Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Is there still room for Scottish Labour?

by Chris on 8th May 2016

Scottish LabourThe post-election movie is now on general release in Scotland. The Scottish National Party and the Scottish Conservatives both feature heavily and their leaders play starring roles. Scottish Labour features too but the reviews of its performance make grim reading.

Some are questioning whether it can or will even appear in future movies. And it’s hardly surprising. The trailers were doom-laden. And now we know.

Just a few scenes edited in on the night gave cause for cheer but the plot had already been given away.

Labour’s results were dismal. That’s unarguable. And with local elections in just 12 months it’s not even clear whether the party has hit rock bottom yet. So little wonder that one of the questions reverberating is whether there is any point to Scottish Labour at all any more. In one sense that seems a harsh judgement. Between a quarter and a fifth of those voting still voted Labour. It’s on a life support machine for sure, but with more than half a million prepared to support it in the constituency vote, it’s not actually dead yet. Yet it raises a critical question that the party can’t ignore. In a crowded electoral market place, is their room for Labour?

I was a member of the Labour Party for the best part of 35 years until last year, having joined as a 19 year old student during Margaret Thatcher’s first term. I worked for an affiliated trade union and spent time as an elected councillor in London. And to one degree or another I nearly always worked for Labour at election time. I left the party having voted Yes in the referendum and finding myself increasingly disinterested in the business of party politics per se.

It may be that Labour won’t want to hear from someone no longer in the fold. But rather like a lover who drifts away from someone once close to them, I’ve continued to care about the well-being of the party I left behind. We parted company but I don’t wish it ill. And so I watched with dismay as Scottish Labour struggled to find a coherent story during the election campaign while others staked their tent pegs firmly in the ground.

There seems to be a fair amount of consensus about why the narrative failed to persuade the voters. A dangerous cocktail of high on tax, weak on defence and confusion on constitutional identity was branded ‘self-immolation for dummies’ before a single result had been declared. I don’t disagree that the narrative was unpersuasive or that those three factors were the principal culprits. But I don’t quite agree with the response that they were simply, wrong, wrong, wrong. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. It usually is.

The unfolding debate has taken me back to a moment sometime after I left the party when I found myself at a gathering of the Labour pressure group Progress. I had signed up out of curiosity. Although no longer a member of a tribe I remained fascinated by the political landscape and (for balance) just a few weeks earlier I had been at a book review discussion populated largely by SNP members and independence supporters.

It transpired that I wasn’t really supposed to be at the Progress gathering (it was intended as members only) and so I certainly didn’t intend to speak. But just as the proceedings were about to close, under some friendly duress, I reluctantly offered some thoughts. The gist of my contribution was quite simple. Don’t assume that politics is always about binary choices. Between right and left. Between independence and the union. For voters the world is often more fluid and nuanced. Try and find a new space in the changed and changing landscape which respects that.

This piece isn’t about how I voted. As my late dad used to say, that’s between me and the ballot box. But given my previous affiliation you can imagine that I spent some time wondering whether the party I’d spent so much of my life with had created a story that was sufficiently compelling. On the big three factors I’m certainly not neutral. I voted Yes in September 2014 and would do so again. So that took me one way. On the other hand I think people need to pay more tax, particularly the well off, so that took me another. And I don’t think Trident should be renewed, so that took me where? And for the avoidance of doubt I’m neither a Corbynista nor a nationalist, I’m a centre-left social democrat. But it seems binary labelling can’t cope with that claim.

Let’s take tax first. On the face of it the commitment to put a penny on the basic rate of income tax was attractive to me. Opening up the tax debate was certainly a bold move which I welcomed. But the way it was argued is a different matter. I found the Kids Not Cuts branding to be (pardon the pun) puerile sloganising. And I was even more irritated by the constant criticism of the SNP pledge not to raise the basic rate of income tax as anti-progressive, a sentiment I found just a tad lacking in humility. This was after all the very pledge that New Labour had made in order to put victory in no doubt in 1997 and it had worked.

The reality is that with some small exceptions, including the SNP’s own one penny moment, all the major parties have colluded with a narrative that we can have 21st century services and relatively low taxes. We can’t. Is that simply old-style tax and spend rhetoric? It doesn’t have to be. Does it automatically mean big state solutions? It needn’t. But working out what the alternative looks like will take time. It isn’t binary. So Labour was right to open up the debate but you can’t, and shouldn’t, try to from 0-60 in the space of one election campaign.

Then there’s defence. I get very frustrated by the idea that being opposed to Trident makes me some kind of mad Trot. I’ve always been a unilateralist because I think nuclear weapons are morally abhorrent and don’t think the deterrent argument is any longer any good enough, if indeed it ever was. But actually even if you put all that to one side there are perfectly sound reasons for questioning whether Trident renewal is actually good defence policy given the security issues we face now. The conflation of scrap Trident, weak on defence needs rather more rigour than the headlines suggest. There are plenty beyond the unilateralist camp who think so. So again it isn’t binary.

However, I didn’t cheer when the issue came to the fore in Labour’s election campaign, because it seemed largely pointless. When people need to be persuaded that voting for you would make a real difference to them, why spend time much time at all focusing on something where the levers lie elsewhere?

And finally of course there’s the constitution. Indeed, when comparing Scottish Labour’s fortunes with the once toxic Scottish Conservatives, it might be tempting to argue simply, it’s the constitution stupid. So was Labour right to welcome back Yes voters? Well surely it didn’t have much choice. When a huge chunk of your core vote appears to have gone AWOL and you know that what remains isn’t enough for you to win, what else do you do? But it begged the question what is Labour’s position now.

On that there appeared to be confusion. Here too the options require careful consideration, a bit more light and rather less heat. Of course it makes no sense to put your tanks on the independence lawn. It’s already taken. And now, the defence of the union lawn is occupied too. But once again, it isn’t binary. In what is now a changed landscape since September 2014, and a constantly evolving one at that, there is surely room for a position based on a new federal settlement which offers some Yes and some No voters a different place to regroup? It’s a tricky and slippery landscape for sure but with absolutely no certainty about what happens next it’s a real space.

Labour has argued since Thursday that Scotland wasn’t ready to embrace messages designed for a post-referendum landscape. There may be some truth in that. But my experience talking to people away from the campaign trail is that if there is plenty of appetite for moving on and a real weariness that politics hasn’t. So if that was its purpose, fair play to Scottish Labour for trying.

All three of the factors which ultimately cost them the election will remain very much on the agenda and all need fresh thinking which isn’t necessarily being offered by the other parties. In any case finding practical solutions will benefit from plurality. We can ill afford entrenched binary politics on any of them. And many voters don’t want that either. They understand that it’s not always simple.

But Scottish Labour will need to offer clarity based on mature, self-critical thinking. Scotland does need to find a new narrative on taxation which befits its new powers and is capable of responding to the investment our public realm desperately needs. It does need to find a way of engaging with the defence debate because although it remains a reserved matter, Trident is here and there are real jobs at stake. And it does need to embrace the new devolved settlement which is no longer the one that was being fought over prior to the referendum.

There ought to be a space for Scottish Labour to make a contribution in all of those areas. But its offer needs to be a good deal less muddled than the one it presented to voters last Thursday. Labour bucked the trend a little where it fought on local issues. As commentators have argued there’s something in that which needs clinging on to very tightly. But it will need a new national narrative too. And throwing the baby out with the bath water surely won’t help.

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