kieran cowanKieran Cowan of Mid Fife and Glenrothes CLP says Scottish Labour needs to find a constitutional position to find its way back to relevance.


In all honesty, May 5th was a mixed day for me. Only a few days before I had been at the Hydro to see arguably one of the all-time best country bands (like, seriously, if you heard them sing…) in existence, called the Dixie Chicks, and I had just come out of a Higher English exam that left me cautiously confident.

Alas, the 2016 Scottish Parliament election was one where I think no one, bar Ruth Davidson and her Scottish Tories of course, was left really ecstatic. The SNP lost their majority, the Greens didn’t achieve their hope of winning a seat in every region, the Lib Dems stood stagnant. But most cripplingly, both personally as a Labour supporter and in terms of scale of loss, the once unthinkable had happened. Labour became the third party in Scotland — and in their place now stands a right-wing, pro-cuts, pro-David Cameron official opposition to the Sturgeonmania army.

To those who are tempted to see a change in leadership, whether it be now or under the condition of a trouncing in the 2017 local elections, I would like to cornily say: Keep Kez and Carry On. A leadership challenge just might be the last thing the Labour party ever does.

And in spite of Tories wrapped in either Saltires or Union Flags emerging as the two largest parties in Holyrood, not all hope is lost. Kezia Dugdale set a new tone which has the vision and message that can be carried on throughout the next Parliamentary term, allowing Labour to push the SNP to be bolder on protecting public services. Kezia’s strategy is also positioning the party well in order to call out the Nationalists for colluding with Ruth Davidson, should the Scottish Conservatives back John Swinney’s budgets, as we assume they will, and enable the SNP to pass on the brutal austerity cuts that are hammering Local authorities and the crucial services they deliver.

More than that, it is perhaps the first time in a long time where Labour could be seen to make positive arguments for something, rather than bitterly cry out against Scottish Government policies. A clear ambition to invest in Scotland’s services and people, along with an openly shown plan for how to raise the money required, puts Labour on a clear platform to fight for ‘Kids, not Cuts’  and to push the SNP harder on tackling social inequality. Labour with Kez’s leadership is one which seems to have, finally, developed a long term plan to define itself, and carve out its own place in the new political landscape of Scotland. Since definition and purpose is one thing voters feel we lack, progress on our core messaging from Kez is exactly the kind of thing that will help rebuild our party.

But there could be a serious flaw in this vision. It is no secret that the last parliament saw the Salmond/Sturgeon Scottish Government lead the way on exploiting grievances for political gain, rather than spending time to tackle the causes behind them. Almost every response to a question at FMQs or closing statement in a debate ended with either ‘it’s Labour’s fault’ or ‘if Scotland votes for independence, we could do something about it’. After nine years of the SNP holding power, the former soundbite never lost any of its potency, which is both baffling and sad, but the latter phrase is bound to be spouted from the government seats over the next five years — especially since the official opposition is one which revels in its Unionist traditions.

Furthermore, the new opposition will be determined to fight back on any attempt made by Sturgeon to further the case for independence, and concentrate its efforts on making the ‘positive case for the Union’. Bearing all this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that the fifth Scottish Parliament will see the constitutional question at the forefront of political debate yet again, and Sturgeon’s vow to relaunch an independence campaign in the summer only strengthens this likelihood. If that were to be the case, it obviously derails Labour’s road to recovery, as failing to act on the central concern facing the country could place us in the irrelevant fringes of modern politics. If one thing is certain, Labour can only win, indeed survive, when the electorate is convinced it stands up for them, on the issues that matter to them. This must surely mean that Labour needs a strong policy on the Scotland’s place in the UK.

Reflecting on the current autopsy of Scottish Labour’s electoral corpse, and the words of wisdom from the likes of Henry McLeish and Bernard Ponsonby, it is apparent that Labour needs to be ‘ahead of the curve’ on the politics of independence. But how can one outflank the SNP? It could be rather simple, actually. Without wishing to repeat Kevin McKenna, through revisiting the strategy of Wendy Alexander, a ‘bring it on’ approach could potentially push the SNP on the back foot. Even though one referendum did not put the issue to bed, a second one most certainly would, and arguing that it is important we settle the question once and for all, Labour could feasibly put across how important it is that we move on from the politics of identity, as we attempted to do so this year, by giving the voters the final say on what they want to do.

A second referendum, sooner rather than later, and perhaps with a joint vision between UK and Scottish Labour on a federal UK after a second no-vote, would potentially result in Kezia taking ownership of this issue. Whilst some may  argue that the last time we pushed for an early referendum we failed, what is different now is that the Scottish leader, not the UK one, is in charge, and this time the SNP did not set out an exact timescale or date for a referendum, but merely stated one would occur if there was a material change in circumstances.

Looking at the results delivered by voters last Thursday, one thing is absolute: the future of the Labour party is being held by a thread. But, with Kezia Dugdale’s refreshing leadership, calming and in stark contrast to that of both Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon, along with a clear policy platform for using the powers Holyrood has, the next term is filled with opportunity for Labour. And even if the next parliament refuses to get over the divisions between unionists and nationalists, it is not impossible for Labour to change the narrative and take ownership of what seems to be the core element of modern Scottish politics.

It is possible for Labour to become relevant again, to win again or, perhaps, govern again.  But, as the Dixie Chicks sang in the Hydro, we’re talking the long way.

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6 thoughts on “Taking the long way

  1. The labour party needs to stop equivocating on the Union. We don’t have the right to tell voters what is and isn’t important. We can’t avoid the question which dominates Scottish politics. We are a party that supports Scotland’s place in the UK. We should say so plainly and without qualification.

    Given that we need to pick a side on this, we may as well pick the side that enjoys majority support. That this position is also party policy, and in Scotland’s best interests, make it an even more obvious position to reinforce. No janus faced talk of MSPs being permitted to campaign for independence. No talk of the leader “conceivably” boting Yes. We are a party of the Union. Voters should not expect the labour party to be non-committal on tbe constitution. Neither should members or elected politicians.

    This affirmation may be criticised for increasing the difficulty the party has witnessed in attracting lost votes. It may cement perceptions of betrayal (unfair though those perceptions are) in the minds of many former labour voters who now support independence and the SNP. So be it. While the focus of the country is on the constitution, they are lost anyway.

    Short term we owe it to the million labour votes cast to articulate an alternative policy agenda to the tory/snp consensus on tax and spend.

    Long term we must try to take scottish political discourse away from the constitutional question. That does not happen by proposing Indyref2. We also just campaigned saying we would oppose another referendum.

    What we may be advised to propose is a UK wide constitutional convention encompassing voting reform and human rights, as well as devolution, with a constitution to be put to the whole UK in a referendum.

    1. “Given that we need to pick a side on this, we may as well pick the side that enjoys majority support. That this position is also party policy, and in Scotland’s best interests, make it an even more obvious position to reinforce.”

      Perfectly put.

  2. a few points that might help..

    1 The SNP lost their majority, – technically not…they have 63 to the combined LabourLibDemTory 60…to be opposed they will need Labour to side entirely with Ruth in opposition which may not speed the return of Labour. The Greens might not fancy the chances of blocking much of the legislation, they may use it to wring a few changes but, siding with the tories leaves you out in the cold in the long run.

    2. “Sturgeonmania army.” – name calling of voters who don’t agree with you, many of whom used to vote for you -myself included- will not encourage us back

    3 “And in spite of Tories wrapped in either Saltires or Union Flags emerging as the two largest parties” pretty much the same as point 2

    4. “for colluding with Ruth Davidson, should the Scottish Conservatives back John Swinney’s budgets”
    again pretty much point 1 – all four opposition parties would have to vote it down, the greens might not fancy that side of the argument and it would put Kez back in with the Tories – the opposite of your statement.

    5. “especially since the official opposition is one which revels in its Unionist traditions.”
    would that be Kez with her statements she would not support a second referendum even if the public wanted one, the same Labour party who fronted Better Together?
    Labour cannot wash its hands of its unionist traditions. It is the reason that Labour are where they are today

    6 “and concentrate its efforts on making the ‘positive case for the Union’.”
    we’re all still waiting on that. HMRC?BAE?£2bn Oil Boom?

    7 “This must surely mean that Labour needs a strong policy on the Scotland’s place in the UK.”
    It does, but since it backed the union, then Kez commented that she would not oppose indyref 2, then said she will. Labour has no room left.
    If they side with the Union they will be seen to side with the Tories, if they side with independence they will be seen to side with the SNP – both options will alienate the remaining support.
    Witht the Tories “Defenders of the Union” message making gains from Labour and the SNP’s “independence is the reason we exist” – there is no room for Labour in either stance to take the lead –
    Devo Max? since the Vow is viewed with suspicion by almost half the population that won’t work either.

    8. “a ‘bring it on’ approach” since that would mean Kez flipping back again there is a credibility issue and since Labour doesn’t have the numbers it can’t speed this process up.

    9. it is possible for Labour to become relevant again, to win again or, perhaps, govern again.
    It is, but, in elections from 1999-2007 the Tories and Lib Dems were pretty static at 17 or so seats for three elections. in that time labour consistently lost ground to the SNP – the signs were there for a long time.
    The real watershed was 2011 when the Lib Dems collapsed as they sided in coalition with the Tories at Westminster – Labour dropped even further.
    Better together happened and Labour has not only lost votes again to the SNP but now to the Tories.
    One thing is true – it is a long road back from the bottom and it has taken the tories 17 years to claw its way from 17 to 34 seats… another 17 years – who knows

  3. Independence and the union have roughly similar support at the moment, but that could all change depending on Scottish Labour’s position. Do we continue promoting a union where the Tories look to be ruling us for many years to come? Do we put unionism above socialism and democracy in Scotland ?

    For all the harking on about solidarity, it just seems to be supporting one identity and one nationalism over another, and it is a UK nationalism that seems to be against Scotland best interests much of the time, when all we are seeing is constant Tory governments in England.
    Make no mistake, British nationalism exists just as fervently as Scottish nationalism. And British nationalism is to all extent and purposes English nationalism due to the big difference in population. The practical outcome is Scottish interests and democracy getting sidelined, EVEL adds to that perception.

    I used to believe in the argument that we should stand with the workers of Manchester or Newcastle. But not to the point where we are putting our own interests secondary for so much of the time. The price is too high on our side. And in my experience many ordinary Labour voters down south were encouraging us to grab the chance to break free from Tory rule during the last referendum.

    So I’m completely open to independence now, and although federalism is the most likely new position for the party, that depends on waiting for another UK Labour government to grant it, and how would it work in reality? Are Scots going to be content with being classed as a region like the East Midlands ?
    All I know for sure is Labour can’t go on with its head in the sand and with Kezia ignoring any calls for change. What will it take? Hitting lib-dem levels of support ?

  4. “Party first, Scotland second” – therein lies Labour’s problem.

    Labour has had over 100 years to deliver on Home Rule and has failed miserably to do so. Now the constitutional question is destroying the party.

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