By Stephen Low
There is no quick fix for Scottish Labour. There is, however, one idea that might allow us some chance of making ourselves relevant: supporting giving people a properly democratic choice over Scotland’s future through a multi-option referendum.
Proverbially all politics is local politics. The Caledonian twist on this is ‘All politics is constitutional politics’. That isn’t to say Scotland isn’t wracked with the sort of problems of poverty, inequality and insecurity as the rest of the UK. It’s just that in terms of elections, the question of another independence referendum (Indyref2 in the local vernacular) trumps all of them. The SNP don’t win thumping majorities on the basis of how they have handled education, or economic development, or ferries, or buses, or cancer treatment or… the list goes on, but you get the picture. What gets them the votes is that they promise Indyref2.
This of course suits the Tories as, other than opposing another Indyref, what they might actually want gets little attention. Scottish Labour can’t ‘out-nat’ the nationalists of either British or Scottish stripe. Attempts over the long years of Labours’ Scottish decline have been made in both directions.
Currently we try to avoid the question saying that we need to concentrate on Covid recovery. The problem with this is that the reasonable stance of ‘not now’ is usually interpreted as ‘not ever’. This leaves Labour on the wrong side of a democratic argument. If enough people vote for another indyref, and Parliament approves one – are we really going to say that it can’t be allowed?
There is a potential way out of this problem. It involves Labour seeking to be innovative on the constitution and getting beyond the Yes/No binary. Labour can argue for a multi-option referendum, giving people a third choice of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. This idea, promoted by the Red Paper Collective and with support from the Scottish TUC, allows for a real choice of proposals to be put before people rather than merely the SNP’s plans and the Tory status quo.
This position will of course need to be developed – which powers and for what purpose will need to be worked on. But this is also the case for independence. In terms of political debate, it gives Labour a position distinct from the Tories and also puts the SNP on the back foot. They have spent the last six years being grand old MacDukes of York – marching their troops up the indyref hill before every election, before marching them down again immediately after. Labour can offer to work with them if they are willing to allow the Scottish people options other than the nationalist one.
This isn’t of course a silver bullet – but it gives Scottish Labour something to say that might possibly be listened to.
Stephen Low is a member of Glasgow Southside CLP. He is a former member of Labour’s Scottish Executive and part of the Red Paper Collective
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