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Comment: Why the Scottish Labour Party is in a mess

Vote Labour sign - Image credit: Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

Comment: Why the Scottish Labour Party is in a mess

The Scottish Labour Party is in a deep hole. The glum silence about its current malaise is itself a sign of how bad things are.

Where the fate of Scottish Labour would once have generated interminable debate, the absence of serious discussion underlines the party’s slide to the margins of Scottish political life.

A precondition of a more in-depth debate about the party’s prospects is a better understanding of how Scottish Labour reached such a parlous position.

Clearly, Labour has not adapted well to the emergence of independence as a popular aspiration in contemporary Scotland.

But as I discuss in my new history of the ideas of Scottish nationalism, The Case for Scottish Independence, the relationship between Labour and Scottish nationalism has historically been more complex than the trench warfare of recent years would suggest.

The distinctive history of the Labour Party – a party created out of the trade unions and the industrial working class – lends itself too readily to a sociological style of analysis.

Commentators have argued at intervals over the last century that Labour is doomed to irrelevance because of changes in the class structure, or housing tenure, or (more recently) national identity.

But political actors always have some capacity to manoeuvre in response to changing social circumstances.

For example, Labour adjusted with great dexterity to the rising salience of Scottish national identity during the 1980s and 1990s, even as its traditional social base was fractured by deindustrialisation and Thatcherism.

In these hard years for Labour politics across the UK, Labour was able to forge a position as the leading Scottish party by articulating a nationalist critique of the UK state.

With the SNP sceptical of collaboration with other parties, Labour successfully deployed the idea that the Conservatives had ‘no mandate’ to rule Scotland to forge a cross-party consensus in favour of devolution.

The inauguration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was the culmination of this strategy but also marked the moment from which Scottish Labour made a series of poor decisions that have led directly to its current impasse.

The lesson of Scottish Labour’s success before 1999 was that the SNP could be outflanked on the question of Scottish democratic autonomy but only insofar as Labour could maintain a distinctive identity as the party best suited to representing Scottish interests.

Instead, Labour’s Holyrood group blended the technocratic and centralising qualities of New Labour with classic Labour machine politics, a heady brew but one that lacked a politically potent Scottish identity.

In policy terms there was certainly material to work with – on higher education funding or long-term care for the elderly, for example, Labour in Scotland set a different course from London.

But there was no larger political narrative to link together these individual policies analogous to Welsh Labour’s aim to establish ‘clear red water’ between Cardiff and London.

Labour at Holyrood missed the opportunity to position themselves rhetorically to the left of the Blair government and to distance themselves symbolically from the obviously unpopular aspects of the UK government’s policies.

A financially costless Scottish Parliament vote against the Iraq War in 2003, for example, would have gone a long way politically over the following decade.

Instead, the political space of ‘just to the left of New Labour’ was ceded to the SNP, who were more rhetorically forthright in articulating a social democratic public philosophy and shrewdly selected a few high-profile policy areas to exemplify those values.

This was enough for the SNP narrowly to displace Labour as the Scottish Government in 2007.

But Labour remained an electoral threat to the SNP, as the 2010 British general election results in Scotland demonstrated.

However, once the SNP had made it into government, the survival of Labour’s traditional electoral coalition in Scotland depended on averting a forced choice between the status quo and independence when the Conservatives were in government in London.

The shambolic campaign that Labour ran for the 2011 Scottish Parliament election was therefore another mistake.

Labour gifted the SNP a majority at Holyrood – when a more effective campaign might have restricted the SNP to minority government again.

The absence of a third, enhanced devolutionary option on the ballot paper for the 2014 independence referendum duly enforced the choice between the status quo represented by the Conservative Party and an anti-Conservative nationalism that hollowed out Labour’s electoral base.

The sobering implication is that Scottish Labour’s decline is not the result of an inexorable tide of history that swept the party away but of avoidable political mistakes.

The twist is that as a result of these mistakes there is no way to return to the pre-2014 Scottish political landscape.

Labour now faces a different Scotland that requires a different political approach if the party is to have a viable future.

Scottish Labour needs both unflinching honesty about the party’s current trajectory and a new tone of humility that empathises with the many voters it has lost to the cause of independence.

In a Scotland in which there is at the moment majority support for a new Scottish state, the onus is on Labour to explain why the left-of-centre aspirations that underpin Scottish nationalism might still be advanced within a recast Anglo-Scottish union rather than to burn up any remaining political capital by arguing that independence is a self-evidently ludicrous proposition.

Labour can at least take some comfort from the history of the SNP.

As my book shows, seemingly marginal movements – like Scottish nationalism – can become mainstream after long years in the wilderness.

But if Labour is eventually to return to political favour at Holyrood, it must first arrest its downward spiral and, if possible, recapture second place in Scottish politics from the Conservatives.

That this latter aspiration now seems like a long shot tells us how big a mess Labour is in.

Dr Ben Jackson is an associate professor of modern history at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Case for Scottish Independence: A History of Nationalist Political Thought in Modern Scotland (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

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