Can Scottish Labour find a way back from the brink in 2017?

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Commentary by Christopher Silver

If 2016 was the year when Scottish Labour was damaged, probably beyond repair, 2017 could well be the year that sees its final collapse.

Christopher Silver
Christopher Silver

At Holyrood it is a husk: shorn of purpose and intellect. In the councils its fortunes continue to slide. In the country, what activist base it has left is fragmented. There are large parts of Scotland where it scarcely registers as a force on the ground at all.

If it is robbed of the bastion of Glasgow City Council, retained with such pride in 2012, there is a real possibility that the party will continue its slide towards the margins of Scottish public life. Perhaps a long overdue factional split will mark its inglorious end.

But that fate isn’t inevitable. It has become all too easy for pro-independence voices to mock the feeble state of Scottish Labour. Years of bitter recrimination between SNP and Labour has perhaps made it a little too easy for the former crew, now triumphant, to enjoy the farcical demise of their once insurmountable opponent.

That rancour has a lot to answer for when it comes to Labour’s plight in Scotland. However, the impending deadline of next year’s election ought to serve as a reminder that there is a route back from the brink.

But for a true revival to take place, the party would need to pull off nothing less than a return to the foundational radicalism of its roots.

The collapse of the political centre 

2016 was a year of revolution. All political parties must now consider how they define their role as they pick through the debris of the many certainties that came crashing down around them.

For Scottish Labour, the task of coping with the collapse of the political centre ground is particularly acute. In part this is because this trend has manifested itself within the Labour party itself, with most of Scottish Labour straining against the tide of Corbynism.

These struggles have their roots in the domestic and foreign controversies of the Blair years and the very visible psychological wounds these have inflicted. I witnessed them at a Corbyn rally in Edinburgh in 2015. At the mere mention of Blair, the room erupted with shouts of “murderer”.

Part of the post-Blair fall-out, as Owen Smith frequently pointed out during his campaign to oust Corbyn, is that Labour has to live with the humiliation of being less popular than the Tories north of the Border. Such a state of affairs hasn’t been known in Scotland since the 1950s.

Yet the scale of the May 2016 defeat is even more historic than that. May’s Holyrood election was the first time that Labour has polled fourth in Scotland since the introduction of universal suffrage.

What does Scottish Labour stand for?

Behind such failures lies one basic inescapable problem. The party, it seems, simply cannot agree what it is for. For some, its task is to seek out ministerial scalps from the SNP by scrutinising its record of delivery on devolved areas: the scope of Labour’s purpose and of the Labour MSP’s political career, looks no further.

The fate of Scottish Labour is that of a creator doomed to a destructive love-hate relationship with its own creation. It cannot see beyond the very narrow political structure that it created in its own (Blairite) image. It cannot cope with the notion that control of this has been so effectively wrested from its hands within the space of a decade.

Let’s not forget how narrow the field of Holyrood politics really is – despite all the energies poured into Scottish politics in the preceding years, turnout was a paltry 55.6% in 2016. In 2017, the last bastions of Labour dominance in the town halls will likely fall with an even less inspiring popular mandate: only 39.6% bothered to vote in the 2012 council elections.

Jings, what does she do next?
Jings, what does she do next?

Despite this, there is an attachment to a labour heritage in Scotland that runs deep: far deeper than any electoral cycle is capable of reflecting. This is why you will lose count of the number of prominent Scottish nationalists, of all ages, who proclaim, “the Labour Party left me”. Intriguingly, this line implies that theirs was a nationalism of last resort: partly premised on a better version of a Labour Party and movement that has been lost.

If that really is the case, there must be something within Scottish politics that views the Labour Party as foundational. Whatever we might think of its current drift into obscurity, it remains the party that built modern Scotland.

Such a deep strain in Scottish society, which is in fact far more bound up with our sense of identity than any nationalist movement, does not disappear within a generation.

Beyond Holyrood

You can look at Labour’s legacy in Scotland through the narrow lens of Holyrood – the conclusion of the party’s role as the creator of post-war Scotland – or you can look beyond it, to when a nation was housed, employed and looked after by Labour’s social democratic state.

Perversely, it’s precisely the embeddedness of this narrative in Scotland that has made contemporary Scottish Labour condemn itself to the side-lines rather than accept the reality of SNP dominance.

In contrast, where the Tories have adapted to the new reality with a remarkable agility, Labour is psychologically incapable of taking that first vital step out of obscurity by trying to understand what its role is in relation to the SNP.

So what can Scottish Labour do now, with the unions snapping at the heels of its current centrist leadership and the likely prospect of its remaining strongholds falling next year?

A smart, intellectually revived party would understand instinctively that the answer has to be about a re-assessment of its role at Holyrood in the light of its historic achievements. In the current political climate, this means embracing a major shift to the left.

What purpose? 

Tom Johnston, the towering figure of 20th century Labour Scotland, understood that home rule and economic transformation had to move hand in hand.

Tom Johnston: Towering figure of 20th century Scottish Labour
Tom Johnston: Towering figure of 20th century Scottish Labour

Step forth a great irony — Johnston, Scotland’s definitive Secretary of State, now lauded by Alex Salmond, arguably did more to demonstrate why Scotland should govern itself than any other figure. Few politicians, anywhere, can boast of such a tangible legacy.

These achievements were not premised on a legislature. As Johnston acerbically noted of the Home Rule issue as it gained traction amidst the brutal economic realities of the inter-war period: “What purpose would there be in our getting a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh if it has to administer an emigration system, a glorified poor law and a desert?”

Of course, Johnston had the support of a powerful Labour Party and an expanding British state.

Whether or not Corbyn’s leadership can hold sway over any parliament, it has demonstrated that grassroots activism and trade unionism remain highly understated and unjustifiably obscure elements in the kind of left politics that many Scots claim fidelity to.

But as turnout demonstrates, Holyrood is not the place to marshal such energies. In order for Labour to be revived in Scotland, it would need to explicitly shift its focus away from the Scottish Parliament and towards the town halls and communities in Scotland.

In doing so, it could perform the kind of function that the SNP has managed to perform in relation to Westminster governments.

The future: re-locating politics  

By re-locating vital political arguments, by asking insistently about how power ought to be distributed in Scotland, the party might even find a means to move beyond the constitutional question.

To do this, it would need to stand on an anti-austerity platform and establish a charter for protection of the public sector and local democracy that all candidates would have to sign up to. This would coalesce around growing controversies about wages and a fair form of local taxation, as household incomes look set to be squeezed to an unprecedented degree over the coming five years.

If it was feeling particularly innovative, the party could also open up its selection process, to encourage new members to stand as the SNP did, with astonishing results, in 2015.

Crucially, such a radical move would break the cycle of Scottish Labour leaders forced into the breach against an enemy that they don’t know how to fight.

The future of the party, if it has one, will not be secured by yet another leader at Holyrood, trapped by the narrow anti-SNPism of right-wing apparatchiks like Alan Roden and Paul Sinclair.

The future of the party is councillors like Mary Lockhart. Firmly within the left-wing, trade unionist, tradition of the party in Scotland.

That Lockhart and others on the left do not support the party’s staunchly unionist line is an anomaly that would be addressed by this tactical retreat from Holyrood too.

The constitution does not need to be at the forefront of a party that becomes, in effect, a trade-union led anti-austerity coalition. Such a move might seem uncomfortable, but it’s the only feasible political space the party has left to occupy.

Of course, the seeds of Labour’s troubles in Scotland were planted some time ago. The venality, the mediocrity, the party’s kamikaze approach to defending the union in 2014 — all have led to the current picture. In a sense, Scotland’s own version of Tammany Hall was bound to come crashing down at some point. Such extensive and opaque forms of power always do.

Charting Labour’s ills in Scotland is an easy task. Suggesting solutions is far more difficult. But we live in times when the unprecedented keeps happening. Many will think a last-minute recovery for Labour impossible, requiring a level of audacity and radicalism few can now discern within its ranks.

They’re probably correct: but in the post-2016 world, they might not be.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. The new Scotland needs democratic parties reflecting the true social, regional/communal and political composition of the country. The old Westminster unionist, binary political taxonomy was compromised by the ascent of the National party. A radical realignment in our national politics is inevitable. Independence will make that so. . Expect much kicking, screaming and blood letting in the process as the old order cadres attempt to cling on to their decaying fiefdoms.

  2. Can Labour recover? Who gives a rat’s arse? A better article would’ve been on how we can help asteroid number 3 gain momentum as it propels its way towards the town halls ready to consign Labourosaurus to the dungheap of history where the treacherous scumbags belong.

  3. Let us know if you’re volunteering to write that one, Dave. Always interested in an asteroid piece 🙂

  4. Labour in Scotland can adopt any position it likes,so long as head office in London agree.
    That is their problem and since there is no mood in English politics for social democracy,they are stuck with being just another right of centre party pandering to xenophobia and all the rest.

  5. The demise of Labour at the 2017 council elections is unlikely for one reason; with STV, unionists will vote in the red, yellow or blue donkey, the majority being red ones. This will mask the decline, but may provide an impetus to the MSM to say there is finally a Labour revival.

  6. If “a return to the foundational radicalism of its roots” means being at the ‘mercy’ of Westminster and Tories until Labour get their chance at fucking up our countries, then I’m out.
    In fact I’m out as far as Labour is concerned, I want Scotland to run it’s own affairs.

  7. Or they could also, while turning leftwards, get behind “Socialism in one country” and join the SNP’s independence drive, while exerting pressure for more leftist policies from them. Kezia would have to emmigrate to England and join the Labour(!) right-wingers there, or take up her true vocation, whatever that is.

  8. Yes let’s concentrate minds on Labour, just as the Sunday Herald features Dugdale on its front cover with regularity, and if that’s not happening there will be a two page spread on Labour inside. Labour Labour Labour.
    As Dave Beveridge says who give a rats arse.

    this country needs to look to the future, a positive future away from political parties that exist souly to keep Scots enslaved to corrupt, warmongering, Westminister politics where the only growing industry is food banks.

  9. They could start by actually creating a Scottish labour party which does not exists in any form at the moment. The whole article is built on this lie. Our identities have more to do with Scottish labour than the Scottish nation? Gi us a fuckin break

  10. I believe Scottish Labour belongs in the past with the Union, the broken vow, the biased BBC, the TV licence and Murdoch’s unionist- SNPBaad newspapers.

    In true honesty, I do not think there is a place in an outward looking and progressive Scotland for such a retrograde and self-serving party (branch?) that is fighting to its death against self-determination for Scotland, that is constantly putting obstacles for Scotland to gain more control over its own affairs that is more than willing to turn over its coat and join the Tories in a heartbeat so Scotland does not achieve home rule and control over its own resources, even if that means stopping Scotland’s growth and progress.

    To me Labour’s Scottish branch has shown its true colours time and time again: Scotland has never been their main concern or priority, but just a stepping stone for their UK party to get into number 10 and gain control over England.

    I do not think that as today, Labour’s branch can offer anything positive for Scotland’s future anymore and at any level. They stubbornly refuse to adapt to the changing times so they will continue in a time warp of their own until they lose every seat and deservedly so. In my opinion, it is time for that decaying corpse to be put underground to rest so another political party of Scotland, that works in Scotland, that sees Scotland as a nation and not as a colony, that fights for Scotland’s best interest and not against them can emerge in its place.

    I cannot talk for the rest, but for me I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Labour’s self-serving approach to indyref 1, their involvement in deceiving the people of Scotland during that campaign, the infamous vow, their obstacles on the delivery of more devolution powers for Scotland, their flip-flop stance on Brexit defending the indefensible for Scotland’s economy to suit their unionism agenda and, above everything, their relentless self-serving determination to stop Scottish independence at all cost, means that I will never trust them or vote for them again, no matter who they chose as a leader of the day or what shade of red they adopt. They have done too much damage to be simply ignored. For me they are finished.

  11. Labour has been fatally finished and now any Party that puts Scotland First and Forever is what I’m looking for – in the meantime it has to be the SNiP’s 😉

  12. Scotland needs a credible and varied opposition at Holyrood.

    Ruth Davidson has established her party as part of that. She has made unionism her party’s property. Her party also espouses the ‘smaller state’, ‘low taxation’, ‘minimal regulation’, ‘individualism’ cases. These appeal to some degree to a fair number within the population and they are arguments which socially democratic and liberal people have to counter. And, of course, Ms Davidson’s party (and, in Scotland, she is the image of that party) has substantial support from the media within and outwith Scotland.

    The Greens are establishing a corpus of ecological and subsidiarity policies, which include socialist ideas which Labour scorned. They are relative newcomers on the political scene and have not yet established a ‘traditional support’, which is just about all that Labour and the Lib Dems have, at present. They are striving to marry the competing demands of the individual and the common good. The Greens are substantially ignored by the media and, UKIP and the LibDems, despite their relatively low voting figures in Scotland, get much more column inches and air time. Nevertheless, in Patrick Harvie, Alison Johnstone and Andy Wightman they have pretty effective communicators who compel a hearing and the youthful, Ross Greer, appears to be a media manipulator and coiner of soundbites.

    So, the space for Labour and the Lib Dems to establish credible philosophies is being squeezed.

    The Lib Dems have retained their local geographical strengths. Alistair Carmichael and Willie Rennie, despite their peccadilloes have strong followings in their constituencies and are seen to be doughty fighters for their areas. They have long been seen as a ‘gentler’ one-nation Tory, seeking to blend economic liberalism with social concern, particularly the latter in the local sphere.

    Labour has lost huge chunks of its traditional heartlands as demonstrated when Dundee, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire voted YES. Gerry Hassan has well documented the ‘strange death of Labour Scotland. Trade unions are much weakened, yet even within these support for Labour cannot be guaranteed. In Holyrood, they have probably the most boring and uncreative group of MSPs of all parties. Being in third place, when Ruth Davidson has had her say and opposed whatever the SNP is proposing, when Labour comes to speak inevitably it sounds like ‘I agree with Ruth’. With STV in local government they will retain a substantial, though reduced number of councillors, particularly as there is evidence of tactical voting amongst Con, Lab, LibDem voters to support who is most likely to challenge the SNP. They have some young, thoughtful, dynamic local councillors, who are not as thirled to the mafia-like discipline of the old ‘entitlement’. It is they who will revitalise the party if it is capable of being revitalised. They will have to become more sincerely involved in community council level politics, through the opportunities that the community empowerment legislation will bring. They will have to become more seriously engaged with land reform. And they will have to think more about what the empowering state and council can do. They need to be arguing for many more local elected representatives to bring Scotland more in line with the kind of empowered local democracy there is in much of mainland Europe. They need to break the link with UK Labour and consider seriously independence or the significant devolution of more powers from Westminster and thence from Holyrood to smaller and smaller but empowered communities. They need to think of the financing of government at all levels. They need to clear out the deadwood and, probably, make a sincere apology to their former supporters, and disown, not just Mr Blair, but also Messrs Darling and Brown.

    Unfortunately for them, despite having to be a broad church to maximise support for independence, the SNP has camped on much of that territory (although it has a strong centralising tendency) as are the Greens. Many of the young, aspiring politicians see the SNP, Tories and Greens as the places to develop careers (and I am not being cynical about their motives).

    I fear that they do not have the psychological strength to change. They will limp on for a few more elections.

  13. Well never say never I suppose but,as all recent history and even this article shows, there’s no feasible way back for the Labour Party- north or south of the border.

  14. Another excellent piece from Christopher Silver.
    I understand various commentators ambivalence to Labour but as Alasdair Macdonald points out, it is in the interests of democracy and good government that Scotland has a strong and healthy opposition. Labour blew a hole in its case to be that opposition with its referendum position in 2014. In principle, the things that Labour stood for over generations are broadly supported by many people in Scotland, and the SNP moved into those areas specifically to usurp that so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by SNP supporters vehement response to the article. Next year will be “interesting times” for Scottish politics and particularly Labour, who have made absolutely no signs of recovery.

  15. The point is well made about Scotland’s attachment to Labour. Although I have never voted for them, I feel some kind of link to them, but not as they are now. Maybe it’s a nostalgic attachment to the party that introduced hydro-electricity, development agencies and access to higher education. Sadly, the Labour Party in Scotland seems to have become a home for the relentlessly untalented and in that they differ little from the Conservatives or Liberals.

    Good government needs strong opposition and dissenting voices. The Conservatives have taken on that role, but too many of the MSPs are simply dim, and it’s doubtful whether they can sustain their stance. Labour may be just as dim, but they are deathly dull and uninspiring/uninspired. The Liberals are the Liberals – which may or may not be a lie, depending on how Alistair Carmichael feels.

    2017 won’t be the end of Labour at council level – Conservatives and Liberals will vote for them if they look like a more promising winner than their own parties. The realignment in politics which was evident in Red Morningside is just getting into its stride.

  16. The way forward for labour is to fully and unambiguously support Scottish federalism with the absolute minimum position of full fiscal autonomy. Or they could even adopt full independence but either way, they could work with the SNP to achieve a Scottish society where the elite contribute more than they do in their leafy havens around London and their tax havens in sunnier climes.

    Espouse land reform and stop the medieval system of large land holdings that is a total anachronism in a supposedly modern country. Many of the profits of these large estates are filtered to the very same tax havens the elite are so fond of. To me this is naked greed and legalised theft but the Labour Party has shown absolutely no appetite to take the system on.

    The labour model I liked best was the ILP championed by visionaries like James Connolly and Scottish labour could show their internationalism 100 years after his death at the hands of the British Establishement by fully supporting continued membership of the EU and each and every one of the 4 freedoms which membership of the EU implies. They must distance themselves from labour down south where the MPs there fear that they are out of a job if they support the EU.

    If they become a socialist party within Scotland and distance themselves from the establishment party that labour has become over the rest of the UK then they have a chance. To continue carping at the SNP and remaining tied to whatever UK labour says is just a recipe for electoral wipeout. Davidson has the Scottish unionist vote at the moment so labour won’t be able to don that cloak any time soon. Dugdale has not shown strong leadership so far in her tenure and s he will need to do so soon or she’ll be another leadership casualty- there have been a few!

    All Scottish labour has done for years is moan. In an age where a savvy electorate vote tactically and one or two issues dominate thinking prior to voting, then moaning simply isn’t enough. Decision time

  17. The only way back into relevance for Labour is to merge with the Tories and the Lib Dems to form the Unionist Party.

  18. There will always be a place for a left of centre party that represents working people. However, it’s impossible to reconcile that with a fundamentalist unionist stance. Unless or until SLAB realises that it is doomed to a slow lingering death.

  19. It is amusing that no matter how many times someone says Scottish Labour, it wont make it so, it’s British Labour and everybody knows it
    Labour, because of their hypocricy and dishonesty are actually worse than the Tories because at least with the Tories they lie in an open and honest disgusting fashion so we know what to expect and they openly represent the United Kingdom of England, Labour on the other hand are so dishonest they even try to fool themselves into believing their own made up nonsense

    Both Pantomime villains but Labour are the Glasgow Pavilion version…cheap, tatty, badly lit and a rotten script with third rate performers and the only fans left are the diehards who’ve been hanging on for fifty years hoping it would get better (gae them wan last chance eh) nope still rotten!

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