Some thoughts on the Labour Party in Scotland, and why I wish things were different

A while ago I ended up in a brief Twitter discussion about the Labour Party and the independence referendum with a fairly prominent Labour activist and friend based in Edinburgh. We share much in terms of our interests and engagement; our common membership of the Iona Community symbolises a significant part of this. Twitter was not a very good space for a meaningful conversation, and so I suggested we move to email. So I sent him a long email about my worries for the party – but he never replied and never mentioned it again. Fair enough, he’s a busy man, but given that I was raising some of the issues I am raising here, I wonder if there is more to it…

Today’s Sunday Herald makes for depressing reading for anyone who has any affection at all for the Labour Party, as I certainly do. I was a member many years ago, but left when they supported the American-led Gulf War (no, not that one, the 1990-1 war – I’ve been around for a bit!). I have voted Labour more often in more elections than I could possibly count – though a little while ago I joined the Green Party and have voted for them consistently in recent times, even though I admit I’m not a very active member.  But in Council elections, for example, where I have had more than one vote and not enough Green candidates, I have still voted Labour after voting Green – but on reading the Herald today it dawned on me that I can no longer foresee a time when I could ever vote Labour again.

The wider context for this is the independence referendum on 18.9.14. I fully support independence for Scotland, but have many friends and colleagues who do not, and I respect that. Whether Scotland achieves independence or not next year, we will still be neighbours and will still want to improve our society, we just differ about the best way to achieve a better society, not in the idea that it needs to be better than it is now (for example, more just, more equal etc.). I don’t want to explain why I support independence here (some pointers to that are here), but I do want to offer an honest plea to my Labour friends about their support for the British nationalist campaign, Better Together (see the article I just linked to for more on the terminology I’m using here).

A key issue, I think, is the company they are keeping. It is perfectly ok for Labour to take a British nationalist position in the referendum debate if they sincerely believe that they can help bring about a more equal and just society in the UK as a whole, rather than doing so in smaller, more democratic structures that allow greater opportunities for change (yes, I know, my bias is showing in my terminology!). However, I think their alliance with the other parties in Better Together, the Tories and the LibDems, is destroying the soul of Labour, and it saddens me enormously that they don’t seem to realise it. Earlier this year came ‘donorgate‘, the revelation that Better Together had been funded in substantial part by Ian Taylor, someone with very dodgy sources for his money and who didn’t even live in Scotland, but hey, I suppose he’s for the union so that’s err… ok (see articles 1, 2, 3 from National Collective). But today the Herald reveals that the top 20 most recent donors for Better Together are all Tories (and many having what some might regard as problematic sources of income). This might be fine and dandy if the Tories were active in the campaign in Scotland, but insofar as there is a grassroots campaign by Better Together (and there isn’t much beyond leafleting, and certainly nothing like the Yes campaign’s creative activism), it is largely Labour people running it: even their leader is Alistair Darling, former Labour Chancellor at Westminster. What we therefore have is a campaign paid for by rather odious Tories (bedroom tax, student fees, disability cuts, privatisation of the English NHS and schools… I could go on) with Labour doing the actual work on the ground – or to put it another way, Labour have hired themselves out to the Tories and their interests.

If this is in the expectation that the referendum will be won by the No campaign and that the Labour Party will then go on to win the 2015 UK general election, then I think Labour strategists are, to put it bluntly, in cloud cuckoo land. Not only do the UK-wide polls suggest Labour will really struggle in 2015, but I increasingly see support for Labour in Scotland itself waning. I am not alone in realising I cannot vote Labour again: their positioning is costing them support from precisely the people who have the same interests they used to have. That connection to the Tories and their money is symbolic of all the things they have moved away from over recent years. The Labour hierarchy does not seem to realise that the Tories are simply using them in Better Together because the Tories themselves are so toxic in Scotland that any vocalisation of support they might offer for the British nationalist position would almost certainly ensure widespread support for the Scottish independence movement. The moment the referendum is over (whether it is won or lost), these oh-so-generous Tories will turn on their erstwhile Labour colleagues in Better Together with a vengeance.

This could then herald disaster for Labour: not wilderness years, but the practical death of the party altogether:

  1. I expect that if the referendum in Scotland results in a No vote, Labour will be blamed by many Scots and these connections to the Tories will be key in that argument. Furthermore, Labour’s activists, tired from campaigning against the vibrant and exciting prospect for independence (even if it loses the referendum it is still more exciting on the Yes side), will struggle to rally support for the 2015 election, and will almost certainly lose that, perhaps even to a Tory majority. The Tories will then gerrymander the constituency borders (that they already tried to do in this parliamentary session, only being stopped because of a clash with the LibDems) and Labour is then unlikely to win another general election for a very, very long time, defeated by their own selling-out on the one hand, and Tory manipulation on the other.
  2. If the referendum results in a Yes vote, the Tories will blame Labour: they’ll say they provided millions of pounds but Labour activists still lost them the referendum, so how can they be trusted to run the negotiations with the Scottish government over independence? Their activists, tired from campaigning against the vibrant and exciting prospect for independence (it is tiring arguing against something much more vibrant than your position) will struggle to rally support for the very last UK 2015 election and will almost certainly lose that, perhaps even to a Tory majority. The Tories will then gerrymander the constituency borders as noted above, and Labour in rUK is then unlikely to win another general election for a very, very long time, and I would doubt their ability to win in Scotland for a while too.

Either way, the present situation is a lose-lose scenario for Labour.

If the Labour Party (and by that I mean members, not just the hierarchy) genuinely believes that a No vote is better for Scotland – and I can understand why some might think that, even if the argument is not persuasive to me – then I think they need to start campaigning away from the Tories and their money, and therefore away from Better Together. If they were ethical about their support for the union and thought worker solidarity would function better in the UK as is then that is an interesting and potentially positive position to be arguing – but they are not doing that and in fact they cannot do that whilst funded by the kind of horrible Tory capitalists who want to do away with as many workers’ rights as possible (and this also explains in part why the official No position in the referendum debate is so rotten). Of course, some would say that the Labour Party left workers behind when the crypto-Tory Tony Blair became leader of the party, but people like my friend mentioned above do genuinely support and engage with ordinary workers and the working class, as do many other grassroots Labour Party members. I want them to retake control of their party! At the moment, I am sure Labour will lose in the Scottish referendum – regardless of whether the referendum results in a Yes or a No vote – and then, almost automatically, in other contexts.

I say all this not because I want the No campaign to win the referendum – clearly, I wouldn’t be engaged in the Yes campaign if I wanted that! – nor because I want the Labour Party as it is to be resurgent, but because I worry about what I would dare to call the soul of the Labour Party. In a UK context (even though I hope we won’t be stuck with it for much longer) the Labour Party still offers the only vaguely viable left-of-centre party, and if they are to offer that to the UK electorate in 2015 after a 2014 No win, they need to recover that and be more convincing – and they’re less and less so as time goes by. If, as I hope, there is a Yes vote, Labour will similarly need to hold to a leftish position in the 2015 election, offering a viable alternative to the Tories during negotiations and after Scotland has left the UK. (Of course, in Scotland, the SNP are way to the left of the Labour Party, highlighting the fact that the terms “left” and “right” are a) not necessarily very helpful, and b) relative.  Perhaps I should add that I’m not an SNP supporter and have never voted for them, nor see myself doing so.)

So, my dear Labour friends – it is not too late, I hope, for your party to recover, to retrieve the soul it once had from the Tories in Better Together and Tory-lites who are running your party at the moment, at least in Scotland. But I think you need to act fast. More stories such as the one in today’s Sunday Herald are poison to the well-spring of support you once enjoyed in Scotland, and to survive, you need to move away from these poisonous supports, even if they appear to be full of money that you think you need. If you are going to sup with the devil you need a long spoon – and at present you neither have one, nor seem to even see the need for one.  The alternative is therefore clear – don’t sup with the devil!

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