On a cold February morning two years ago, Gordon Brown held a press conference on the top floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Edinburgh.
Framed by a bright, clear view of the capital’s skyline, with the castle forbidding in the distance, the former prime minister launched – once more – into the constitutional debate. Independence, he said, would mean breaking all ties to Britain.
Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, not leave it. Only the Labour Party understood this country’s singular commitment to social justice. But as Brown paced the stage, wagging his finger at reporters and thunderously regurgitating another defence of the devolutionary project, somewhere, on some primitive or subliminal level, he must have known that Scotland was no longer listening, and that in the very near future, regardless of what he said, Labour would slip screaming into a Caledonian abyss.
Scottish Labour has been circling the abyss for the best part of a decade, but every year it seems to inch slightly closer to the brink. In 2016, the party slumped to an abysmal third place, seven seats behind the Tories, at the Holyrood elections, and there is a decent chance it will suffer another, equally humiliating defeat at the local council elections this May.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to picture Labour as the dominant, almost unassailable force it once was. In 2007, there was a widespread assumption that the SNP’s experience in government would be brief, and that normal service would resume when Scots next returned to the polls. At one stage, Iain Gray fully expected to succeed Alex Salmond as first minister. Yet at almost every subsequent test of Scottish public opinion, Labour found its popularity markedly, and often dramatically, reduced.
When Kezia Dugdale took control of the party in the aftermath of the 2015 ‘nationalist tsunami’, she inherited an organisation structurally and intellectually exhausted, outmanoeuvred and outpaced by its rivals. Like her recently dislodged Westminster colleagues, and her beleaguered, demoralised activist base, she was left wondering: how did we get here and what did we do wrong?
In The Labour Party in Scotland: Religion, the Union and the Irish Dimension, Queen’s University academic Graham Walker offers an explanation, of sorts, for Scottish Labour’s decline. In this astonishingly slim work, Walker argues that the party’s formative relationship with Irish Catholic Scots has broken down and that the traditional class dynamics of Scottish politics have been eclipsed by a more fluid and elusive focus on ‘identity’.
According to Walker, the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future has been framed by the Irish Troubles, the cessation of which finally allowed Scots to confront the issue of independence on a responsible, coherent basis.
‘Such were the chastening effects of violence across the narrow sea through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that the climate for expansive consideration of the Scottish national question [was] forbidding,’ he writes. ‘And it was probably no coincidence that serious contemplation of Scottish independence … took place when the “peace process” in Northern Ireland got underway.’
This is, to say the least, an unorthodox reading of Scottish political history. The national question was expansively (some might say exhaustively) considered throughout the period Walker cites. The discovery of North Sea oil and growing unrest in key sectors of the Scottish industrial economy fuelled demands for independence in the 1970s. In the ’80s, as efforts were made to bring the Irish conflict to an end, Scottish civil society coalesced around the need for an Edinburgh parliament – an obvious indicator of Scotland’s weakening ties to the Union. In the ’90s, the election of a Labour government made the creation of that parliament inevitable and with it, as many prominent anti-devolutionists warned, a referendum on the break-up of Britain. Nothing in this sequence was dependent on events in Ireland.
Walker’s thesis is stretched to destruction by his insistence that Scottish Labour’s fortunes have been governed by the relative strength of Scottish religious affiliations. He may be right that many Scots of Irish Catholic descent have abandoned both Labour and the Union in recent years, but that shift reflects a broader change in political, not religious or cultural, attitudes. As Labour triangulated under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, progressive and low-income voters found a plausible centre-left alternative in the SNP, which had become adept at championing classic centre-left causes, and in independence, which offered a convenient escape route from an increasingly punitive and reactionary Westminster establishment.
Walker interprets this shift in the reductive language of ‘identity’ (an expression he never properly defines), but it’s better understood as a sober response to the long-term transformation of Britain’s political circumstances.
Ultimately, Walker’s analysis echoes one of the chief consoling myths of modern Labour politics: that Scots have exchanged something substantial and realistic – British parliamentary socialism – for something inscrutable, superficial and dangerous: nationalism. This is the party’s favourite catch-all excuse; an apolitical get-out clause for its failure to win elections and its complicity in an economic experiment – neoliberalism – that has undermined the constitutional and social unity of the UK.
The problems with neoliberalism are discussed at length in Tackling Timorous Economics: How Scotland’s Economy Could Work Better For Us All, a collection of essays by Katherine Trebeck, a senior researcher at Oxfam, George Kerevan, the SNP MP for East Lothian, and Stephen Boyd, the former STUC assistant secretary turned Scottish Government adviser.
The essays vary in emphasis: Trebeck argues that the modern obsession with economic growth has undermined sustainable development; Boyd criticises the paucity of radical economic thinking in Scotland; and Kerevan explores the overlapping challenges posed by capitalism’s investment ‘glut’ (in which the global economy has accumulated more capital than business is able to use productively), low wages, and workplace automation. But the book’s motif is a deep-seated frustration with the small-c conservatism of Scotland’s political leaders.
‘If Scottish politicians are serious about tackling inequality they need to start developing a seriously analytical approach to the subject,’ Boyd writes. ‘Posturing, sound bites and bad policy are very poor foundations on which to build a new Scottish model, which should not only be fairer and more equal but less prone to systematic crises.’
Boyd rightly admonishes the SNP for failing to acknowledge the link between low taxes and high rates of inequality. But the posturing and the sound-bites are not new – they were the standard currency of centre-left governments across Europe in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crash. New Labour, in particular, proudly burnished its radical credentials while simultaneously attacking the foundations of its own support. Inevitably, Blair’s hostility towards trade unions, his enthusiasm for financial deregulation, and his reckless foreign policy decisions proved toxic: between 1997 and 2007, the party’s membership slumped from 400,000 to 170,000, while millions of predominantly working-class Labour voters found new political homes or abandoned the electoral process altogether.
At Holyrood, Scottish Labour simply replicated Blair’s mistakes. During the early stages of devolution, it clashed with unions over pay and working conditions for nursery nurses and fire fighters; it struck private financing deals that exposed Scottish public services to market forces; it demoted left-leaning MSPs and replaced them with more disciplined but less talented party operatives; and it alienated sympathetic media commentators by refusing to break with London over the war in Iraq and the renewal of Trident. By the 2003 devolved elections – at which it haemorrhaged 250,000 constituency and 225,000 list votes, largely to the Greens and the SSP – its collapse was already well under way.
If guided by a more adventurous leadership, Tackling Timorous Economics could almost serve as a blueprint for Scottish Labour’s revival. Commitments to a reduced working week and a citizen’s income, for instance, coupled with a less dogmatic approach to the constitution, would put clear red water between Kezia Dugdale and Nicola Sturgeon, forcing at least some left-wing Yes campaigners to reconsider their backing for the SNP. Instead, Dugdale has chosen to compete with Ruth Davidson for the votes of irascible middle-class unionists, apparently forgetting that no party is more irascible, middle-class or unionist than the Scottish Conservatives.
To be fair, Scottish Labour isn’t entirely to blame for the situation it finds itself in. To some extent, it has suffered an accelerated version of the fate now faced by mainstream social democratic parties in other countries, notably France, Spain and the United States. Even in the traditional strongholds of post-war European labourism, such as Denmark and Norway, the left has been pushed out of power. Twenty years ago, a majority of EU states were run by (nominally) leftist governments. That is emphatically not the case today.
The crisis of western social democracy has churned up new and unexpected forms of anti-establishment populism. The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, by Alex Nunns, is a pulpy, entertaining account of how the far left seized control of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. Nunns explains that Corbyn’s candidacy, launched in the summer of 2015, benefited both from long-term structural trends (the leftward tilt of the trade union movement) and simple good luck (the decision of some centrist MPs to nominate Corbyn for the leadership ballot in the interests, ironically, of party unity).
For Nunns, Corbynism was propelled by a deep sense of resentment among Labour members at the centralising, disciplinarian, and – latterly – losing habits of the party’s sclerotic right-wing elite. In the eyes of the membership, he writes, ‘[the] Blairites were ideal villains. Ideologically they exhibited all the signs of rigor mortis. Their thinking had become inflexible, their presentation stiff. Having once been associated with the future, they now harked back to a past tainted by war, financial crisis, and party atrophy.’
Nunns sees the Corbyn phenomenon as a grassroots salvage operation designed to reverse that atrophy, but he doesn’t say whether he thinks it has worked. It hasn’t. Eighteen months in, Labour’s poll ratings are as dire as ever. In the event of a snap general election, it would lose dozens of seats, with the Liberal Democrats, refreshed after the Brexit referendum, hiving-off pro-European Remain voters in the south of England and UKIP challenging for staunchly euro-sceptic Labour constituencies in the north.
It’s tempting to conclude that the current conditions of British politics are objectively stacked against Corbyn. His task – to remake socialism for the post-crash era, in the context of a party whose historic purpose has been to contain and institutionalise radical dissent – is obviously huge. But it is equally evident that, on a personal level, Corbyn isn’t well suited to the demands of leadership (he was essentially conscripted into the role) and that large chunks of the parliamentary party will never accept his authority
Still, Corbyn has achieved something valuable: he has galvanised the left in England, drawing tens of thousands of new activists into his movement. In Scotland, by contrast, most of the voters that might have helped Labour to rebuild – or kept it afloat in the face of the nationalist challenge – have already committed themselves to other things, namely, socialism in an independent country. Kezia Dugdale doesn’t have anywhere near enough time to change their mind.