Tom Harris asks what Scottish Labour now stands for and whether there continues to be a place for it in Scottish politics, and the conclusions he reaches are not entirely encouraging.

It’s been said so often that it has almost reached the status of cliché. It is nevertheless true: Scottish Labour has no God-given right to exist. And in the light of recent events, it might be appropriate to consider not just what has gone wrong but also the most fundamental question of all: what is the party even for?

Whatever the most popular explanations for Scottish Labour’s demise, the fact is that when the end came, it came swiftly. In 2010 it won 41 seats with 42 per cent of the vote. Five years later it was virtually wiped out in an extinction-level event. There was no gradual, natural end to the reign of the dinosaurs: it was a meteor that killed them off, and in this particular scenario, that meteor came in the form of the independence referendum.

Since then, a second heavenly cataclysm in the shape of the Brexit referendum has all but quashed any hope Scottish Labour may have had for any kind of recovery. The unexpected gains of the 2017 general election (which disguised the miserly increase in Scottish Labour’s vote of barely 9000 across Scotland) gave some ground for optimism. But the party’s behaviour at both UK and Scottish levels since then have put paid to any notion that the good old days are about to return.

Consider this: there are two fundamental dividing lines in UK and Scottish politics right now – Brexit and independence. On both of these issues, Scottish Labour (and arguably the UK party also) has contrived to position itself so that it repels voters wherever they stand in relation to these dividing lines.

Let’s take Brexit first. If you support Scotland being outside the EU, why would you vote for Scottish Labour? Its MPs have consistently and with a virtually united front vetoed the government’s attempts to take us out. They have done this while insisting that they only oppose a no-deal Brexit, yet at the same time have voted against the only deal available.

And if you voted Remain in 2016 and want to negate the result of the referendum? Why would you vote for a party that prevaricates so heroically on the need for a second referendum and which actually committed to leaving the EU in its last manifesto?

And so onto independence. If you are in the majority of Scots who voted No in 2014, you will wish to lend your support to a party that wants to secure that result. That’s not a description that can be applied to Scottish Labour. The UK leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has no love for the Union; indeed, it is a trope of the wider hard left, of which Corbyn is part, that the Union is an imperialist project. When hundreds of English Labour MPs sallied north to help their besieged comrades in the last week of the 2014 campaign, Corbyn found something more important to tend to in his Islington constituency. Since taking over as leader he has sounded very ambiguous on the question of a second independence referendum. Who doubts that, offered SNP support for a minority Labour government in return for a Section 30 order authorising another vote, he would grab it with both hands?

Meanwhile, if you support independence, Labour is still the devil incarnate, the traitors who worked alongside the evil child-eating Tories in order to deny Scotland its freedom, etc, etc. It’s hard to see support for the party coming from that direction any time in the next 100 years or so.

So there you have it: on the two defining political questions facing us, Scottish Labour has absolutely no offer to make. How did that happen?

I support Brexit and I don’t want another referendum, but even I can see the sense of Scottish Labour campaigning unambiguously for a rerun referendum – a referendum not on any withdrawal agreement, but a People’s Vote, as soon as possible, irrespective of what opinion Corbyn or Seumas Milne have on the matter. Alternatively, Richard Leonard had the opportunity to embrace Brexit and make the most of it. That’s not a stand that would have gone down well with his party or with most of the electorate in Scotland, but it would have been a damned sight more coherent than the mess he’s tried to promote since becoming leader.

Naturally, Scottish Labour is still licking its wounds after the wipe-out of 2015. But there was never any prospect of the party being seen as anything other than a Unionist party, however valiantly its leaders sought to avoid using that word. It could have embraced it and made clear that voters who wanted to stay in the UK were safe in Scottish Labour’s hands. Instead, disastrously, it equivocated on the Union and started banging on about “federalism”, completely oblivious to ordinary voters’ utter lack of interest or enthusiasm.

On the independence issue, the Scottish Conservatives have, understandably, taken advantage of the territory abandoned by Scottish Labour and have gained from it. The only centre left party that opposes both Brexit and independence is the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and it will be interesting to see what advances they make if Jo Swinson, the East Dunbartonshire MP, succeeds Vince Cable as UK leader.

Scottish Labour’s tragedy – and I write as a former party member and someone who still harbours the hope that I can return to the fold one day – is that there is very little it can do about any of this. Partly, that’s because it’s too late. Its vacillation on both independence and Brexit won’t be forgiven or forgotten in a hurry.

And removing Leonard as leader will make almost no difference. Scottish Labour is now a very minor party in Scotland. The amount of media attention is receives is therefore commensurate with its size. Most of the coverage it enjoys (and I use the term “enjoys” in its loosest sense) arises from the UK party’s actions. And Jeremy Corbyn is neither liked nor trusted by Scotland’s voters.

If Corbyn is replaced, one way or the other, and a UK-wide resurgence in the party’s fortunes is the result, then there is a chance that Scottish Labour may benefit from that, and at that point Leonard would no doubt come under more pressure to quit.

Even so, there are no guarantees. Perhaps political evolution has given up on the party. Maybe it was inevitable and maybe in the long term it’s the right thing to happen. Other, hardier beasts may be about to take its place. If Scottish Labour has had its day, then I would feel deeply saddened by that. But I cannot deny that that’s how it feels, and that the bald, unforgiving facts point in that direction.

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35 thoughts on “Is this it?

  1. Mr Harris is conflating the question “will Scottish Labour survive?” with the question “what is Scottish Labour for?”

    This seems to me fundamentally misconceived. Defending the union isn’t what we are “for” (though it was necessary and right). What we are for is representing the labour movement in elected office and promoting and enacting social democratic/ democratic socialist (whatever you want to call it!) policy. The problem isn’t knowing what we are for. It’s that we cannot get away with assuming that we can win by fudging constitutional issues and presenting “Old Labour” solutions in a world where a. the constitutional stuff really does matter and b. many nineteen year olds working for Amazon on “flexible” contracts — people whom we desperately need Labour and the labour movement to help — simply do not know what a trades union is or how it works, and may have very little sense at all of how the labour movement and our party can and should be helping them.

    Since Tom Harris persistently takes the side of employers against unions even in unionised industries it’s perhaps not very surprising that he simply ignores this; still, one might have thought that even he would recognise Scotland’s need for the other traditional prong of left politics, i.e. public services and a supportive state.

    If defending the union were what we are for, then in the event of independence we should just shut up shop. But of course we shouldn’t do this. On the contrary, if indy happens we need to work our socks off to avoid the likely consequence i.e. Scotland fossilising into the same circumstance as Ireland, dominated by two centre right parties identified by history on the national question.

    He’s right that we are really staring into the abyss though. I don’t know whether we will survive as a contender in Scotland.

    1. “…. if indy happens we need to work our socks off to avoid the likely consequence i.e. Scotland fossilising into the same circumstance as Ireland, dominated by two centre right parties identified by history on the national question”.

      This is unlikely to happen. The SNP movement is the broadest of churches united by the knowledge independence is the only way to ensure Scotland prospers as it should. Once independence is achieved, a “National Party” will no doubt continue to exist as a centrist force in Scottish politics but many will decamp to either left or right. No doubt the Greens would increase its support on the back of this but whatever is left of Labour may also benefit. The Tories would initially retain their “union or death” support, but would be consigned to the dustbin of history if they didn’t abandon that tack sharpish with a right wing, pro-indy party gradually replacing them.

      All-in-all, in my opinion, Indy Scotland would be a multi-party democracy like most of our small, independent neighbours. I’ve voted SNP most of my life. My first ever vote in 1982 was for the SDP after my disappointment over Labour’s betrayal in the 1979 devolution referendum. Since then, after Thatcherism and the growing realisation Scotland was being destroyed by the union, it’s been SNP all the way. However, with independence, my vote will have to be won. If Labour want it, they will have to commit to independence, convince me its safe in their hands and put forward a credible Social Democratic program that will guarantee Scotland’s prosperity. Independence could be the saving of “Scottish” Labour.

  2. I agree with a lot of this with one caveat. All the parties are eating from the same bowl and the natural Labour voters are SNP voters now. You don’t win them over by being arch unionists.

    Agnostic unionists that unequivocably state the claim of right and left of centre would take a swathe of votes from an aged SNP government.

  3. Scottish Labours dilemma is that whenever it takes a different policy position to the Labour Party UK it is meaningless, because the Labour Party is UK wide party with just one policy and the Scottish Labour is in fact not a separate party but instead just a section of the Labour Party UK and the Labour Party UK makes the policy.

    1. That’s not entirely true. The Scottish Party has complete control over policy in devolved issues, and even on reserved matters (arguably including our EU membership) it could choose to adopt a different policy if it wishes. The former Labour Party in scotland (pre-devolution) adopted a different policy from the UK party on nuclear disarmament, for example.

      1. Tom thanks for your comments, please can enlighten me as to how the former Labour Party in scotland (pre-devolution) policy differed from that of the UK party on nuclear disarmament at that time?
        Is the current Scottish Labour Party policy on nuclear disarmament different from the Labour Party in Scotland (pre-devolution) policy?

        1. For a number of years after 1989, when the UK party switched from unilateral to multilateral nuclear disarmament, Scottish conference maintained its commitment to unilateralism. My understanding is that for the past couple of years, Scottish conference has again returned to that position. Not that it makes much difference, since defence is reserved, but to those who feel strongly about such things, I guess it matters to them.

      2. With all due respect, in what way, shape or form did Scottish (sic) Labour having a different policy on nuclear disarmament have any meaning at all? If anything, it just proves Ted’s point. It is the Westminster Labour party’s policy that will always prevail with the Scottish branch just getting a pat on the head with a condescending “thanks for your input, it is very important to us” attitude. It is easy to have a “different policy” on something when you know you will never (or could ever) need to deliver on it.

      3. [Moderator note: This poster is now banned for attempting to subvert a previous ban using a different username.]

  4. Tom,

    You’ve made an assumption about federalism. You have stated that voters don’t care about it. I put it to you that five years ago people didn’t care about leaving the European Union and yet here we are. How do you think that support rose? It rose because the people feel marginalised, particularly the English. They’ve seen the rest of us get their own regional representation, what about them? Post Brexit, support for an English Parliament was at 41& (Kenny, 2018). In 2011 in Scotland, the most popular option to Scots was ‘devo-max’, not independence.

    Can you not enisage people getting excited about the prospect of having their own regions and parliaments? After all, England doesn’t have one single cultural identity any more than we do. Indeed, they are proud of their regional culture and their own parliaments would celebrate that. It would also see us implement a fairer voting system as well as abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected body.

    We need to support this at both the Scotland and UK level. By not shifting to this position naturally we fail to distinguish ourselves, never mind the fact that it is absolutely the best set of policies to unite the country and improve it.

    Speaking of Brexit, how do you not understand that it is clearly a con? It’s not going to help anyone of the working classes, or anyone at all, except those who have now seized power. Study after study demonstrates that it’s a poor economic and social choice. From a moral perspective, the EU is an embodiment of Keynes’ assertion that regions which cooperate economically are less likely to engage in conflict. The only moral position is to become an outright remain party, supporting a first (valid) referendum.

    You have spoken of Labour’s problems, yet you offer no solutions, policy, organisational, none. You seem confident in your criticism, but lack any sort of vision or message. I’m surprised Labour Hame’s even carrying an article from someone who couldn’t hack it and left so you could spout off some red scare nonsense in a newspaper which supports a government which inflicts misery upon millions. A misery that, thanks in part to the actions of useful idiots such as yourself, will be exacerbated after leaving the EU.

    I apologise for any disrespect, however I am responding to what can only be described as your sheer brass neck. I would like to see your response regarding federalism as a policy position.

    Kind regards,

    1. I normally like to get into a mature, respectful discourse on this site, but will resist the temptation to do so in your case. Calling someone a “useful idiot” and then adding “I apologise for any disrespect” is not the sign of someone whose views can or should be taken seriously.

      1. Oh for god’s sake Tom grow a spine and admit you have no response, no ideas, nothing.

      2. Tom Liam is entitled to his views same as you and me and everyone else and deserves an answer
        I hope you will reconsider

      3. Tom having reread Liams comment I agree with all of it apart from him calling you names

        1. I should certainly have been more polite, however given that Tom was part of the Vote Leave team which usurped our democracy I find it difficult to show respect towards someone who helped disrespect our entire country.

    2. Liam, federalism is a complete non-starter for the UK.

      (1) You cannot have a meaningful federation when one member state has over 80% of the population. It is just too lop-sided and the “principal” state would just not let itself be dictated to by the “minor” states.

      (2) The English already have a Parliament. It’s called Westminster. They have over 80% of the representation there and with EVEL (English votes for English laws) it is effectively even more “English” than that. The devolved “regions” have little influence there unless under extreme circumstances (like the DUP’s dodgy, unconstitutional deal).

      (3) The English regions are simply not interested in regional Parliaments. The NE got a referendum on it and even those who could be bothered to vote roundly rejected it by nearly 4:1. The English see themselves as very much English first with any regional identity as subsidiary to that. To them, regional Parliaments would be an unnecessary, toothless extra layer of govt and bureaucracy that would have to be paid for out of their pockets.

      Sorry, but Scottish (sic) Labour’s attempt to take control of the constitutional debate by pushing federalism as the next “big idea” was always doomed to failure and only cemented the view of their growing irrelevance in the minds of most Scottish voters.

      1. With respect I don’t believe you’ve understood my comments, at least in good faith.

        To address your first point, there will be no region with over 80% of the electorate so no need to worry there.

        To address the second point, well, you’ve kind of given an argument to support a constitutional new deal.

        And the third? Well that referendum was over fifteen years ago and was not a full ballot, just a postal one. Since then studies have indicated that support has risen. Besides, 15 years ago Brexit would’ve been unimaginable. But thank to the efforts of lovely folk like Tom we now have it. Yay.

        Why do you keep putting (sic) next to Scottish? What clever point are you trying to prove?

  5. Good article.

    To be honest, it’s not just the Scottish Labour Party that’s in the turkish delight, it’s the whole Labour Movement.

    The Labour Party in England is getting eaten at both ends by the Liberals and the Brexit Party.

    The Conservatives are getting murdered by the Brexit Party.

    If we don’t leave the EU soon, the Brexit Party will do a SNP (2015) and wipe out all before them at the next General Election, with the Liberals emerging as the opposition.

    It’s just the way the cookie crumbles, sometimes it’s for you and sometimes it isn’t.

    1. Hi Andy, I think your article is bang on the money if Brexit is not delivered then in England l can definitely see the Brexit Party definitely wiping out all the party’s out south of the border. I differ on the choice of confectionery you describe for the Scottish Labour Party l would have instead chose a Twix the Labour Party UK are one bar and Scottish Labour is the second bar and if the Brexit party scoff up the votes south of the border they will definitely have the taste for more and scoff up the Brexit votes in Scotland. So sorry to say it looks as if the Scottish Labour Party will just be one bar of Brexit Twix and it’s not looking good.

      1. Thanks Ted.

        Crumbs whatever the topic, sometimes, it really is a case of sour plumbs.
        Will there be a breakaway? I’ve heard wispa’s about it, it will be no picnic though, that’s for sure.

        At the end of the day it takes all sorts and it would be nice if more people were to hobnob, do the right thing and stop swizzeling us out of Brexit.

        1. Andy l think your last post is fantastic it takes the biscuit. I think we can judge the unity of the Labour Party UK after the next vote in the house of commons when we see how many Labour MPs vote in with a three line Walnut Whip.

        2. “Us” being the minority in Scotland who voted for Brexit and not the increasing majority who want to Remain in the EU.

  6. So what exactly *is* Labour’s message to the Remain-voting majority in Scotland? As far as I can see it’s “tough”. There may be more nuance to it than that but I’m certainly not seeing it.
    You can’t support the Union without, as an inevitable byproduct, telling the Remain-voting majority in Scotland that their views don’t count – hardly a way of selling a union of equals, is it?
    I don’t see anything in the current Scottish Labour setup that has the beginnings of an idea of how to square this circle and i can’t even see which constituency of Scottish voters they’re trying to attract.


  7. Hello Tom you say you are a former member why did you leave under what circumstances would you join again should you not have staid and fought your case
    I Joined in 1983 I decided to stop moaning about unemployment and do something about it I joined Labour we used to at that time with union help go out and demonstrate against unemployment cuts to the NHS poll tax the miners strike .etc Holyrood it was a Labour Government that passed the legislation that set it up .
    Were you in favour
    Under a Labour Government I and many like me were never out of work .
    Holyrood for me has been an outstanding success under the coalition and yes under the SNP and Alec Salmond to keep Labour out had no problem doing a better together with the Tories at budget time .
    Then he got a majority and had to go for a section 30 David Cameron agreed and because he agreed a lot of the mechanics of doing it were not legally tested or so I have read .
    2 years later the Indy vote was lost and no matter how you look at it the ref was lost .
    I was in and out of hospitals that year and could not help except phone poll a month before voting day .
    A lady voting no told me she was ashamed of the vow .Peoples minds were made up no matter what anyone says its hard to shift people once that happens .
    No plan b did yes no favours ..
    I voted remain on the day the vote was lost I have said this before Alec Salmond in what must have been his most difficult day was for me the only one who acted with dignity in order to stop the infighting which was breaking out he resigned .1 hr later David Cameron with no warning and crass stupidity stepped out of no 10 English votes and the yes movement were rescued and up and running .
    It was Labour who Imploded a lot of it to do with better together .
    Votes and voters could no longer be taken for granted SNP proved they could govern at Holyrood and council level ..
    Suddenly those brash new kids on the bloc were in power and the voters suddenly had someone else to vote for and did .
    There was a feeling that in 15 when Ed Milliband was expected to win vote SNP and they will put backbone into ED
    Labour lost and all those MPS who thought all they had to do was turn up on Red Rosette day were out a job .And they took with them all the Labour MPS who were doing a great job .
    At Holyrood after being instrumental in setting up devolution we then for me got into a mess and did not adjust Labour MSPS and MPS had to be seen to answer to the Scottish party and not be the branch office .
    Fast forward David Cameron trying to see of UKIP and his own right wing gives them what they want an EU ref and loses .
    Retires and leaves it up to PM May to pick up the pieces She calls an election she did not have to and loses her majority SNP lose seats to but stay united
    PM does a very expensive deal with the DUP remember them and the Irish backstop .And meaning full votes become the catch phrase then meaningful talks and running down the clock .
    Oh and then the endless in fighting anti Semitism being accusations being thrown about and everyone with a grievance heading for the nearest tv camera Jeremy trying to please everyone and in the end no one sat on that fence to long until in the EU election it fell down .
    In Scotland the SNP had a clear remain position So remain voters had a clear party to vote for Labour maybe aye maybe naw any surprise the vote collapsed
    In my area I could not get people labour voters to vote why we are not staying .
    My council area its Labour controlled SNP top Brexit second people told me I like Nigel there is a warning .
    Tories same infighting they forced out the PM Nigel has his second PMS scalp
    When Trump spoke to the Tory beauty parade was that a job interview .
    In Scotland we have moved to backing remain and EU 2 to late for that but if its a sign we are talking to people again it means we are listening we could start by campaigning on things like the shortage of GPS they are complaining about their workload
    In the week PM May cried at leaving 1300 lost their jobs at Jaimie Olivers restaurant chain British Steele in administration 5 thousand jobs and another 20thousand dependant jobs at risk 1700 jobs today at Ford start campaigning on that and the party will unite and voters come back .
    My local council Labour controlled is carrying out a massive pavement repair and housebuilding programme and people can see it .
    Especially the dreaded road works haha .
    Because of Brexit if we get Indy Ref 2 I will vote yes and I don’t see anything wrong with section 30 powers being seeded it would call the Scottish Govs bluff and regarding the EU vote it was crazy for Scottish Labour to be on the wrong side of remain as Scotland voted over whelmingly remain well Tom these are my thoughts and mine only so what would you be doing if you were Scottish Labour Leader to win the voters over

    1. Thanks for the comments, David. I found it hard to leave the party, since I was a member for 34 years and considered it part of my identity. But I just couldn’t reconcile the leadership’s tolerance of anti-Semitism with my understanding of what a progressive party actually is. I genuinely believe Jeremy Corbyn represents a massive threat to this country’s security, and I could no longer vote Labour while he remains leader. At the point where I realised this, I accepted that remaining a member was no longer tenable. I would love to return one day if the party ever comes to its senses and rejects anti-West Marxism, but I don’t see that happening. There’s something profoundly dysfunctional in any party that needs “saving” from its own membership.

      1. Thank you for your comment and for being honest .Tom
        Antisemitism I thought it was a compliment because of the word anti which I thought meant against .I had to be told what it was .
        Never heard of it until I saw it on CH4 news now Labour seem to be engulfed .
        The Tories will get caught up I think in Islamophobia .
        There are a few problems coming to the SNP as well .But Labour have got to get a grip .
        Scotland voted remain we were on the wrong side of that argument todays statement to little to late but Tom don’t give up .

      2. “There’s something profoundly dysfunctional in any party that needs “saving” from its own membership.”

        I’d say there’s something profoundly dysfunctional in any Party where MPs rush straight to journalists to report goings-on at Parliamentary Party private meetings! These are the people who are destroying their own Party using tactics and vile smears that are utterly beyond the pale.

        Since 2015 a core group have plotted to bring down the elected leader of their Party. The enormity of the EU vote couldn’t distract them from their chief aim. I have never seen a crusade so vicious, so toxic, ever.

        These people aren’t serving Labour voters, there is another agenda altogether and, almost certainly, another master. Have a look at comments made by Pompeo, Tom. Comments about Corbyn. He seems to be sending out a message that Corbyn has to be removed now. Is that message to that core group in the PLP Tom, to up the smear campaign?

        They’re not trying to save the Party, they’re trying to destroy it. Their loyalty isn’t to Labour voters but to something else. And while I parted company with the Labour Party over Iraq a long time ago, it is still difficult to watch what these people are doing to it or witness the appalling depths they will sink to, without feeling horrified.

  8. Is it me or does it seem to anyone else a coincidence that Ford waited until the President had left before they announced Bridgend is to close

  9. David it was not a coincidence they did not want to embarrass the president by getting awkward questions at the news conference’s.

    1. Thank you for your comment Ted
      Exactly and the Welsh National Party Leader said on tv If it was America the President would be on the phone to Ford executives .
      What are our leaders doing

  10. The by election BBC reporter said great excitement amongst camera crews they thought before the result Nigel was making his grand entrance but no it was only the Raving Loony Party haha
    The great man himself was AWOL
    Was Labour winning anything to do with his non appearance haha .
    PS Boris and his Lawyers got the court case thrown out .

    1. Apparently, when it became clear his party had lost, he hid in a toilet before sneaking out a back door. That sort of behaviour lost Labour an election in Scotland in 2011. I doubt it will harm Farage’s reputation among the faithful though.

      1. Thank you for your comment Bungo
        Yep Nigel no show at count but still found time to turn up at no 10 next day
        And Michael Gove on Telly telling us does not want Jeremy in no 10 propped up by Nicola .
        I will take that any day over him and his pals Nigel also found time for a meeting with President Trump was that the job interview

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