Who dares wins: Does post-election Scotland need a new party politics?

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With one party so far ahead in the polls, Christopher Silver considers the post-election landscape in Scotland and asks whether the pro-Union parties will consider re-alignment

The 2016 Scottish Parliament election was never going to offer much in the way of change. A new staunchly unionist Tory opposition seems possible, as does a breakthrough for the fledgling Scottish Greens. But in broad terms, the governance of Scotland for the next five years has already been decided.

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Christopher Silver

However, this is not to say that Thursday’s ballot will lack historic significance, even if it all feels a bit routine. To properly understand what the current election means, we have to look beneath the surface and consider its potential long term impact.

What has already become increasingly obvious is that if Scottish politics is going to continue to function in its current framework, if the SNP are ever to meet a serious challenge at the ballot box again, the nation needs an entirely new and autonomous party system.

Labour’s moment of truth 

Those who doubt how broken the current system is need only take a look at STV’s recent poll. The survey brought out two damning results for Scottish Labour. Not only did it flag the very real possibility that the party will fall behind the Tories, it also found that less than half of respondents “know what the party stands for these days”. The party’s identity, according to this poll, is weaker in the minds of Scots than that of the SNP, the Tories, UKIP and the Greens.

With every new leader, with every “root and branch” plan to revive Labour’s fortunes in Scotland, the slide of the once hegemonic political force into obscurity becomes ever more acute. Increasingly this manifests itself as studied incoherence — seemingly terrified by the Corbynista revival in London and still unable to read public opinion north of the border — it is absorbed in a prolonged identity crisis. It is little wonder then that a party that doesn’t even seem to know itself any more struggles to win the understanding of voters.

The cruel fate of being tasked with reversing this trend has fallen to a young career politician. Kezia Dugdale remains defiant, not just that she is in for the long haul, but that this plan will win through, stating:

“It’s my job to turn round the fortunes of the Scottish Labour Party and I’ve got a plan to do just that. To give people a much clearer sense of who we are, what we stand for, who we stand with…I believe I’m making a lot of progress in that regard.”

Fluent sincerity is not enough for the impossible task of presenting a functioning facade for an organisation in a seemingly catatonic political state. The disinterest of a radical UK Labour leadership in the constitution tells us that the party is still clinging desperately to the hope that the issue will simply go away. This makes it all the more challenging for Dugdale to carve out her own distinctive niche on the political spectrum.

Kezia Dugdale
Kezia Dugdale

The conundrum for Labour in Scotland seems defined by an inability to launch itself upon one of two high risk political strategies — to either break from Corbyn’s Labour altogether and fight elections on familiar Blairite ground, or to embrace the party’s new pan-UK radicalism. While trying to navigate an awkward course between the two, it becomes impossible to work out what, if anything, might make the party a cogent political force again.

That said, both of the options above would also require a total rethink of Labour’s approach to the constitutional issue. The absurdity of the party’s emphasis on using the Scottish Parliament’s new tax powers is still redolent of an incapacity to revise its basic (and totally archaic) reading of what Scottish nationalism represents.

If a penny on income tax really can “end austerity”, what might full fiscal autonomy achieve? When asked to be combative during the Smith Commission, Labour dragged its heels on everything from abortion law to welfare; all in the name of propping up an incoherent, laughable, concept of “pooling and sharing” in a “redistributive union”.

The party has spent so many years deriding independence it has lost its own identity, and large swathes of its base, in the process. If there are issues more important than independence, there must also be a narrative that represents something more than just dog-whistle opposition to it.

Absent unionism

Defenders of the union, from both left and right, tend to ground their case on a rather strange premise. Generally, they hold to the concept that the union is benign in that it has (almost) always afforded Scotland plenty of autonomy to run its own affairs.

During her ritual grilling from Bernard Ponsonby on STV, Ruth Davidson reminded us of how important Scotland’s autonomy is, remarking of the Prime Minister’s absence on the campaign trail: “This isn’t about the UK cabinet, this is about the Scottish election campaign.”

David Torrance
David Torrance

The tacit acknowledgement from both Dugdale and Davidson, when pushed on the matter, is that in political terms the union is at best an irrelevance, at worst a negative force that we need to pay a surcharge to placate.

Despite the flags flown by the Scottish Conservatives (and a deliberate campaign to court anti-SNP voters),  Davidson has been keen to distance herself from controversial policies her colleagues have enacted at Westminster. Basically, when the Tories in the south act a bit too much like Tories in the south — as in the recent refusal to offer sanctuary to 3,000 refugee children — a distinct and palatable Scottish policy is articulated instead.

Unionism has largely lost whatever political content it once had and is now largely about identity. Yet as a result of this re-awakened sense of Britishness, no amount of wishful thinking will return Scotland to a point at which the British/Scottish question does not definitively shape how people vote.

A federalist future?

The options for both Tory and Labour over the coming years are so stark that they may simply be incapable of accepting these new realities. How does an increasingly popular Scottish party keep its distance from an unpopular government in London? What does a party do when confronted with its worst result for over a century?

The only coherent option is to start all over again and to understand that nothing can be left off the table. In the longer term, the idea that both parties would decline or stagnate because they are wedded to Great British party politics and one precious MP each, seems absurd.

In Quebec, separate and autonomous parties, both federalist and sovereignist, compete for votes without being chained to the decrees of lawmakers in Ottawa.

There is a very obvious fact in Scottish politics that no one wants to talk about. Majority support for the union still exists. If preserving it, as so many politicians so recently maintained, trumped concerns about class, party or short-term political gain, a seemingly impossible merger of Scotland’s mainstream unionist parties seems strangely inevitable. Whether this takes the form of an electoral alliance, or a vibrant new entity, the political gulf between reluctant Corbynistas and shy Tories is hardly insurmountable. 

The Lib Dems, perhaps aided by committed intellectual federalists like the commentator David Torrance, could even be called upon to thrash out a coherent programme for Home Rule. A party intent on offering Devo-Max, the position that most Scots seem to favour, could do so in the context of a new political project, grounded in Scotland but intent on building a new union.

If the SNP’s democratic revolution turns out to be the great change that allowed everything to stay the same, the lack of a viable electoral alternative may well become more acute. This will only emerge if unionism finds a new way to express itself as a coherent political project. A clear trigger for such an effort would be the SNP moving into the 2021 election seeking a mandate for another referendum.

In recent years Scottish politics has been shaken up by the impossible happening at recurring intervals.

The next big shift before independence depends on the SNP’s opponents realising they may have to embrace the risk of doing the unthinkable too — by entirely remaking party politics north of the border.