Johann Lamont's sudden departure as Scottish Labour leader has brought Labour's crisis in Scotland - and beyond - into sharp relief
The resignation of Johann Lamont from Scottish Labour leadership raises plenty of important questions about the state of the Labour party. Since some of the most important have yet to be properly scrutinised, it might be worth addressing one point before we move on to this article’s main subject.
It is simply unacceptable that the Labour party, the supposed parliamentary wing of the Trade Union movement, can have its leader deposed in this way – out of nowhere, without any democratic procedure or process. Lamont’s resignation was apparently prompted by the ouster of Scottish general secretary Ian Price, himself dispatched by a ‘chat’ in London HQ.
And yet this is the individual whom the Labour party thought best placed to lead the nation just a few days ago. Forget for a moment the disrespect toward the Scottish electorate as a whole. What about, in particular, the Scottish working class? What about the Labour movement? Is this ‘our leadership’ – and do the Labour party even care if voters and unions even see them as a leadership anymore?
This demands a deeper question about the Labour Party, at least in Scotland. Is this a normal crisis?
The Labour Party has of course survived many acute bust-ups – the National Government of Ramsay McDonald and the white-hot factionalism of the ‘wilderness years’ come to mind. Both of these schismatic eras were more boisterous than our present, and comparitavley tepid spate of frustrated arguments in Scottish Labour.
But perhaps heat and tempo are poor registers of political crisis. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci made a distinction between conjunctural crises and organic crises.
A conjunctural crisis is one which is essentially contingent and directly related to present and particular circumstances. This can be a deep crisis, but one that does not nessesarily alter the fundamental relations between social forces. An organic crisis on the other hand is one which uproots these relationships entirley and leaves them open to complete transformation. The former may be calamitous and despite the longer term ramifacations, the later may seem relatively subdued.
Gramsci developed these concepts to understand the decomposition of class societies, but we can borrow them for an analysis of the Labour Party and its present crisis. The intellectually serious left has, for recent decades, based its orientation upon Labour on divergent understandings of whether its crisis is conjunctural or organic.
Key to understanding Labour’s rightward shift is the disorientation of progressive social forces in Britain since the late 1970’s. If Labour’s crisis is only conjuctural then the party despite its critical state, manages to retain the genetic features of active Social Democracy. Thus its own ideological trajectory reflects the mood and the intellectual and organisational capacity of its real roots in the labour and progressive movements. It follows then, that when the working class finally recovers its feet Labour will be drawn back to the left.
If however the crisis is organic, Labour has unmoored completely from its traditional social base, either because this base has been destroyed or because erstwhile relations between party and class have fundamentally upended, or by some combination of the two. Under these circumstances no general movement toward the left in society can recover Labour as a party representing the interests of working people. It would be possible to imagine, for instance, an aggressive unionisation of the private sector driving Labour away from the trade union movement rather than towards it leading to ‘PASOKification’ (the development of a permanent split between party leadership and its own activists and electoral base).
The attuned will realise we don’t need to travel all the way to Greece to observe this phenomenon. What else has just happened in Scotland? Society has radicalised, not least among Labour’s traditional base, and as a result Labour is launched deeper into crisis. Thepresent Labour crisis is not stand alone, it is apiece with the long trajectory of the party’s decline . Labour does not lurch between crises; the crisis is organic to the party.
Running alongside this is the long term crisis of the labour movement itself. The privatisation process means that just 6% of workers who work for private companies are members of a trade union. Zero hours contracts have undermined the capacity to organise. The precarious nature of modern work makes collective action more difficult. Low wage economies mean that workers are more likely to be concerned abut losing their job, and less confident about taking action. The public sector, where unions are stronger, is being decimated. Big business is in a supremely powerful situation UK wide, and at a European level TTIP is set to further entrench corporate domination in our lives.
It is likely to get much worse. The decades long attack on trade union rights is now being augmented with the consolidation of state power in terms of surveillance and attacks on human rights. While an entire generation must fight to survive on terrible wages in monotonous jobs, the services which we rely on are also being taken into private ownership. All of this is the logical outcome of the system, and it is why so many of us voted Yes, to give us at least the chance to break with it.
How can we resolve this crisis successfully? This is the question that the socialist left in Scotland must seek to answer if we are to defend what’s left of our social security system, and present an overall challenge to neoliberalism. This answer is not, it is our contention, with the SNP. To understand the resolution to this organic crisis of both organised labour and the labour party, we require yet to go to a third destination, besides Greece and Scotland.
When Ireland broke from British rule, the conditions of its separation were sour indeed. The division of the island left the Republic prey to nationalist forces that were to subdue the radical force of the Irish revolution. The split republican movement, represented by Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael sparred over the best way to represent the Irish national cause.
In a possible future Scotland, Labour and the SNP join in a permanent battle of the civic nationalisms; one British, one Scottish. In this permanent fore-grounding of national antagonisms more vital issues of social justice can be lost. These the very issues that propelled the vibrancy and scale of the independence movement during the referendum process.
This is especially possible should the next leader of Labour in Scotland attack the SNP from the right, in which case the SNP, especially if it believes the left flank is secure, will draw to the centre. In the extreme centre, politics degenerates into a faction fight where parties boast their technocratic abilities and discard ideological content. It should be noted here that this scenario has only been made possible by the No vote – it took the marginal vindication of unionism to introduce this toxin into Scottish politics. A Yes vote would have changed everything, which is why we campaigned so hard for it.
The solution to the Labour crisis lies with the historic political awakening which has taken plance combined with the collective organisation of working people detremined to develop a politics that meets their interests. The major challenge facing socialists, trade unionists and progressives is to generate a force that genuinely replaces the Labour party, but not just as part of a short lived campaign which seeks to exploit its latest crisis. Rather, Scotland requires a ‘Third Estate’, a form of permanent working class representation to replace Labourism in the receding years of its organic crisis.
Jonathon Shafi is organiser of the International Socialist Group (ISG) Scotland. He has played a long-standing role in anti-cuts and anti-war in Glasgow and a founder member of the Radical Independence Campaign.