Labour Hame editor Duncan Hothersall says the ties that bind the Labour family across the UK are growing fragile and fractious, and a crisis of co-operation needs urgently to be addressed. An abridged version of this article was first published on LabourList.
A few weeks ago I took part in a panel discussion entitled How does Labour represent a multi-nation democracy? at the Progress Annual Conference in London. I wasn’t the only first-time attendee – Jeremy Corbyn was there too, to give the keynote address. It was an interesting, comradely day.
But we are facing a crisis of co-operation in our party between Scotland and the rest of the UK. There is, from what seems to be a significant element of Labour’s national voice, at best a failure to listen to, and at worst a fundamental dismissal of, Scottish Labour’s views and experience. There is a creeping tendency to see Scotland as ‘other’ despite the bruising referendum delivering a clear outcome of solidarity. There is a fatalism in assessments of the recent Scottish election results. And there is an insidious and dangerous misconception that the SNP are our ideological allies, and therefore to be admired, and even embraced.
In an article in Labour Uncut, Kevin Meagher asks Why aren’t we furious with the Scottish party? (Note that the “we” implicitly excludes his fellow members in Scotland, who he goes on to describe as a “steaming turd”.) It’s unclear from what experience of Scotland or Labour campaigning here he draws his insight. But in damning his Scottish colleagues, he also explicitly praises our opposition, endorsing their core messages and criticising us for being part of the Better Together campaign.
More significantly in the New Statesman, Keiran Pedley makes the extraordinary, tone-deaf argument that To govern again, Labour must do a deal with the SNP and focus on England. Apart from anything else this suggestion is one giant arithmetical error, because there is only one deal the SNP want, and if they get it then the total number of seats they deliver for a future Labour-led government is zero. But the suggestion is also an appalling capitulation that suggests throwing under the bus not only Labour activists in Scotland, but the half million Labour voters who have stayed with us.
Most critically of all, both these articles, and the many other comments that echo similar themes, betray a fundamental misunderstanding of who the SNP are and what they stand for. The SNP are not social democrats. They fought the Scottish election on a platform of eagerly passing on Tory austerity rather than using the powers they demanded to make different choices. They joined forces with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament to vote down Labour’s progressive budget amendment. The leading think tank IPPR Scotland analysed the major parties’ tax plans and showed that the SNP’s economic policy barely deviates from George Osborne’s austerity budget.
And the SNP’s past record is not that of the centre left party some see them as either. They trumpet free university tuition as their key left-wing credential, but the reality for students, especially those from the poorest backgrounds, has been more debt and less attainment. And the glaring truth is that free university tuition, which favours the better off, has been provided at the cost of 150,000 college places. (By the way – this is another instance of the SNP following Tory policy.) And that’s before we look at the slashed funding for schools which is leading to fewer teachers, crowded classrooms and lower attainment. The very people who need the most support are being denied it.
These are not social democratic policies or admirable outcomes, and the SNP is not a party Labour should look to as an ally or an inspiration. It is the party of Scottish nationalism. It wears whatever clothes it must to achieve its single aim of independence. Sometimes it might look like our friend from a distance, but in close-up its strategy is designed to destroy and supplant Scottish Labour in order to win independence. The SNP is executing a “kill Labour” strategy in Scotland. It is the opposite of an ally.
And while we’re exploding myths, let’s just be clear that Scottish independence is not a fun idea for lefties to dream about the creation of a new Utopia. It is a threat to the wellbeing of working people, the people our movement stands with and stands for. We stood against independence because we stand for solidarity and because nationalism acts against social justice. And if you think what matters more is who stood next to us while we made that argument, you’re simply buying our opponents’ spin.
Far too often, comrades who have a national platform think they know better than us on the basis of how Scottish politics is broadly presented in the media, rather than from personal experience or understanding. One MP told me at the Progress conference that I should listen to people who know how to win elections. I have news for him: he was sitting next to one.
We are a movement. We should have each other’s backs. So why, after urgent and repeated entreaties not to, did the Fabian Society press ahead during the stress of an existential-threat election campaign with publishing and heavily promoting Kez’s throwaway “it’s not inconceivable” line on a hypothetical post-Brexit independence? Why did an organisation at the heart of our movement insist on hyping that up and delivering the single most damaging press story of the Scottish Labour election campaign?
To major on that was both inaccurate and dismissive of every other statement Kez and others have made. The Scottish Labour Party couldn’t be clearer that we will defend Scotland within the UK as that’s the right thing to do both practically and ideologically. I ask myself if the Fabian Society would have done to Sadiq Khan what they did to Kezia Dugdale, and I find it very hard to imagine they might.
I’m afraid that too much of the comfortable centre of our national party has so little grasp on the reality of Scottish politics that not only can it not see when it is being damaging, it still thinks it knows better even when we are shouting down the phone at it.
And this is our own fault, for letting the ties between us and the exchanges of understanding become so threadbare. We must remember that gone are the days when 40 MPs and their staff took Labour insight up and down the East and West Coast main lines twice a week. We need urgently to reinforce the sharing of knowledge and insight across our UK party. We all have much to learn from each other about the similarities and differences in our challenges and opportunities.
One thing a trip to Scotland might teach is that Kezia Dugdale is absolutely right in this fifth Scottish Parliament session to pitch Scottish Labour’s tent firmly in the ground of non-constitutional politics. It is brave and it makes long-term sense. It means engaging with those who sincerely seek social justice and were persuaded into thinking independence could deliver it. It means tirelessly and methodically demonstrating that social justice does not depend on where powers sit but on what we do with them.
And if it means getting sand kicked in our face for a time by our constitutionally obsessed opponents in the SNP and the Tories, so be it. Such is politics. But when the people calling Scottish Labour a “steaming turd” are our own comrades? When Scotland is written off as lost forever by our own people? Our family urgently needs reminded of what common cause means.
Labour exists to build solidarity and achieve more together than we can alone. That doesn’t mean we must all speak with one voice, but it does mean we should seek out and respect the different parts of our party across the UK. And crucially it means we should listen to the folk who know their patch, and trust their insight, not belittle or override it from the centre.
Scottish Labour is not a cypher for internal squabbles. We are not disposable and we are not about to give up. We are your comrades, and we need you to listen.