Can a supporter of Scottish independence be a member of Scottish Labour?
Paul Bisland (@paulbisland) is a teacher from Glasgow who supports Scottish independence as a means of delivering social justice.
For a while now I have been telling my friends that I am no longer a member of the Labour Party. The truth is that whilst I have considered cutting up my card and cancelling my contributions, I have not yet completed the task, because I don’t know if it is really what I want to do.
The trouble is, I am very much in favour of an independent Scotland. I voted Yes in September, contributed to the campaign and argued passionately for it amongst friends, family and colleagues. I am still pro-independence, which is why I don’t know if I quite fit into the Labour Party, or if I am even still welcome.
I joined Labour in May 2010; this was the month that I completed all of my university studies and the month that the third consecutive Labour government was defeated. My decision was a reaction to both. I had decided I would join Labour as a way of doing something to combat the Tories and to defend the system that had supported me all the way through my formative years.
I grew up in a housing scheme in the Calton in the East End of Glasgow. Like many others, my family relied on the support of the welfare state and I only made it to university because it was free and there was a bursary there to support me through it. Policies like the Bedroom Tax sickened me and I wanted to ensure that I had an outlet for defending the minimum standard of life that our welfare state allows in times of hardship.
I never considered any other party, I always knew it would be Labour for me. They were, and are, the party of the Minimum Wage and the NHS; two crowning achievements of a party founded to protect and advance the rights of ordinary workers. This was the right place, I felt, to advance my own views on social justice and to help fight back against David Cameron’s attacks on the most vulnerable in society.
I campaigned for this in 2011 as I helped my then local MSP, Paul Martin, get re-elected, and I joined him and others in campaigning for Stephen Curran. I was out again in 2012 for the council elections, coming home from work and taking to the streets to help keep Glasgow red. I met a lot of good people whilst campaigning; Ian Gray, Margaret Curran, Willie Bain and others, all committed to social justice and the fight for real Labour values. None of them ever mentioned the Union.
The issue of independence was never discussed on the doors; it was an impossibility. The Additional Member System did not allow for a Nationalist majority, so the only way Scotland would become independent was if other parties supported it. Or so I thought. When independence did become possible I had no strong view, but as I considered it I became convinced that it was the best way possible to deliver social justice and Labour values to people in Scotland. A view that I still hold.
The word Unionist appears in the name of the Scottish Conservatives – at least they are clear about the requirement – whilst independence is the SNP’s raison d’etre. The Greens had a debate and a vote, but people could remain members regardless of their stance on the issue. But in Labour the issue was never debated. The decision was taken that the party would surround itself with the Better Together campaign and would oppose independence. Some activists and members like myself felt side-lined by this, and stopped campaigning, but I hoped that I could remain in Labour and help shape the party in an independent Scotland in the event of a Yes win.
As I consider my options now, and look at the fate of Labour in Scotland, it appears clear to me that the only way Labour can rebuild is to treat the constitution issue the way Westminster parties seem to be treating the European Union issue. By all accounts Kate Hoey looks set to be a leading figure in the No to EU campaign, whilst the PM will be on the opposite side of many in his own party by backing a Yes vote. Cameron has allowed a referendum on an issue that he does not necessarily believe in (albeit to get elected), in a way that Scottish Labour didn’t when they had the chance to let the minority SNP pass a referendum bill in the 2007 parliament.
The alternative to Labour making the Union an issue of personal principle is to become, or perhaps remain, a Unionist party. This drives 45% or more of the population away from voting Labour, which almost guarantees election defeats in the future, or at least makes them more likely. These Yes supporters are more politically involved and active than most other voters; just look at the recent voter turnout in Scotland. In 2010 63.8% voted, whilst this year it was 71.1% resulting in an extra 450,000 votes cast. The SNP got double the amount of votes that Labour did in Scotland, which would be a disaster for the party in Scotland if it was repeated in 2016, especially since Labour always do better in general elections than in Scottish Parliament elections.
A lot has been said about what Labour has to do to recover in Scotland, but there will be no recovery if Scottish politics descends into Nationalist and Unionist lines like Northern Ireland. Labour has to offer something better and something different. A powerful social justice narrative, with the freedom for members to choose their own stance on independence in order to broaden the party’s appeal and show voters that the party is aligned to, but not dependent on, the party at Westminster.
With membership figures which fall way short of what the SNP have at their disposal, Labour need active members. I myself will become active again only when I know that my actions won’t hurt the independence movement and that being a member of Labour in Scotland is not synonymous with supporting a Union that I do not and cannot support. My question is, can I still be a member of the Labour party and support Scottish independence, or is there no place in the party of social justice for those who believe that this justice is best achieved outside of the current political union?