Following the defeat of the Labour party across Scotland, what does the party need to do to work its way back to the top?
The night of 12th December 2019 was a devastating one. Being a member of the Labour Party, I was at my local election count in Paisley when I watched that gut-wrenching exit poll come through. The national picture was desolate for those of us who believed in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and its vision for the future of the country. Locally in my own constituency, the SNP superstar MP Mhairi Black was re-elected with a majority that had increased four-fold, despite increasing dissatisfaction with the SNP’s running of public services including the closure of a ward for children in the local hospital in Paisley. The mudslinging, soul-searching, and leadership manoeuvres began instantly. Some argued the crushing defeat for Labour was down to our Brexit position, whilst others placed the blame solely at the door of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum. I believe, however, that the cause of the defeat was multifaceted and that an ill thought-out blame game will be even more damaging.
This article, though, is not another in an endless series of articles claiming to have the moral authority to decide where Labour went wrong. Rather, this article seeks to re-examine a poorly healed wound in the body of the Scottish Labour party: independence.
Whilst being a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, I am not one of the newer members of the party who joined after having been enthused by Corbyn’s leadership. I joined the party when I was 14, eight years ago, and so I have experienced many election losses for the party: at the UK level, at Holyrood, and at a local level. I have been with the party through thin and thinner. The last time I took part in a successful campaign with the Labour Party was that fateful referendum campaign of 2014 where I campaigned fervently for Better Together.
One thing I would like to make clear is that I am not a unionist, I despise nationalism of all kinds and unionism is just another flavour of it. My belief in Better Together was not hinged upon “project fear”, as some in the Yes camp would have you believe. Instead, my belief was rooted in that those who have the least would be most adversely affected by the inevitable crushing austerity that the SNP’s offer of independence, held within their infamous white paper, would bring. Their over-reliance on a volatile oil market was naive as well as being completely environmentally unethical and hypocritical. I also firmly believed that a Labour government was coming with Ed Miliband the following year in 2015 and, whilst that too may have been naive, thinking of the “chaos and instability” that that government would have avoided for us all is a sobering thought. As the old adage goes, hindsight is a wonderful thing; bitterly wonderful when it vindicates your position that was rejected by the electorate.
After the referendum, the 2015 general election heralded the collapse of Labour in Scotland. Many were left with a bitter taste in their mouth after senior Labour figures were pictured in countless campaign events standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories and Liberal Democrats, and many had voted “No” in 2014 to side with their heads at the expense of the wishes of their hearts. The SNP for their part masterfully propagated the “red Tory” narrative, telling a deflated electorate that there was no difference between the Tories and Labour, and that the SNP were the only credible anti-austerity party, despite their record at Holyrood. What ensued was the decimation of Labour in Scotland, a swathe of SNP MPs sent to Westminster, further crippling austerity under David Cameron set free from his impotent coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and, of course, Brexit.
All of this is in the past and, although I may wish differently, there is nothing to be done to change it. It does, however, serve to help us reflect on how a once dominant Labour party has been reduced to the third party in Scotland. And it is from this reflection, and reflection on our most recent electoral disaster, that the Labour party in Scotland must decide how to move on from these wilderness years. Of course there will be a focus on leadership, but the issue in Scotland will not be solved with a new leader or even by another wing of the party taking the reins. Rather, we must carefully consider our response to the increasingly louder calls for another independence referendum.
The party in Scotland, myself included, has been fiercely against another independence referendum. Not in a jingoistic, “we’ve already had one” way adopted by the Tories in their successful efforts to hoover up determined No voters. Instead, Labour has argued that furthering the constitutional debate in Scotland will not help with the alarming growth of poverty, nor with the continuous decline in education, nor the drug death crisis. We have insisted that these issues be centre stage of the public debate so that health and education can be properly funded and ran, as well as supporting the nationalisation of ScotRail due to increasing dissatisfaction with the service. Our arguments have fallen on deaf ears and we as a party need to accept that. People have not had their interests piqued by our vision because our vision has not included the thing that still occupies the country’s collective political mind: independence.
As I began digesting the results of last week’s electoral disaster, I found myself coming to terms with the fact that what a majority of people in England want is irreconcilably different to what is desired by the Scottish electorate. Scotland overwhelming sees itself as European and is horrified at the thought of a fast approaching date where we will be ripped out of the EU. England, on the other hand, has just given Boris a blank cheque, for the next five years at least, to have his version of Brexit and to continue with a domestic agenda that the average person in Scotland has angrily suffered for the past nine years. Whilst Wales may have returned a majority of Labour MPs, there is very little evidence that shows the Welsh majority in favour of Brexit has shifted. I am not questioning the reasons and motivations behind the Brexit vote in England and Wales. I am merely laying out the incontrovertible fact that the political will of England and Wales is diametrically opposed to the will of Scotland, and Northern Ireland too for that matter, in regards to the biggest peacetime issue that has faced the UK. It cannot be right or just that Scotland will be forced to leave a political union that it overwhelming wishes to remain in because of the wishes of two other countries. And this is what we in the Labour party must face head on.
If the Labour party in Scotland continues to be absent from the constitutional debate then we will lose even more hard working MSPs in 2021 which will in turn be damaging to the communities which they serve. Instead, we should have a robust and a respectful debate within the party about our position on another referendum. Although I am not at this stage an advocate for independence, as the days pass I am becoming more convinced that it is inevitable. And if I am correct then the Labour party needs to be ready with a credible, radical option for independence that would not be the corporation tax-cutting, fossil fuel dependent offer of the SNP that would inevitably lead to further austerity. We need a plan that saves our public services from the mismanagement of the SNP as well as reflecting the will of the Scottish people.
Labour needs to win again, not for winning’s sake, but for the communities that were crippled by Thatcher and are languishing due to chronic underinvestment; for the people most at risk to the drug death crisis; for the students being failed by the SNP’s disastrous handling of CfE and their cuts to higher education; for the WASPI women whose pensions were stolen from them without so much as a word of notice; for the minority groups in our society that are facing a growth in right wing hate attacks; for those families suffering from in work poverty; for the pensioners with one of the lowest state pensions amongst the developed nations; for the people suffering during the mental health crisis with underfunded and, at times, non existent mental health services; and for many, many other people for whom life is unduly hard. If the cost and/or avenue for this necessary Labour victory is independence, then so be it.