A light at the end of the tunnel?
Standing on the left is a new blog from a group of grassroots activists from Young Labour and Labour Students groups in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Fife. Here they look at the opportunities for Labour in a worst-case-scenario next Scottish Parliament.
So, as everyone from the Daily Mail to my entire Facebook feed seems determined to let me know, the Tories have now overtaken Scottish Labour in the polls. It’s only a two per cent lead, but that’s small comfort in a country in which, until recently, Scottish Labour was a dominant force and the Scottish Tories an irrelevance. The Labour Party (at least, from what I’ve seen on social media) has responded to this news by doing what it does best: factional willy-waving.
If you ask Momentum types, it’s all Dugdale’s fault. This theory rests on the idea that the SNP is doing well because it’s left-wing (it isn’t), that Jeremy Corbyn is wildly popular in Scotland (he isn’t), and that Kezia Dugdale has somehow diluted comrade Corbyn’s message with her BlairiteRedToryneoliberali
But they aren’t alone in their simplistic idiocy. Quite a large section of the Labour twitterati have decided that we’re losing ground to the Tories because we’re insufficiently vigorous in our defence of the Union. In case these people hadn’t noticed, being strong on the Union didn’t exactly help us last May. I’m not saying we should abandon our support for the UK, but wrapping ourselves in the Union Jack is no more a quick fix for our problems than draping ourselves in the red flag.
So what do we do? Well, for a start, let’s take a look at our electoral rivals. They’ll try to deny it, but the embrace that Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron are locked in is less a struggle than a symbiosis. Let me explain.
The SNP rail against Labour for being Red Tories, more committed to defending the Union than Scotland’s poor. It’s not a truthful narrative, but because Scottish Labour failed to put across a progressive case for the Union during the independence referendum, it’s a brutally effective one. The SNP surges, and David Cameron uses the fear of a Labour-SNP pact to influence people in England to vote Tory. While Cameron has that ace to play, we are unlikely to see a Labour government anytime soon. And because of that, the SNP can make the case that staying in the Union means staying under a Tory government, that a vote against independence is a vote for continued austerity.
It’s a somewhat hypocritical tactic seeing as they put the Tories in power in the first place, but it’s an incredibly effective one, and Labour have yet to find an answer to it. So the SNP surges. And while the SNP surges, Ruth Davidson can pummel Kezia Dugdale for failing to hold the SNP to account, and in doing so take away Labour voters who feel their unionism is more important than party political loyalties. We are, in short, stuffed.
Or are we?
In the short term, probably yes. Kezia Dugdale is, unfortunately, unlikely to finish the year as First Minister. She might not even finish it as Leader of the Opposition.
But longer term? The SNP talk a lot about Labour’s dearth of positive policies (and, to be perfectly fair, not totally without justification), but if you look at their own platform, it’s hardly bold stuff, is it? The usual vauge generalities about “Standing up for Scotland”, and something equally hazy about being anti-austerity (as long as it doesn’t mean reversing cuts, or protecting local services, or doing anything to, you know, oppose austerity). Oh, and they’ll hold another referendum. Maybe. Probably. Sometime.
And what about the Tories? Well, they like the Union. They’ll keep Trident. They really, really, really hate Jeremy Corbyn. Aaaaaand that’s about it.
Now, clearly, both of these platforms are enough to get good results in this year’s elections, especially when, in Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon, our opponents have a pair of highly effective leaders. But then what? You can’t build an inspiring case for Scotland’s future just by telling the country how terrible Labour is. The SNP and the Scottish Conservatives will both probably protest this description, but they are parties primarily concerned with the question of the Union. With the Tories in opposition, politics in Scotland will revolve around this, and only this question.
How could this help Labour? Well, for a start, the constitutional argument is one that needs to run its course in Scotland, and it’s also one that Labour is never going to come out of looking good. Nationalists think we’re too Unionist, Unionists think we’re too Nationalist. What do we stand to lose from letting the Tories and the SNP knock seven bells out of each other until the argument has run its course?
After five years of derganged nationalist flag-waving versus deranged yoonish reaction, is it unreasonable to argue that some Scots might be willing to consider an alternative? And who better to provide that alternative than us? UKIP? Scots might only differ from the rest of the UK in a few areas, but support for remaining in the EU is one of them. RISE or the Greens? There’s a reason why Tommy Sheridan never became First Minister, and why a Corbyn-lead Labour is doing so badly. The Lib Dems? The majority of people in Scotland couldn’t pick Tim Farron out of a one-man lineup.
No, if this worst case scenario takes place, we need to turn it into an opportunity. First of all, we get our house in order; even if it means drastic steps like changing the party leadership or disaffiliating from the party at the UK level. Then, even more importantly, we need to take advantage of the fallout from five years of Tory/SNP patriot games to rebrand ourselves as the party of getting things done. We need to say things like: “Constitutional debate is all very well, but we need to talk about other issues as well”, like: “These guys can keep their dogma and doctrine, but leave health and housing to the grownups”, like: “The Nats and Tories are leading the debate on the Union, Labour are leading the debate on everything else.” And maybe, just maybe, that will put us back on the map as a radical, relevant force in Scottish politics.
I’m not saying it’s a failsafe. I’m not saying it’s desirable. I’m not saying it gives much immediate hope for the Labour party and those who rely on it. But if everything goes to hell this May, it might be the best chance we have.
Read more from Standing on the left here.