Autonomy: split the difference?
In an article for Progress Magazine, former MSP Andy Kerr and former MP Gemma Doyle offer contrasting views on whether Scottish Labour should become independent from the UK party.
YES: Andy Kerr
The seeds of Labour’s wipeout in Scotland were sown long ago and were the predictable consequence of our failure to devolve the political culture of the Scottish Labour party to match our devolved powers. It meant that Scottish Labour was never an equal partner in political management terms and, more importantly, it led to us viewing Scottish politics through the prism not of the Scottish people but of a hatred for the Scottish National party and a view of Scotland as a two-party, rather than a multi-party, system.
We have an overcentralising control and command structure, dominated by power-brokers who were threatened, not inspired, by our democratic renewal, and which failed to organise around Scottish parliament constituencies, the real battleground, until it was too late.
Many of our UK parliamentarians from Scotland thought they were immovable and believed the SNP was irrelevant in UK terms; after all, who else would people vote for if not Labour? We failed to acknowledge our distinctive Scottish social democracy. Instead of being embarrassed about that, we should have celebrated it. Our instincts are more communitarian, cooperative, pro-public service, pro-European, anti-Trident, and, most importantly, anti-austerity; our divergence with middle England is growing.
When Labour in the Scottish parliament made different choices to Westminster, such as rejecting foundation hospitals, independent schools and abolishing tuition fees, we did not make it a virtue. Fundamentally, we did not ‘get’ devolution; it had to be done but we did not embrace it. Scotland was changing, not becoming more nationalistic but being for a strong and confident Scottish government and an alternative to the Westminster village. Those powers we have further devolved and those that are part of the Smith commission were all conceded grudgingly with no enthusiasm, and it showed.
The best way to become relevant again is to become an independent party and be seen to be independent. Other European parties manage a federalised structure with sister parties just fine. It would allow Scottish Labour to base its party machine in Edinburgh and develop a closer relationship with the Scottish parliament. Labour could then rebuild through the parliament, local government and the community.
We must resolve the question of political autonomy; Labour will not be able to balance the politics of middle England and Scotland. Instead we will become the political equivalent of a ‘cut and shut’; a dangerous vehicle on the road for both the occupants and other road users. The SNP has not redistributed and it has not reformed. If we do not recover there will be no social democratic progressive voice in Scotland and we will see a continued rise of nationalism countered only by a potentially revived ‘one nation’ Tory party in Scotland.
I have no stakeholding in this bar being a party member of many years and someone who had a front-row seat over the last three decades in Scottish politics. Yes, I did stand for the leadership in 2008 on a platform of greater devolution for country and party. That was not successful and our reluctance to change has led us to where we are now. This is not a ‘we need to listen; we need to reconnect’ moment; the tectonic plates have shifted. We have a new normal, and we can die like the dinosaurs, or we can embrace change and survive.
NO: Gemma Doyle
What happened in Scotland on 7 May was catastrophic for the country and it was catastrophic for the Scottish Labour party. We ran an energetic, lively campaign, with excellent on-the-ground organisation, a vastly improved press and digital operation, and a policy offer that was clearly better than anything the Scottish National party had to show, but none of it made a blind bit of difference. So everything has to be up for consideration.
But Scottish Labour splitting off to be a separate party is a simple-sounding solution to a vastly complex situation. It will not solve the real problems and it is not what we believe in. Our party organisation should broadly reflect the constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom. Otherwise we will tangle ourselves in knots. We will lose rights and we will shirk responsibilities.
This defeat is a combination of short- and long-term factors. The referendum is clearly the major short-term one, so what of the long-term? Excluding the last six months, since the 2007 Holyrood defeat we have had a paucity of ideas and personnel and, frankly, our operation in Scotland has not been good enough. There are many decent people who have stepped up, worked hard and done a good job, but the sum total has not hit the mark. All of us share a responsibility for that.
A separate party will not fix that. I wait with anticipation to hear what policy the Scottish Labour party wanted to adopt which we were unable to because we were part of the Labour party, what organisational change we would have made, what new direction we would have taken. The truth is that the Scottish Labour party has full free rein over all devolved policymaking. But there has been very little to inspire voters in the way of devolved policies in recent years.
A separate party would of course make its own independent decisions on reserved matters. But, first, do not assume Scottish members have vastly different views to members in England and Wales. Second, walk out of the Labour party and you walk away from directly influencing reserved policy matters in this country. Third, you relegate the Scottish Labour party to a pressure group on anything not devolved to Scotland.
Would we have a vote in the Labour party leadership election? Not as a member. Maybe as a registered supporter, if you really wanted to fill in another form and hand over more money.
If we start to organise ourselves as though Scotland were independent we play into the hands of those who want a separate Scotland and we accept their view of the world. We relegate Scotland to add-on status rather than an integral part of these isles.
Our political influence and role in the UK would move closer to that of Northern Ireland, with voters electing their constituency member of parliament and deciding on the balance of power there, but with their vote in most cases not directly influencing who the government should be.
We need some big changes in Scotland. I would cheerfully swap it for a handful of Scottish Labour MPs, but losing on this scale is liberating. It gives you the freedom to be bold. But we must not lose who we are and what we believe in the process. A separate party is a step too far.