12 May 2020

If it wants to survive, Scottish Labour must finally pick a side

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Last Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of the 2015 general election at which I and 39 of my parliamentary colleagues were unceremoniously turfed out of our jobs by the electorate. The SNP returned 56 MPs out of a total of 59 Scottish seats, ending Labour’s long dominance of politics north of the border in the most dramatic way imaginable.

The party’s attempts to regain some credibility and relevance ever since have been confused and half-hearted. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and that of his Mini-Me at Holyrood, Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour tied itself in knots over whether to support a second independence referendum. Looking back at the 2019 general election, it’s difficult to remember exactly what they promised on that score, but from memory I think it went along the lines of opposing independence but “not standing in the way” of a second independence referendum if the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections result in a “mandate” for one.

That approach produced a return to the 2015 result in Scotland, with Labour again securing just one MP and losing six that it had gained temporarily two years earlier. 

Aware that Scottish Labour’s messaging on the constitutional issue has failed to cut through, its sole MP and Shadow Scottish Secretary, Ian Murray, was keen to broadcast Keir Starmer’s comment that the party still opposes a second referendum (perhaps significantly, Starmer said nothing about the party’s attitude to a referendum if – as is quite possible – a majority of MSPs after next May were elected on a manifesto commitment to holding another referendum). “It’s time to settle that and move on to the day to day issues that are important to the people of Scotland” tweeted Murray.

It is an understandable hope: that one day soon, the Scottish people will stop prioritising the debate over independence and actually start caring about things like the state of Scottish schools and hospitals. Based on inconvenient stuff like facts, evidence and experience, however, it is a forlorn hope.

Elsewhere, Murray has stuck to another of Labour’s policies, namely that ever more powers should be devolved to Holyrood, and this will undoubtedly be the refrain from Starmer in the future.

The 1999 devolution blueprint was originally described by the Labour Party as “the settled will of the people”. Following Labour’s shock defeat at the 2007 Scottish elections, that description was banished, never to be used again. Devolution was no longer “settled”; it was now a process. Extra powers would be gifted to Holyrood by the Labour government at Westminster. Scottish voters would acknowledge this and reward Labour by reinstating it as the natural government in Edinburgh.

Oddly, that didn’t happen. Not only did that not happen, but the incumbent minority SNP administration went on to win an overall majority at the 2011 elections, which really was not supposed to happen in a proportional system. Labour were perplexed and nervous: didn’t people realised we’d given Holyrood even more powers than before?

Not to worry. We just had to get the independence referendum of 2014 out of the way and everything would be alright. To ensure Labour’s continued success – if only at Westminster level – the party would fully support new moves to transfer even more powers to Holyrood, over taxation, welfare and abortion policy. As the party that delivered devolution and then supported two more large tranches of new devolution, there was no way Scottish voters would abandon the party now!

Which brings us back to the 2015 general election. And then the 2016 Holyrood elections. And the two general elections in 2017 and 2019. The solution? Well, apparently, it is to devolve more new powers to Holyrood. Just because it didn’t work the first five times doesn’t mean it won’t work next time!

Scottish Labour now resembles Charlie Brown taking a run at the football after being assured by Lucy that this time she won’t pull it away and allow him to collapse in failure again… Good grief!

The key is Murray. No sensible English MP leading UK Labour will dare refuse the advice of the party’s only Scottish MP when it comes to policy there, especially not an MP whose campaigning skills have allowed him repeatedly to defy the odds and hold onto his seat, building a majority that is now one of the safest in the country.

But Murray, like Scottish Labour, seems to have lost his nerve. The party was at its most confident when it was defending the Union during the 2014 referendum. The vast majority of the membership, save for a very few on the hard left, needed no persuasion to join the campaign for a No vote. Since then, and especially after the 2015 wipe-out, and under pressure from a hard left leadership that was intensely relaxed about the break-up of the Union, Scottish Labour has been an unhappy participant in the debate.

It has sought to triangulate between Unionist and nationalist voters, opposing independence but accepting the argument for another referendum anyway. And it has infuriated both sides in the process. Yet even now, after this approach has been definitively and empirically proved to have failed repeatedly, the party is clinging on to it. Why? Because the alternative is potentially even scarier.

Taking a side, supporting either independence – as many of its former voters would like – or offering unequivocal support to the Union and to hell with another referendum or even the idea of new powers, would certainly define Scottish Labour in a way that has evaded it in recent years.

But it would also pose a genuinely existential threat. Some senior trade union leaders and many of its voters now talk openly about the attractions of independence, and much of the working class vote it retains are dyed-in-the-wool Unionists. One of those groups – and others – would be lost forever were Scottish Labour to pick a side at long last.

But this is where Murray’s hopes of being able to “move on” and debate non-constitutional issues could yet be realised. This straddling of two positions – on the one hand more powers for Holyrood and acquiescence to a second indyref, and (lukewarm) support for the Union on the other – is unsustainable in the medium term and will result, at some point, in Labour’s destruction. And the later that occurs, the fewer people will care or even notice.

But if it obeys its own instincts and those of its members and presents a hard-nosed, uncompromising defence of the Union and, crucially, accepts the short-term electoral consequences of that decision, it may at last be given some space to talk about its other policies. When it has agreed its own “settled will” and the debate within Scottish Labour is locked down, there will be less media and public pressure constantly to explain its convoluted and cynical position on independence because, rightly or wrongly (rightly) its policy will no longer be either convoluted or cynical.

It may not be particularly popular, but that would hardly represent a radical change from today. In short, Scottish Labour’s position has deteriorated so disastrously in the last five years that it no longer has anything to lose. No one seriously believes it will provide a candidate for First Minister next May, even if Richard Leonard at last bows to the inevitable and makes way for a new generation of leadership in the form of the impressive Jenny Marra or ex-MP Anas Sarwar. 

That desperate reality allows it an opportunity to do what it believes is right, not what it reckons will offend the fewest people. There are lots of Unionists and nationalists who would be prepared to give Scottish Labour another chance, but one side or the other will be disappointed, whichever side it chooses. But that’s better than what’s happening right now, where both sides look at a once great party and do not consider it worthy of their support any time in the near future.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.