No dodging self-determination
Whoever is chosen as leader, the Scottish Labour Party is cruising for a bruising, reckons Paul Demarty
At the moment Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election of 2015 was announced, I was on a bus in south London.
A woman a couple of seats away took a call, answering in a clear Scottish accent, “Yes, it’s amazing isn’t it?” Of course, she was talking about the Labour Party, and was very excited: “Now we’ll finally get Scotland back.”
A lot of dreams have been dashed on the rocks since then, including those of my ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ (except it was a woman, and in New Cross). Nowhere more than Scotland did Corbynism prove so unspectacular in its results. There was a leadership election in the first place primarily because the Scottish National Party wiped out Labour (and everyone else) north of the border; but now Scottish Labour Party leader Richard Leonard, elected largely with Corbynite leftwing votes, has stepped down. Leonard has resigned - despite surviving attempts at defenestration - because in the Holyrood elections supposed to take place this spring, Labour is likely to get an apocalyptic kicking. Currently the party trails the Nats by 35 points in some polls; and, whoever replaces Leonard, and however long the elections are delayed (as is expected), the safe money is on an SNP landslide.
Could someone have made more headway than Leonard? Within the parameters of Labourism, it is difficult to see it. Though he had the support of the left, Leonard is more of a left-leaning union bureaucrat, whose background is in the GMB. He would be closer to Len McCluskey than Aaron Bastani. If Corbyn was isolated in a hostile parliamentary party and made himself hostage to their ‘red lines’, so Leonard was cornered into mediocrity by the Scottish party apparatus, which had in recent history given us leaders of the ‘calibre’ of Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale.
Rightwing Scottish Labour leaders past can criticise the SNP for ‘irresponsible’ spending and for hypocritically doling out the devolution dividends while plotting to cut ties with London; but it is not clear exactly what a left - or at least soft-left - Labourite programme has to offer in a situation where the SNP is handing out the sweeties. It is rather the same situation that rightwing Labourites, and for that matter US Democrats, get into when they try to present themselves as more patriotic and more obsessed with law-and-order than their opponents: nobody believes them.
In the case of the Labour left in Scotland, the reason for this is obvious. Politics is now thoroughly polarised over the issue of independence. In 2014, when the question was put to the vote and a split narrowly avoided, Labour took on the role of chief enforcer for the unionist side, more or less by default: the Tories would hardly have been welcome spreaders of the message (any more than Jacob Rees-Mogg was when he turned up as a candidate for Central Fife back in 1997, nanny in tow). Yet the terms of the debate were effectively set by what the official ‘no’ campaign would accept, which meant it had to be fought on essentially Tory politics.
Nationalists quickly, and not unfairly, nicknamed their opponents ‘Project Fear’, and derided the utterly uninspiring vision of the future on offer, not to mention its complacency. The ‘no’ campaign disclaimed all compromise, on the overconfident assumption that a sharp presentation of the issue would scare people into voting for the status quo. Only when that strategy looked like it might drastically backfire did the government and its allies panic and promise that, rather than the ‘No means no’ message we had heard all along, ‘no’ in fact meant the ‘devo-max’ option which had been banished from the ballot paper. Those further devolution measures were abandoned as soon as the votes were counted, however, and Labour above all others got blamed for selling the Scots a pig in a poke. The massacre of the 2015 election was the predictable result.
Both sides promised that the 2014 vote would settle things once and for all - at least for a generation. Neither can have believed it, especially after SNP dominance was cemented, both in Holyrood and among Scottish MPs in Westminster. The Brexit vote, in which English nationalism dragged ‘remain’-voting Scotland into a diplomatic and economic disaster, has proven divisive enough to bring forward that timetable considerably.
The SNP and its allies now openly fight for a do-over. Opinion polls suggest that support for independence has reached historic highs. For the same reason, the Tories are likely to deny any demand for a fresh vote. As we have repeatedly warned, at the end of this road there may lurk a Catalan-type situation, where brinksmanship on both sides results in violent repression.
A delicate matter, then, for a Labour Party still damaged by its lash-up with the Tories in 2014. The two contenders for leader are: Anas Sarwar, a small-scale capitalist and long-standing figure of the right; and Monica Lennon, Labour’s health spokeswoman, generally considered the Richard Leonard continuity candidate. Sarwar is presenting a more conciliatory aspect than the Scottish Labour right has for a while; he promises to focus on what “unites” Labour members, and declares:
We cannot go back to society as it was before the pandemic - insecure work, hollowed-out public services, an underfunded health service and the constant focus on another independence referendum, when there’s far more important things we need to be dealing with.1
Lennon, for her part, has a rather more ambiguous attitude to independence. She previously advocated support for a second referendum, on the basis that the demand is popular enough with hypothetical core Labour voters that the party can hardly deny them a say on the matter, and also that it would be unprincipled to do so. She told the Daily Record a year ago:
The SNP blueprint for independence is flawed and will disappoint many progressive Scots who are fed up with austerity. Nevertheless, the future of Scotland must be decided by the people of Scotland.2
Leonard himself favoured a multi-option referendum that included a fully federal UK, but was rebuffed by the right on the Scottish executive committee. A federal solution is also favoured by Keir Starmer.
The problem with Sarwar’s approach here should be obvious. It reminds us, unfortunately, of the arguments of Tory MPs against the legalisation of gay marriage: too cowardly to state that they opposed it on principle, they argued rather that it was a “divisive distraction” from the “real issues” facing the country (namely slashing the deficit). For Sarwar, there will always be “more important” things to talk about than independence, because he is a British constitutional loyalist who finds separatism repugnant, but despairs of convincing anyone of that.
One need not be a rightist to make such arguments. The Morning Star - in the context of an editorial blaming the right for Labour’s unpopularity - equally prioritises a fight on the ‘real issues’:
Rebuilding working class support means active engagement, more working class representation in party structures and policies to address the deindustrialisation and impoverishment of huge swathes of the country … Rather than challenge the division of the working class into nationalist and unionist camps, the right seem intent on competing with the Tories for the ‘hard unionist’ vote and alienating supporters of independence and devolution alike.3
The trouble is that support for independence among the working class is at least partly a matter of identification of those ‘real’ problems with the London yoke. If that is one’s starting point, calling independence a distraction is itself the ‘real’ distraction.
Where, indeed, is the counter-evidence? Suppose Leonard had convinced the executive to offer his grand bargain to the SNP. We cannot know exactly what a ‘federal UK’ meant to him, but it would be little worse than a joke if it did not include equivalent representative bodies for England (or perhaps the English regions) to those obtaining in Scotland, Wales and the Six Counties. Moreover, there is the small matter - also facing the SNP and other separatist parties - that it is not even in Scotland’s power to decide its own independence; any referendum is in the gift of Boris Johnson, including any extra options on the ballot paper.
That shows us the limits of the Morning Star’s main point: that the dire prospects for Scottish Labour are to be put down to rightwing sabotage. It is not wholly untrue, of course; but the elephant in the room is that the left of the Labour Party held the reins of leadership both UK-wide and in Scotland for some years, and - by way of pursuing the strategy of alliance with ‘the centre’ that had informed its thinking for many decades (backed in practice by the Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain) - led Labour to a crushing defeat in 2019. It is that defeat, which leaves Scots nationalists in charge in Edinburgh and British chauvinists rampant in Westminster, that frames Scottish Labour’s total disorientation on the constitutional question. It is that defeat which ensures that the next independence showdown will be another ‘yes’ or ‘no’ affair, and probably dooms Labour to repeat 2014 on a more pathetic scale.
A leftwing response that escapes the confines of Labourism might, indeed, start from Leonard’s and Starmer’s federalism - except, of course, that it is not nearly so radical a vision as either would like you to think. Starmer, who put more meat on the bones, demanded “a new constitutional settlement: a large-scale devolution of power and resources”. Indeed, any nudge in the direction of subsidiarity in our over-centralised constitutional machinery would be welcome; what is not confronted is that our constitution is monarchical, and any such decentralisation is at Her Majesty’s (that is to say, Boris Johnson’s) pleasure and trivially revocable.
The sorest point here is one we have mentioned above: Scotland (and Wales) do not enjoy the right to self-determination in the full sense. They must beg London for instruments to separate from the union, primarily plebiscites. If Starmer, and whoever succeeds Leonard, are truly paid-up federalists, they will support the one piece of devolution that counts - the prerogative of independence itself.
The left outside Labour long ago decided for independence as a matter of principle; and, though data are hard to come by, that sentiment has long breached the walls of Scottish Labour, with perhaps 40% of Labour voters and 30% of members in favour of separation. That line, of course, is also an error - in some ways a worse error, since the smaller the country, the more disastrously fantastical is ‘socialism in one country’. There is a difference between supporting the right to divorce and favouring the divorce of any particular couple.
There is still enough to play for in Scotland to recommend a vote for Lennon, though she seems no more ambitious or radical than Leonard; it is better that a candidate of the left is elected than someone who is literally a capitalist (and a former functionary of Progress, and so on). The main point is that the Scottish left, inside and outside Labour, must rethink the constitution from scratch - as, indeed, must its comrades south of the border.