The hole we are in
Martin Hutchison says Scottish Labour faces three giant destroyers of our politics, and together they constitute an existential threat.
Like the traveller in Ireland who is advised by the locals not to be starting from here, Scottish Labour wishes that the starting point was other than where we are, but there is no possibility of moving in the right direction if we don’t accept the full horror of our current predicament.
Ruinously and simultaneously, three giant destroyers of our politics are in play, each intersecting with and reinforcing the other.
In Northern Ireland there is no left or right, only the “British or Irish” dynamic, in which our sister party the SDLP saw its support fall yet again in the recent elections. That party has been in a death spiral for 15 years longer than Scottish Labour but hasn’t been able to arrest the decline, being obviously less Irish than Irish Republicanism.
Caught up in a vortex of destruction the SDLP can find no answer beyond being the party of the public sector Catholic professionals who make up its membership. How sweet. We are we and we are virtuous leads to an identity politics within an identity politics, one which harvested one in eight of the votes cast.
There is now almost no left or right left in Scottish politics. The hard left supports the brutal, post-oil austerity that would result from the independence it seeks in the next several years. Meanwhile our positioning to left of the SNP gained no traction whatsoever as that is no longer how Scottish politics works.
Anas Sarwar is correct in observing that we are not comfortable nationalists or unionists but we might be able to escape this particular pincer movement by asserting our own concept of Scotland and the union – conceiving of both as communities to which we owe solidarity, social justice and responsibility.
And if you think Ulsterisation is bad…
2. “O Rose Thou Art Sick!”
Scottish Labour is caught up in the crisis of social democracy in its European home enumerated in hideous detail in, of all places, The Economist: O Rose Thou Art Sick!
With identity politics growing everywhere under austerity, the left suffers disproportionately. The wipe-out of Scottish Labour is mirrored by the destruction of the PSOE in Catalonia by the Nationalist collation for “Yes”. It is poorer voters and anti-authoritarian voters who are seduced by nationalisms in both Spain and in Scotland. Under austerity Social Democrats haemorrhage support to Podemos, Die Link and “workers” parties to their left.
But the problems before recession and crisis were already bad enough. There is the key issue of programmatic exhaustion, with European social democrats having built the finest societies in human history; the roof is on, the structure is solid and none of the people who take our votes would dare to suggest tearing our house down. The SNP has become social democratic (leave aside the ethnic based repudiation of solidarity for one wee moment) but their entire success has been based on being Labour but more Scottish.
For the moment the Tories are numbered among those who would not knock down the house of British Social Democracy because if they tried Labour would come back. However, if Labour was to expire…
3. There are votes on our left
The revolution in Labour politics which took place in the summer of 2015 met its first electoral UK wide test in May this year and the results were the same as in the mid 1980s when the party adopted the same strategy. The Labour-sympathetic analyst Glen O’Hara says in the New Statesman that the results are very poor and portend the loss of the next two elections. Corbyn has harvested almost no votes to our left in an explicit strategy of not appealing to Tory or centrist voters.
A mountain of psephology suggested that Labour had to appeal to voters’ aspirations, not to overlook the need to reduce the debt, be pro-businesses and pro-market as that is where 80% of workers have to survive, and don’t favour the public sector. All repudiated. There are voters to our left, but they vote for the Greens, Plaid Cymru, et al.
This poor UK performance dragged down the Scottish result (can we find an single example of a hard left Yes supporter voting Labour anywhere in Scotland?) but more importantly it points to UK-wide losses in 2020 and 2025 ending Labour as a potential UK governing party. That analysis is shared by and is central to the SNP’s decision to postpone the second independence referendum to 2022. If Labour can deliver the UK to the Tories it will deliver Scotland to nationalism.
The obvious task for Scottish Labour is to share the SNP’s analysis of Corbyn with Corbyn and the wider UK Party. A Scottish secession will cause a nationalist backlash in England creating the Ulsterisation of English politics so they might want to be afraid.
In addition to those three threats, two tactical errors are worth mentioning:
- Penny on tax
John McTernan may be correct that explicitly promising to raise tax never works; the New Labour governments raised taxes but never promised to do so. The SNP did badly in the “penny for Scotland” in 2003 so decided never to risk it again. One of the reasons that Europe’s most successful political party did not seek a second referendum in its manifesto risking the possibility that many of its 115,000 members will march back down the hill, was its sense that without oil it would have to ask for tax increases and that consequently it would lose.
The word performance doesn’t appear in the Scottish Labour manifesto despite systematic declines in performance of key public services under the SNP. If we are outraged at the recent decline in innumeracy and literacy among poorer pupils it didn’t make the manifesto or more importantly the campaign.
The solution to this and the other examples of under performance was more resources despite the fact that the SNP failed to use the existing resources which Labour sweated blood to provide, efficiently. This tactic appeals to 20% who work in the public sector but for the 80% who don’t they would prefer a performance boost from their colleagues. Also recall Ulsterisation, half of Scotland isn’t in the business of voting for a Unionist party so the market for failing to point out public sector under performance is half of 20%.
We can never come back on the basis of one in ten workers so let us end the pandering and say what has to be said. Ruth Davidson is about to colonise that ground and we can think of no good reason to let her.
It was a monumental and risky decision to postpone the second independence referednum until the next parliament, but the SNP calculate that Labour has to die before they can win. Labour will die if we don’t as a minimum agree the shape and depth of the hole we are in.