As part of Newsnet.scot’s examination of Labour’s current options – including commentary articles and a podcast discussion with Scottish ‘Corbynista’ Rhea Wolfson, commentator Bernard Thompson provides this commentary on the possible usefulness of Scottlsh labour.
How could you describe the Labour party in Scotland in 2016 – little liked, much loathed and (under Kezia Dugdale) easily ignored?
It looks to many as if the party is in its death throes, with ears cocked for the final rattle. And yet predictions, lamentations and even celebrations of the party’s demise may just be a little premature.
Admittedly, it would take an improbably contrived set of circumstances to arrest a seemingly inexorable decline but, unpalatable as it may be to supporters of Scottish independence, there is a case for saying that Scotland still needs Labour, and even that something of a mini revival should be sought.
But let’s be clear – those circumstances referenced above include substantive change both in terms of policy and personnel.
In policy, because the New Labour project – and all its works and empty promises – has been rejected by Scottish voters. Likewise, the indulgence that painful compromise must be accepted in order to protect the country from a greater, Conservative evil.
In personnel, because those who have carried the New Labour message, primarily in the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments, but also in the media, the councils and the ambitious activists will not and should not be trusted.
Many would not be above avowing Damascene conversions from “pragmatism” to a social justice agenda, much like prospective leader Owen Smith could move from Big Pharma lobbyist, to Blairite parliamentary candidate, to “left-wing” pretender to the leadership.
But voters who have been lied to relentlessly have a curmudgeonly habit of not being utterly stupid and few would have the backful of buttons required to swallow claims of new-found socialism from those who made hay under neoliberalism.
So why would anyone say that Scotland needs a Labour on the way down? Well just look at Scotland without an effective Labour party.
It is not so long ago that jokes comparing the number of pandas in Edinburgh Zoo to Tory MPs were made to illustrate the irrelevance of Scottish Conservatives. In May, however, a relatively small number of Conservative votes returned the party as the second-largest in Holyrood.
Since then, their leader, Ruth Davidson has seized on every opportunity to promote herself and her party as a credible force in Scottish politics. This has all been made possible by the dearth of talent, ideas and leadership in Scottish Labour.
It is rarely that such an abject failure by a party can be considered to form a case for its survival but the most positive legacy of Kezia Dugdale’s tenure may one day be that her hapless leadership has given Scotland a glimpse of the political scene where Davidson has a free rein as leader of the opposition.
On a principled level, Davidson is as cynical as they come. Her arguments against Scottish independence, notably on European Union membership, shipbuilding and “burly men” intimidating voters at polling stations are just a few examples, never mind her careless admission that she had seen postal votes before the count even began.
It must be hoped that the new Privy Councillor will be a little more tight-lipped with future state secrets.
However, few would dispute Davidson’s political judgement or nose for blood when an opponent is vulnerable.
Yet Labour’s risible performance under Dugdale risks allowing Davidson to dress up Tory austerity as something practical, benign and even necessary, rather than what it is – a nakedly corrupt shakedown of the public purse to maintain a society in which tens of millions of people exist purely to accumulate wealth for banks, corporations and a tiny social elite.
And this, almost perversely, is why Scotland needs a Labour party, albeit one that looks, thinks and feels very different to the one the country knows and largely disdains.
With no effective competing voices in opposition, Davidson will have more opportunities – opposition parties always do – as some government policies inevitably fail and initiatives underperform.
The Scottish National Party is surely at its high-watermark. There is no shame in that – it’s a higher mark than any Scottish party has ever experienced but, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, political parties “can climb to the highest summits but they cannot dwell there long”.
This process can be anticipated; but not how significant future losses will be felt, or at what pace. Likewise, those who enjoy extreme, sustained success are inevitably portrayed in Britain as arrogant or complacent, putting a strain on their popular standing.
Davidson will have plenty of chances to snipe at the SNP and the exceptional expansion of the party since the independence referendum will likely lead to at least a few more adverse news stories and whips being withdrawn from parliamentary representatives.
In the absence of a strongly-led Labour party that knows its constituencies, its values and its strategic direction, these circumstances allow for any wavering in SNP support to go, not to a Labour in chaos, but to the increasingly-assured Davidson and her party.
And this is where Labour is needed. The Tories will snipe at every perceived SNP failing but Nicola Sturgeon cannot spend the bulk of her time attacking Theresa May’s government in defence of her own.
But Labour can – suggesting another compelling reason for wholesale personnel changes.
Far too many players in the Labour party have seemed obsessive in their hatred of the SNP, forgetting that their primary target should always be the Tories.
A strong, decisive Labour in Scotland, targeting the Tories; reminding voters that Davidson stands for all May’s oppressive policies and that her party are agents of the most right-wing government Britain has ever seen is needed now more than ever.
Tactically, that would also be good for Labour. Rather than assisting the Tories in defeating Sturgeon’s minority government, by offering qualified support on important matters – aligning themselves more closely to the most popular party and vociferously attacking Tory policy – Labour could have some prospect of clawing back some of the supporters lost to the SNP.
The party’s stance on the union will always be vexed but Alex Rowley’s recently-stated position was an astute one:
“The First Minister has made clear that independence is on the table, and if you are going to have an open, informed and honest discussion about the options available, then that must include every option….”
“I accept the SNP were clear in their manifesto that the Scottish Parliament would have the right to hold another one if there was a ‘significant and material change’ in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014 – such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
From that platform, Scottish Labour can support the UK party and maintain the primacy of the best interests of the Scottish people as their ultimate guide.
But back to those “improbable” circumstances.
Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn must retain the leadership and the party in Scotland must support him.
Regardless of personal views, that is a pragmatic position.
A corporate placeman, like Owen Smith, in charge of Labour would almost certainly lead to an acceleration of the party’s demise in Scotland, though it would assuredly strengthen support for Scottish independence even further.
But, amid all the Labour acrimony, one point is often overlooked – Corbyn’s victory was an accident. Born of the Collins review, following the Falkirk controversy, Corbyn was nominated by numerous MPs who believed he had no chance of winning and returned by members seizing on an unexpected belief in their ability to effect change in politics.
Corbyn makes for an unlikely demagogue. He is not particularly charismatic and neither is he a great orator. But, in a world of political spin, he comes across as decent and honest with a voting record of more than 30 years to back that up.
If the Labour parliamentary party and their allies on the NEC succeed in gerrymandering the election against Corbyn, don’t expect a similar candidate to have such a chance for another generation.
But a party energised by an influx of those who have found a voice under him could, perhaps, connect with Scottish voters, offering new personnel, untainted by recent associations.
There are two basic options: Do you want a Labour party that is effectively dead, banking on Scottish independence saving the country, or do you want a Labour party closer to the values Scottish voters have traditionally expected of it, albeit, in the meantime, opposed to Scottish independence?
There is, admittedly, perhaps a ten per cent chance of the latter, given all the current variables and unknowns.
A victory for Owen Smith would signal the final consummation of the corporate union between the London Labour and Conservative parties. All that would be needed would be for the Archbishop of Canterbury to preside over the nuptials.
But with a union-friendly media reporting weekly, Westminster-resourced, assaults by Davidson on Sturgeon’s government, while facing no effective reciprocal action, would you really be confident that unionism, itself, wouldn’t regain lost ground?
For those of left-leaning political tendencies, the Labour party of today is an aberration. It represents little-to-nothing of the values that its “natural” supporters would expect.
But, to those who do not support Labour, but do seek Scottish independence, there is an altogether more complex case to be made that:
We need them, the bastards.