Scottish Labour faces a ‘developing calamity’

LABOUR’S KEZIA DUGDALE: the only major Scottish party leader who failed to win a constituency seat. (Photo: Craig Maclean)

by the SSP’s John McAllion, former Labour MP and MSP • Labour’s crisis has so far focussed on characters and events south of the border. The second leadership contest within a year looks set to confirm the political chasm that exists between the party membership and its parliamentary representatives.

There is little doubt that the membership will re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. However, the impact of his re-election on the Parliamentary party now threatens the unity and even the survival of the party at Westminster.

Less attention so far has been given to the developing calamity within the Scottish Labour Party. The scale of Scottish Labour’s collapse is unprecedented. Reduced to a single MP in the 2015 UK general election, the party was further humiliated by a third place finish behind the SNP and the Scottish Tories in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

More alarmingly, this catastrophic collapse has occurred in what once were considered Labour heartlands. In the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999, Labour held 28 of the 29 constituency seats in Glasgow, and in West and Central Scotland. The other seat was held by the Labour rebel Dennis Canavan.

By 2016, every one of these 29 seats was held by the SNP. In less than 20 years the party lost 53 of its 56 constituency seats while haemorrhaging 745,000 constituency and regional list votes.

Labour’s Kezia Dugdale was the only major Scottish party leader who failed to win a constituency seat. Defeat on this scale inevitably sent shockwaves across the Scottish party that threaten further turmoil.

In the wake of the vote to leave the EU, former Labour First Minister, Henry McLeish, warned that Scotland could be in either the EU or the UK but not in both; adding that he personally would vote for an independent Scotland that remained part of the EU.

The party’s elected leader and deputy leader also appear to be at loggerheads over a second independence referendum. Alex Rowley accepting the SNP’s right to stage a second referendum, while Kezia Dugdale insists that Scottish Labour will not be dropping its opposition to Indyref 2 “any time soon”.

The leadership is also divided over the question of Scottish Labour relationship with the rest of the UK party. A debate that began with former leader Johann Lamont’s reference to the “branch office” status of the party north of the border, has grown into demands for a fully independent Scottish party advocating Scottish Home Rule within a fully federal UK.

The recent consultation of Scottish party members that ruled out an independent Scottish Labour Party adds to rather than clarifies the confusion surrounding the existential questions of what the Scottish Labour Party is and what it stands for.

What is certain is that the devolution settlement Labour delivered is no longer the settled will of the Scottish people. Labour’s lost heartlands have swung to a party that advocates full independence from the UK, while the remaining unionist vote in Scotland is gathering behind a Tory party that proclaims this far and no further on constitutional change.

Labour is suspended in the no-man’s land between these two positions. How can it win back its one-time supporters who voted “Yes” in the referendum without alienating its remaining unionist supporters who voted “No”?

This dilemma over the national question in Scotland is exacerbated by the Corbyn revolution that is shaking the foundations of the British Labour Party.

The grassroots rebellion against the Westminster party is in some ways reminiscent of the Yes campaign for Scottish independence.

Energetic, idealistic and radical, it demands a better and more left kind of politics that rejects the neo-liberal consensus and places people before profits. Yet, in crucial respects, it is very different from the movement that almost won Scotland independence from the UK.

Research shows that almost half of Labour’s new mass membership is made up of middle-class professionals belonging to the social group AB. While nearly half of the UK population is deemed to be working class, only a fifth of Labour’s members are in that category.

Nearly half of the party’s members live in London or in southern England. A large majority of the membership have university degrees.

The angry and excluded working classes of northern Britain remain seriously underrepresented in the ranks of the “Corbynistas”. What once were the party’s heartlands appear immune to the appeal of “Momentum”.

More importantly, British Labour’s political project remains exactly the same under Corbyn as it was under Blair and Brown—to provide an effective parliamentary opposition to the Tory Government as the base from which a successful campaign can be launched to enable Labour to become Her Majesty’s Government after the next election.

There is not a scrap of evidence to suggest either that the deeply divided PLP will provide any kind of opposition between now and 2020; or that such a divided party will be able to win a first-past-the-post UK general election following another four years of parliamentary in-fighting.

Scottish Labour has been flirting with the national question for almost half of a century. If it is to survive in any recognisable form, now is surely the time for it to grasp the independence nettle.

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