The opportunities of failure
Labour Hame editor Duncan Hothersall says the abject failure of Scottish Labour presents an opportunity to knock down and rebuild a party which can once again be relevant and speak for the people it seeks to represent.
For many moderate Labour members the last few years have been a real challenge. There were many times during the Corbyn years that I felt I simply couldn’t maintain my membership, as the party had become such a different political entity from that which I had joined. There was a period of at least eighteen months during which I stayed in the party solely to spite those running it, having lost all hope that the Labour movement to which I had belonged could ever be rekindled from the wreckage of what the hard left had done.
So it’s been a further shock to the system to discover how much a leadership election in which the majority of the membership made clear it too was sick of Corbynism, followed by a few months of a steady hand on the tiller from Keir Starmer, could transform my view of and attitude towards our party and our movement. Words like “credible” are slowly seeping back into private and public discussions. Maybe, perhaps, even “hope”.
They come with caveats aplenty, of course. Corbyn’s legacy of an 80-seat Tory majority in the UK Parliament will be with us for five years, and impotence breeds apathy. We have years of internal battles to fight yet before we can come close to recovering from the hard-left aberration. And here in Scotland we seem doomed to remain a third wheel in a politics in which the Tories pose as champions of the union and the SNP pose as champions of the left. Oh for some robust scrutiny that would expose both those poses for the tissue-thin propaganda that they are. Scottish Labour could and should be filling both of those roles, instead of vacillating on one and burying the other in ideology rather than action.
But there are two things I’ve come to realise which help me – a Labour moderate in Scotland, the political pariah’s political pariah – keep fighting and keep hoping.
The first is a surprising side-effect of those last few years of frustration and despair, namely the realisation that Labour isn’t a tribe, it’s an idea, and that idea can survive just about any level of division and disagreement and still go on to flourish. Robust challenges are okay. Flat out, repeated public disagreement with the leadership and its policies is okay. This coalition of the left is not a fragile thing needing nurtured lest it withers; it is a solid edifice that can, and occasionally needs to be, hammered into shape. So hammer it we can, and hammer it we must.
The second is that every failure presents an opportunity, and that surely must mean Scottish Labour presents the greatest opportunity in Scotland right now, because it has become the byword for political failure. Nobody expects us to do anything but lose badly in the 2021 election. But while it seems like the political conversation is essentially continuing without us – the SNP civil war has burst out into the public sphere and the Tories’ leadership shenanigans belies the reality that they are at the limits of their political opportunity – the chance for Scottish Labour to redefine itself and meet the electorate where they are is right there, waiting.
Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne tells us the new anointed leader-in-waiting of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, will lead a “Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti nat party”. It’s a pithy summary, but it could be a signpost to how Scottish Labour could focus itself for the future. We need to become a Starmer backing, EU positive, anti nat party. Vacillators over independence should be shown the door. Lexiteers should be ushered to the exit. Those more loyal to the remnants of Corbyn than the hope of Starmer should be jettisoned forthwith. It’s right that Scottish Labour should be a broad coalition of the left, but the nationalism of Brexit and independence does not belong on the left, and we need to be bold enough to say so and mean it. And the breadth of our coalition always did, and still should, have limits – let those whose natural home is the SWP and the zoomer left go back there and leave us in peace.
We’re going to lose the next Scottish election. Badly. So let’s waste no time shoring up the directionless mess in which we have ended up to try to minimise losses. Let’s become a party with a clarity of purpose, living up to the ideal written on the back of every membership card that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. People will wail and gnash their teeth, cards will be cut up and fury will ensue, but Labour is an idea that is easily strong enough to survive through that, and in the end if we emerge as a party of principle and purpose once more we will have a foundation on which to rebuild for the future. And sometimes the future comes a lot quicker than you think.