In the path of the juggernaut

The 110th anniversary of the parliamentary Labour party passed by in February largely unremarked.

The decision by Keir Hardie’s Labour Representation Committee to rename itself ‘the Labour party’ after winning 29 seats in the 1906 election was a historic one. It marked the beginning of organised labour as a force in the House of Commons, one which soon replaced the Liberals as the party of progress and the alternative to the Conservatives. Perhaps in these times of existential crisis for Labour it was felt 110 years was a milestone too ominously rounded to celebrate.

Of course, democratic socialism is of an even older pedigree north of the border, where Hardie founded the Scottish Labour party in 1888. It is said – usually by nationalists, occasionally by the disaffected left – that Hardie would not recognise the successor Labour party in Scotland today. On the contrary, the travails of Scottish Labour in 2016 would be all too familiar: a small, embattled rump of trade unionists outgunned and outspent by landed interests in Westminster and middle-class conservatism in Edinburgh. Scottish Labour, arrogant and clunky-fisted rulers over their fiefdom for half a century, are once again political outsiders.

The humility has come quick and hard. The party has been reduced to one seat in the House of Commons and the Conservatives are trying to push Labour into third place at the Holyrood election in May. The swagger is gone; Scottish Labour is a meeker, quieter party these days.

Meanwhile, the nationalist takeover of Scotland is near-complete. The Scottish National party enjoys a majority in the Scottish parliament – an institution designed to prevent single-party control – and is on course to increase its seat tally in May. Police investigations pending, it holds 54 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. A plurality of councillors are SNP, an advantage likely to grow in the 2017 local government elections.

‘Civic Scotland’ is largely on-message and most of the nation’s intellectuals and artists have swapped pens and paintbrushes for pom-poms. Contrary to the paranoid mutterings of the ‘cybernats’, the SNP does not suffer an especially hostile press. The Scottish edition of the Sun backs it in elections and it benefits from the enthusiastic support of a daily paper, the National, which reported news of Scotland’s £15bn deficit under the headline, ‘Economy resilient despite oil revenues decline’.

The SNP is an electoral juggernaut that makes New Labour look amateur by comparison. It claims the votes of men and women; young and middle-aged; deprived and comfortable; home-owners and renters; graduates and school-leavers; left, right and centre. It is a national party in the truest sense, embodying most of Scottish society in its membership and support.

The fortunes of Scottish Labour could not be more different. A poll in March by YouGov put it level with the Tories in Holyrood constituency voting intentions and two points behind on the regional lists.

Even if that particular disaster is averted, how does the party begin to rebuild in Scotland?

John McTernan is no stranger to the Labour trenches on either side of Hadrian’s Wall. The political strategist cut his teeth as an adviser to Tony Blair but was most recently chief of staff to Jim Murphy, whose five-month tenure as Labour leader in Scotland came to a spectacular end in the 2015 wipeout.

He proposes a three-point plan for getting the party back on its feet:

For Scottish Labour, the task – in the words of Ronald Reagan – is not easy but it is simple.

First, never forget you saved Scotland. That gives you bragging rights. So, hammer home the truth about independence – a currency union was impossible and the economics couldn’t work. Those issues lost the nationalists the referendum and they have only been entrenched since then. The oil price has fallen and the [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] figures are beginning to show that independence would have meant penury. Do not flirt with independence – you, like 55 per cent of the country, are against it. Get those unionist votes.

Second, remember to represent the dominant class in Scottish politics – the middle classes. The notion that Scots are in any way especially leftwing is a fiction. The SNP don’t believe it – that’s why they are building a middle-class welfare state. Don’t you believe it either – so don’t flirt with raising taxes.

Third, as well as being a party for fiscally conservative, middle-class unionists you must unite the anti-independence forces. So, merge with the Scottish Liberal Democrats – together you would make a more substantial parliamentary group. And you would represent all of Scotland – urban and rural, islands and mainland. Reunite the two radical traditions of Scottish politics.

Less optimistic than McTernan is Tom Harris. An acute thinker on the challenges of centre-left politics, Harris lost his seat of Glasgow South last May and is now a political commentator for the Daily Telegraph as well as running a public affairs consultancy.

He maintains:

So long as voters continue their apparent obsession with constitutional matters, they’re not going to give Labour a hearing. But this is the crux of Scottish Labour’s dilemma: Should it try to play the nationalists’ game and focus on national identity? The thing is, we’ve been doing that for years (arguably, as STV digital politics reporter Aidan Kerr wrote recently, since the 1980s) and some might say it hasn’t been entirely successful in electoral terms.

Scottish Labour is not in charge of its own destiny. If the national mood – and attention – turns to “bread-and-butter” issues like health and schools, Labour might start to be listened to. But if all voters want are independence and/or more devolved powers, then they’re going to stick with the real nationalists, not the pretendy ones.

Set against these odds, even the most optimistic social democrat might be tempted to give up. But Scottish Labour has one thing going for it: Kezia Dugdale. The 34-year-old took over the leadership in the wake of the 2015 ‘Natmageddon’ and to the chagrin of her critics has proved tough and tenacious. Slowly but surely she is giving Labour a voice again, and it is one that speaks about issues that voters care about: jobs, services, and fairness.

Her proposal to raise income tax by 1p to offset Scottish government cuts to council budgets wrongfooted the SNP, which then abandoned an election pledge to scrap the council tax and instead raised the bands to make the better-off pay more. For the first time in nearly a decade, the nationalists were forced to back up their social democratic rhetoric and the panic was palpable.

Even if this does not bring Labour a single vote in May, it underscores Dugdale’s abilities in a party not overly burdened by talent. Scottish Labour has had six leaders in eight years and cannot afford another changeover, no matter the result of the 2016 election.

Harris warns:

Voters aren’t very impressed when parties of government fight over their leadership; they would be utterly perplexed about yet another fight for the leadership of a party which, for the foreseeable future anyway, has no prospect of being in government.

I like Kez and I think her instincts are broadly right and she has a vital quality that voters really value: she’s authentic and sincere. She’s also a woman and if she were replaced by one of the union fixers eyeing up her position it would look extremely regressive.

Contrary to the assurances of his boosters during the leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn has not won back Scotland. His net satisfaction rating among Scots is minus 13. The notion that Corbyn would return Scotland to Labour was based on the false assumption that the swing to the SNP is motived by leftist politics. In fact, the SNP’s success is built on being what it is: a nationalist party, albeit one that makes progressive noises.

Scotland has been exposed to nationalism in a more sustained, comprehensive manner than England ever has. Substitute a saltire for the St George’s Cross and Emily Thornberry’s ‘image from #Rochester’ could be an image from any street in Scotland. ‘Westminster’ is spat, not spoken, and no discussion of politics can go longer than 30 seconds without independence being raised. Scotland has not become leftwing; it has become nationalist.

If we know anything about nationalism it is that it thrives at times of economic despair. Labour must be able to give Scots hope that another Labour government is possible in the near future, one that can deliver economic growth and opportunities for ordinary people. If Scots cannot be convinced that a viable alternative to the Tories exists within the UK, the balance will tip in favour of independence.

That is why the cause of returning the Labour party to the centre-ground is the most vital task in centre-left politics today. Scottish Labour alone cannot rebuild Scottish Labour. To win back Scotland, Labour must first win back England.

Originally published in Progress. Feature image © First Minister of Scotland by Creative Commons 2.0.

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