The Crisis of Scottish Labour
A Survation opinion poll carried out in mid-November found that Labour had a 1% lead over the Tories in England and a 17% lead over the Tories in Wales. But in Scotland Labour was on just 23%, a poor third behind the SNP (40%) and the Tories (27%).
As with any opinion poll, the precise figures are open to challenge. But as far as Scotland is concerned, the figures reflect the experiences of many Labour canvassers on the doorstep. Two overlapping factors explain the polling figures for Scotland.
Firstly, the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence resulted in a shift away from voting patterns roughly based on class and class politics to voting patterns based on (national) identity politics.
The bulk of the pro-independence vote went to the SNP in subsequent elections, while a layer of the anti-independence vote went to the Tories (seen, correctly, as more committed than Labour to the maintenance of the British state).
Secondly, Labour collaborated with the Tories in the umbrella ‘Better Together’ organisation during the referendum campaign. This was a gift to the SNP, allowing it to successfully label Labour as ‘Red Tories’.
And Labour’s record in power in Westminster (1997 to 2010) and in coalition with the Lib-Dems in Holyrood (1999-2007) provided no shortage of ingredients to help the SNP glue that label onto Labour.
(Labour has now been out of power in Westminster for eight years, and for eleven years in Holyrood. But the grievance diary of core SNP voters and members begins in 1707. What happened prior to 2010 or 2007 is not even yesterday for these people.)
The reasons why Labour’s electoral support has remained stagnant since the 2015 general election (24%) and the 2016 Holyrood elections (23% of the constituency vote and 19% of the regional vote) are more complex.
There is a reluctance by Scottish Labour to even face up to the dimensions of the problems confronting it. The official ‘party line’, so to speak, is that Scottish Labour turned the corner in the 2017 general election when its representation in Westminster increased from one to seven.
But in 2017 the popular vote for Labour in Scotland as a whole increased by just 10,000 – less than the increase in the Labour vote in some individual English constituencies. And in two constituencies which elected Labour MPs, Scottish Labour’s popular vote was less than it had been in 2015.
Scottish Labour did not turn a corner in 2017. This is underlined by the current sorry state of Scottish Labour in terms of its membership and campaigning.
There has not been a Corbynite influx of new members into Scottish Labour which could have freed the party from the grip of a discredited right wing and pushed through the changes needed to make the party an electoral force again.
True, some younger people have started joining Scottish Labour again, some older trade union activists have rejoined, and some CLPs have shifted to the left. But none of this in any significant numbers.
The dead hand of the right wing therefore retains a grip on broad layers of Scottish Labour, especially in local government and in CLPs in the Central Region. Its visibility functions as an electoral repellent.
Following the party line of ‘general election tomorrow’, Scottish Labour has run selection contests in its 20 most marginal target Westminster seats. The weakness of the left and the residual strength of the right meant that many of the chosen candidates are firmly on the right.
The self-defeating message this sends to voters is: In 2015 and 2016 you rejected the politics of these candidates (and in some cases, the individuals themselves). But here they are again.
Early selections have been followed by early campaigning: Now and for several months past Scottish Labour has been running a general election campaign, albeit a low key one, in the absence of a general election.
Pictures on social media confirm that this has not enthused and mobilised Party members: More often than not, campaigning sessions appear to consist of the candidate, a couple of their friends, and possibly A.N. Other.
With the added factor of a layer of the electorate confused and/or bored by the Brexit saga, trying to collect voter ID in the current political climate (and in the absence of a general election) does nothing to boost support for Labour.
Running in parallel with general-election-campaigning-without-a-general-election has been a series of Scottish Labour ‘Days of Action’.
These are not wrong in principle. And the SNP’s record on the issues which are their focus needs to be exposed. But it is not campaigning in a meaningful sense of the word. It is a succession of one-off leaflets, distributed by the same handfuls of CLP activists.
The day before yesterday it was housing. Yesterday it was the Tory Westminster Budget. Today it’s women. Tomorrow it’s fuel poverty. The day after it’s the railways. Plus phantom general election campaigning. Plus – the new buzzword in Scottish Labour – Community Organising.
In reality, such Days of Action achieve the opposite of their intentions. At a certain point in time they cease to mobilise activists. They demoralise them. And in any case, the SNP’s electoral base cannot be won over to Labour by asphyxiating it under a welter of A5 leaflets.
It is not enough to denounce the SNP’s record and proclaim better politics than those of the SNP. The crisis faced by Scottish Labour is essentially a triple crisis of confidence:
It is not seen as a credible electoral force (because of its standing in the polls); it cannot be trusted to ‘deliver’ even if elected (because of the record of past Labour governments and councils); and it has not changed (because it continues to select yesterday’s rejects as its candidates).
While it is true that the absence of a Corbynite influx means that the Scottish Labour mainstream left is numerically weaker than in England, it is its politics rather than its numbers that has held it back from mapping a way out of Scottish Labour’s triple crisis of confidence.
Some people are Stalinists by nature. Some degenerate into Stalinist politics. And some are socialised into Stalinism. The Scottish Labour left brings together all three, and pays the inevitable price for their baneful political influence
Their pro-Brexit leanings or outright support for Brexit (in the form of an imaginary Lexit) means that they have nothing sensible to say about the EU – neither to Party members nor to an electorate which voted two-to-one in favour of Remain in 2016.
Their Corbyn-cultist tendencies dovetail into a natural Stalinist aversion to political discussion to narrow and shut down the kind of political debate needed – as a permanent feature of political life – to develop coherent socialist politics and campaigning.
Suffering not just from the illusion that Scottish Labour has turned the corner but also that the Scottish Labour left is sweeping all before it, they factor inconvenient facts out of reality (victory for the right at Scottish Labour Women’s conference, selection of right-wing Westminster candidates, etc.).
In fact, the illusion that the left is sweeping all before it ends up being propped up by outright fantasies, manifested at its clearest in the description of Agnes Tolmie’s election to the Scottish Labour Policy Forum officers team as part of “a clean sweep for the left”.
(Such a claim puts medieval alchemists to shame. All they aspired to was to turn base metal into gold.)
And while they exhibit an undue fascination with internal Scottish Labour elections, their concept of ‘campaigning’ sadly seems to rarely go beyond phonebanking for the chosen candidates in such elections.
But an effective Labour left cannot function as a call centre. It needs to be a campaigning and participatory democracy, based first and foremost in Constituency Labour Party meetings – Party branches died away in Scotland years ago – not in the Party’s bureaucratic structures.
Current opinion polls suggest that Scottish Labour is on course to lose all the Westminster seats which it gained in 2017 and to be reduced to a rump of just one MP again. Such a poor performance could cost Labour the chance of forming the next government.
And if Scottish Labour and its mainstream left plod through 2019 as they have plodded through 2018, that prediction could easily turn out to be a reality.