The biggest problem with Scottish Labour is its desperate championing of the union, writes Chris Bambery
Sitting on a train from London to Edinburgh in the final hours of this General Election it is hard not to draw a comparison between the election I leave behind and the one which I will be taking part in north of the border.
In Westminster North, a seat the Tories are desperate to gain, there are more Labour posters up in windows than I can recall, plus there’s a very visible Labour campaign. Just across the constituency border in Hampstead and Kilburn, another marginal seat, it’s the same story.
The Labour campaigners are overwhelmingly Corbyn supporters, to the left of the MPs they are trying to re-elect, and they have a verve I’ve never witnessed in any previous Labour campaign. It is invigorating.
Travel 400 miles north and it is a very different picture. Last week I attended a hustings in the parish kirk at Humbie, a village in East Lothian nestling in the foothills of the Lammermuirs. The Labour candidate could not bring himself to mention Corbyn. His party’s campaign concentrates on opposing a second independence referendum, first point in his election address, and defending the union of the UK.
East Lothian, held by the SNP’s George Kerevan, is being targeted by both the Tories and Labour. Those two are competing as to which is most staunch in defence of the union.
Back down south Jeremy Corbyn has put opposition to austerity at the centre of a message which is gaining traction, and forced Theresa May onto the back foot over security in the wake of the dreadful Manchester and London atrocities, a considerable feat.
Across England and Wales he’s addressing huge crowds, but when he travelled to Glasgow most recently senior Scottish Labour figures, including the leader Kezia Dugdale, where noticeable by their absence. Corbyn has generously supported her, despite her opposing his leadership at every turn. The Labour candidates in the three seats Scottish Labour has targeted (just three – East Renfrewshire, Edinburgh South and East Lothian) would be liabilities not assets for Corbyn if returned to Westminster.
But the biggest problem with Scottish Labour is its desperate championing of the union and its opposition to a post-Brexit second independence referendum (Scotland voted to remain in the EU).
So as Scottish Labour’s leader, Kezia Dugdale, prepared to unveil the manifesto The Scotsman reported:
“Labour leader Kezia Dugdale will today place the party’s opposition to independence at the heart of its Scottish election manifesto launch in a bid to win back supporters lost to the Tories […] She is hoping the manifesto launch will send out the message to Scots that Labour can be trusted to fight independence as strongly as the Conservatives.”
One report of the manifesto launch noted that Dugdale “made a pitch to supporters of other pro-UK parties in a bid to break the SNP’s “stranglehold” on politics north of the border.”
In calling for a tactical vote against independence her claim was that “only Labour can oust the Tories from power on June 8 and that in Scotland only her party is strong enough to defeat Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP… “
There is no mention of Corbyn or the measures he’s proposing in his manifesto. The Financial Times noted that: “The manifesto launch also made clear Ms Dugdale’s discomfort with the UK party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.”
By you now you might be thinking I’ve just cherry picked some points on independence and a possible second referendum, or you might argue manifestoes count for little. But opposition to independence and defence of the Union has been the central message not just of the manifesto launch but of the campaign on the ground, repeated at full pitch in leaflets dropping through people’s doors and on High Street stalls across the country.
The headline point in the manifesto reads: “Scottish Labour will never support independence, because we believe that together we’re stronger.”
That wording carefully recalls the official No campaign during the 2014 independence referendum, Better Together, when Labour worked in tandem with the Tories in defence of the Union. And there lies the seat of its problem. The vast bulk of the left in Scotland backed independence, not through nationalism but because it offered an escape from Westminster’s addiction to neo-liberalism, war and championing the interests of the City of London.
Support for independence grew as voters of level of income fell and amongst the under 50s. At the 2015 Westminster general election the Scottish National Party capitalised, not just by taking 56 of the 59 Westminster seats, but in shifting its base of support into Glasgow and the West of Scotland, once regarded by Labour as hereditary fiefdoms.
Now Corbyn goes down well in Scotland, but that does not necessarily translate into people voting Labour because the Scottish Labour message is so unionist and so lacking in the radical edge which is cutting for Labour down south.
Scottish Labour’s Paisley and Renfrewshire North candidate Alison Taylor explains her candidacy thus:
“The reason I wanted to stand is because of my business background and I see the prospect of IndyRef2 is making it hard to encourage investors to come to Scotland. Independence would be a complete disaster.”
In East Renfrewshire, a key battleground, they’ve already had a Scottish Labour billboard appeared reading “Vote Conservative (and she wins East Ren), Don’t Risk It Vote Labour to Beat the SNP.” The ‘she’ in question is not Theresa May but Nicola Sturgeon, whose picture dominates.
The former Labour Chancellor and the man who headed up the Better Together campaign in campaigning for a No vote in the 2014 Independence Referendum, Alastair Darling, intervened in East Renfrewshire, which the SNP hold and the Tories are targeting,with a letter to voters urging pan-unionist unity behind Labour: “Alistair Darling calls on Tory supporters to vote Labour in key East Renfrewshire seat to stop ‘unwanted’ IndyRef 2.”
The Labour candidate there is Blair McDougall, who was head strategist for Better Together. He chimed in with Darling telling voters that, “A vote for any other party simply risks letting the SNP back in and increases the risk of another unwanted referendum.”
His website boasts:“I ran the campaign against independence in 2014. Now I'm standing in East Renfrewshire to say No to a second divisive referendum.”
Darling cannot not bring himself to say anything supportive of Corbyn. If he saw the Labour campaigners I’ve encountered on the streets of London he’d run a mile in terror.
In the Scottish local elections earlier this month Labour crashed to their lowest number of council seats in modern times, with the Tories overtaking them in percentage of the popular vote. The Scottish Campaign for Socialism (which is linked to the left wing Labour Representation Committee in England) drew this conclusion:
“The main emphasis for the party leadership in the last year has been, rather than try to appeal across the board on policies that will deliver for people across Scotland, to ramp up a unionist identity in a bid to stop support going to the Tories.
Kezia Dugdale’s much feted visit to London wasn’t about Labour as a party of federalism and radical change – it was about launching the idea of “a new Act of Union”.
This was the theme right the way through Scottish Conference. Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan both talking about the need for “a new Act of Union”, even though that wasn’t the policy we had passed. Presumably someone who was briefing them felt the need to keep pushing that line, however…
Now, one hundred and thirty seats down, with no majority anywhere and the Tories making gains at our expense, we face the issue of how Scotland’s councils are to be administered. We, particularly in the midst of a General Election, need to be making ourselves look distinct. Deals with Conservatives on Councils won’t do that. Labour groups who are forming coalitions with the Tories won’t be putting through a programme, so much as contributing to further decline.
We need to shift to an approach based in essence (though not in vocabulary) on class rather than country. On people’s lives and living standards, rather than national identity and constitution mongering.”
The problem lies in the last paragraph, in attempting to counter-pose economic and social issues to that of independence, ignoring working people plumped for independence to escape Tory rule and New Labour’s wretched record in office.
There are Scottish Labour candidates who are pro-Corbyn, but they have accepted a national campaign which seeks to vie with the Tories as to who is most unionist. In Edinburgh East there’s a perfectly reasonable Unite activist running for Scottish Labour, but she’s up against sitting SNP Tommy Sheppard who is standing on a more left wing platform and record.
Sheppard makes the point:
“Actually what would be more helpful for Jeremy Corbyn after June 8 if the Tories don’t have a majority would be to have a block of SNP MPs who are prepared to back up a fairly radical programme, given that half of it we’re already implemented in Scotland anyway.
“Is it more helpful, or do you want a bunch of right-wing Scottish Labour MPs who are just going to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and prevent him from forming a progressive alternative?”
The issue of how you vote on 8 June is as always tactical, but this is a Westminster election, called by a Tory leader confident of increasing her majority, enabling her to push a hard Brexit, right wing agenda. Theresa May put defence of the Union as central to that, and Scottish Labour chose to tail behind.
“… it’s abundantly clear that the rigid Unionist stance now being taken by Scottish Labour represents a betrayal not only of their party’s great home rule tradition, but of many former supporters who have shifted their allegiance to the SNP. To prefer a federal solution for the UK is one thing, and the Liberal Democrats at least have the excuse - a fragile one, under current circumstances - that that has always been their party’s official policy.
To talk, though, as if the very idea of Scottish independence in Europe represents anathema for Labour supporters, and is so repugnant as to justify voting Tory to prevent it, is simply ridiculous for any party of the left. It mystifies the idea of the British state in a way that is both reactionary and foolish, wrongly suggests that our sense of Britain and Ireland as an island community of nations could not survive Scotland’s independence, and probably dooms us to another ten years of hard-right Tory government..”
It creates a strange situation where south of the border I am enthusiastically willing Corbyn on, but in Scotland I could not bring myself to back a candidate who enthuses over the virtues of Britain and whose electoral success would be used to block any second independence referendum.
What lies ahead makes it vital we don’t just drop independence. Aside from the fact that even if Theresa May does scramble back into Downing Street she will not garner the big majority she needs and the problems facing her will mount. Firstly, as the Brexit negotiations get underway the divisions in the Tory Party are likely to open up once more. Secondly, it looks likely Sinn Fein can repeat its success in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections opening up the Irish issue. If, and it’s a huge if, a Brexit deal can be reached that avoids a hard border between the two states in Ireland, that can only add to the difficulty number three, Scotland’s position within the UK. May seemed to believe she’d get a big majority which would allow her to face down demands for a second referendum. It doesn’t look like that is going to happen. Which is why electing pro-union MPs in Scotland makes no sense.
So there are two different elections taking place in Scotland and in England but there is one helleva crisis looming for the British state.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.