Scotland: time for a constitutional rethink?

By Mike Phipps

So Richard Leonard is safe – for now. The leader of Scottish Labour was facing a motion of no confidence at a special meeting of Labour’s Scottish executive committee on Saturday morning, but it was with withdrawn at the last minute. A Labour List source said that key affiliated unions had decided to give Leonard more time.

The motion had originally come from Labour Students, a Blairite stronghold in the Party renowned for its cavalier approach to internal elections, and the source of many prominent Party right wingers. There was just one problem: Labour Students was disaffiliated from the Party a year ago, following a resolution proposed by Momentum founder Jon Lansman at the Party’s NEC.

The coup attempt against Leonard is reminiscent of the serial disloyalty that Jeremy Corbyn faced as leader. The playbook is identical: stir up opposition against the leader, however unlikely it is to succeed, and then blame him for leading a disunited party when voters, bewildered by the divisions, reject it at the polls. Elections to the Scottish Parliament are due next year.

Scottish MSPs adopted similar tactics to destabilise Leonard to those used against Corbyn in 2016. Earlier this month, James Kelly, Labour ‘s Justice spokesperson in Scotland, resigned in a calculated attempt to undermine the leadership. Leonard noted pointedly: “It is deeply disappointing that disgruntled MSPs who never supported my leadership would choose the day when the Scottish government finally accepted a Labour policy demand of ten years – for a National Care Service – to try and wage an internal war.”

Rachel Reeves MP, who has no connection to Scottish politics, waded in, calling on Richard Leonard to “consider his position”. Reeves supported Owen Smith’s abortive bid for the Labour leadership against Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. No stranger to controversy, she once said Labour shouldn’t be “the party to represent those who are out of work”. She recently cited Nancy Astor, one of the first female MPs, who was notoriously anti-Semitic, as one of her heroes.

But a spokesperson for Keir Starmer said: “This is a matter for Scottish Labour. But Keir and Richard have a very good working relationship.” Which makes one wonder why Reeves, a member of the Shadow Cabinet, was allowed to speak out in this way.

Labour left MSP Neil Findlay tweeted ahead of the crucial vote: “Anyone who believes all the plotting and front stabbing of @LabourRichard is about ANYTHING other than list selections placings is on cloud cuckoo land – it is the ONLY thing that matters to the paranoid plotters – pathetic”.

He was referring to next year’s Holyrood elections which are run under the Additional Member System, where MSPs are elected by a combination of first past the post constituency contests alongside local lists, which make the overall result more proportional. In recent years, Labour has done poorly in the constituency contests, given the dominance of the SNP, so its best hope is to win seat in a series of closed lists. Who gets to be in winnable positions on these lists is critical.

Tommy Kane, former senior political advisor for Scotland to the Leader of the Opposition’s Office, confirmed the real motives of the plotters. Writing for Labour Outlook, he said, “This saga has exposed naked self-interest. It is no coincidence this has come just prior to an SEC meeting which will decide what the process will be regards selecting candidates for next year’s regional lists for the Scottish Parliament elections.”

He went on: “Compounding the hollow rhetoric of those involved is their abject silence over Ian Murray’s intention, not once but twice, to join another political party. Imagine their outcry if this had been someone on the left.” Murray, Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary was recently revealed to have been on the brink of defecting to the Independent Group, later Change UK, a right wing group of MPs who walked out of Labour in 2019.

Richard Leonard’s leadership now looks safe until the Scottish Parliamentary elections are over, but Labour’s prospects in these do not look great.  The most optimistic poll taken this year puts Scottish Labour on 18%, third, behind the SNP –whose poll ratings regularly top 50% – and the Tories. Changing leader was never going to fix this. A fundamental strategic reorientation to the issue of independence is needed.

Part of the problem facing Richard Leonard is that Scottish Labour did not get anything like the influx of young radical members that the Party as a whole benefited from in 2015. And part of the reason for that goes back to the independence referendum of 2014.

In the end, after a very tight campaign, which panicked the Coalition government in London into offering more devolution to Scotland as a concession, the call for independence was defeated by 55% to 45% of the voters on a high turnout of 85%. But what was significant about the referendum was the way hundreds of thousands of working class voters invested their hopes into a campaign for self-government and democracy, quite separate from the flag of Scottish nationalism.

Urban working class areas voted solidly Yes while the more affluent rural heartlands where the SNP has enjoyed past electoral success – Angus and Moray, for example – were far more cautious.  Scottish Labour then was not an attractive place for young socialists. In the 2015 general election, Labour lost all but one seat in Scotland. The SNP won 56 out of 59 seats, running on a programme to the left of Labour. Newly elected MP Mhairi Black, who sits for the SNP yet cites Tony Benn as one of her political heroes, summed it up when she said in her maiden speech to the House of Commons, “I come from a traditional socialist, Labour family. Like so many, I feel that it is the Labour party that left me, not the other way about.”

Peter Mandelson famously said that Labour voters dissatisfied with Tony Blair had nowhere else to go. Scotland was one of the first places to prove him wrong. Taken for granted for so long, Scottish working class voters will not be easy to persuade to return to Labour. The waters are further muddied by the continued potency of the issue of independence.

Labour politicians too often paint Scottish nationalism as a reactionary doctrine, entirely opposed to the class and internationalist politics of socialism. Demonising the SNP as the main enemy, Scottish Labour leaders in the past have found themselves in the company of Tory politicians defending the Union at all costs. The dire “Better Together” campaign of 2014 encapsulated this. If the main lines of battle are drawn between independence, represented by the SNP on one side, and Union with the rest of the UK, on the other, it is inevitable that voters on this side will opt for the most fervently Unionist party – the Tories – and Labour will get squeezed.

Offering more devolution, as Labour proposes, does not solve this. We need to look beyond the nationalist rhetoric and see why working class voters might want to vote to leave a UK dominated by a corrupt, incompetent government, hell bent on a hard Brexit, which Scottish voters rejected in the EU referendum in 2016.

The COVID crisis has also strengthened demands for Scottish independence.  A recent survey showed that 20% of those who voted no in the 2014 referendum say the pandemic would have been handled better if Scotland were now an independent country. The contrast between the Scottish government’s approach and that of the Johnson government is stark.

Recent polling shows that most Scottish voters now want independence, with 30% switching from a No vote in 2014. A YouGov poll revealed that 44% of those who voted Labour in the 2019 general election would vote Yes in a Scottish independence referendum today. Nearly 80% of voters under 25 support independence. This should alarm a Labour Party committed to the Union.

Too often Labour activists in England and Wales have opposed independence for Scotland on the grounds that without Scottish seats, a majority Labour government would be difficult to achieve. Yet throughout the Thatcher-Major and Cameron-May-Johnson years, Scots had to suffer a UK government they never voted for. Even under Blair and Brown, Scottish Labour MPs could often be relied on to vote for right wing unpopular policies, like tuition fees, which provoked big backbench rebellions south of the border, safe in the knowledge that the devolved government in Scotland was not introducing fees there.

Many Scots now believe that the crisis of representation in their country can only be overcome by fundamental constitutional change. Socialists in the rest of the UK will have to recognise that the days of Labour domination in Scotland may be over for a long time to come and that will require a major rethink on strategy on both sides of the border.

Image: The World Transformed 2018 in Liverpool; Source: Richard Leonard; Author: Kevin Walsh from Preston Brook, England, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.