Scottish Labour Stares At The Abyss | Scottish Review Of Books | March 2017

On a cold February morning two years ago, Gordon Brown held a press conference on the top floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Edinburgh. Framed by a bright, clear view of the capital’s skyline, with the castle fixed immutably in the distance, the former prime minister launched – once more – into the constitutional debate. Independence, he said, would mean breaking all ties to Britain. Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, not leave it. Only the Labour Party understands this country’s unique commitment to social justice. 

And yet, as Brown paced the stage, wagging his finger at reporters and thunderously regurgitating another stock defence of the devolutionary project, somewhere, on some primitive, subliminal level, he must have known that Scotland was no longer listening, and that in the very near future, regardless of what he said today or how vigorously he said it, Labour would slip screaming into a broad, black Caledonian abyss.

Or something like that. Scottish Labour is, at any rate, in very serious – even potentially existential – trouble. A decade ago, it was Scotland’s largest party. Today, it sits in third place at Holyrood, eight seats behind the Conservatives, and has a single seat in the House of Commons. Polls suggest it faces further humiliation at the local government elections this May. There have been six Scottish Labour leaders since the SNP was first elected in 2007, and the current one, Kezia Dugdale, looks every bit as clueless and disoriented as the last five. So how and why did this once unassailable institution implode so spectacularly?

In his very brief new title, The Labour Party in Scotland: Religion, the Union and the Irish Dimension, Queen’s University academic Graham Walker offers an explanation – of sorts. Walker argues that the party’s formative relationship with Irish Catholic Scots has broken-down and that the traditional class dynamics of Scottish politics have been eclipsed by a more fluid and elusive focus on “identity.” According to Walker, the question of Scotland’s constitutional future was anchored to the Irish Troubles, the cessation of which finally allowed Scots to confront independence on a responsible, coherent basis.

“Such were the chastening effects of violence across the narrow sea through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that the climate for expansive consideration of the Scottish national question [was] forbidding,” he writes. “And it was probably no coincidence that serious contemplation of Scottish independence … took place when the ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland got underway.”

This is, to say the least, an unorthodox reading of Scottish political history. The national question was expansively (some might say exhaustively) explored throughout the period Walker identifies. The discovery of North Sea oil fuelled demands for independence in the 1970s. In the ’80s, as efforts were made to bring the Irish conflict to an end, Scottish civil society coalesced around the need for an Edinburgh parliament – an obvious indicator of Scotland’s weakening ties to the Union. In the ’90s, the election of a Labour government made the creation of that parliament inevitable and with it – as many prominent anti-devolutionists warned – a referendum on the break-up of Britain. Nothing in this sequence of events was dependent on events in Ireland.

Walker’s thesis is stretched to destruction by his insistence that Scottish Labour’s fortunes have been governed by the relative strength of Scottish religious affiliations. It may be true that many Scots of Irish Catholic descent have abandoned both Labour and the Union in recent years, but that shift reflects a broader change in political, not religious or cultural, attitudes. As Labour triangulated under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, progressive and low-income voters found a plausible centre-left alternative in the SNP – which became adept at championing classic centre-left themes – and in independence – which offered a convenient escape route from an increasingly punitive and rightwing Westminster establishment.

Ultimately, Walker’s analysis echoes one of the chief consoling myths of modern Labour politics: that Scots have exchanged something substantial and realistic – British parliamentary socialism – for something inscrutable, superficial and dangerous – nationalism. Here he is plainly wrong: “identity” (a term Walker never defines) isn’t the problem – Labour’s complicity in an economic experiment that has dramatically undermined the social and constitutional unity of the UK is.

That experiment – neoliberalism – is examined at length in Tackling Timorous Economics: How Scotland’s Economy Could Work Better For Us All, a collection of essays by Katherine Trebeck, a senior researcher at Oxfam, George Kerevan, the SNP MP for East Lothian, and Stephen Boyd, the former STUC assistant secretary turned Scottish Government adviser.

The essays vary in emphasis: Trebeck argues that the modern obsession with economic growth has undermined sustainable development; Boyd criticises the paucity of radical economic thinking in Scotland; and Kerevan explores the overlapping challenges posed by capitalism’s investment ‘glut’ (in which the global economy has accumulated more capital than business is able to use productively), low wages, and workplace automation. But the book’s motif is a deep-seated frustration with the small-c conservatism of Scotland’s political leaders.

“If Scottish politicians are serious about tackling inequality they need to start developing a seriously analytical approach to the subject,” Boyd writes. “Posturing, sound bites and bad policy are very poor foundations on which to build a new Scottish model, which should not only be fairer and more equal but less prone to systematic crises.”

Boyd rightly admonishes the SNP for failing to acknowledge the link between low taxes and high rates of inequality. But the posturing and the sound-bites are not new: they were the standard currency of centre-left governments across Europe in the years leading-up to the 2008 crash. New Labour, in particular, proudly burnished its radical credentials while simultaneously attacking the foundations of its own support. Inevitably, Blair’s hostility towards trade unions, his enthusiasm for deregulated financial markets, and his reckless foreign policy decisions proved toxic: between 1997 and 2007, the party’s membership slumped from 400,000 to 170,000, while millions of predominantly working-class Labour voters found new political homes or abandoned the electoral process altogether.

At Holyrood, Scottish Labour eagerly replicated Blair’s mistakes. During the early stages of devolution, it clashed with firefighters over pay and working conditions; it struck private financing deals that exposed public services to market forces; and it alienated sympathetic media commentators by refusing to break with London over the war in Iraq. By the 2003 devolved elections – at which it haemorrhaged 250,000 constituency and 225,000 list votes, largely to the Greens and the SSP – its collapse was already well under way.

Under more adventurous (or better) leadership, Tackling Timorous Economics could almost serve as a blueprint for Scottish Labour’s revival. Commitments to a reduced working week and a citizen’s income, for instance, coupled with a less dogmatic approach to the constitution, would put clear red water between Dugdale and Nicola Sturgeon, forcing at least some leftwing Yes campaigners to reconsider their backing for the SNP. Instead, Dugdale has chosen to compete with Ruth Davidson for the votes of irascible middle-class unionists – apparently forgetting that no party is more irascible, middle-class, or unionist than the Scottish Conservatives.

To be fair, Scottish Labour isn’t entirely responsible for the situation it finds itself in. To some extent, it has suffered an accelerated version of the fate suffered by mainstream social democratic parties in other countries, notably France, Spain and the United States. Even in the traditional strongholds of post-war European labourism, such as Denmark and Norway, the left has been evicted from office. 20 years ago, a majority of EU states were run by (nominally) leftist governments. That is emphatically not the case today.

The crisis of western social democracy has churned-up new and unexpected forms of anti-establishment populism. The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, by the journalist and writer Alex Nunns, is a pulpy, entertaining account of how socialists seized control of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. Nunns explains that Corbyn’s candidacy, launched in the summer of 2015, benefited both from long-term structural trends (the leftward tilt of the trade union movement) and short-term good luck (the decision of some centrist MPs to nominate Corbyn for the leadership ballot in the interests, ironically, of party unity).

For Nunns, Corbynism was propelled by a visceral sense of resentment among Labour members at the centralising, disciplinarian, and – latterly – losing habits of the party’s sclerotic rightwing elite. In the eyes of the membership, he writes, “[the] Blairites were ideal villains. Ideologically they exhibited all the signs of rigor mortis. Their thinking had become inflexible, their presentation stiff. Having once been associated with the future, they now harked back to a past tainted by war, financial crisis, and party atrophy.”

Nunns sees the Corbyn phenomenon as a grassroots salvage operation designed to reverse that atrophy, but he doesn’t say whether or not he thinks it has worked. So far, it hasn’t. 18 months in, Labour’s poll ratings are flatlining and the party remains irreparably split between its right, left and soft-left flanks. In the event of a snap general election, it could easily lose dozens of seats, with the Liberal Democrats – refreshed after the Brexit referendum – cleaving away pro-European Remain voters in the south of England and UKIP challenging for staunchly euro-sceptic Labour constituencies in the north.

It’s tempting to conclude that the current conditions of British politics are objectively stacked against Corbyn. His task – to remake socialism for the post-crash era, in the context of a party whose historic purpose has been to brutally contain and institutionalise radical dissent – is obviously vast. But it is equally clear that the Islington MP is badly suited to the demands of leadership (he was essentially conscripted into the role) and that large chunks of the parliamentary party will never be reconciled to his authority. The resignation of leftwing MP Clive Lewis from the shadow frontbench last month – followed quickly by the sacking of another Corbyn ally, John Trickett, as Labour election coordinator – sparked yet more speculation over the Islington MP’s future.

Still, for all its flaws, Corbynism has achieved something valuable: it has galvanised the left in England, drawing tens of thousands of new activists into the labour movement. The contrast with Scotland, where leftists have gravitated en masse towards the SNP, is stark. As Dugdale struggles to carve out a distinctive constitutional position (in February, she recast herself as a “progressive federalist”), the attention of most Scottish voters is settled on two clearer options: self-government and independence or unionism and Westminster rule. Revealingly, Scottish Labour barely features in The Candidate: for Corbynistas, Scotland is a distant consideration obscured by a host of more pressing difficulties. Indeed, some influential Corbyn advisers are known to be supportive of, or at least agnostic about, independence and have all but written Scottish Labour off.

Dugdale hasn’t given them any reason not to. Relations between the two leaders have been strained/ Dugdale initially dismissed Corbynism as a retreat to the electoral “sidelines”; she then endorsed Corbyn’s opponent, Owen Smith, in the 2016 leadership contest; more recently, she has fought to limit the presence of Corbyn supporters on Scottish Labour’s executive committee. Dugdale’s strategy seems to be to isolate her party from the main radical currents – constitutional north of the border and left-populist south of it – now illuminating Britain’s otherwise bleak political landscape. That would be consistent with Scottish Labour’s behaviour since the creation of the Scottish Parliament – and a key source of its long slide into oblivion.

This essay is a joint review of The Labour Party in Scotland: Religion, the Union, and the Irish Dimension by Graham Walker, Tackling Timorous Economics: How Scotland’s Economy Could Work Better For All Of Us by Katherine Trebeck, George Kerevan and Stephen Boyd, and The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power by Alex Nunns.

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