Is there any hope for Scottish Labour? And does it matter to the rest of us?
Sunday National, June 2nd 2019
Scottish Labour once carried all before it. They were admired by some, feared by others. They couldn’t be ignored, were taken seriously and mattered.
Today the party is not only struggling to be taken seriously by anyone, but has to fight for attention, battling to avoid the ignominy of being seen as irrelevant by most voters.
Many will say ‘hell mend them, they deserve their fate’ but the collapse of this once powerful party has consequences well beyond it. It begs the question – what wider impact does this have and is its shrunken condition terminal?
It is salutary to remind ourselves of what a state Labour are in. The party won a mere 9.3% of the vote in the Euro elections in Scotland. It lost its two MEPs, including the respected David Martin, the longest serving British MEP.
This humiliation produced the latest round of party infighting, claim and counter-claim. There were two frontbench resignations from Neil Findlay and Daniel Johnson, as well as calls for current leader, Richard Leonard – in post since November 2017 – to resign.
Some of Labour’s internecine warfare is along predictable lines – Corbynite versus anti-Corbynite – but it now seems the default position of a party which knows no other way to do politics, is increasingly desperate and bereft of ideas.
None of the party’s problems began on May 23th and the Euro elections. Instead, they have been a long time coming and shaped by two big factors. The first is the consequences of Labour becoming the political establishment of the country. The second is its inability to develop over the last twenty years a positive politics or credible agenda for the Scottish Parliament.
Scottish Labour became the political establishment partly through its success in winning seats, but this signaled the beginning of the end of its long dominance, as voters always eventually turn against establishments. Labour ran large parts of Scotland, and the West of Scotland in particular, as effectively one-party states, and forgot what it was meant to be the servant of the people, not the other way around.
The coming of devolution was supposed to herald a new era of Labour policies, but instead provided voters with the platform to turn against the party and elect the SNP into office. The threadbare nature of much of Labour, its lack of ideas, imagination and pluralism, and its lack of autonomy and leadership, was exposed for all to see.
The party has gone through the staggering total of nine leaders over the past twenty years. This is the sort of pattern found in the likes of a failing football club whose good times are long behind it. Labour has gone from an impressive first place in 1999 to second place in 2007, then third in 2017, and now finds itself in a humiliating fifth place – only just ahead of the Greens.
To add to this tale of woe the party has been unsure of the extent to which it is Scottish, being a branch office of British Labour, and open to the charge of ‘London Labour’.
Exasperating this weakness, the indyref campaign exposed the tensions and contradictions of how the party talked about and portrayed Scotland and the UK. On the former, Labour got into the habit of presenting Scotland as too poor, impoverished and in debt to the rest of the UK to be viable under independence: oblivious to how this diminished the state of Scotland.
But equally problematic Labour has had no real language in how to comprehend the increasingly broken state of British society where poverty and inequality sit side-by-side with colossal concentrations of wealth. Scottish Labour’s message in its successful years was about the positive attributes of Scotland and Britain, and now it had little to say about either which is plausible and progressive.
Post-indyref, and post-Brexit, votes the key faultlines of politics have worked to undermine further a weakened party. This is a party which has under Corbyn embraced constructive ambiguity on Brexit to the point of exhaustion, and ended up pleasing no one.
Similarly, on independence, Corbyn and the Scottish Labour leader before Leonard, Kezia Dugdale, both oscillated on the issue. But something even more fundamental has been at work, namely that the party has had nothing distinctively Labour to add to this debate. Instead, pre and post-indyref, the party has found itself crowded out of the discussion by the independence message of the SNP and the pro-unionist message of the Conservatives.
The near total collapse of Scottish Labour carries with it ripples for all of our politics. This comes even more into sharp focus as the SNP’s record in office, now twelve years on, begins to become more open to criticism and not without shortcomings.
The SNP now personify a cautious, centrist politics, far removed from the initial and somewhat ridiculous hype around Nicola Sturgeon. This means there is a significant centre-left constituency of voters to the left of the SNP who at the moment have no political voice or representation. They are not currently being served by Labour, or any of the possible alternatives – Greens, Scottish Socialists, or RISE.
The absence of a powerful force to the SNP’s left means that the Nationalists can inhabit the centre ground and practice their managerial politics – talking a bit centre-left, while acting as cautious centrists – without fear that they are going to be called out from the left. Who, given the state of Labour, will make the case for a robust social democracy? The answer for now seems to be no one.
Scottish Labour hasn’t said anything original or groundbreaking years. Some leaders of the party have come and gone without making any impact on voters. What if anything can the party do and is there any hope for better days?
The SNP’s long dominance and its slow morphing into the political establishment provide the party with a glimmer of hope. Twelve years into office, when voters eventually turn against the SNP, there is little sign that they will turn to the Tories. What could Labour do to have an attractive offer?
Firstly, the party has to have a convincing message on the union and the state of broken Britain. The missionary-like language of Gordon Brown, talking of the moral purpose of the union, only plays to the dwindling faithful of Labour believers, and points to the need for a new language that somehow manages to identify a new purpose for the union.
Second, Labour need to stop talking in a pessimistic, miserablist language about the state of Scotland, one which implicitly says that the only future for our country is one of dependency on the rest of the UK. It isn’t a good look for the party and isn’t a positive message to present about a nation and people.
Third, the party has to break from its old establishment ways and challenge the SNP as the party of the insider class of devolution. It has to act as an opposition and embrace the politics of insurgency and outsiders: something Labour haven’t done for decades.
Fourth, somehow the ever-shrinking party has to expand its boundaries and the people it draws from, and find new talent who speak to the Scotland beyond Labour’s tiny tribe.
If this were not enough of a challenge none of this really matters unless the party can exhibit that it is truly the Scottish Labour Party – one independent from British Labour – and come up with a politics, culture, tone and leadership which gives voice to this. It needs to get itself noticed and talked about for positive reasons, rather than as a lament and continual embarrassment, as has been the dominant story over the past two decades.
Gerry Hassan is author (with Eric Shaw) of ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published ‘The People’s Flag and the Union Jack’ (Biteback Publishing) – an analysis of Labour’s failure to mark out an alternative politics of Britain.