Ewan Gibbs and Alistair Craig criticise calls for a “big tent strategy” for Scottish Labour. This article was first published at Left Futures.
“We need a big tent plan, not a core vote strategy, to win again in Scotland.”
–Kezia Dugdale, 7th July 2015
That foremost authority on Scottish Labour politics, Antonio Gramsci, once gasped, “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” Scottish Labour has now moved even further on the road of the withering old and the failing new. The monstrous period of Jim Murphy has passed, yet the fairy stories and fantasies of Murphy’s politics remain.
Kezia Dugdale exemplified this with her prescription that Labour’s core vote has dwindled to the point of electoral disaster and must instead be replaced by a ‘big tent’ strategy. Scottish Labour has an image problem – it has become branded with representing ‘the most vulnerable’ and must now pivot towards those who wish to ‘better themselves.’
However this Kendall-like rhetoric couldn’t be more distant from social and political reality. Bereft of the analysis to process their defeat, Scottish Labour has retreated into myth and hoisted the Blairite standards. Yet despite the talk of the ‘1997 coalition’ between the housing schemes and suburban Mondeo Man and the more recent narrative about how Ed Miliband alienated ‘Middle England’, the Scottish scenario just doesn’t match up. For in Scotland Labour didn’t lose in the shires and win in the cities – it was decimated across its former industrial ‘heartlands’.
Dugdale’s big tent isn’t an attempt to rebuild the old coalition of ‘traditional Labour voters’ with more affluent, public sector workers. Far from it. The Dugdale strategy is the logical extension of Murphy’s ‘Noalition’ – it accepts that Labour has lost its traditional working class and labour movement base and must meekly attempt to fashion what it can from a coalition of comfortably-off unionists.
The reality is that it was this unionist coalition that voted Scottish Labour in May. Across the ‘heartlands’ of central Scotland majorities of tens of thousands over the SNP were reversed. The top five biggest losses were in Glasgow North East and South, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in Fife and two Lanarkshire constituencies, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and Rutherglen and Hamilton West where the SNP took comfortably over 50%. It was the comparatively middle class constituency of Edinburgh South, traditionally a three way marginal, that Labour’s vote increased and Ian Murray survived as the sole Scottish Labour MP. The SNP won Jim Murphy’s seat of East Renfrewshire and Aberdeen South, both former Tory seats, but with smaller majorities and around 40% of the vote. It was Morningside, Newton Mearns and oil-rich Aberdeen where Labour’s vote held up most.
There’s therefore not that many folk in Dugdale’s big tent. What’s left is essentially a grouping marked by small-c conservatism. Uncertainty about the SNP, a waning sense of loyalty, unionist inclinations and a fear of the disruption that may be caused by Scottish independence is holding them under Labour’s canvas. It’s not a surprise these constituencies were also those that recorded high ‘No’ votes in the independence referendum. And it’s likely the number of happy campers will further decline at the 2016 Holyrood election where the argument that voting Labour will stop the Tories is an irrelevance.
This is the real crux of the matter: Scotland already has a big tent party, a very successful national party that promises all things to all people be they vulnerable or seeking to better themselves. In their promotion of social partnership, limited state welfare support, socially responsible business and individual advancement through education, the SNP have perfected the art of the Scottish marquee. Dugdale and Sturgeon’s politics are thus so similar that she can only look like a unionist imitation. At best she can criticise the particulars of the SNP’s failings, rightly railing against the cuttings of hundreds of thousands of college places and the privatisation of public transport services. But it’s hard not to view this as sniping when there is no ideologically grounded alternative on offer.
Neither ‘Yes’ Nor ‘No’, But Labour
Labour can only survive in Scotland if it ditches any conception of itself as continuity Better Together and of building an electoral coalition based on constitutional alignment. The hard road ahead comes through challenging the SNP coherently by undermining their claims to represent everybody in Scotland – ripping out the foundations from their tent. This can’t work whilst Labour representatives support striking hospital porters in Dundee in a bitter strike over employment conditions yet Labour Glasgow City Council simultaneously allows a homeless case workers strike to stretch to over 15 weeks. It doesn’t work whilst individual policies are criticised but the broad thrust of a social partnership ideology is embraced.
The leadership debate is worryingly barren and the Holyrood lists are set to be reopened and packed with beaten MP’s and ex-Labour Students technocrats. Rebuilding the political voice of the labour movement in Scotland will require far better than this. A full repudiation of the recent past can only come through the articulation of a politics that’s prepared to challenge the dominance of social partnership and openly pit the interests of ordinary people against big business. It comes through doing what the SNP won’t – starting in terms of safeguarding public transport, coordinating public housing strategies and apprenticeships, and moving towards ‘home rule’ from below in the control of resources through workplace and community empowerment.
On a North Ayrshire council estate in the shadow of shiny new builds, at door after door people told us that they felt Labour no longer represented them. A recovery will not come through Morningside but through convincing them otherwise.