The UK Labour Party seems very likely to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn as its leader next month. He doesn’t have the support of most longer-term Labour members, but he does have the support of most new members and ‘supporters’ with a vote, and the latter are far more numerous. In winning, Corbyn and his allies will finally take full control the Labour Party ‘brand’, assets and machinery.
In Scotland, of course, there has been no comparable uplift in new members and ‘supporters’ because those folk who might have joined as part of what we might call the ‘Corbyn dividend’ already joined the SNP in its even larger upsurge last year (if UK Labour’s membership increase were reflected in Scotland it would still only be half the size of the SNP). This means that while Jeremy Corbyn will have full control of the UK Labour Party, his opponents will initially at least still have some kind of control of the Scottish Labour Party.
At present, the anti-Corbynite leadership of Scottish Labour continues to adopt the war-cry; “union first, social democracy second”. Articles by senior figures, like this one entitled; “It’s the UK, come what may” (which was followed by this one explaining why the Tories should crush a trade union), reveal Scottish Labour’s underlying philosophy as; ‘better a Tory UK ascendancy than a social-democratic independent Scotland’. This is reflected in current campaign imperatives. Last week, for example, Labour and Tory activists together narrowly defeated an SNP council candidate (the First Minister’s Dad, as it happens) by persuading local Tories to treat the election as a ‘unionist’ versus ‘nationalist’ one and give their second vote to the Labour candidate. This tactic was successful (see the final round count in which the Tory 2nd vote was decisive). Here is the local Tory MSP celebrating Labour’s win – quite deliberately flagging the terrible expense for Labour of embedding in Scottish anti-Tory minds Labour’s common front with those very Tories. Labour’s success in Irvine West was the most pyrrhic victory since Heraclea.
Indeed, this self-harming Unionist/Nationalist strategy is the only reason Labour still holds its single Westminster seat. In prosperous Edinburgh South, previously Labour’s least safe seat in Scotland, Liberal Democrat unionists deserted their own party and saved the unionist with the best chance of beating the nationalists; this pattern was repeated precisely at the Scottish Parliamentary Election in 2016. Meanwhile, even with the huge profile benefit of being Scottish Party leader, Kezia Dugdale not only lost her own constituency election but also actually lost vote-share because of the lack of enough historical Lib-Dem voters, the resurgence of the Scottish Tories and and of course the unsurprising loss of Labour voters to the SNP. This should have made it plain – but sadly has not yet done so – to Scottish Labour that its policy of putting the union and a close association with the Tories at the front of its efforts did win a single seat in each parliament, but only by assisting the wider Tory resurgence in Scotland and helping maintain the Tory ascendancy across the UK.
Of course, this is all about to change one way or another. Jeremy Corbyn’s control of the Labour Party machinery will mean that (quite possibly new) party officers will begin to work against the present Scottish ‘leadership’ and regular Scottish members will tend to fall loyally in behind the UK party leader. This will all strengthen the hand of Corbynites who represent the minority amongst Labour MSPs and who abhor the party’s present closeness to the Tories. Those Corbynites seem certain to follow the logic of highly respected journalist and former Labour spokesperson Simon Pia and argue for party independence. However – and this is the point of FromnotoYes.Scot – party independence is an administrative irrelevance to voters and such a move will be an electoral irrelevance too unless it is accompanied by a wider call for national independence. Jeremy Corbyn and his English Labour party allies understand this very well indeed.
English Corbynites mainly believe it’s up to Scottish Labour members to decide for themselves whether to become an autonomous party or even to support independence. This is consistent with their views over the years on Northern Ireland, where in general they have supported the nationalist cause. With no politically-meaningful Westminster representation in Scotland, the UK Labour Party leadership sees the obvious benefit in a close working relationship with the SNP. Their analysis is that while the odd seat might change hands at future elections, the Scottish Labour Party as it is currently constituted has no future as a force at Westminster, while the SNP most certainly has for as long as Scotland remains in the union. Moreover, the UK leadership accepts the thesis that the SNP is now essentially a party of social democracy, rather than one of the soft-right. There is therefore a strong political logic behind Labour and the SNP together harrying the UK Tory government. With another referendum felt by most to be most likely after a 2020 UK general election, there is even a scenario where Labour could, with SNP support, win a UK election over a Tory Party which had achieved more seats but not an outright majority. While of course such a future minority Labour government would be short-lived if Scotland then left the UK, no-one should underestimate how remarkable, indeed historical, such a result would be and what a prize it represents to the present UK Labour leadership.
Dave Anderson (para, 3), the very smart and disarmingly charming shadow cabinet minister responsible for this area of Labour policy made no secret of this direction of travel (Herald paywall) during a recent visit to Scotland. The Scottish Labour leadership blanked Anderson’s visit (Herald paywall) and immediately poured scorn on his comments. This has set up a present situation where Scottish Corbynites see their best chance as independence from the UK party, while their opponents leading the ‘Scottish Labour Party’ are refusing to work with the same UK party. Here, the latter are disappearing up their own fundament in hopeless confusion, with Scotland’s only MP (the beneficiary of the Labour-Tory relationship mentioned above) condemning (Herald paywall) Jeremy Corbyn for reluctantly appointing a non-Scottish MP to the role he had just resigned!
So, for instinctual Scottish Labour supporters, here is the news…..
The Scottish Labour Party owes its decline at least in part to its closeness to the Tories during the referendum campaign which at times seemed to delight in it’s anti-Scotland rhetoric. Rather than even belatedly learn the lesson of this, though, the Scottish Labour leadership is now working closely with the Tories to ‘borrow’ unionist votes and thereby answer the question which defines Scottish politics – are you for or against independence? – by confirming that they are well and truly with the Tories. This is patently a disaster. Meanwhile, the Scottish Corbynites see their present interests arguing both for a more Corbyite politics and a party independent of Corbyn. Perhaps it is the small matter of funding which is presently leading Scottish Corbynites to argue for ‘federalism’ or some such, rather than outright independence. Whatever it is, regular members need to get beyond them because that kind of language is just politicians gesturing to each other; they need your help. The only way Scottish Labour has any kind of future is if it answers the question honestly – independence or not? Once it’s done that, it can decide where to pitch its effort in the context of an independent, social democratic, Scotland. That’s your call.
[Note re: paywalls: we’ve used paywall sources quite a lot here. In a future post, we’ll have prominent journalists discuss this important issue as it affects Scotland]