Will the Real Scottish Labour Party Finally Stand Up?
Sunday Mail, November 1st 2015
Scottish Labour met this weekend. This used to be the key political gathering in Scotland. No longer. But the party is in better spirits than many would think after the May 2015 wipeout.
It is a party changing. It has a new leader. Lots of new members. And more autonomy after a ‘concordat’ was signed last Monday with British leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The party hopes that the tide is turning against the SNP and that its Teflon quality and Sturgeonmania have finally peaked.
If Labour is to come back from its wilderness years, it has to understand why it has ended up where it has – when it once seemed so powerful? It has to ask why do Scots not trust or listen to Labour? And what, realistically, can the party do to change all this?
Scottish Labour were not so long ago the political establishment of this country. Although it took years, it was inevitable that the voters would eventually turn on them and kick them out. Decades of festering resentment built up, which then exploded, as 2011 and May 2015 witnessed.
Who do Scottish voters trust? A recent survey showed that the SNP are streets ahead in the trust ratings – with 45% believing what they say, compared to 25% for Labour, 21% Tories and 17% Lib Dems. That is a sizeable trust gap.
The party faces the overhang of the referendum and its toxic alliance with the Tories which angered many Labour voters. Tory leader Ruth Davidson this week stirred this open wound in Labour stating that ‘friendships were formed’ between the two parties in the campaign, and that the Tories ‘can now represent your values’ better than Labour.
As well as problems with the Tories and trust, the party has a structural deficit – similar in kind to the one it portrays in any independent Scotland. Post-devolution, Scottish Labour has been subsidised by British Labour. In election campaigns it has borrowed all sorts of resources and expertise – some of it helpful, some out of kilter with Scottish sensibilities. A more autonomous party has to stand more on its own feet.
Then there is the tone issue. Scottish Labour has spent decades getting mad at the Nationalists – going on about Alex Salmond’s tartan trousers (supposedly bought at public expense) and trying to find the smoking gun which would bring the entire separatist operation down. Funnily enough it hasn’t found it yet.
Kezia Dugdale has a better, more considered approach but it can still sound like she is gloating when talking about declining oil prices, public spending cuts, or problems in education and health. That has to change.
If that weren’t enough the party faces a double democratic problem. It was once the beneficiary of Scotland’s extended state of patronage, pre- and post-devolution, and out of office, has not built a convincing critique of this system. It complains about SNP centralisation, but only sounds like it is carping from the sidelines. Labour needs a different take on how to govern Scotland.
It also has to deal with the problem of Britain. In the last week, the Tories tried to cut tax credits with no mandate, the House of Lords stood up against them, but illustrated its lack of real power and legitimacy, and the Chilcot inquiry into Blair’s Iraq war announced it would finally publish in summer 2016. British democracy, once supposedly the envy of the world, or so we were told, is now falling apart. A genuine Scottish Labour Party would say something on this.
What can Scottish Labour do? First, it should realise its predicament isn’t unique. It should look at how other centre-left social democratic parties deal with nationalist parties. Maybe the Catalonian and Basque Socialists, or Quebec New Democrats, could offer a political insight or two for Scottish Labour?
Second, Scottish Labour should understand its own history, tradition, their strengths and weaknesses. The Labour Party became a party of the unitary state – of believing in Britain as a force for good which lifted up and liberated working class people. That’s a difficult, if not impossible tale to tell now.
A Scottish Labour Party which went ‘Back to the Future’ would understand this. Its own roots began with Keir Hardie launching the self-governing Scottish Labour Party in 1888 standing for radicalism, land reform and home rule.
Eight years into opposition and eight Labour leaders into devolution, the party has to stop its incessant chattering about ‘more autonomy’ and bring the next Scottish Labour Party into existence.
If Labour doesn’t do it themselves, the voters will, post-independence. The party have to ask themselves honestly is that really what they want?