THE ELECTION OF JEREMY CORBYN to the Labour leadership last September represented a radical shift in the relationship between the party machine and rank and file members. With Unite endorsing mandatory reselection at their policy conference last month, accountable representatives could become a tangible reality. Deepening internal democracy, and the substantial policy shift it would entail, can help us start the process of reviving the Party in Scotland.
A victory for Owen Smith would be an assertion of the primacy of the Parliamentary Labour Party over the membership and trade unions. A Smith leadership would be subservient to MPs who saw Ed Miliband as too left wing and would be unlikely to tolerate a platform of ‘Credible Corbynism’. We have witnessed the extent to which the PLP will go to depose one leader and impose their own political agenda, so there is little reason to believe they would not follow that precedent again. Owen Smith, with his dubious ‘soft left’ credentials, is being used to convince a left-leaning membership.
However as soon as they start talking to the electorate, the PLP’s neoliberal rhetoric and beliefs will undoubtedly return. If the Labour Party is to campaign on a platform of anti-austerity economics, and one that rejects dog-whistle racism, it will have to be the members and the trade unions that decide that platform.
The need for internal democracy and structural reform of the Party is most evident in Scottish Labour. Under an apparatus controlled and maintained by staunch Corbyn critics, socialists in Scottish Labour are rightly frustrated at the deep rooted inertia in the Party’s machine and its treatment of members who differ from its conservative orthodoxy.
Labour’s manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections this year was drafted with little member input, yet Kezia Dugdale praised her own efforts in “consultation.” Consultation is not democracy; and policies adopted at conference by the membership were watered down or changed altogether by an unaccountable body. Leading policies were never even discussed with the membership, let alone originating with them. The result was that we had a nominally left wing package that was written by a small group of party apparatchiks who did not understand what it meant to present a genuinely socialist vision.
There is an opportunity for Corbynite Labour in Scotland to regain ground. Support for independence and the SNP’s hollow anti-austerity agenda embodies a legitimate anger with the current system. For Labour to regain the trust of people in Scotland, we must be insurgent against the cuts forced by governments both in Holyrood and Westminster.
When the anti-austerity message is delivered by representatives who cast returning to a top rate of tax lower than Margaret Thatcher’s as being radical, when the Party’s idea of socialism is beige liberalism, when a progressive figure worth our admiration is Hillary Clinton, when we tell oil workers that they need to go back to university as we cannot shift market forces, what hope do we have of selling that impassioned alternative?
We need members who know the realities of day-to-day life to lead the way in regaining ground in Scotland. This cannot be dictated by Jeremy Corbyn as Owen Jones seems to demand, or by Kezia Dugdale as Kezia Dugdale seems to demand, but instead must be from the bottom up.
If Scottish Labour is to see any substantial recovery, it needs to be a disciplined, member-led force against the hegemony of the SNP. A second independence referendum will not provide socialists with opportunities for a meaningful change of society. While the Scottish government has dropped its pretence of anti-austerity, going so far as to say they would sell public assets to keep an independent Scotland afl oat, many on the Scottish left believe that freeing ourselves from Westminster will usher in socialism in one “inherently progressive” country. In a debate that will be dominated by the question of membership of the European Union, the SNP will not allow left wing activists the same accommodation or platform they once did. The nationalist left can no more shape the arguments for, and potential realities of, an independent Scotland, than Lexit could for an EU exit.
Scottish Labour led from above will only repeat the mistakes of its past, and will not be able to halt what seems a terminal decline. Jeremy Corbyn’s continued leadership gives us a space to organise towards this, Owen Smith’s leadership would be a retreat to traditional parliamentary priorities.