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Unionism Over Socialism Is Still a Dead-End for Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour's performance in the election has received praise, but the bright spots can't disguise the party's overall decline – and its policy of writing off working-class SNP voters remains a costly mistake.

Attempts to contrive a feel-good factor do not disguise cold and hard facts for Scottish Labour after the latest election: third place again, with a further drop in share of the overall votes both regionally and in first past the post (FPTP), and two seats less, proving that things really can get worse. Voters who made the leap from Scottish Labour to others in previous elections, most notably to the SNP, are staying where they are. It’s a warning that once a voter leaves you, it’s hard to win them back – especially if you continue in the same vein that saw them leave in the first place.

The strategy based on fishing in a shallow pool of unionist voters, encouraging tactical switching, and borrowing the Tory vote is, in the end, a road to nowhere. It might help in specific seats, but it’s ultimately an act of self-flagellation when list votes are distributed, as Tory votes picked up in constituencies which revert to them on the list, and Labour fails to make inroads in the vast majority of FPTP seats.

The Glasgow Southside seat—a former Labour stronghold—saw the Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar face off against First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Labour’s eight percent increase in the vote in this seat was almost exclusively from the Conservatives, with a little from the Lib Dems too. Despite that decent increase in the Labour vote, it still left a mammoth majority of 9,456 for the SNP leader. This is emblematic of Scottish Labour’s problem in that the coalition of votes needed to regain a foothold in working-class areas cannot be built without winning back votes from the SNP.

The fundamental question that needs to be asked is why people in Scotland have abandoned Labour and looked to new constitutional arrangements and other political parties for the answers to their problems.

The Issues that Matter

Labour has been nowhere near ambitious enough in carving out a programme that responds to the needs and demands of its core, working-class base. People just might vote in their class interests if they thought Labour was actually going respond to them. Not providing or listening enough to the needs and demands of voters has been a distinctive feature of Labour in recent times and can be applied to its social and economic (and foreign) policy when in government as much as its approach to constitutional politics (on Brexit as well as Scottish independence).

But it’s the latter which was the tipping point in Scotland – that should have been understood by now. In a re-run of 2016 (when, to be fair, two years after the 2014 referendum, there was some merit in trying to move the debate on), the Labour campaign was run on the basis of where the leadership thinks the electorate should be, rather than actually on the basis of where they actually are, and the issues that matter to them.

As a result, Scotland’s election results followed a depressingly familiar path after a lacklustre and uninspiring election. Despite abject failures in tackling Scotland’s intractable social and economic problems, the SNP have won convincingly again; the Tories, led by an Alan B’stard wannabe, are once again going to form Scotland’s official opposition. Labour languish in third.

Symbiotically feeding off each other, the SNP and Tories are again set to polarise and paralyse Scottish politics in a perpetual cycle of constitutional wrangling. Scotland now braces itself for more focus on flags, borders, and constitutions, when instead it should be fixated on fixing child poverty, ending systematic cuts to council budgets and local services, sorting Scotland’s shameful health inequalities, developing a (currently non-existent) industrial strategy, and reversing the long-term economic decline and inequality that detrimentally impacts on so many people in Scotland.

However, this result comes as no surprise within the broader decline of Scottish Labour. Its roots long pre-date the leadership of Anas Sarwar, of Richard Leonard, of Kezia Dugdale, and indeed of Johann Lamont and the centrality of the constitutional issue in Scottish politics. Never forget that the SNP first won in 2007, when Blair was still PM. As Ralph Miliband said 60 years ago, crisis and the Labour Party are as close to each other as Siamese twins; present-day crises, however, feel more existential. North and south of the border, Labour’s crisis is profound, structural, and long-standing.

Labour’s Lost Vision

Part of the problem is Labour’s identity. People know what the SNP and Tories stand for, bad as it is, but the same can’t be said for Labour. What is its distinguishing feature? Is it for societal transformation or managerialism? For economic change or continuity? The truth is that the competing visions inside the Labour Party when answering these questions have bamboozled voters.

Our recent leaders in Scotland and the UK, who sought to distinguish Labour with a transformative vision, were trashed by relentless whispering and briefing campaigns by fellow Labour Party representatives and then by their successors. This just ends up tainting their brand, and it does not serve as an enticing appeal to those Labour needs to win back support from, or, indeed, to current voters who Labour needs to retain going forward.

That is not to say that the Scottish Labour manifesto did not include some radical policies. Developed through the Scottish Policy Forum (SPF) process under Richard Leonard prior to Anas Sarwar’s leadership, it is vital that policies focusing on public ownership, higher pay, and progressive taxation (albeit a notable omission was a proposal for a wealth tax) remain in place as foundation stones. If communicated and sold properly, these are policies that could distinguish Labour from others.

But whether this happens remains to be seen. The dilution of the SPF-agreed policy to decriminalise drugs has raised concerns about things to come, potentially signalling a return to a banal acceptance of a broken status quo. That would mean an acceptance of inequality, of no wealth taxes (which allowed the Greens to outflank Labour on the left), and of a justice system that punishes drug misuse rather than treating it as a public health issue.

There is an acceptance that Sarwar was at the helm of a decent and extremely well-resourced campaign. His approval ratings were good; people seemed to like his easy-going persona. Sarwar himself is now stating that Scottish Labour has momentum, and is calling on people to join him in the journey that lies ahead. Unfortunately, this assertion is not based on the substantial evidence from this election; it seems awfully like inside-the-bubble analysis.

Facing the Music

Yes, Sarwar is a natural campaigner. He enjoys being the centre of attention and as such is charming with voters in a way that his predecessor was not. In a campaign where photo ops are all-important, and given journalists’ affinity for easy smiles and soundbites, Sarwar has also captivated many in the small and cosy club that is the Scottish political class and its commentariat and press pack.

But for those paying attention, it was clear that the campaign was jumping from one strapline to the next, and that many of the radical elements of the manifesto were not being propagated anywhere near enough. Instead, Labour jumped from both votes branding, to second vote branding, to better opposition branding, to personalised ‘Anas Sarwar’s Labour’ branding, to vague national recovery branding, and finally, at the end, to ‘join aboard and help build the alternative’ messaging.

Such interchanges were no doubt deployed in a quest to be heard, and with good reason. Voters were told they need to forget the arguments of the past and focus on what unites rather than what divides us. The problem is there are many things that divide people, and most of us live in that divide.

The pandemic has once again exposed Scotland’s class divisions and proved that differences in wealth income and power really are a matter of life and death. Against that, talk of focusing on ‘what unites us’ does not cut it. Likewise, Scotland is polarised and divided on the constitution, and wishing that away is not grounded in electoral reality.

Post-election narratives were being trialled days before the election. Jackie Baillie suggested things had already turned around and that Sarwar had lifted Scottish Labour from the 14 percent we were polling when he became leader. A good line – if it were true. The reality is that on the day Richard Leonard resigned, a poll put Scottish Labour on 19 percent, and another poll a week before Sarwar took over had Labour on 20 percent. Others marked little or no change between then and the election. None of that actually matters, though, because it fails to address the consistent, historic drop in Labour support, and the reasons behind it.

A Future for Scottish Labour?

Where Labour goes from here will help determine its future and could have a lasting influence on the constitutional makeup of Scotland. It really does need to unify and clarify its distinguishing purpose while once and for all sorting out the Labour position on the constitution and another referendum. This means clarifying support for Scotland’s right to self-determination, for the redistribution of power and wealth across the UK, and for a third option on the ballot paper of any future referendum.

In other words, muscular unionism must be ditched, the work of the constitutional commission accelerated, and a third option including a position on radical federalism urgently developed. We must make clear that we stand for democracy – and are not on the side of a PM who appears set to block what is now a democratic mandate for another referendum.

Sarwar should look at Wales, where First Minister Mark Drakeford has made no bones about the sovereignty of the Welsh people or his respect for Welsh self-determination. He could also look to Manchester, Liverpool, Salford, and Preston, or closer to home to North Ayrshire. Each of these areas stays true to Labour’s socialist values and principles, which deliver for local people and win elections as a result.

Sarwar should also reject the hitherto disastrous Starmer strategy that attacks his own side on the left, that listens to the likes of the divisive Peter Mandelson. This strategy pulls back and reneges on policies that are not only popular but are exactly where Labour needs to be. In short, going forward, he should look more to Joe Biden (I never thought I’d write that!) and less to Keir Starmer, with intentions to unite the party, bring in all wings, and present a radical vision post-pandemic that tackles long terms structural inequalities and decline.

In amongst the rubble, there is some hope. The new intake of Scottish MSPs offers a promising blend of youth and experience and could potentially be a breath of fresh air if allowed to argue for a set of distinctive, socialist policies. If Sarwar facilitates that and boxes cleverly, Labour can recover in Scotland. If not, both Labour and the UK really do really face an existential crisis.