Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Why Scottish Labour Declined – and How it Can Rebuild

Scottish Labour declined because it failed to use its position to tackle the country's deep inequalities. Its path back runs through learning those lessons – not hardline positions on independence, argues Matt Kerr.

Nye Bevan was a quotable man. At conference in 1949, he was on typically fine form. “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism,” he said, “only by the possession of power can you get the priorities correct.”

This particular quote has been used and abused by the Labour Right over the years to justify everything from means-testing of benefits, to general political expediency – usually more a sign of lost priorities than misordered ones.

40-odd years into the neoliberal experiment, and now several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no shortage of work to be done for a socialist. Our services are on their knees, with thousands dying needlessly for the want of basic equipment and protocols that any government who prioritised the welfare of its most vulnerable would have in place. It’s not as if we didn’t know it was coming, and it’s not as if there weren’t warnings about the gaps. 

It’s easy to tear into Boris Johnson, but it would be a mistake to simply pin it all on him. He’s just the latest front-man for the looting of our public resources, the unbridled exploitation of working people, and the corruption that goes along with privatisation. “But look!” they cry in some corners of Twitter, “look north to Scotland, if only we had a leader like that!”

An excellent front-woman, of that there is no doubt, but the tune here is much the same as elsewhere. A few crumbs thrown to the middle-classes, landlords left to run free, and cuts outsourced to local government. The SNP has no desire to bring about social change, whatever energies were directed that way during the independence campaign have long since dissipated.

Two-thirds of the Scottish population live in Health Board areas which are in special measures, targets in our NHS are routinely missed or dodged, there is a crisis in homelessness, and a care sector on the brink of collapse. School attainment is falling, working-class school-leavers in Scotland are less likely to go to university than anywhere else in the UK, and the FE sector has been decimated  losing 160,000 places in recent years.

The SNP have presided over all of this, with the First Minister being the longest-serving Health Secretary in Scottish history until she took the helm – and asked to be judged by her record on education. In 2019 the SNP headed into the general election without mentioning trade unions once in their manifesto, which included an offer on the minimum wage that made the Tory pledge of £10 in two years look radical.

And yet, Scottish Labour, throughout all of this, languishes in third place – and is falling. Somehow, even at the height of Corbyn, the Scottish Labour Party was routinely regarded as to the right of the SNP. Why? It’s a question of priorities.

While Scottish Labour’s decline might look like it came dramatically in the last decade, it was in fact decades in the making. As the dominant force in Scottish politics, Labour failed to confront neoliberalism boldly enough – or to push for real change to tackle the deep inequalities in our society. Instead, it turned to defending its political fiefdoms.

Some of these were in local government, others were straight-forward family dynasties. They became inward-looking and thrived when the only deciding factor in getting elected was who the Labour Party selected. This machine operation that sees every process in politics as a transactional one – sometimes literally – not only permeated internal workings, but formed the basis of how we governed.

The loss of the general election in 2010 was put down to the economy, and the corrosive effects of the war. But the Scottish Labour Party lost power in 2007 having had more money at its disposal than it could spend, and with the financial crash still off in the future. 2010 saw an uptick of support for Labour in Scotland, but many mistook backing for the local boy for a genuine recovery.

As the 2011 Holyrood elections approached, nothing had changed. The expectation was that people would return after having blown off some steam, and seeing the SNP’s reliance on Tory votes to pass budget after budget. Not a bit of it. On we went with the same approach. “It’s retail politics,” I remember being told at the time when I (and most of my council colleagues) objected to a policy of a two year council tax freeze. Perhaps they were right. A week later, the SNP announced a 5 year freeze, and went on to win an overall majority and cut local government to shreds.

That overall majority brought with it the inevitability of a referendum on independence. By the time that came around in 2014, Labour still had not got to grips with devolution, or its defeat seven years earlier. What happened next, some would describe as a victory. I wouldn’t. I argued and campaigned for Scotland to remain in the UK and would do so again. I argued from a position of class analysis, and an understanding that working-class folk like me have far more in common with other workers on these islands than I could ever have with the likes of Brian Soutar or the Duke of Buccleuch.

The victory for the No campaign was the very definition of pyrrhic. The independence movement had grown massively during the campaign, and built an enthusiastic base. ‘Better Together,’ meanwhile, had looked like a defence of the status quo – and even as it mounted a successful rearguard action on the union it damned the Labour Party as a force for change or progress in the eyes of working-class Scotland.

The Labour Party’s involvement in it was seen by huge swathes of our support as being in bed with the Tories, who were busily destroying lives in our communities. People were angry, but not just anyone – people who had been lifelong Labour voters, supporters, and even members were angry. And yet, the machine rolled on. What came next was a catastrophic defeat in 2015 after a campaign that will be remembered for canvassers being literally chased out of streets where the Labour vote a few years earlier would have been weighed, not counted. 

The referendum itself was no picnic either, tempers got frayed on both sides. On a personal level, I’ll find it very hard to forgive the folk who told my partner to “fuck off back to England,” or had their children call mine a “half-breed.” I’m not interested in getting into a debate about which side had the greatest number of bigots involved, as it’s a contest that everyone loses. I raise this merely to point out that I have no particular appetite for a re-run.

I suppose then, I should be delighted at the “no and never” to a second referendum stance taken by the Scottish Labour Party. Maybe I should welcome it as an opportunity to move on and talk about the things I and just about everyone who joins the Labour Party really cares about? Far from it. 

The Scottish Labour Party, we are told, is in the doldrums because we are not clear enough on the constitution. “If only we were clearer,” they implore, “we can win back the lost voters.” It’s a view, I suppose, but it is one that flies in the face of the facts. It succeeds only in ensuring that the next election is about the constitution and not our policies or the government’s failure before, during and after this pandemic.

The public knows that we oppose independence as a party, they aren’t daft. Prioritising opposition to another referendum in all circumstances doesn’t make our position any clearer, but I fear it may clarify other questions.

There are many ex-Labour voters out there who voted Yes, the majority of whom have not returned to the party. Some may be diehard supporters of independence now, but many aren’t. They departed from the Labour Party because they saw us as representing a status quo that wasn’t working and they still see us that way. We have failed – not to convince them about our view on independence, but to convince them that our policies would improve their lives more than the SNP.

The Labour Party in Scotland has no route back to second place, never mind power, unless it is willing to reach out to those people. No-one aspiring for real change can be satisfied with the SNP. But the reality is, they couldn’t be convinced by the Labour Party either. Ruling out another referendum in all circumstances leaves us looking intransigent, undemocratic, and tone-deaf – the very reasons people were willing to shift support from us in the first place.

When an opposition political party, in the midst of historic governmental incompetence at UK and Scottish levels that has cost thousands of lives, decides that its priority is constitutional questions, it shows that it has got its priorities wrong.

There is only one road back for Scottish Labour: to return to its roots, to fight and be seen to fight alongside working people. Before we can do that, our first priority must be to listen.