Paul Bisland, a Labour member who supports Scottish independence, says last week’s election results suggest more bad news for the party in June, and thinks the answer is a shift in our strategy and our constitutional position.
When the Labour party losing control of Glasgow is no longer a shock, then times are beyond worrying for the party. If you were shocked by last Thursday’s result, you haven’t been paying attention and you should look away come June. For everyone else, the expectations for the general election have never been so low. The party will come second nationally, but that is not even remotely the story that matters in Scotland.
With one MP at present, the party faces the possibility of having not one single MP in Scotland just one month after losing control of the city that is synonymous with the Labour movement in Scotland. Just a decade ago, when the election of 47 SNP MSPs to Labour’s 46 suggested the first hints of a serious rival party in Scotland, the idea of Labour being third in the Scottish Parliament, out of power in Glasgow, and potentially without an MP in Scotland would have been unpredictable to even the most prescient of journalists, pollsters or Professors of psephology. The odds would have been enormous.
Yet now the bookies make Labour slight favourites in just one Scottish seat – the Edinburgh South seat that the party currently hold. For some perspective, the same Irish bookmaker has the Lib Dems as favourites in five and the Tories as favourites in six. Whilst the bookies have been wrong recently over Trump and Brexit, it is still a worry that they would expect Labour to be the fourth largest party, if we even register a seat at all, come June.
Faced with the situation as it is now, Scottish Labour cannot repeat the mistakes of other recent defeats and simply carry on as if this is temporary. The truth is that the 2014 independence referendum did not just change the rules of politics in Scotland, it changed the whole game, and the current trend suggests that it is a game that Labour will play next to no part in for the foreseeable future. Make no mistake, this is terminal decline. The party will never cease to be, but if it becomes a race to be third between Labour and the Lib Dems then we will cease to be relevant and in politics it is much the same thing.
Further trouble faces the party if the decline is not arrested soon. The old quips about donkeys in red rosettes in Glasgow have never seemed further away and what that actually means is of huge concern for the future. A whole generation of new voters, who would almost certainly have been Labour voters under previous conditions, are now voting SNP or Conservative. The strong Labour brand, attachment and identity is diminishing with each vote (which is a relatively fast measure in these referendum and snap election days). The idea of Labour being the only party who can win is gone, and when that is replaced by the feeling that Labour can’t win, the same thing we often attach to the Greens or Lib Dems in most First Past the Post contests, then there is a massive problem for how the party is perceived. Add to this the number of people who have changed their party of choice, and seem to be sticking with their decision, and you have a situation in which the bottom could still be further down than the current position.
There has to be an acceptance that the party has been spectacularly wrong on strategy for over a decade. This is not to blame individuals or to seek to diminish the contribution of activists and hard-working members, but the electorate are never wrong and the other parties are not to blame for Labour’s decline. The party has to look in the mirror and take the full responsibility for taking our base for granted, failing to make an offer which appealed to the country and for a strategy which has been incoherent if not inexistent.
When power was devolved to Scotland, the same process did not happen within the party which devolved it. The party has been harmed by this and the idea of a “branch office” has become a regular line of attack for our opponents. Future Scottish Labour leaders must be able to chart a course which is at odds with Westminster Labour, especially since the views and voting habits of the Scottish and English electorates seem so distinct and out of kilter.
Clearly a solution which focuses on Scotland is the only way forward and the autonomy of the party speaks to that requirement. This would also insulate the party against unpopular decisions in the UK wide party; as a young Labour activist at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election I was used to hearing the Iraq war being used as a reason not to vote for Scottish Labour, and so the party needs to be able to disagree with future UK Labour governments and take positions which better represent the Scottish people.
The constitution is one such issue. Scottish independence as an issue is not going away and Labour’s approach to it has been our undoing. The biggest mistake was to dictate to the party what their view on it should be. Thousands, like me, have been alienated by a decision to oppose independence without any form of debate within the party – certainly below the level of elected member. The Scottish Green Party voted on their position, but Labour in Scotland avoided a proper democratic process; a process which would have highlighted the level of support within the party and might have allowed the creation of a more nuanced position.
The flat out rejection of another independence referendum means the party now competes against the Conservatives for the votes of those who do not want independence and the SNP have free reign to mop up 56 of 59 seats with the concentrated support of those who want another vote on the matter. Right now it looks like the only thing that can stop Labour from being sidelined in Scottish politics would be a final outcome to the constitutional issue, however that looks.
The future for the Labour Party in Scotland is in the hands of the decision makers within the party. Continuation of the current path will lead to nowhere, and the time to prevent the current decline from becoming long-term irrelevance is finite. A fundamental change of approach is required urgently. The need for a party who oppose austerity, support strong workers’ rights, fight for equality of opportunity and exist to end poverty in one of the richest countries in the world will always be there. Whether Labour will be the party who meet this need into the future is a question that will only be answered by time.