Wednesday 7 August 2019

John McDonnell is Right about Scotland

John McDonnell was a bit naughty talking off the cuff about the Labour Party and its approach to Scottish independence. But he's right. In his chat with Iain Dale at the Edinburgh fringe, the shadow chancellor said a Labour government would not stand in the way of a second Scottish independence referendum if Holyrood was minded to call one. This is against Conservative policy and, as it happens, Labour policy too. Ian Murray, the ever-useless member for Edinburgh South and the sole Labour survivor of the 2015 wipe out retorted that this is giving succour to those "who want to divide communities and people", and runs against Labour's "internationalist" values. What codswallop.

Let's consider Labour's strategic dilemma in Scotland. The party generally is against Scottish independence and would prefer either the UK, or some reformed, federalised successor state to continue with Scotland as an integral part of it. The latter is my view, as it happens. And yet the people Scottish Labour needs to win over to become the dominant political power in the land again have largely deposited their identification with our party in the bin and transferred loyalties to the SNP. And, to be honest, who can blame them? Labour's leadership of the Better Together campaign was an abject disaster for the party. It wasn't so much appearing on platforms with Tories that was the issue - I doubt few were turned off by a then largely-unknown Ruth Davidson ostentatiously clapping Gordon Brown at one of his animated speeches. It was seeing Labour sharing politics with the likes of Dave and Osborne, and parroting the very same attack lines. The Yes campaign and the SNP framed their movement as an anti-establishment insurgency, and Labour, the party that had Scotland all sewn up for decades, myopically situated itself at logger heads against its own voters. Instead of a positive case for sticking with the UK, apocalyptic vistas and miserabilism were its preferred fare. And thus apocalypse and untold misery were duly visited upon the party less than a year later.

It wasn't just the referendum that destroyed Scottish Labour. The withering of the party's roots, the long stranglehold on politics, its stupid strategy of opposing the SNP government from the right, this is what the Scottish Labour establishment did. It was less the case of devolution and the Holyrood parliament that opened the doors to the SNP, it was the complacency and failures of Scottish Labour to renew itself and adapt. How then to pull the situation back? As plenty of people have noticed, the wave of Corbynism that transformed the party's fortunes in England and Wales barely made a dent in Scotland. Though the party was able to claw back six more seats in 2017, its support grew by fewer than 10,000 votes, and prior to this there was no Corbynmania, no swamping of constituency parties by an avalanche of new members. This was because the same kinds of people who responded to the Corbynist opening elsewhere had already been activated and politicised by the referendum, and owed their allegiances, in the main, to the SNP. And in 2017 Scottish Labour didn't even try to win over these left leaning voters. It doubled down on a core vote strategy aimed squarely at unionist voters, up to and including local arrangements with Tories to keep the nationalists out. What a grotesque turn of affairs - but one native to the constitutional cretinism of the Labour unionist establishment.

Naturally, Scottish Labour wants unionist voters to, um, vote for it. The problem is they are a declining constituency. Its old base in industrial trade unionism, as the Scottish corollary of leveraging the bargaining power of labour to extract concessions from the bosses, and social democratic legislation from the (UK) state has largely evaporated. The base of Scottish unionism, like its cousin in Northern Ireland, is not replacing itself. Even more than the case in Ulster, in terms of mass purchase unionism is a legacy ideology. The problem with Scottish Labour is its bureaucracy, networks, and governing elite were drawn from these layers well into the Blair years and remain so situated, even though the constituency is thinning and Labour are forced to compete with the Tories for hegemony over it, while leaving the loyalties of the bulk of SNP voters uncontested. A cracked strategy that can only compound Labour's marginality and doom it to a dwindling fate.

It doesn't have to be like this. Plenty of unionist Labour voters would still respond to a strong left platform even if our Scottish manifesto doesn't dribble sycophancy over the monarchy and the UK's cherished institutions. And so, the election of Richard Leonard as leader was definitely a step in the right direction. But 18 months on little has changed, and why? Because the majority of people, people who should be our people, believe the SNP are doing an okay job in government and that they offer a vision of a Scotland that could work for them. Meanwhile Labour is associated with the status quo, and one set on taking us all put of the European Union in defiance of the preference of Scottish voters. Labour are perceived an author of Scotland's problems, not a solution to them.

In this sense, something has to give. For Labour to get a hearing it needs a position on the national question that can begin a conversation with progressive voters instead of repelling them. Independence and the hopes and interests bound up with it aren't going to disappear the longer you deny a referendum. On the contrary, given how much has changed since 2014 - particularly with regard to Brexit - the more you're stoking support for one. Therefore, John McDonnell's suggestion that Westminster should not have a veto on an independence vote is the starting point of rethinking how the constitution should work. Devolving more power to Holyrood, including the hand over of the prerogative of determining Scotland's self-determination is not pandering to nationalism, as the likes of Ian Murray argue, but a sensible way of undercutting it and pitching for the SNP's voters. Given Scottish Labour is on the trajectory of long-term decline, the situation needs turning around. What is there to lose apart from the shambling gait of a party on the verge of collapse?


Michael Kelly said...

An actual independence referendum. That's what there's to lose.

It's all very well for you to pontificate on the SNP but you don't have to live with them and the consequences of their terrible politics. It doesn't effect you, so an even cursory investigation of their politics isn't needed.

Ian Gibson said...

Excellent analysis. It's quite rare that writers from outside Scotland really 'get' what's going on up here, but this really does. Worth noting too that the recent Ashcroft poll which came up with a majority for independence also included the fact that 40% of Scottish 2017 Labour voters say they are in favour of independence. Party policy it may be to oppose it, but maybe not for too much longer.

Two minor points to finish: whilst I would agree with you about ian Murray's politics in general, he is actually a very decent and hard-working constituency MP (he's mine) so possibly doesn't fully merit the soubriquet you applied to him. And 2), can you guess who delivered this quote only as recently as April this year: "a democracy fails to be a democracy if the public are not allowed to change their mind." Why, none other than our very own defender of the union...

Phil said...

And Michael aptly demonstrates some of the problems Scottish Labour has. Doesn't want to deal with the argument that was made, so makes another up and responds to that instead.

Boffy said...

McDonnell is right. As Lenin put it, the duty of socialists in countries seeking to secede is to argue against secession, and for the need for unity, whilst the duty of socialists in the country from which secession is proposed is to emphasise the right of the other nation to secede.

Emphasising the right to secede, is not at all the same thing as arguing for such secession, and Labour should continue to argue against independence. In fact, devolution was really a mistake too, and a federal Britain would be an even bigger mistake.

As Engels said about the US, we should accept federalism only where a unified state is not immediately possible.

1729torus said...

Scottish Labour needs to accept that it can never 'out-fleg' the Tories

It must drop the neurotic obsession with the SNP - defeating the SNP, frustrating the SNP, jealousy of the SNP ...

Scottish Labour are almost as bad as the DUP's self sabotaging obsession with SF, and that's really saying something. It's absolutely deranged, though it's improved in the past 12 months.

Blissex said...

«Instead of a positive case for sticking with the UK, apocalyptic vistas and miserabilism were its preferred fare.»

But "Project Fear" worked didn't it? And therefore every subsequent Conservative or New Labour campaign has been a rerun of "Project Fear". The main argument in june 2016 were "Fear the EUSSR" on one side and "Fear the Brexit crash" on the other.

The politics of "Project Fear" are clear: there has been a growing constituency who laps up fear, mostly affluent pensioners, who are frightened of everything, because they got theirs, and the rest of their life has no upside, to they obsess on fear of the possible changes. Several political strategists seem to think that to get their vote a campaign must make them crazy with fear, so that they will compulsively vote for whoever promises to protect them from that fear.

What can Labour do to counter that? Has any of the political strategist of the left even though about that problem or the "Sierra man" problem?. New Labour's solution has been to embrace the tory politics of fear and rentierism, I wonder if better can be done.

Boffy said...

"The politics of "Project Fear" are clear: there has been a growing constituency who laps up fear, mostly affluent pensioners, who are frightened of everything, because they got theirs, and the rest of their life has no upside, to they obsess on fear of the possible changes."

Except it was elderly, affluent, Tory property owners who have benefited from the astronomical bubble in house prices that were the biggest constituent of the Brexit vote! What bigger change, and one they should fear, as it means almost inevitably a fall in the Pound, rise in inflation and rise in interest rates, which will crash asset prices, could there be?

Anonymous said...

«elderly, affluent, Tory property owners who have benefited from the astronomical bubble in house prices that were the biggest constituent of the Brexit vote!»

They were one of the 3 main constituencies of the "Leave" votes, and they were also victims of "Project Fear"; deadly terrified of the EUSSR, afraid of bein taxed to penury by french trots and italian scroungers, scared by the idea of any government they cannot control via the Conservative Party, and thus eager to "Take Back Control" to minimize the risk to their wealth and their electoral power.

asquith said...

These are dangerous times in which our United Kingdom is threatened by just about everyone, especially right-wing "patriots".

The breakup of the United Kingdom would be a total calamity; when I go to Scotland each year, see my family and friends in Edinburgh and plant trees with my fellow volunteers in Glen Affric, just imagine if I had to cross an international frontier each time?

The racists who claim to be made to feel like foreigners in their own country want this to literally be done to me.

I have noticed a dismaying trend towards Celtophobia in England; if there were to be seperation, plenty of blinkered and unthinking wealthy conservatives would welcome this as they'd find it an opportunity to pay less tax and have fewer "lefties" in the UK parliament, blind to the loss all of us would suffer.

And even people who aren't right-wing, when they see that wretched Sturgeon on TV, seem to assume she is a spokeswoman for all Scots, and take a reasonable dislike of her into an anti-Scottish hostility that portrays Scots as whinging, self-absorbed and entitled, none of which is true of my Scottish friends, few of whom would give her the time of day.

Yes, support for unionism is declining and I find I can't blame nationalists who want to vote against Al Johnson, Jake Rees-Bogg and Farridge, any more than I can blame 2016 Leave voters who wanted to vote against Shameron & Gidiot.

It would be a disaster, and I find it dismaying that if things were done as they should be, the benefits of the union would be felt and almost everyone would be a unionist. But we liberal unionists struggle to make our case as we are conflated with reactionaries, many of whom are English nationalists.

Brexit is only the latest in the wrongs inflicted on us by spoiled & selfish ageing rentiers and I don't know what is to be done.