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by Professor James Mitchell
11 September 2020
Scottish Labour has accepted the binary constitutional divide to its cost

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour has accepted the binary constitutional divide to its cost

Labour hoped that devolution would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ and offer it power into the future.  And it might have done had Labour played its cards well. But Labour lacked a clear strategy on how to adapt to devolution. It had been Scotland’s national party before devolution, much to the irritation of the Scottish National Party, and that continued for a time post-devolution. Opposition to the Conservatives during the 18 years after 1979 meant that voters looked to Labour to stand up for Scotland.

Scottish Labour benefitted from the popularity of Tony Blair and New Labour in the early post-devolution period. But what was its strategy in the event of an unpopular Labour Government in London or when the Tories returned to power at Westminster? 

Scottish Labour became over-dependent on politics in Westminster for its Scottish popularity. This was partly due to the dominant Labour view of devolution. What had motivated Labour’s conversion to the devolution cause had been the need for a bulwark against policies imposed on Scotland by a Tory Government in London. Devolved government was not seen as offering the opportunity to pursue different policies better suited to Sottish needs.

There had been signs of an emerging alternative vision of devolution during Henry McLeish’s brief period as First Minister. Whereas Donald Dewar, his predecessor, had followed Tony Blair’s in rejecting the recommendations of the Sutherland Royal Commission on Long Term Care, Henry McLeish decided that Scotland should embrace Sutherland. There were challenges with this more generous policy though public finances at that time suggested it could be afforded. But Labour in London pressed McLeish for policy uniformity.

This was the beginning of the end of Henry McLeish’s tenure as First Minister. He was left given little support when it was discovered that his constituency office had been sub-let – widely acknowledged to have been a ‘muddle not a fiddle’. It is difficult to know what might have happened had the McLeish approach been allowed to develop but it might have had a fighting chance of challenging the SNP as Scotland’s party. But McLeish was cast into the outer darkness by his party.

Labour needs a clearly defined, well articulated alternative

Jack McConnell, his replacement, proved more pliant and did not rock the boat in relations with London. This might have been enough to retain Labour popularity in Scotland but he had the misfortune to be First Minister when Labour’s popularity started to decline across Britain. If Labour was going to retain support in Scotland it could no longer hide under its British wing. It needed to demonstrate that it was still Scotland’s party.

The SNP had also initially misjudged the implications of devolution in assuming it would work to its advantage. Both parties confused potential for realisation. Devolution offered each an opportunity to establish itself as Scotland’s party but neither had understood that this potential was not handed to it on a plate by the electorate. The SNP was first to awaken to this, no doubt caused by its 2003 losses. As 2007 approached, it presented itself as a government-in-waiting and recognised that independence was a staged process if it was to happen at all. Just as the SNP were aggrieved that Labour was seen as Scotland’s party, Labour became aggrieved when the SNP came to be seen as the natural party of government.

But grievances can only take a party so far. A more positive message is needed to sustain support. The SNP’s 2007 breakthrough, and even more so in 2011, was built on offering a positive message, standing up for Scotland and a range of policies designed to appeal to key sections of the electorate. The shift from Labour to SNP did not involve a massive leap for many voters. Activists in Labour and SNP see massive differences between the parties that most of the electorate fail to see. In the first of a series of Scottish Election Studies since the 1970s, research in 1992 found that the SNP was the second preference of half of Labour voters (a tenth cited the Tories). Bitter battles between the two parties obscured similarities and that they were contesting the same terrain. Each wanted to pose as Scotland’s party but only the SNP convinced voters that it would stand up for Scotland regardless of who was in power in London.

Having seen the SNP run off with its clothes, Scottish Labour struggles to know what to do. The SNP’s appeal is not simply constitutional or standing up for Scotland but in how it has linked this to everyday policy concerns. It defines itself as unambiguously anti-Tory and, in a vague sense, as progressive. The Brexit divide feeds this image of the SNP whereas Brexit divides Labour.

Parties in difficulty tend to look for an easy way out and blaming the leader is the easiest response

Labour has accepted the binary constitutional divide to its cost. During the independence referendum it proved difficult to avoid the binary bind but Labour did not help itself as was evident with speculation by many in his own party that Henry McLeish would come out for independence. In August 2014, a Better Together Labour strategist tweeted, ‘Just heard from impeccable source that Henry McLeish endorsing Yes on Monday. Hardly a surprise but he’s entitled.’ It demonstrated how some within Labour had fallen so deep into the binary constitutional hole that they had difficulty imagining an alternative to independence or the status quo. This mirrored those in the Yes camp who continue to moan that Mr McLeish will not get off the fence, by which they mean come down on the Yes side. But there is little doubt that the main loser in this polarisation was Labour.

One view is that Scottish Labour should seek to fight the SNP on more favourable ground. Doing battle on the constitution is to fight on the SNP’s home territory. But shifting terrain is not easy. But even if Labour was to shift the debate onto more favourable ground what would that ground look like? One of Labour’s problems is that the SNP has had better ratings on each of the main policy areas for many years now and is seen as a more effective vehicle for delivering the kinds of policies previously associated with Labour.

Labour cannot avoid the constitutional question. An independence referendum seems set to dominate next year’s election. Both SNP and the Tories will want to emphasise the constitution next May. Even the global pandemic seems unlikely to shift it from top spot. There are no electoral dividends in obfuscation or taking sides. Labour needs a clearly defined, well articulated alternative. Occasional soundbites about federalism fool nobody.

Parties in difficulty tend to look for an easy way out and blaming the leader is the easiest response. This is not to suggest that Scottish Labour should keep Richard Leonard as leader but any notion that there is a visionary leader awaiting the call is fanciful. Labour ought to have learned that it takes more than a change of leader given the number they have had. It tried a confident, energetic leader with Jim Murphy with a bumptious claim that it was astonishingly easy to outwit the SNP only five months before he and all but one of his colleagues lost their seats to the SNP.

Scottish Labour cannot afford to be seen to side with the Tories if it hopes to win back votes from the SNP. A party that does not take a side in a highly fractious adversarial political environment is in danger of being damned by supporters of both sides. 

And it cannot afford to oppose a referendum or adopt some neutral position if that’s what an increasing proportion of the electorate, including potential Labour supporters, accepts. Labour can no more switch the reset button than it can turn back the clock.  We are where we are. Its challenge is to articulate and proselytise an alternative combining a constitutional and everyday politics. 

It is possible to believe in a constitutional future that lies somewhere between either end of the continuum between independence and the status quo. Labour understood this well when it posed as Scotland’s national party advocating devolution, rejecting both independence and the status quo ante.

This is a rather long continuum between these poles. If, as some assert, the debate has moved on and the only options are independence or the status quo then that is only because advocates of an alternative have been frozen into inertia by the admittedly significant scale of the challenge. A fresh name would be needed (old soundbites will not suffice whether (quasi-)federalism, more powers, DevoMax etc) and much more detail is required than anything so far suggested. Time is not on Labour’s side. Labour needs to insinuate itself into the debate as an independent party, not as co-owner with another party with a better claim to the policy in the eyes of the electorate. This would allow it to address the difficult issue of a referendum.  Labour could make support for a referendum conditional on its option being included on the ballot paper. It would be difficult for the SNP to reject this given its previous policy but also as this may prove the most effective way of ensuring a referendum is held.

Labour’s problem is not its poor leader, or at least not its greatest problem, but the lack of a clear distinct position on the key issue of the day. Labour is certainly facing its greatest challenge as we approach the Holyrood elections but reports of its ‘terminal decline’ are premature. Bold, imaginative leadership with a serious offering should not be beyond the party.

James Mitchell’s The Scottish Question revisited: constitutional options for Scotland will be published on October 1st by the Jimmy Reid Foundation. Twitter: @ProfJMitchell 

Read the most recent article written by Professor James Mitchell - Family Feud: The weird coalition that is Alba

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