By David Osland
Scottish Labour’s fortunes are pivotal to Labour’s national prospects. And right now, Scottish Labour is reduced to an irrelevant also-ran.
This is one failure not even the most inventive Blairite fabulist can hang on Jezza either. The process of erosion has been ongoing for decades.
Labour’s share of Scotland’s MPs fell from 50 seats in 1997 to just one in 2015, with the moment of collapse coming after the unfathomably clumsy decision to campaign alongside the Tories in the IndyRef the year before.
Corbyn at least managed a better-than-expected pullback in 2017, only to slide back to square one – or should that be square one seat? – in 2019.
Polls since then have seen Scottish Labour persistently languish in the mid-teens in percentage terms, locked in perpetual third place behind the Tories, who are now firmly established as the main unionist alternative to an increasingly dominant SNP.
While the suggestion that Glasgow is just a Labour branch office is instantly met with outraged indignation, let’s say London’s claims to innocence of all responsibility for this state of affairs are less than absolute.
In particular, the forensics show that the recent forced departure of relatively leftwing Scottish leader Richard Leonard bears Starmerite DNA.
True, the intended coronation of Anas Sarwar as Leonard’s replacement didn’t quite come off. The left was at least able to force a contest.
But despite a credible showing for Monica Lennon when the count was unveiled last weekend, the outcome was never in doubt.
One unintended consequence of this exercise was to reveal just how etiolated the Scottish Party now is. It seems to have just 16,000 members.
That’s roughly the equivalent to four large London constituency parties or two Brighton and Hoves, spread across the whole of Scotland.
If reports of 42% turnout are correct, Sarwar has his new job on the back of under 4,000 votes. I know Labour councillors who secured not many fewer.
Yet Scotland is often described as a naturally left-of-centre polity. While the ritual invocations of Red Clydeside can be overdone to the point of tedium, that characterisation has been broadly true throughout my political lifetime.
What has changed, of course, is the rise of nationalism. That factor makes it difficult to see the future with sunny-minded socialist optimism.
As the example of the north of Ireland demonstrates, normal class-based politics is largely a dead duck in contexts in which the national question is dominant.
The SNP is very much the party of independence, the Conservative Party the party of the union. And Scottish Labour is the party of … well, what exactly?
I’m a Londoner and that alone puts any advice I offer at instant discount. But I’d like to think that personal friendships, regular visits and recent reading at least permit me to offer well-intentioned observations.
My first counsel would be for Scottish Labour to align itself with reality. The determination to ignore the incoming tide of a second referendum is impressively Cnut-like, but out of touch with majority sentiment.
On a visit to the Edinburgh Festival in 2019, then-shadow chancellor John McDonnell pledged Labour not to block the move. “We would let the Scottish people decide. That’s democracy,” he added.
A second referendum will happen whether Labour likes it or not, and Labour needs to be as relaxed at the prospect as Peter Mandelson was about people getting filthy rich.
Meanwhile, it is crucial to ditch the kind of outmoded ‘Tartan Tories’ anti-SNP rhetoric wheeled out by Emily Thornberry during her ill-fated leadership bid.
Tactics need to start from a recognition that the SNP has got its tanks parked on the painstakingly manicured lawn of mainstream European social democracy. It is beating Labour at what should be its own game.
As a bare minimum, it will be essential to match the SNP’s progressive offer, from student fees to free school meals, social care and prescriptions.
Then we can start hammering the Scottish government about urban deprivation on a scale that has left Scotland with the highest level of drug deaths in Europe.
Unconvinced? Ask what there is to lose. If reminder be required of what happens to ineffectual lightweight centrist parties with no a social base, cast a glance in the direction of what’s left of the Lib Dems.
Finally, avoid the lazy temptation to wait for the SNP to screw up, on the shaky logic that it has been in power for 14 years, making that eventuality inevitable. It isn’t.
The Sturgeon v Salmond barney will pass soon enough. Sturgeon has won round one, and the self-professed sex pest and Kremlin shill will soon enough be dispatched with customary SNP quiet brutality.
The question many comrades in England and Wales are asking is: if Scotland does become independent, will Labour ever be able to win a Westminster majority again?
The short answer is, that’s our problem. What Labour needs to do to win over a convincing majority in England and Wales is a separate argument, but with just one Scottish MP at present, the point is anyway moot. Indeed, the resultant lower threshold for a majority may now even prove helpful.
Meanwhile, Labour needs to be thinking longer-term about what form leftwing politics will take in an independent Scotland.
Many people want independence but don’t want the SNP, which even its activists concede will break up once it has achieved its primary aim, leading to realignments on both right and left.
The time to start positioning for that transition is now.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.
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