Sunday 19 November 2017

The Slow Return of Scottish Labour

Our Kez's departure to the jungle occasions Scottish Labour's tentative return from the wilderness. Coincidence? You couldn't plan it better. Richard Leonard's victory is another welcome step forward in the transformation of the party. Not only does the Corbyn majority on the NEC increase by one (another case of Labour right machinations coming back to bite them), but we now have a leftwing leader in what has historically been the bastion of everything rotten in the party. For example, remember this story? Yup, Scottish Labour.

While the victory for the left is getting hailed as decisive, there is still much to do - as the voting figures attest. In the trade union section, Richard won by a huge margin - some 77% vs 23% for Anas Sarwar, former Blairist darling and, until yesterday, one of the few hopes the Labour right had left. The membership is slightly trickier: 52% vs 48%. A majority but hardly a sweeping one, and a result that might not have happened had Unite not recruited from among its own membership. Nevertheless, if Richard is planning to clean house - and if there's an organisation that does need swilling down, it's Scottish Labour - the task will be a tough one, though having the unions largely on side certainly helps matters.

What then did Scottish Labour end up voting for? Richard's pitch is recognisably left wing, albeit well within the envelope of Labourism. There's the pledge to prioritise tackling poverty, promoting equality, a pledge to coordinate health strategy across departments and working with the NHS to drive down health inequalities, a move toward rent controls and a house building promise, the decentralisation of power and strengthening of local government, investment in renewables, recovering the universal as opposed to the residual welfare state, and an industrial strategy that would include a programme of nationalisations and the right to worker buy outs. It's a good start that (obviously) requires more work, but is certainly consistent with Corbynist politics everywhere else and offers a decent left alternative to the SNP. As the Scottish government have amply demonstrated, it's one thing to talk left but quite another to follow through. However, quite conspicuous in this list was the complete absence of Brexit and the national question. I suppose this can be justified in terms of driving the political contest around core Labour values, where Anas was weak thanks to his political baggage and questions over his family's firm, but as the SNP have clear positions on these issues Labour needs a firm line too. Should Scotland try for its own special Brexit deal in defiance of the UK government? What relationship should Scotland have with the rest of the UK? On these crucial issues there is nothing, thus far. But still, this is a much stronger position from which to take back Scottish support and Scottish seats, especially when you consider how awful matters were previously.

One of the biggest challenges facing Scottish Labour is overcoming unionism. I don't mean the idea Scotland is best served by continuing its voluntary union with the UK, but unionism as a set of political dispositions, as a semi-passive movement and body of opinion among (mostly older) layers of Scottish society. Why? The 2017 general election tells us why. Labour managed to return seven MPs to Westminster, which is a better result than anyone dared hope for. But the method of doing so spells future doom for the party, unless it changes track. Incredibly, unbelievably after the debacle of the Better Together campaign at the 2014 referendum and the 2015 obliteration someone, somewhere in the Scottish party thought the key to success was another de facto alliance with the Tories, thereby doubling down on the very strategies that pitched Scottish Labour into the quagmire. Labour, along with the Ruth Davidson party and the Liberal Democrats formed a pro-unionist, anti-nationalist front to beat back the SNP. It certainly worked with all three parties gaining seats most thought were lost for a generation. But all told, what did it amount to for Labour? A mere 10,000 extra votes.

The composition of unionism is much the same as vectors of pro-establishment and right wing opinion down south. It's mostly old, mostly retired, mostly clustered in declining occupational categories, is riddled with angst and insecurity and mostly receptive to political doom saying. Small wonder it disproportionately fell in behind the Tories in June. Meanwhile, the base of 2014's Yes movement and of the SNP generally is entirely different. It's more than former Labour voters annoyed at our party's hapless record since Holyrood was founded. No, what is powering them are the very same networked/socialised workers making their presence felt via the Labour Party south of the border. Except in Scotland, thanks to Scottish Labour simultaneously being a) a chief prop of the UK establishment, and b) a rotten husk a million miles away from the people who it was set up to represent. The alliance with the Tories in the Better Together campaign revealed the party to be venal, compromised, and a vehicle for interests that would do over the constituentcies who are supposed to be its people. And so the opportunity for something different to the dreary, exhausting status quo of cuts and dog-eat-dog presented itself and, unsurprisingly, many would-be Labour supporters voted Yes and switched to the SNP. It's not rocket science.

The polarisation of politics we're seeing now, of two solid immovable blocks cohering behind Labour and the Tories applies in Scotland also. Except there it finds itself expressed in nationalism vs unionism. Labour under Our Kez, with much urging from the dysfunctional party establishment and its anti-Corbyn friends in the south, had adopted a strategy that steered it away from the constituency that pushed Labour to a better-than-expected election result. By forging tactical alliances with, to be frank, our class enemies it alienated this support and firmed it up behind the SNP. This effectively boxes Labour in to a three-way fight with the Tories and LibDems over an ageing, declining coalition of voters. Sticking to them exclusively, which is the Labour unionist establishment's preferred option, is tantamount to slow suicide.

For Scottish Labour to overcome its legacy of decrepitude and cretinism it needs to speak to the interests that has made Corbynism a contender for government. It does not need to start embracing Scottish nationalism, which would look opportunistic and desperate anyway, but must understand what is happening to Scottish society, understand that a great deal of the SNP's support is soft and not essentially nationalistic, and begin making political overtures to win them over. Pleasingly, Richard's association with Corbynism and his platform is a beginning in this regard, but it's only a beginning.


Michael Kelly said...

I think your comment on Scotland suffers from not actually living there. You don't even seem that interested in why 48% of members want to continue on the same course.

Phil said...

Of course I'm interested. But this post is about Labour Party political strategy, and my not living there is why I haven't been daft enough to offer advice about how to handle the left's internal opponents.

Phil said...

This from a comrade from Facebook. He's a member of Scottish Labour:

"I have a few points on your article about Richard's election and Scottish Labour. Yes, Unite ran a concerted campaign to sign up affiliates - but Sarwar ran a far more concentrated campaign to sign up new members - around 3000. And yet Richard still won the membership - that is a sizeable political shift amongst the members (which voted 35% for Neil, and only 45% for Corbyn last year), and a good deal of credit has to to Campaign for Socialism for that - (I don't think you mention CfS in your article at all). There has been a lot of political change in Scottish Labour, but I think it has gone fairly unnoticed - for instance, the left won the majority of seats on the Scottish Executive early this year, consequently a far greater proportion of left wingers were selected as candidates for the GE than down south. When councillors in Aberdeen attempted to form a coalition with the Tories, they were suspended - so SLAB is definitely pivoting away from the politics of unionism first (under a fair amount of duress, it has to be said). At the election, the groups that shifted most to us were young voters & private renters - not inconsistent with what happened in England (and by about the same amount from a starting point of 14% in April). Lots more to be done, but essentially further along than it might outwardly appear!

I should also say, 25% of 2017 Slab voters voted Yes, only 5% did in 2015, so the composition of the vote has also changed a lot."

Ken said...

Very good piece.

While Richard Leonard's campaign may not have said much on the national question, he has been for a long time a member of and valued contributor to the Red Paper Collective, so he has evidently given the Scottish national question some serious thought.

Chris said...

A public school educated Englishman.
Victory is assured!

jim mclean said...

Quite a few branches flagged up mass signings etc, but probably the result is a true representation of the membership split. Sarwar, privately educated, Leonard privately educated, both non Scots according to the purists,which was probably he best thing about this election. Campaign for Socialism holding their 1st meeting in my area, most see this as a way to build up Danielle Rowley's profile in the coming deputy leadership battle caused by her fathers resignation / suspension. Fife is the Rowley traditional hunting ground. The recent Fife Labour / SNP stitchup will probably not be mentioned. Richard Leonard seems a nice guy, genuine, but if he makes any headway it will be a miracle as the Party Structure is based conditions and boundaries of half a century ago. If Alex Rowley gives up his seat he will be replaced by ultra Blairite Tommy Docherty at Holyrood, an unpleasant thought. So likely deputy leader challengers, Danielle Rowley and Jackie Baillie. Need complete overhaul of the Party Structure

Michael Kelly said...

Sure, but my point is that the Right's strategy comes from the membership (or at least chimes with the beliefs of a large part of it). You're treating unionism as an ephemoral issue which it's not. For a large section of the membership, it was a serious existential issue that overrode all other considerations. The 2015 doubling down you referred to wasn't just a strategic choice, I think it reflected a broader belief in the membership.