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.