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.