Scottish Labour’s Groundhog Day

The only path to recovery for Scottish Labour lies in respecting the right of the people to decide their constitutional future – but the party is determined to make the next ten years look the same as the last.

Opening up yesterday’s Daily Record felt like Groundhog Day for Scottish Labour. The ‘Better Together’ wing of the Scottish Labour Party was in briefing mode prior to today’s Scottish Executive Council meeting. Labour, we were told, needs to take a strong and clear position on blocking a second independence referendum. “There will be no equivocation,” the source told the Record, and all indications ahead of the meeting suggest they will get their way.

We can all agree that constitutional politics does not play well for the Labour Party. Labour can’t out-unionist the Tories or out-nationalist the SNP, and neither should it want to. When political discourse is dominated by constitutional politics, it becomes difficult to make a case for progressive policies that can improve working people’s lives.

Scottish Labour understands what it’s like to be caught between competing nationalisms and how difficult it is to circumvent. Tackling injustice and our countless socio-economic problems, investing in our public services and wider economy, redistributing wealth and power and pushing public ownership and control of our economy, all of which should be seen as Labour’s unique selling points, become peripheral and Labour suffers electorally.

Richard Leonard is right to say our politics is now dominated by Covid-19 and the priority should be how we rebuild in the aftermath. Labour’s role in this must surely be to propose a vision of a fairer, reconstructed and rebalanced, post-pandemic Scotland. Presenting this front and centre in any interventions, with a set of policies that offers a route map for recovery, would offer a far better strategy than yet more divisive and negative interventions on the independence question.

A wealth tax was a central plank of Leonard’s 2017 leadership campaign, something he supported in the knowledge that the Scottish Parliament’s ability to raise necessary funds from income tax was limited. There can be few better moments to be making the case for such a tax loudly – as politicians already begin to toy with the idea of another round of austerity to pay for the crisis.

A wealth tax would provide the resources Scotland needs to rebuild, it would offer the means to value our key workers properly with a pay rise and, amongst other things, could help us build a National Care Service. It would also be a clear dividing line between Labour and the SNP going into next year’s Scottish election. 

But that is not the path that Scottish Labour is pursuing. Instead, it has thrown itself into the constitutional bearpit once again. This is not a minor error, but goes to the core of the party’s ability to be ambitious economically and criticise the SNP on their failings. The only group of non-Labour voters who are demanding such ‘unequivocal’ opposition to an independence referendum are Tories. But those same Tory voters are hostile to our economic policies and vision. 

Numerically, there are many more SNP voters than Tories, swathes of whom have switched from Labour in the past two decades. Many of them actually like our policies, and would find them more reflective of their own values than those pursued by the SNP. These voters hold the key to progress for Labour, the chance to rebuild as a party representing the working majority of Scotland.

But Labour has failed to cut through with these voters, in no small part due to the continuing legacy of Better Together. The fundamental error of fighting a campaign which aligned our party with the Tories has been compounded by a political line which has looked and sounded too close to the Conservatives in the years since.

It seems an obvious thing to say, but if Labour is ever to win again in Scotland then it needs to appeal to SNP voters. This must start with recognising and understanding the reasons (over and above constitutional politics) why they left Labour in the first place. You won’t do that by doubling down on a failed strategy.

Persuading people in the long term will need a better and more constructive tone on the constitution. Opposition to independence can be made clear without conflating this substantive opposition with undemocratic scheming which makes Labour look every bit the establishment party our critics deride.

We can, and should, say that an independent Scotland would lead to huge pressures on public finances and cuts to public spending, lower wages and even more decline in our public services – and that the Scottish National Party is singularly unwilling to pursue the radical economic agenda which might overcome these issues. 

But this should not be accompanied by denying the right of the people to make that decision for themselves, especially if the evidence is clear that such a referendum enjoys significant support. We can only begin to turn people around on independence once we acknowledge the mistakes we made which encouraged the idea that it might be a solution to their problems in the first place – a lack of respect for popular opinions and interests being high on the list.

I oppose independence and have no appetite for another referendum, but as a democratic socialist it would be wrong of me to say that Labour should block a referendum ad finitum if there was a mandate for one. This really is a fundamental question of our party’s respect for the democratic rights of working people and their ability to decide their own political future.

By the same token, the Labour membership should decide the party’s position on this. I would hope that in any such discussion a hardline anti-democratic line would be rejected. Another referendum is for the people of Scotland to decide, but if the time comes again we should campaign against it and propose our own socialist case for remaining part of the UK. It remains the case that a worker in Glasgow has more in common with one in Newcastle, Leeds or London than she does with the Scottish landlord to whom she pays her rent.

What legitimises a request for another referendum should be subject to debate and discussion inside the Labour Party. Some argue we should call the SNP’s bluff and make it subject to a simple parliamentary majority. If we say the mandate is based on the outcome of next year’s Scottish parliamentary election, it will mean next year’s election will be a referendum on another referendum – a disastrous scenario for Labour. These issues must be carefully considered.

Taking a firm but constructive approach may actually start to win back some of the votes we have lost in Scotland over the past 20 years or so. But in the meantime we should be focusing on our unique selling points; the time is right to present that vision of a better society with socialist policies based on wealth redistribution and public ownership of services.

It is certainly not the time to start raising the same old constitutional arguments with the same damaging approach, which ultimately only suits Labour’s opponents.