Sunday 2 August 2020

The Ends of Scottish Labour

What is Scottish Labour for? It persistently languishes third in opinion polling and calls for the leader, Richard Leonard, to step down are almost as routine as those who accompanied Jeremy Corbyn every day of his leadership. With the disappearance of his Tory counterpart, Jackson Carlaw, into the night these demands are only going to mount. And yet, if Leonard does decide to step down how will that fix things? His personal ratings aren't great, but if he's replaced by his deputy - ancien regime veteran Jackie Baillie is in the frame - what plan does she have, or anyone have for that matter, to reverse the party's dreadful fortunes?

The biggest problem Scottish Labour has is its refusal to come to terms with what happened in 2015. Joke deputy leader candidate Ian Murray fancies himself an expert on the rout, what with his being the only MP to survive that year's massacre and pull through again last December. Apart from restating the need to "win elections" (stunning insight), in February he said Labour had to "learn the lessons" from the fall of the tartan wall without saying what they are beyond the need for "better comms". Pathetic. None are so blind as those who do not wish to see, so let's set it out in simple terms. A chunk of Labour's base up and left the party because, effectively, the party had left them. Political science ain't rocket science. If you spend decade after decade ignoring the aspirations of your support, allow your party machine to become an apolitical corrupt vehicle of place seekers and careerists, and then are seen to line up with your alleged enemies to tell your voters you will screw them over if Scotland goes for independence, a reckoning will come. And boy, did it come.

Effectively, what Labour clung onto in the last three elections was its legacy vote. The hang over of a decaying labour movement that once provided Scottish unionism its political backbone still responds, in ever diminishing numbers, to the trappings of labour-inflected British patriotism. Sadly, the increasingly numerous and dominant sections of the new working class, which Labour elsewhere attracted now look to the SNP for protection from the Tories, despite the Scottish government's own poor record. This very basic fact of political life is lost on some, among whom you can find the bulk of the Scottish Labour establishment.

Richard Leonard won the leadership in 2017 by a huge majority because he appeared to understand this problem. However, understanding something doesn't necessarily mean you can or will do anything about it. Recovering Labour's position did, and still does, lie in becoming the sort of movement it tried to be and still needs to be in England and Wales, a reality even recognised by the soft left Labour Together report. Some comrades, most notably those in the Campaign for Socialism have tried but it has not had full backing from the top nor have they prioritised a community-minded strategy for rebuilding the party and its influence. Instead, Leonard and the leadership are bogged down in neverendum positioning. This is fair enough to a degree. It would be stupid to ignore the big issue in Scottish politics, and substituting it for economistic campaigning around good causes won't, in and of itself, make the problem go away. Do then the Labour right have an alternative?

They think they do. Ian Murray wanted "clarity" on a second referendum, and Scottish Labour has it: the party has reaffirmed its opposition to a second referendum. But so what, everyone knows Labour is a unionist party. People haven't stopped voting for the party because they don't know where it stands on the union, they've stopped because the party isn't speaking to the people it needs to win over. i.e. People who turned SNP in 2015 and haven't come back. There is, however, a kernel of insight coming from the Labour right when it comes to playing the Holyrood game. It's their natural habitat, after all.

Readers will recall the the rise of Ruth Davidson. Personable and approachable, some might even describe her as charismatic. She was a different kind of Tory who spoke plainly, but without none of the populist bullshit and anti-immigration drum beating typical of right wing politicians. As such, the Scottish Tories rebranded their toxic party around her personality. The Conservatives became "Ruth's Team", and their leaflets asked punters not to vote Tory but to vote "for Ruth." And to seal the deal with the sceptical, they offered a wee gateway drug. They were honest with the punters and said they weren't about to win the 2016 Holyrood elections, but the SNP demanded a decent opposition and Labour (then led by Our Kez) just weren't providing it. Vote Tory not to support the Tories, but to keep Nicola Sturgeon honest. And, to a point, the strategy paid off. The Tories displaced Labour as the official opposition, laid the groundwork for the 2017 Tory resurgence, and gifted Theresa May the model for her own ill-fated election campaign. Might this work for the Scottish party, as the Labour right hopes?

It could. Jackie Baillie is an experienced figure, having served as a MSP since the parliament opened and worked with his holiness, Donald Dewar. She's probably better known than the Tories' heir apparent, Douglas Ross, but not exactly on the tips of pundits' tongues, let alone a name oft mentioned around the kitchen table. She has a good record of piecemeal achievement in Holyrood as well, winning cross party support on protections for disabled parking spaces and having overseen and participated in complex inquiries. This could be leveraged along with Keir Starmer's image as A Very Serious Man - a politician that can draw on decades of experience to hold the SNP's feet to the fire over education, the NHS, and its awful Covid figures. Have the Labour right hit upon their woman and the right strategy?

The old Labourist proverb goes that Labour needs both wings to fly. If Leonard is deposed and Baillie moves in quickly a, for want of a better phrase, "Ruthist" reorientation could eat into Tory support and win over some soft SNP/Labour floaters. That would be a good start, but knowing the Labour right anything that isn't an election is a waste of time - presumably the history of the party is one of working people automatically voting for Labour as soon as it appeared on the ballot paper. The project of weaning people off the Liberal Party, winning over layers of Tory voting workers, because of the collapse in Scotland this work has to all be done again. Different opponents, same grind. And so the prospectus Leonard's election opened up must be carried to completion, with him or not. A savvier parliamentary game to detoxify the party and knock the Tories back, and a ground game organising communities, workplaces and, this cannot be emphasised enough, avoids the impression of preferring the Conservative Party to the Scottish National Party might, over the medium term, start winning people back. If Scottish Labour wants to win, it must first act like a proper opposition on all fronts. If it doesn't, the party will remain a husk. It will die.

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gastrogeorge said...

Wasn't the camel's straw the Scots Ref in 2014, when Brown was hauled in to make promises which Cameron shat on within days, sealing Labour's fate in a betrayal narrative that the SNP exploit so easily.

Dipper said...

well ... to be a stuck record on this, what we have seen in UK politics is that the key question has gone from economics to sovereignty. The issue of what is the best constitutional arrangement for you and your community has become the over-riding question. Scottish Labour's big mistake was to allow themselves to be seen as a branch office of the English Labour Party.

What Scottish Labour needs to do is become independent. They need to specifically address themselves to constitutional issues and demonstrate that they have the right constitutional approach for Scotland. It means separate organisation, separate manifesto, different logo, and a clear understanding that they will sit in Westminster as a separate party in coalition with English/welsh Labour.

BCFG said...

"It means separate organisation, separate manifesto, different logo, and a clear understanding that they will sit in Westminster as a separate party in coalition with English/welsh Labour."

And also fighting to make Scotland a separate nation where sitting at Westminster is no longer relevant!

Leave little England to itself would be my strong advice. As a Northerner I only wish we could join them!

Blissex said...

«Leave little England to itself would be my strong advice. As a Northerner I only wish we could join them!»

There was a poll showing that 70% of the north-east people would prefer to be part of Scotland, and I guess in particular if it became independent of the courtly, smug, elites of Wessex, I mean southern England.

Perhaps the northerners could petition the crown of Denmark or that of Norway that they recognize the historical rights of Harald Hardrada over those of Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy over the Danelaw, and then become again part of the social-democratic, well-governed, Kingdoms of Denmark or Norway.
I guess the wessicians would not be too bothered to let go the "lazy scroungers" of "the north", while they work to turn the M25 area into the next Dubai.