Why Labour are losers
Mark McLaughlin argues that, rather than appealing across the constitutional divide, Scottish Labour has made itself unelectable by both sides of it, by focusing on dry economics and abrogating its responsibility to engage on the difficult questions of statehood and nation-building.
In 1953, the manuscripts of Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein were posthumously published in a collection titled Philosophical Investigations. It is primarily concerned with the philosophy of language; exploring the distance between what we say, what we mean and what others understand by what we say.
Wittgenstein argues that people ascribe common meaning to language through shared experiences. It is the reason why groups of friends can have in-jokes that only they understand, and why Wittgenstein enigmatically remarked that “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him”. Using the same language is not enough; understanding another involves an empathy that demands similarities in life experience, in points of reference, that we don’t share with those whose perspectives are far removed from our own.
Perhaps there is no greater example of two groups of people who are, each to the other, Wittgenstein’s lion, than the Scottish Labour Party and ex-Labour-now-SNP voters. The former are often disdainful of the latter, as if we have been duped and hoodwinked; voter-magpies led astray by shiny SNP tabards. If only we understood, they say, we wouldn’t vote for those deceitful ruffians or their independence obsession. By their actions, the politicians and remaining members of Scottish Labour demonstrate repeatedly, and at length, that they either don’t know why they keep losing elections, or increasingly don’t care.
In the past, I have lamented the SNP’s lack of radicalism on some devolved issues, recognised the limitations of the free tuition policy as a vehicle for social mobility and conceded serious failings in the Yes campaign. Hopefully, this is sufficient to establish that I don’t routinely wield a “Stronger for Scotland” foam finger non-ironically, as if that’s the sort of thing normal people do. And yet, voting Labour has rarely been a less appealing prospect, even before the current live action remake of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto got underway.
The origins of Labour’s precipitous descent are infinite, but few would deny that the constitutional question looms large in any coherent retelling. We should always be wary of linear narrations of history, and accounts of the recent past which too intimately link one event to another, tying it all together in a neat bow, are almost always deeply flawed. Correlation does not equal causation, and so on. There is, however, one glaring deficiency that helps explain why most Scottish voters, who have defected to both the SNP and the Conservatives, aren’t coming back any time soon.
Labour has failed to engage on the issue of statehood. It believes neither in an independent Scotland nor the union. The question on the ballot paper on 2014 was not whether Scotland would be materially better off as an independent nation, but whether Scotland should be an independent nation. That the Better Together response was tailored to material, empirical questions of fiscal transfer and currency and so on is entirely understandable. It targeted the 35% of eligible voters that did not have an existential commitment to either the United Kingdom or an independent Scotland. These voters would – and did – tip the scale.
It is akin to a Shakespearean tragicomedy that it is the Labour Party, and no other, that continues to fight political battles as if the referendum is ongoing. In an attempt to avoid “narrow nationalism”, Scottish Labour has abandoned the idea of statehood altogether, as if trying to define “Scottishness” or “Britishness” is the pasttime of frothing-at-the-mouth flag waving extremists. This conveniently forgets, of course, that Tony Blair entered Downing Street in 1997 opposite a sea of enthusiastic Labour supporters waving the Union Jack. The refusal to recognise the importance of how the citizens of a nation define their collective values renders Labour’s current spiral into electoral oblivion an entirely deserved phenomenon.
Apart from anything else, it means that the 65% of the country that do have an existential commitment to either the union or iScotland are convinced that you do not share the same vision, or indeed any vision, for the kind of country that we should be. The New Statesman’s Helen Lewis recently remarked that Englishness has become a coded word for white, and that to call yourself English feels “needlessly aggressive, an echo of the snarling faces of the English Defence League”.
I don’t happen to agree with that position, but it does rather illustrate the pitfalls of failing to engage with the values of statehood. How a state defines itself has a very real impact on our role in the world, how we treat immigrants, acceptable levels of tax, and attitudes to welfare. It’s not nationalist or jingoistic to believe that the peoples of a nation have shared values.
Reducing this to a bean-counting exercise is to engage with only a fraction of the deeper and more profound questions about what kind of country we want to be. Frankly, it is a pitiful, pathetic abrogation of responsibility to expect that a political party would be sustained on such shallow ideological foundations. It is little wonder that the Labour Rose, once with deep roots in Scottish and British soil, is beginning to wilt.
One is, of course, free to lament this lack of rationalism in politics. “Curse the electorate and their attachment to the nation-state” *shakes fist*. Scottish Labour could hire one of the committee rooms in Holyrood, take turns to sing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon in the round and get particularly vexed at that verse about there being no countries. Fill your boots. But it strikes me that trying to understand why many former Labour voters chose independence, and why unionist Labour voters are now turning to the Conservatives would be a more productive use of your time.
Democracy and nationhood is more than a tick at the ballot box. It is the relationship between the body of government and the body-politic, built brick by brick over hundreds of years of shared history, culture and language.
Ruth Davidson comes to the battle astride a tank, waving the Union Jack and singing God Save the Queen. Her opposition to independence isn’t merely oppositional, it is a belief that we have something greater in the United Kingdom; that our history and culture shows what we can achieve together. She is British and proud of it. Nicola Sturgeon comes armed with an optimistic, inspirational vision for the future, waving the Saltire alongside the powerful visuals of the SNP politicians in front of Scotland’s great landmarks, enthusiastic independence campaigners flooding George Square and Dougie MacLean providing the soundtrack. Labour sits in the corner with its calculator, Scotland’s least popular accountant, and recommends that a couple stay married because, on balance, it would be beneficial for tax purposes to do so.
The SNP and the Conservatives are at least arguing over the same things. They do, to an extent, share similar points of reference: national identity, national symbols, competing visions for the future and so on. That Labour has refused to participate goes some way to explain why it has become the lightning rod for post-referendum anger, and doesn’t understand why. Scottish Labour is the reason that the union subsists, and yet doesn’t really believe in it.
From a personal perspective, the SNP’s decision to rebrand the devolved administration from Scottish Executive to Scottish Government was a seminal, formative moment in Scotland’s political history and in mine. It is nominative determinism in action. Scotland was no longer a subsidiary of a larger whole, but had its own “government”. I’m not sure the political significance of this mere rebranding is properly understood or remarked upon. I was 15 years old at the time, and for the entire period in which I’ve been politically aware, the Scottish Government has been at loggerheads with the UK Government. A whole generation of young adults have grown up with that same experience, with every spat, confected or otherwise, acting as a reminder that Scotland is a separate political entity. This may go some way to explain the comparative enthusiasm for independence amongst the young.
Thus, when Nicola Sturgeon stood in Bute House on the morning of the EU referendum result and spoke of “democratic outrage” at Scotland being taken out of the European Union against its will, this wasn’t your standard opportunistic political triangulation. She genuinely believes it, and has believed in Scotland as a separate political entity since she joined the SNP at 16. She spoke for me, and hundreds of thousands of others, too.
The proposition that the United Kingdom is a union of equal nations was categorically disproven by the Brexit vote. We didn’t vote as a union of equal nations, we voted as a nation-state. British citizens, the ones who live in Glasgow and Edinburgh, voted on whether the United Kingdom, not Scotland, should remain a member of the European Union. Scotland is not a separate political entity enjoined to the rest of the UK, but is subsumed into a larger whole.
This is the central untruth of the Better Together campaign. We can not, at once, be a union of equal nations and a nation-state. The former requires the recognition of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are separate legal entities. The hard truth is that on reserved issues (and potentially all issues, should devolution ever be reversed), we basically have to lump it. Scotland can not “lead” the United Kingdom on issues on which we are outnumbered ten to one. If Labour wants to argue that a fifteen billion pound fiscal transfer is a good price to fetch for our democratic will on these issues, then that’s an argument you are entirely free to make. But it must come with the concession that we are not a union of equal nations.
Tangentially, it seems necessary to distinguish this position from the idea that Scotland has to be “freed” or that somehow we are “oppressed”. Hilarious musings about the last vestige of the British Empire should bear a couple of things in mind. Firstly, if this was ever true (it wasn’t) it certainly can’t be sustained after the union was affirmed in a democratic vote, by a 10% margin, on an 85% turnout. Secondly, in relation to the British Empire, Scotland was the ‘British’ bit, not the ‘Empire’ bit. We were the colonisers, not the colony. One would imagine that claims to the contrary would rather stick in the craw of genuinely emancipated nations, many of whom paid for their independence with the blood of their ancestors at the hands of ours.
While it is essential to engage with existential questions of statehood, I certainly don’t seek to dismiss the economic arguments in relation to the independence question. It was Sterling wot won it in 2014, and the fifteen billion pounds of fiscal transfer will probably ensure that No wins again, if Nicola Sturgeon calls another. My argument is not that the economics don’t matter. They do, hugely. Constructing a vision of an independent Scotland is all well and good, but it is the cold, hard reality of modern economics that will enable it to be delivered.
Similarly, it is inherent that a rational policy position must not impervious to fresh evidence. Given the recent GERS figures (even with their lack of predictive ability about the finances of an independent Scotland and so on) I may be persuaded to vote No in a future referendum. But, in the infamous words of Alex Salmond, it would be a deferred Yes. And it still wouldn’t make me more likely to vote Labour.
The famous “peak SNP” theory, wheeled out every few weeks, requires both justified criticism of the Scottish Government, and a viable alternative. Not only is Labour an absolute drunken barn-dance of a party (credit Hugo Rifkind, there), all of the big hitters have exited stage left, and party conference is set to be quite the spectacular hoedown of disunity and incompetence. As a result, those who consider themselves vaguely “of the left”, and believe that Scotland and rUK have divergent visions for the future, have two options in Scottish politics, and neither are the Labour Party. Conversely, for those who value even a modicum of competence and the union, there is only really one party for you, and that’s not Labour either.
The only reason that Scottish Labour is bewildered about losing voters to the SNP or the Conservatives is that instead of engaging with the difficult questions of statehood and national identity with which most of the country is wrestling, you’re too busy yelling at half of us that we’re simpletons and telling the other half that you’re not unionists. Congratulations all round on that political strategy.
At some point, the Labour Party will either decide that it wants to win elections, or it will die.
Having a generation of politicians with no name-recognition is one thing. Addressing only the material side of the constitutional question to an audience comprising 35% of the country is quite another. In the rest of Scotland, there is a culture war being waged and Labour is sitting it out. Maybe, with multiple election defeats and nothing learned, 15% in the polls is about right, after all.