Scottish Labour must get to grips with the constitutional question

Written by Henry McLeish on 11 May 2016 in Comment

The political world is changing but Scottish Labour isn’t, writes Henry McLeish

There is no future for the Labour Party if it continues to ignore the importance of the constitutional question.

For the party that delivered devolution, its decline is against the backdrop of seismic changes in the political outlook of Scotland, a new and inspiring post-referendum political mood and an unprecedented breakdown in trust between voters and the party. 

Labour has an identity crisis in Scotland: it has lost touch with the spirit, soul and sentiment of a rapidly changing nation whose aspirations and ambitions are leaving Labour far behind.

Its Holyrood campaign was principled and honest, but few people were listening or enthused.


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This election has one simple message for Labour: unless it reoccupies the constitutional space, creates a new and relevant narrative for Scotland’s relationship with the UK and embraces the desire of Scots to see a way through this constitutional impasse, it will be further marginalised at subsequent elections, becoming increasingly irrelevant to the challenges facing Scotland.

This would be an extraordinary price to pay for a party that has so much positive history and a great deal to contribute, still, to politics.

Labour must get to grips with the Scotland question. This would unlock a way back and send a powerful message to Scots that the party now understands for the first time in at least a decade that the politics of nationality, identity and self-determination matter.

Thursday 5 May was a master class in how the Tories and the SNP played their constitutional cards.

This was unionism and nationalism at work with Labour lost in a political and constitutional no man’s land and squeezed by stark but successful political tactics.

Despite SNP claims to the contrary, this election was not about ‘bread and butter’ tax, health and education policies, or that independence was on the back burner, or we had to move on from the constitution.

This was a clever and successful confidence trick.

The post-referendum mood and the 45 per cent campaign for Yes was self-evident as the constituency vote for the SNP delivered far more seats on a similar share of the vote than in 2011.

This time, unlike 2011, the SNP couldn’t maintain the regional or list vote and lost the chance of an overall majority.

For the Scottish Tories, this was a highly successful foray into constitutional politics. The Tory leader exhorted voters to move beyond constitutional issues and notions of another referendum.

This was again a successful deception.

Tories voted for the Union. Tories who had voted SNP in 2007 and 2011 returned to the fold, their mission to damage Labour no longer required.

Ruth Davidson skilfully exploited the regional or list system and boosted the number of Tory MSPs to the official opposition slot. Many Labour voters stayed home but some would have voted for the SNP or the Tories.

Rather than condemn, Labour should learn lessons. 

Both the SNP and Tories claimed to be the authentic voice of Scotland. In reality, this was about the new mood of Scotland where two opposing forces in the independence referendum were battling it out on constitutional and political lines.

Labour doesn’t have a constitutional position other than the ill-advised vows and more powers. Saying no to independence is not a solution or strategy and electors see through this. The current Westminster settlement for Scotland will inevitably lead to independence.

Labour also fails to understand that the Scotland question is more than vows, powers, unionism or nationalism. This is a battle for the hearts and minds, soul and spirit, sentiment and traditions of Scotland.

These are not the abstract or philosophical footnotes to the history of a nation but the building blocks of Scotland’s DNA. 

There is a rationale and logic to the compelling view that Scots don’t want the constitutional question to carry on indefinitely. Currently, independence and nationalism dominate the debate, but Scots are not convinced.

Post-referendum, the mood is still with the SNP and a shaky embrace of leaving the UK.

The Holyrood election has revealed a slight resurgence of Tory unionism, but opinion polls show that Scotland is now bitterly divided and we are a 50/50 nation. Where is Labour in this struggle for a new and enduring constitutional settlement?

Is there an attractive, sustainable, workable, coherent and popular alternative to independence and grudging union concessions? Is a form of home rule, four-nation federalism, interdependence not independence, a possible way of keeping Scotland in a new union?

UK Labour is of little help to Scottish Labour. The politics of Scotland and England are rapidly diverging. English nationalism is at war with Scottish nationalism.

Labour in Scotland is lost between nationalism and unionism. Post-referendum, Scotland is a different political place.

Glasgow has become a special problem helped by Labour’s inability to debunk the myth that the SNP is a progressive centre left party.

The political world is changing but Scottish Labour isn’t.

Labour must take ownership, now, of a new debate on the future of Scotland, not the future of independence. It is running out of time. There are no excuses. 

Scotland needs an independent voice not a voice for independence.

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