Labour’s unionism is a political reality

Alasdair-McKillopAlasdair McKillop challenges Scottish Labour to accept and positively define its unionism, rather than to diminish it.

 

Scottish Labour – in its policies and against the backdrop of contemporary Scottish politics – is by any standard definition a unionist party. This strikes me as being an established political reality and to suggest otherwise invites further disillusionment.

Those who reject the label claim the party’s overriding objective is the furtherance of social justice. But by accepting this is best pursued within the framework of the UK, particularly at a time when its existence is fiercely contested, Scottish Labour is a utilitarian unionist party.

Scott Arthur, in his Labour Hame article contending this is not the case, made the case as follows:

“Sure [Scottish Labour] wants Scotland to stay in the UK, but this is because remaining in the UK, even when we have a Tory Government, is the best way to deliver social justice in the long-term.”

This struck me as a perfectly fair formation of that particular position. But surely to advance such an argument only to then try to convince people that you are not, in fact, a member of a unionist party, is to run the high risk of insulting their basic perception of Scottish politics? If you were to be met with a sceptical expression it would be well deserved in such circumstances.

To pretend Scottish Labour is other than a unionist party would appear duplicitous at a time when the public seemed disinclined to give the party the benefit of the doubt. Jim Murphy made this mistake in January when he stated he was not a unionist, a discordant remark given the high profile one-man tour he conducted during the referendum campaign.

Part of the problem with arguing that Scottish Labour is not a unionist party, as I think this would be commonly understood, is that the counter argument rests on the summoning of some phantom party that exists, so far as I can infer, only to fetishize the ornaments and institutions of the UK state. If this sounds exactly like a description of the Conservative Party then there is every chance you are being wilfully tribal. The truth is that mainstream Conservative rhetoric is as much concerned with the UK as a framework for action, albeit different action, as is official Labour policy.

It might be wise to recall, in relation to this point, that one of the main criticisms of the Better Together campaign was its failure to articulate what some referred to as an emotional or romantic case for the union. I’ve yet to hear or read any reasoned argument which is able to define the type of unionist party that Labour apparently is not. As has already been argued, unionism and the pursuit of social justice are not incompatible positions they just happen to relate to different issues. And we know they are not incompatible because current Labour party policy combines the two.

These existential mutterings about whether or not Scottish Labour is a unionist party are a symptom of discomfort with the practice of UK politics at a time of nationalist ascendancy in Scotland. Another is the suggestion that Scottish Labour should separate, to one degree or other, from UK Labour so as to better make the case for policies popular with the Scottish electorate. This possibility has been raised most recently by Kezia Dugdale, when launching her leadership campaign, and by former party leader Johann Lamont during an interview with the BBC. Before we know it, a clamour will be upon us.

Put simply, the idea has all the markings of a shallow quick-fix: it is political gimmickry which suggests little attention to the likely consequences of such a schism. Let’s begin with the observation that it accepts nationalist arguments that political attitudes north and south of the border are becoming ever more incompatible. Let’s also add that it will invite and receive in plentiful amount the quip that if Scottish Labour had to remove itself from a UK-wide institution to prosper then… you see where this is going.

The ultimate logic of the proposition is also unconvincing: would Scottish Labour MPs who had taken a different stance on an issue such as Trident, public spending or immigration to get elected to the UK Parliament really vote against a Labour Government when it came to the crunch? And if this were to happen the benefit would be what, precisely? Those are the questions voters will implicitly be invited to ask by the creation of any new organisation. It goes without saying that such questions will also be put explicitly by the SNP. No one can say with any certainty what would transpire in such a situation but the public will be guided to make certain assumptions. Instead of a new Scottish Labour organisation enticing voters back, it risks looking like a cynical ploy to collect votes on a false prospectus.

Note the reference to UK elections in the paragraph above. This of course reflects that fact that Scottish Labour already has the freedom to make policies in devolved areas of responsibility so a separate party could only hope to be of some benefit when it came to UK-level issues. Issues like those mentioned are undoubtedly used against Scottish Labour, but they are hardly the sole cause of the party’s misfortune. As Gemma Doyle argued in her half of a Progress article on this proposition that was republished on this website:

“The truth is that the Scottish Labour party has full free rein over all devolved policy making. But there has been very little to inspire voters in the way of devolved policies in recent years.”

This might strike some as a hard truth but I don’t think there is any disputing that it is indeed an accurate summary of the past eight years. The areas for which Scottish Labour already has policy-making control are also the areas for which the SNP has had governmental control for the past eight years. If policy autonomy alone were the solution then Scottish Labour would be preparing to demolish the poor record of a government limping towards the end of an extended second term. But this is seemingly not the case according to Kezia Dugdale who said on Saturday that Scottish Labour should be prepared for further electoral hardship next year.

Of course, it’s not only policy autonomy that is being proposed, but also the creation of a more emphatically separate organisation. If it is agreed that policy autonomy in devolved areas hasn’t produced significant results since 2007 then why should it be of any benefit in those areas than remain reserved? Does the argument in favour of a separate organisation ultimately rest on the assumption that voters will be sufficiently impressed by different labelling?

To return to Scott Arthur’s article, it should be noted he got something else exactly right: the SNP’s popularity is, to a large degree, an extension of support for independence. It seems fair to suggest that many of those who favour independence do so because they believe it offers a most promising framework for the creation of a more equitable society. That is to say, they are pursuing the same ends as those who believe social justice can best be advanced by remaining part of the UK. But the logical conclusion to be drawn from this is not the one drawn by Scott: Labour has little to gain by trying to convince those motivated to support independence on such terms of its own commitment to social justice. The basic point of conflict is not the end but the means by which it is pursued. To put it another way, stressing Labour’s commitment to social justice as a response to a nationalist supporter of the same concept is to fail to address the point of difference between the two positions.

I believe Scottish Labour to be a unionist party, but I have little idea of how it views the UK at the end of this period of constitutional flux. This strikes me as a crucial deficiency. On Twitter the other day, the author Philip Pullman said:

“The Labour Party must renew itself. And by far the best way to do that would be to become the party of thoroughgoing constitutional reform.”

If Scottish Labour wants to excite some ideas within itself and project an image of purpose to the electorate, it could do worse than to become clear-headed and assertive on the question of the future of the UK.

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10 thoughts on “Labour’s unionism is a political reality

  1. It seems fair to suggest that many of those who favour independence do so because they believe it offers a most promising framework for the creation of a more equitable society. That is to say, they are pursuing the same ends as those who believe social justice can best be advanced by remaining part of the UK. But the logical conclusion to be drawn from this is not the one drawn by Scott: Labour has little to gain by trying to convince those motivated to support independence on such terms of its own commitment to social justice. The basic point of conflict is not the end but the means by which it is pursued. To put it another way, stressing Labour’s commitment to social justice as a response to a nationalist supporter of the same concept is to fail to address the point of difference between the two positions.

    That seems to me to be exactly right, and something that many within Scottish Labour are finding it very hard to accept. Saying that we simply need to assert the case for ‘Labour values’ more clearly is, I think, to misunderstand the nature of Labour’s dilemma. We’re very fond of saying ‘nationalism never built a school, a hospital’ and so on. Well, it does if independence gives you the powers necessary to do those things. And that is the essence of the nationalist appeal to which Labour needs to develop a persuasive response.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful piece.

  2. I want Scotland to be independent because independence will deliver greater social justice to our people. So, am I a nationalist….or not? This disagreement between Alasdair McKillop and Scott Arthur is about nothing more than terminology.
    Scots are sick of being governed by Tory policies. It is why they have stopped voting Labour. As long as Labour conducts it’s post-defeat self-analysis in terms like Alasdair’s “….the counter argument rests on the summoning of some phantom party that exists, so far as I can infer, only to fetishize the ornaments and institutions of the UK state….” it is going nowhere.

  3. Scottish Labour want social justice in the framework called the UK.

    SNP want social justice in the framework called Scotland.

    One says better to deliver to the greater number.

    The other says better to deliver at all than be out voted more than half the time.

    The author here hits the nail on the head on the point of difference. One framework has emotional attachment. The other just simply doesn’t hold anything like it. I’ve never felt Scots had an emotional attachment to the Union and so it seems to be. Whether Labour are right or wrong is upto their principles but the public are backing the framework that seems to suit them best. The country of Scotland. And their backing the party that puts it first and foremost. Labour have become the guardians of a Union nobody (even many no voters) particularly feel proud of.

    It’s often said by Labour supporters, “more in common with an ordinary worker in Liverpool than a laird in Angus” or whatever as if this is the great point of difference between the two parties. It’s not and doesn’t change anybody’s mind. Maybe it used to be before the great SNP surge but the people are different now. Many SNP supporters feel the same way; they just see different ways of changing the world we live in for the better.

    I get the impression a Labour members club you could easily say “Scotland’s not a country” and get a quiet but agreeable response. There’s a hardcore in Labour that’s so out of step with the growing Scottish realisation of self-determination that it’s warping their ability to see clearly.

    The thing is; if Labour create a Scottish party they are agreeing Scotland already is a different polity. Hard to really argue against independence in that context. Although they already did so with the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

    I honestly think Labour may just have to rough it out until the SNP become unpopular as they inevitably will. After all, that is essentially what the SNP has done to Labour plus a potent mix of professionalism, tactical nous and changing Scottish independence cause to steal social justice as its underlying aim.

  4. Of course the origins of Labour lie in the Scottish coalfields, as miners under men like Keir Hardie, fought for decent wages and conditions of work.
    But Hardie believed in Home Rule for Scotland, of a similar nature to Canada and Australia, which would have seen Scotland gaining its independence decades ago.
    So where now for Scottish Labour?. The leadership contests north and south are not gripping, with a calibre of contestant that leaves a lot to be desired. It would appear that Labour is quitely damping down serious expectation of electoral success for many years.
    So do we wait, and wait, and wait, for social justice and a prosperous standard for all?
    In Scotland we have another option, and I now expect the charms and attraction of British Nationalist politics to fade as the austerity of the Tory Ascendency south of the border bites. Their real ambition is to shrink the State, and Labour have surrendered to their 37% ‘mandate’.
    Where are the Scottish Labour plans for economic growth? For infrastructure and industrial renewal? All is waffle and special pleading for Glasgow City council. That won’t engage a public who have lost faith with years of Labour MP indolence.
    Too harsh? —– Get real, and listen to what real people are saying !

  5. I can’t get my head around this SNP argument that ‘I want Scottish independence because it gives us a better chance of delivering social justice.’ It’s just empty rhetoric. The SNP have failed to deliver social justice in their education and health policies. At best, the SNP are a centrist social Democratic Party in the mould of new Labour. They have their Tories and take cash from business interests.
    I am thealso suspicious of fighting Scottish nationalism with another form of nationalism. The concept of national identity in Scotland is complicated. Scottishness and Britishness mean different things to different people.
    Labour supporters should also consider the result of the referendum. Why did a majority of people vote to remain in Britain but still continued to vote SNP? Is it because they believed the SNP could be more Labour than Labour?
    I think it much better to continue highlighting SNP shortcomings in tandem with a national leadership that isn’t perceived by the electorate to be part of a London based elite. The new leadership need to promote policies that genuinely inspire and excite folk and they need to get away from being part of the So called Westminster bubble. An exciting, buzzy Labour Party down south married to an effective opposition in Scotland could be the key thing to rejuvenate Scottish Labour.

    1. ‘I think it much better to continue highlighting SNP shortcomings in tandem with a national leadership that isn’t perceived by the electorate to be part of a London based elite’
      You can see the problem with these two positions. First, even Ken Mackintosh said that just repeating the ‘SNP Baad’ mantra was counterproductive and lost Labour support. Secondly whatever the ‘perception’, the reality is that as long as Scotlab is attached to UK Labour, it is in actuality part of a London based elite and so subservient to their governance.

    2. “Better chance of delivering social justice “.
      Its not just an SNP argument, I would have thought.
      There is absolutely no chance of Scotland electing a right wing government in the near future, so an independent Scotland would have a left of centre, or centrist government in office no matter what.
      In the UK, it would appear Labour is aiming at best for 2025 before it can possibly win power. By that time the UK will be a very different country, with the Tories sticking their ( 37% ) mandate in every ones face every chance they get.
      Exciting, buzzy—effective opposition ?
      Look at the candidates. In your dreams, sadly.

  6. It’s an odd metaphor but The ‘Scottish’ Labour predicament reminds me of the dying of the Dead Sea, with the main difference being that the increasingly salty remainder of the Labour party is at least partly able to talk amongst itself. The discussion on how to recover always seems to forget about or dismiss the water that is leaving or has left. The inevitability of every discussion amongst the brine seems to be that the best way forwards is to forget about the H2O and add more salt.

  7. Alistair, if an alien from outer space read this their first question to you would be, what is this thing called ‘Labour’s Social Justice’?
    You seem to think that a new abstract phrase will be enough to return Scotland to its senses, that we the Scottish electorate will accept a new piece of jargon that if repeated often enough and made exclusive only to delivery by Labour that the masses will nod their approval and return to Labour’s fold.
    Here is a thought for you Alistair, all political parties claim they are socially just, that their policies will deliver social justice. Even ISIS believe in a form of social justice.

  8. The issue isn’t whether it is a unionist party or not. The issue is that being a unionist party has become more important than anything else. That was seen throughout the referendum campaign, where winning it became all-consuming.

    Ironically as Labour narrowed its focus, people in the yes camp moved in the opposite direction, with much discussion and thinking on the good that could be done after independence.

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