ReportsMike Cowley

Scottish Labour: struggling against the stream

ReportsMike Cowley
Scottish Labour: struggling against the stream


AFTER THE RECENT local government by-election in Leith Walk, Edinburgh, in which Labour slipped to third place behind the SNP and Greens, a dismal showing in the European elections followed, with the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) struggling to a dispiriting 9% share of the vote.

This has led to renewed efforts at destabilising Richard Leonard’s leadership of Scottish Labour. But only fools and the party’s tirelessly disloyal right would dare to draw reductive conclusions from an election which, until recently, few of us had predicted contesting at all.

Despite their historic failure to utilise effectively the powers of the Scottish Parliament when in office - and despite driving the party so far to the right that a tepid nationalism was able to frame itself as the only progressive game in town, channelling the frustrations of those looking to break from the neo-liberal consensus - an unrepentant right continues to snipe from the margins, brief pliant journalists and slander the membership.

Ian Murray MP was recently exposed as denouncing the party as overrun by “thugs and incompetents.” In May, Neil Findlay MSP, one of the brightest working class voices in Holyrood and a consistent thorn in the side of the Scottish government, felt compelled to resign. Thankfully, the membership are not buying into this well-rehearsed, faux outrage. Many CLPs passed motions of solidarity with Richard as a new round of rumours and leaks began.

So what factors continue to frustrate the SLP’s programme from making electoral inroads? Our manifesto commitments comfortably outflank those of the SNP on all the big questions facing the Scottish working class. Empowering renters over private landlords, new social housing, workers’ buy-outs, public ownership and progressive taxation - such policies ought to have captured the collective imagination of Scottish voters. That they haven’t at least exposes the myth of Scottish exceptionalism as just that, an over-inflated figment of SNP delirium.

Class politics remains central to the lived experiences of Scots, just as it does for the English and Welsh. But the SNP has navigated a populist mood with skill, electoral calculation and no little cynicism. An emotional appeal to national identity - which on-line frequently tips into anti-English xenophobia - continues to pay enduring dividends for a party more comfortable with words than deeds.

The threatened closure of the Caley works is a case in point. When challenged to consider the viability of bringing the engineering yards into public ownership, SNP transport minister Michael Matheson was quoted as saying “we don’t do nationalisation.”

160 years of skills, history and community risk being cast aside by a government whose official slogan, ‘Stronger for Scotland’, inevitably begs the question, ‘Whose Scotland?’. On fracking, public ownership, progressive taxation and placing social justice at the heart of outsourced government contracts, the SNP has been found wanting. Yet their electoral appeal endures. How to recoup the confidence of the Scottish electorate?

‘Sovereignty’ is an elastic term sufficiently pliable to speak to a number of very different constituencies. When asked about their motives for voting for the Brexit Party in the European elections, voters named it as their primary concern. The collapse in authority of the political classes and the dismantling of a social democratic state which, however imperfectly, soldered communities to a series of accountable and benevolent institutions, has contributed to an atomisation of belonging, identity and structure to people’s lives.

Compounded by the decline in industrial communities and their cultures of trade union consciousness and solidarity, the ground on which the toxic snake oil of the populist right has flourished is not difficult to identify. In the absence, pre-Corbyn, of a Labour Party willing to reframe the social security system, public services and trade union bargaining power in the interests of the many, the right have taken advantage of insecurity, fear and anxiety in their manifestos of hate and division.

UKIP, the Brexit Party and the No Deal Tories wage class war on the poor by enlisting support on an emotive and sentimentalised basis. A culture war front has been opened up by those seeking to divide, distract and rule. However, in federalism and our shared vision of revisiting the UK constitution from top to bottom, the UK and Scottish Labour Parties have the politics to address people’s sense that power and direction over their lives is slipping from their individual and collective grasps. The Red Paper Collective - a group of Scottish socialist activists, trade unionists and academics - continues to address those issues. The state is seen by many, often rightly, as a source of permanent military aggression, on-line snooping, police corruption and punitive social security regimes rather than safety nets, training, political accountability and high quality services. If we are to reimagine a socialist state, the SLP must popularise our case for federal solutions as a response to the UK’s huge inequalities of wealth and power.

The European results revealed that our valiant attempt, agreed at party conference, to position ourselves as a party able to address concerns on both sides of the Leave/Remain divide has, as Novara Media journalist Ash Sarkar recently noted, “run out of road.”

Richard Leonard has gone a long way towards acknowledging the party’s capacity to seize a referendum platform for socialist ideas by confirming his support for a second vote. We must now recognise the battle lines. Brexit is a vehicle of the right and far right. If we are to reclaim a platform for socialist ideas, a clear campaign on remain and radical reform must be seized.

Of course the European Union (EU) is a neo-liberal project. But if we believe in the capacity of the labour movement to reboot our semi-feudal parliamentary system in the interests of advancing socialism, why not the EU?

The left must move beyond polarised differences where all Lexiteers are inveterate Stalinists itching to throw themselves at the mercy of the World Trade Organisation and deny freedom of movement, while left supporters of a second referendum are closet Lib Dems bewitched by the false internationalism of the EU. To lapse into such sharp exchanges provides a welcome spectacle of disunity to those eager to derail the entire left project.

There are opportunities ahead. The SNP is riven with its own internal conflicts, schisms which will only grow wider as the Growth Commission’s blueprint for an independent Scotland is further exposed as a prospectus for prolonged austerity. A minority Corbyn-led government represents an existential fear for the SNP. Why opt to withdraw from a UK governed by a party far to the left of an SNP whose primary appeal lies in the fiction of a Tory England forever frozen in the aspic of imperial nostalgia?

The renowned discipline - or passivity - of the SNP’s 120,000 members cannot hold forever, and internal divisions are beginning to show. Under Richard Leonard’s leadership, the SLP has adopted a range of eye-catching, transformative policies aimed at stretching the devolved capacities of the Scottish Parliament to their limits in an attempt to address Scotland’s stubborn injustices. The SNP has coasted on a populist tide of anti-Tory resentment. Our ambitions do not stop at borders.

The Scottish Labour left, organised around Campaign for Socialism and Momentum, should now look to reach out to the climate crisis activists building for a general strike in September. Such coalitions of class-based and civic movements point the way forward for an SLP brimming over with ideas but still seeking to rebuild its toe-hold on the public imagination.

Co-convenor Edinburgh CFS/Momentum, and Edinburgh North and Leith CLP executive