Time to Decide: Scottish Labour and the Independence Question

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, December 22nd 2019

This week reality hit the Labour Party in Scotland. In the aftermath of yet another disastrous election defeat senior figures in the party have decided to question Labour’s long held opposition to an independence referendum, believing they should champion Scotland’s right to self-determination.

Paul Sweeney, Monica Lennon and Neil Findlay as well as others have indicated that the party cannot be seen as standing for Westminster minority rule and against the democratic right of the Scottish people. There was a backlash against these pronouncements. The last representative of the once mighty Westminster Scottish Labour battalions – Ian Murray – indicated that he was ready to fight to the end stating with candour that ‘The Labour Party in 2014 destroyed itself by campaigning for Scotland to stay in the UK because it was the right thing to do and I’m sure the Scottish Labour Party would do the same again.’

Labour are not moving to consider a pro-independence position. Instead, they are debating accepting that the Scottish people have the right to decide their own future. This leaves the door open for what will become Labour’s future stance on independence and the constitutional question. There are at least five distinctive positions – all with costs.

First, it could double down on status quo unionism. However this is dressed up this is a complete dead end for the party confirming it as an advocate for constitutional conservatism.

Second, it could finally embrace the much vaunted federalism – often cited rhetorically by the likes of Gordon Brown. The devil in this is in the detail – and so far Labour in Scotland or the UK has not produced in its entire history one proper set of proposals or plan.

Third, is the position currently being debated of supporting a future independence referendum. This can be seen as a narrow process point or about the principle of democracy and self-government, but it does not really go far enough in addressing what Labour stands for on the biggest question in our politics.

Fourth, the party could decide that having moved on the above it was too much to ask it to take a stand on the independence question. Rather it could say that it was trying to heal a divided Scotland and concentrate on bread and butter issues. But this has echoes of the abdication of responsibility that was Labour’s policy on Brexit post-2016 which cost it dearly at the 2019 election.

Fifth, would be the profound statement of Labour in Scotland standing for independence. This would be a dramatic shift and is not likely in the near-future, but could happen if a referendum is further down the line with a chaotic, damaging Brexit where it became clear that Labour could still not win in England.

Labour’s Scottish attitude towards greater autonomy and a distinctive political environment north of the border has been hamstrung by the limited nature of autonomy and degree of self-government practiced by the Scottish party.

The entity known as ‘the Scottish Labour Party’ saw the light of day in 1994 when the then titled Scottish Council of the Labour Party – a regional branch of the British party – renamed itself. That was the sum total of the changes at the time. Subsequently the Scottish party became more autonomous – particularly after the Sarah Boyack-Jim Murphy review held in the aftermath of the 2011 defeat.

Twenty years into devolution Scottish Labour is still not fully autonomous – and is a ‘branch office of London’ Labour – in the words of Johann Lamont when she resigned as Scottish leader.

In the recent election Richard Leonard had to explain the party position on Trident and independence – that are pivotal to Scotland’s future – that he did not agree with. Leonard, a long-term CND supporter, is opposed to Trident and nuclear weapons yet was put in an invidious position of having to elucidate a position he did not believe in. Scottish Labour does not have the right to decide whether Weapons of Mass Destruction are situated in the Firth of Clyde.

It isn’t very surprising that at every Scottish Parliament election since 1999 Scottish Labour has fallen back. It won 908,392 votes in the first Scottish elections constituency vote and by 2016 had fallen to 514,261 votes in constituencies – a fall of 43.4%. Meanwhile its Westminster support has fallen even further from 1,283,350 in 1997 to 511,838 in 2019 – a collapse of 60.1%.

If the party buries its head in the sand and refuses to move from its present position it will come with significant risks. Neil Findlay MSP for Lothian assesses the cost of previous positions: ‘For eight years Labour has failed to set out a credible coherent alternative to either the broken status quo or Growth Commission austerity in an independent Scotland.’

Finlay is unequivocal: ‘I am clear taking a hard unionist approach will be a disaster. We cannot fail on this for one second longer, we need to develop a credible and workable devo max position based on the principle that all powers should be devolved to the lowest possible level unless there is an overwhelming reason not to.’

Clinging to the status quo would make the continuation of the post-2014 indyref political dispensation nearly inevitable, whereby the SNP and Conservatives trading insults on the constitutional question has worked to the advantage of both. For the SNP this has made the Tories their main enemy, giving them the mantle of anti-Tory Scotland, and for the Conservatives this has given them the lead role in defence of the union ahead of Labour and Lib Dems, and aiding them sweeping up ‘No’ voters.

If it becomes more hardline in relation to the SNP and the constitutional question, doubling down on an inflexible Labour unionism, it would come at great cost – with significant votes on the left being lost to the SNP and others.

If the party embraced an indyref or goes further and becomes open minded on independence, it risks losing more pro-union Labour voters to the Tories while potentially not winning enough SNP and Green voters to cancel that.

This is what happens to a party in serious decline. No option comes without risks. Doing nothing carries threats as does every other choice. The Labour experience of Brexit points to the dangers in trying to be all things to all voters. But it also underlines the damage that can be caused by delay and dithering, which increases the prospect, once a change policy has been adopted of voters questioning its sincerity, hence undermining its effectiveness.

Labour dynamics count in this. Scottish party membership is small, aged, with little influx of new members and talent in recent years. There was no real Corbyn bounce in membership. And as far as one can assess the most active and vocal members are still overwhelmingly anti-independence.

Labour voters on the other hand are more pro-independence than ever before – aided by the losses already incurred to the Tories of more pro-union Labour voters. At the last election one survey put the percentage of Labour voters who are pro-independence at 49% – its highest yet – and the election of a Boris Johnson government is likely to tip that over into a majority.

The trade unions are key movers and shakers in the labour movement. They have historically been the ballast of a pragmatic unionism which stresses the benefits of British-wide partnership and working, from worker rights to free collective bargaining: a Britain fast disappearing in the here and now.

In the 2014 indyref the STUC took a neutral position on independence such was the support for change among individual trade unionists. This is only likely to rise in the near-future such is the political environment in Scotland and the UK.

Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary of the STUC says: ‘Trade union members were very evenly split over independence in 2014. For the SNP to effect a decisive shift in the support for independence will require an offer that goes well beyond the contents of the Growth Commission. They will need an offer which speaks to the potential for a fundamental shift in poverty and inequality and for a Just Transition to tackle climate change.’ If this change occurs it will shift trade union attitudes to independence, as well as Labour’s, and the cause of independence itself.

Too many Scottish Labour politicians – Richard Leonard being a good example – pepper their speeches with Labour totems from the past such as Keir Hardie, Mary Barbour and Red Clydeside. It comes from a romanticised, sentimental view of Scotland and the working class, and has little of relevance to say about the present and future.

The irony of this is that Labour was once a party of the future – at its peak appeal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Over this period, which probably ended in the mid-1960s, Labour projected a vision of Scotland that was forward looking, dynamic and ambitious and did big, bold things such as massive house building, slum clearance, public health programmes and the hydro-electric schemes in the Highlands. That Labour Scotland is a long time ago, and for decades now the party has been one harking back to the past, and seeming to promise a better yesterday.

Today Scottish Labour is a pale imitation of the party that had purpose and a sense of the future and it will be a long time before it can get back to that ambition and confidence – assuming that it can do so.

Yet the independence debate begun in the party are the first hesitant steps in the right direction and the first positive developments in years. This should be welcomed by everyone who supports independence, wants a better debate about the direction of our country and wants to bring about economic and social change.

This shift makes it possible to imagine in a future vote a more genuine ‘Labour for Independence’ campaign. It would allow senior party figures with wide appeal and resonance to come out and make the case for change, in so doing making independence something more broad based, aiding the transformation of independence into a movement with even wider reach. That would be a significant change, and one which wasn’t possible in 2014.

The past twenty years of the Scottish Parliament have been too defined by a rhetoric of radical words and a reality of conservatism and caution which has, under Labour and Lib Dems, and subsequently the SNP, failed to deliver the change that was expected pre-devolution. Social justice, fairness and equality have been concepts bandied about for the past two decades, but seldom acted upon. It is possible that Labour shifting on independence could aid challenging this.

The future of independence and Scotland is not the exclusive preserve of the SNP or SNP voters, and it was always more than likely that the group of voters who will hold sway over deciding the fate of a future independence referendum would be Labour and Lib Dem voters. In that respect, the first Labour moves of the past week could amount to the beginning of a historic change.