Sheila Gilmore says Labour should have learned the lesson from 2014 that straddling a post-referendum political divide simply doesn’t work, and that it’s way past time we adopted unambiguous UK policy on a confirmatory referendum.
Nine per cent. That was the Labour vote in Scotland on May 23rd. 14% overall in the UK.
Prior to the vote some Labour people were preparing their response to an expected bad result by pointing out that in the 2009 Euro elections Labour only got 24%. The message was that it has happened before and it won’t really matter. But hang on, even at that level it did matter. We didn’t win the 2010 general election, even if our vote did rise back up again. At the very least it was a pointer.
The policy and the strategy was just plain wrong. But for some in the party the answer is to present criticism as an attempt to undermine the leadership – “here they go again, those Blairites, another ‘coup’ attempt”, “this isn’t the right time for a leadership election”, “don’t divide the party”. The debate is framed in this way so that voices critical of policy can be brushed aside.
I welcome Richard Leonard’s post-election pro-Remain statement, though I wish he had taken that stand earlier as the majority of Scottish party members wanted. But in the week since the results came out I am less clear about where Jeremy Corbyn stands. Sometimes he is apparently moving closer to support for another referendum, sometimes he is saying it is a long way off, then he’s back to calling for a general election.
We don’t have unlimited time; even the party conference at the end of September is too late. We could be using the hiatus caused by the Tory leadership election to frame and campaign on a clear policy. There is time, if it is felt to be needed, to hold a members’ ballot or special conference. There won’t be unanimity but when is there on any issue?
Here in Scotland the position is very, very bad. It was before the Euro elections, with polling suggesting that all the progress made in the 2017 general election was unravelling. So this week up pops Jon Lansman on a brief visit to Scotland to tell us the blame lies with New Labour’s “neoliberalism”. This is a view we have heard quite a lot in the last three years.
Some questions, then. If this was all the fault of New Labour’s “neoliberalism”, why did we do well in Scotland in the 2010 general election, when we held all our seats, some with increased majorities. Is the suggestion that Scots are just slow learners?
Although some of its rhetoric sounds radical, the SNP is in reality a cautious, social democratic party. Cautious, for instance, in the use of its tax raising powers; slow to introduce radical changes on issues such as rent controls. And this is working for them. The voters don’t seem to be as unhappy with that as you would expect if you followed the Lansman analysis.
And if this analysis is right why are we going backwards despite three years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and nearly two of Richard Leonard’s?
In reality Scottish political culture is much more complex and nuanced, as are the reasons for the decline in Labour support. You quickly pick this up if you talk to Scots voters. One problem is often those who say they like Jeremy Corbyn and the change he has brought to Labour are still not ‘coming back’ to vote for us.
People who, south of the border, have come back to supporting, even rejoining Labour, are sticking with the SNP or Greens, seeing independence as the surest road to socialism. Many of them know that the SNP itself is not a particularly radical party, but they are prepared to live with that to arrive at the goal of independence. In contrast other voters positively endorse the ‘steady as she goes’ approach of the Scottish Government, and while often still against independence, are not showing signs of being desperate for Labour as it is now perceived to be.
The elephant in the room in the Lansman analysis is the constitutional question, and the huge divide that opened up in the course of the long campaign for the independence referendum in 2014 and its immediate aftermath. This changed Scottish politics. More than anything else it now defines where people stand. Disillusion and disappointment with the Blair/ Brown governments will have played a part in this, but it was not and is not the decisive factor.
Political parties need a position on this defining issue – a consistent and clear one – before we can get on to present our other policies. Labour opposed independence in 2014 because we believed that it would be bad for our economy and the well-being of the people of Scotland. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that position. Voters in Scotland need to know where we stand.
And it’s clear that the EU referendum in 2016 has had a similar impact on UK politics. Even when they express how ‘fed up’ they are with hearing about Brexit, voters are dividing along the Leave/Remain axis. Attempting to straddle this divide has proved a disaster. Labour’s leadership could have learned from what happened in Scotland, had they not been so determined to say it was all down to ‘the Blairites’.