Alex Salmond must be rubbing his hands in glee. In the last couple of weeks he has been gifted three own goals by his political opponents.
First came David Cameron’s crass attempt to lever some of the initiative away from Salmond’s SNP on the question of Scottish Independence. Cameron should have known that the mandate handed to the SNP by their landslide 2011 victory coupled with the terminal decline of the Tories in Scotland would mean any attempt to grasp control of the issue from London would backfire.
Secondly, the Labour Party responded to the Tories' manoeuvre by aligning themselves with the Tory position. They have yet to come up with a manner in which to deal with the complexity (and it IS complex) of arguing a unionist line without simply siding unilaterally with the Tories and the Lib-Dems in a united ‘No’ Campaign.
Scottish Labour has attempted to present themselves as stabilised after their disastrous Scottish electoral performance. They see the independence question as a way back into the hearts and minds of the majority of the electorate by seeking to paint the SNP’s independence campaign as dangerous and irresponsible. This means they will have to run a largely negative campaign, a potentially risky strategy at any time, but especially around such a complex and potentially emotional issue as Scottish independence.
The real reward for Labour in Scotland, they feel, will come when Salmond loses the bid for independence. In that situation they would be able to destabilise not only Salmond’s leadership, but the whole SNP machine through a campaign of demoralisation. The hope is that Scottish Labour will be able to regain its position as the party of gradual reform, with the hopes of a more daring and ambitious version of this killed off.
And that is where the third of the recent errors hands Salmond, what he must surely feel, is his insurance policy. That is Labour’s complete sell out on the cuts. Ed Miliband’s New Labour is a ‘responsible’ Labour party setting out plans ‘to be fair with less’. Here the Labour strategists have made two glaring errors. First they have further eroded their traditional base in the unions, when they should have started the process of rebuilding by consolidating it. Second, despite being in opposition to a weak and deeply unpopular government they have consistently failed to provide any clear alternative message.
That means Salmond can continue the next two years of cuts in Scotland while blaming the Con-Dems austerity programme, with Labour positioning themselves out of opposition to this. And even if Salmond fails on independence, he can retain the social democratic image the SNP has built up by pointing to the Labour sell out.
The Labour party should have it on a plate: an unpopular government, isolated in Europe, with the very obvious and easily demonised pre-historic figures in Osborne, Cameron et al. And yet the Labour party have failed to take the bait.
Why is this?
Partly this is because of simple spinelessness. Labour has calculated that a ‘steady as she goes’ policy (or, in other words, hoping the coalition become extremely unpopular) will shoehorn them into power at the next election.
But there is another issue: the Labour party has become so systematically committed to neoliberalism that it no longer knows any other way. This is the same crisis that social-democracy is suffering from across Europe: Miliband is a bad leader of bad politics.
Miliband’s problems run a little deeper than this however, as he is trusted by neither right nor left in his own party. On the one hand he is meant to re-root and renew the Labour Party with the backing of major unions.
However, Ed was never the pick of the Blairites and they will never trust him. The result is a political non-entity who is more scared of his MP’s than he is of the unions, which explains his shift rightwards.
It’s difficult to see how Scottish Labour can escape this. Johann Lamont is not the sort of leader capable of striking out on her own. There is little left for Scottish Labour in the run up to the referendum except to spread fear of the unknown.
All of this gives the Scottish Left an opportunity to seize the space to the left of the SNP from a pro-independence point of view. The independence debate will dominate Scottish political discourse in the coming years. We cant afford to let this be a battle between the unionists and nationalists. That does not mean that the Left tails a narrow nationalism. In fact the opposite must be the case. Where the SNP are for a big business Scotland, we are for nationalisation of the banks and the oil industry. Where the SNP are for the EU, we are for a pan-European movement against austerity. Both of these positions, and many others that could be considered, have a popular resonance that could, for the first time in years, make the Scottish Left part of the political scene for good reasons.
If the Left can impact the independence debate, so too can it impact what happens next – independence or not. If the Left can build an appealing, credible alliance around a left-wing pro-independence perspective, it could be the basis of a renewed, united effort in the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2015.
The independence referendum and parliamentary elections are of course not the ‘be all and end all’ for socialists, but it is time to move away from the fringes. In a better situation, we would be writing an appeal to unions urging disaffiliation from Labour and affiliation to a socialist alternative. The possibilities are there. Of course mistakes will be made along the way, but we need to take the first steps towards grasping the advantages that are there.
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