory."
He said the SNP's 20-point lead in pre-election polls is so substantial that Labour may only keep a handful of districts.
The SNP has never had more than 11 legislators in the British Parliament, but experts expect far more after the May vote.
"Even though the SNP lost the referendum they have positioned themselves as the party of social justice with the best chance to deliver the changes and powers that those who voted for independence still want," Curtice said.
In the last six months SNP membership has grown from 25,000 to more than 104,000. The party is now the third largest in Britain even though Scotland accounts for just 8.3 percent of the U.K. population.
Most Scots appear happy with the free medical prescriptions, free school meals, free education and other benefits the SNP has introduced since first winning power in 2007.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP chief, helped the cause last week with a strong showing in a televised debate that placed her on the same podium with Cameron and Miliband.
However, even if the nationalists sweep Labour out of Scotland, observers believe Miliband could still become prime minister and lead a minority government with the backing of SNP legislators. Sturgeon wrote in a newspaper column Sunday that she would work with Miliband under certain conditions, and she has publicly ruled out any support for Cameron and the Conservatives.
SNP support would come at a cost. The nationalists have called for an end to the government's austerity program, a reduction in cuts to public services, abolition of the House of Lords and the scrapping of Britain's Trident submarine nuclear weapons fleet, which is based in Scotland. The SNP is firmly opposed to weapons of mass destruction and does not want the aging nuclear systems on Scottish shores.
A lot of Labour's remaining support comes from pensioners who remember the party of old — the one that appealed to workers in the shipyards, manufacturing plants and coal mines, all of which have largely disappeared. Today's younger Scots are far more likely to support the SNP or Green party.
"I'm voting SNP because they will stand up for Scotland and put pressure on the UK government to get rid of nuclear weapons," said Kirsty Taylor, 19, a student from Clydebank.
"My mum and dad used to vote Labour but there's not much difference between them and the Tories now."