The future of Labour matters to everyone – and to Scottish self-government

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, January 5th 2020

Nearly a month ago Labour stumbled to one of the worst defeats in its history. Yet the weeks after the calamity of the election of a Boris Johnson government with an overall majority of eighty seats, have seen Labour no further forward in recognising the scale of its reverse or how much it needs to change.

This matters – for, despite everything, Labour still matter. They are still by far the principal opposition to the Tories at Westminster and the only feasible alternative UK government. What they say and do matters across the UK, in Scotland, and in debates on the constitution, democracy and Scottish independence.

Labour experienced a seismic electoral setback on 12 December; the extent of which was so deep and profound that many of the party’s leading lights are struggling to come to terms with its sheer scale.

2019 was Labour’s fourth election defeat in a row – something that the party, as a national force since 1918, only ever experienced once before in 1992. Then the party under Neil Kinnock thought it was about to defeat the Tories under John Major, only to be shocked at the last minute as the polls were proven wrong.

From this cathartic moment in which Labour, unlike now, were on an upward swing, the hunger and desperation to win was born which ended in the excesses of New Labour. No similar deep-seated desire to change and win seems evident for now.

The Tories have seen their vote share rise in six successive UK elections from the nadir of 1997: a trend that seems to have gone barely noticed in Labour and the left until now, and proof if needed that the Tories take winning at elections seriously. And certainly more seriously than Labour.

Labour won 32.2% of the vote, finished three and three quarter million votes behind the Tories, and won 202 seats – their lowest total since 1935.

Underneath these headline figures the position is even worse. The party won 179 seats in England – a figure it has only won a fewer number of seats twice since 1945: 1983 (148) and 1987 (155). The party’s only significant region of strength in England is Greater London, while outside of London and Bristol in the entire South it holds only six seats.

To return to power the party needs to win 124 seats to have a parliamentary majority of two. On only two occasions has the party managed gains of this order: the 1945 and 1997 landslides.

This difficult position is made even worse due to Labour’s Scottish position. First, to win an overall majority the party has to win even bigger time in England – on a scale it has only ever managed in those emphatic 1945 and 1997 victories – when it won two-thirds of the seats in England.

Second, without a vast increase in Scottish representation it is unrealistic for Labour to win such a mandate on the back of English voters. This means that the most feasible route back to power is winning a smaller number of seats – say 70-80 – that combined with the SNP either gives Labour the numbers to form a government, or creates an anti-Tory parliamentary majority.

The influence of Scotland and the SNP on British politics and government has played a factor in two UK elections, 2015 and 2019, and is only likely to grow in the near-future. It will be shamelessly utilised by the Tories to destabilise Labour, demonise the SNP and scare floating voters back into the fold.

It is unprincipled low politics, treating Scottish voters as second class and going against the core principles of unionism. This Tory line has been too much for commentator Hugo Rifkind who described its convulsions as ‘Oh, there’s an indyref, we love Scotland’, then in its aftermath as ‘Damn those Scots, they are going to elect a pile of whinging nats to the imperial parliament’, concluding that unionism was over and its advocates ‘the real separatists’.

This expresses a deep faultline in UK politics – namely the lack of any real British wide politics in all but appearance and theatre at the Palace of Westminster. There is no party of the four nations of the UK, or the three nations of Great Britain. Tories know that the ‘one nation Conservatism’ constantly referred to by Boris Johnson is about one nation: namely England.

Scotland has slipped off the mindsets of the Westminster parties, already treated as the ‘other’ and seen as de facto another country. This has become obvious in much of Labour’s post-election deliberations, where without stating or understanding it the discussion is entirely focused on England.

A typical example was the writer Andy Beckett in ‘The Guardian’ who surveyed the prospects of Labour post-election. He found that for Labour ‘1983 was much worse in many ways than 2019’, and cited that its vote was higher now (32.2%) than then (27.6%), that it did not now have a third force challenging it for second place in votes which it had in 1983 in the form of the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and that London was now a Labour citadel, whereas then it was a byword for weakness and defeat.

All of the above was bad and complacent enough, but something fundamental was missing from the entire analysis. It talked about Labour without one mention of Scotland or Wales. Instead, this was an article about England and English Labour without understanding it, hence compounding the party’s problems.

All through the party’s past Labour has subsumed England in its all-British project, leaving England to the Tories and reactionaries like Nigel Farage. It has to belatedly start talking about England as a nation, not England as a substitute for Britain.

This is the backdrop to contenders lining up for the Labour leadership contest: Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Emily Thornberry declared, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long Bailey, all but officially in the race as I write.

None of the potential candidates have so far offered any insights indicating that they know the perilous position the party is in, the mountains it has to climb, or the need for far-reaching reform and change. Long Bailey penned a piece in ‘The Guardian’ containing not one piece of memorable analysis, beyond an ill-defined call for the party to embrace what she called ‘progressive patriotism and solidarity in a from fit for modern Britain’.

The party’s entire stance is one of confusion. It does not know whether to continue progressing in the direction laid out by the Corbynite revolution, or to consider hugging the centre ground and moderate politics. Both carry huge risks.

Such was the scale of Labour’s defeat, with not only Jeremy Corbyn rejected but the all-encompassing, supposedly transformative manifesto, that all policies should be brought into question. However, there seems to be no real sense of reviewing or prioritising the ambitions contained within its pages. Widespread public incredulity towards the manifesto and added daily offers of ‘advent calendar socialism’ brought Corbynism and its tenets into further disrepute and lost significant numbers of potential Labour votes.

One major factor in the rationale of Corbynism was the bankruptcy of mainstream social democracy – not just due to Blair and Brown – but across the Western world. This has led to the rise of a resurgent left – but nowhere has it been able to remake the political weather, not even in countries embroiled in crisis such as Spain or Greece. This leaves the dilemma: forward to a new post-Corbynite left future or back to a better version of the past supposedly not Blairite but defined by the same strategic concerns.

All this is compounded by the fractured nature of British society and politics. Labour a decade after it left office seem to be no further forward in offering a convincing account of what needs to be done to reunite this divided kingdom.

Labour on this face a similar dilemma to the one above. Do they go further down the radical route of demolishing the British state and establishment, or do they cling to respectability and relegitimising a state which has become synonymous with inequality, poverty and injustice?

Labour in Scotland is left in a bind in these circumstances. Small seeds of life have begun to appear post-election with MSP Monica Lennon arguing that ‘Scottish Labour needs to stand or fall by its own decisions’, become an autonomous, separate Scottish party and stop being a ‘branch office’ of London Labour.

Grahame Smith, General Secretary of the STUC stated that Labour has to be on the side of the Scottish people having the right to decide the future of Scotland, and that: ‘The democratic wishes of the people of Scotland need to be acknowledged. The Scottish Labour movement should support indyref2.’

This still leaves huge challenges for the Scottish party which I explored a few weeks back in the paper. If Labour moves to accept Scotland’s right to decide its own future, what actual position does it take up in advance of any future indyref? And can any position it take up have any credibility? Beyond the Scottish party how would its new independence stance exist side by side the policy of the rest of British Labour, and could they really have two different positions on this huge issue. The answer to all this cannot involve invoking the fuzzy warm word of federalism.

Labour’s dilemmas – on Scotland, England, on what kind of centre-left or left it stands for, how it sees the British state and society – are existential challenges which go to the core of what kind of political project and vision the party sees itself as championing.

There have been numerous warning signs in recent years of the propensity of senior Labour figures – on all wings of the party – to tell self-congratulatory stories of how enlightened and wise they think they are. This became one of the major pitfalls of the New Labour era of Blair and Brown, but it was also a trap that Jeremy Corbyn and his radical project consistently fell into. And in this there are lessons for both the SNP and wider independence movement of falling for your own mythologies and comfort zones.

People here should have no illusions that somehow these Labour deliberations do not actually matter in Scotland. The challenges of centre-left politics in the UK matter as long as there is such a state, while what happens in our nearest neighbour will always have an impact even in the context of an independent Scotland.

Neither are the SNP’s social democratic credentials as deep or convincing that they cannot learn something from centre-left debates going on elsewhere, or reflect on their own shortcomings in office after over a decade – as all governing parties should do.

Labour’s plight affects Scotland just as Scotland’s political dispensation affects Labour and carries deep-seated ripples into the heart of British politics. The party’s route back to popularity and office may have a profound bearing on the circumstances of any future indyref – and maybe – as well on its ultimate result.

Beyond that the vitality and success of this debate – and the defeat of the forces of reaction, privilege and the new elites – alongside the creation of a convincing centre-left alternative across these isles – matters to debates in Scotland – and defeating those north and south of the border who are more than happy to accommodate and acts as apologists for the economic and social status quo.