Labour Hame editor Duncan Hothersall says the abject failure of Scottish Labour presents an opportunity to knock down and rebuild a party which can once again be relevant and speak for the people it seeks to represent.

For many moderate Labour members the last few years have been a real challenge. There were many times during the Corbyn years that I felt I simply couldn’t maintain my membership, as the party had become such a different political entity from that which I had joined. There was a period of at least eighteen months during which I stayed in the party solely to spite those running it, having lost all hope that the Labour movement to which I had belonged could ever be rekindled from the wreckage of what the hard left had done.

So it’s been a further shock to the system to discover how much a leadership election in which the majority of the membership made clear it too was sick of Corbynism, followed by a few months of a steady hand on the tiller from Keir Starmer, could transform my view of and attitude towards our party and our movement. Words like “credible” are slowly seeping back into private and public discussions. Maybe, perhaps, even “hope”.

They come with caveats aplenty, of course. Corbyn’s legacy of an 80-seat Tory majority in the UK Parliament will be with us for five years, and impotence breeds apathy. We have years of internal battles to fight yet before we can come close to recovering from the hard-left aberration. And here in Scotland we seem doomed to remain a third wheel in a politics in which the Tories pose as champions of the union and the SNP pose as champions of the left. Oh for some robust scrutiny that would expose both those poses for the tissue-thin propaganda that they are. Scottish Labour could and should be filling both of those roles, instead of vacillating on one and burying the other in ideology rather than action.

But there are two things I’ve come to realise which help me – a Labour moderate in Scotland, the political pariah’s political pariah – keep fighting and keep hoping.

The first is a surprising side-effect of those last few years of frustration and despair, namely the realisation that Labour isn’t a tribe, it’s an idea, and that idea can survive just about any level of division and disagreement and still go on to flourish. Robust challenges are okay. Flat out, repeated public disagreement with the leadership and its policies is okay. This coalition of the left is not a fragile thing needing nurtured lest it withers; it is a solid edifice that can, and occasionally needs to be, hammered into shape. So hammer it we can, and hammer it we must.

The second is that every failure presents an opportunity, and that surely must mean Scottish Labour presents the greatest opportunity in Scotland right now, because it has become the byword for political failure. Nobody expects us to do anything but lose badly in the 2021 election. But while it seems like the political conversation is essentially continuing without us – the SNP civil war has burst out into the public sphere and the Tories’ leadership shenanigans belies the reality that they are at the limits of their political opportunity – the chance for Scottish Labour to redefine itself and meet the electorate where they are is right there, waiting.

Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne tells us the new anointed leader-in-waiting of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, will lead a “Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti nat party”. It’s a pithy summary, but it could be a signpost to how Scottish Labour could focus itself for the future. We need to become a Starmer backing, EU positive, anti nat party. Vacillators over independence should be shown the door. Lexiteers should be ushered to the exit. Those more loyal to the remnants of Corbyn than the hope of Starmer should be jettisoned forthwith. It’s right that Scottish Labour should be a broad coalition of the left, but the nationalism of Brexit and independence does not belong on the left, and we need to be bold enough to say so and mean it. And the breadth of our coalition always did, and still should, have limits – let those whose natural home is the SWP and the zoomer left go back there and leave us in peace.

We’re going to lose the next Scottish election. Badly. So let’s waste no time shoring up the directionless mess in which we have ended up to try to minimise losses. Let’s become a party with a clarity of purpose, living up to the ideal written on the back of every membership card that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. People will wail and gnash their teeth, cards will be cut up and fury will ensue, but Labour is an idea that is easily strong enough to survive through that, and in the end if we emerge as a party of principle and purpose once more we will have a foundation on which to rebuild for the future. And sometimes the future comes a lot quicker than you think.

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42 thoughts on “The opportunities of failure

  1. Glad to see you’re writing again and I’m glad you can admit that Labour in its current form can’t win next year. Also thanks for fixing the HTTPS issue that’s been eating my comments for got knows how long. What are Labour’s next steps? Have you (as a party) lined up fresh blood in currently not labour held seats? The same goes for the lists, I hope you have local talent that can be promoted into Holyrood that gives you the chance to have a proper leadership campaign. It seems since Donald Dewar there’s been a downward trajectory. Kezia frustratingly only showed what she was capable of _after_ she stepped down as leader and I feel she would have made a good leader if she had been elected at the right time. I do hope Richard can pull his finger out and actually lead your party, but I won’t hold my breath.

  2. I really thought we had had it for my lifetime but look where we are. Thanks for the optimistic take on Labour – although it doesn’t sound that optimistic at times

  3. Ah…so your solution is to become the Labour version of the Tories in Scotland whilst ignoring the majority wishes of the people of Scotland? That’ll work

    1. By opposing the Conservative government and promoting the EU? I’m not sure what version of the world you are living in but it doesn’t sound like mine.

      1. Oppose them on what? What policy or ideology are you in opposition to exactly?

        1. How about progressive taxation? Scottish Labour has consistently argued for increased progressive taxation in order to properly fund, for example, councils who have been starved of funds by the Scottish Government. Two parties went into the last Scottish election with a pledge not to do that. One was the Tories. The other was the SNP.

          1. So why did Labour oppose the progressive taxation changes made by the Scottish Government? Spewing rhetoric isnt opposition Duncan voting against policy is and Labour are very good at opposing every single Social Democratic proposal the Scottish Government supports while voting with the Conservatives in Westminster.
            How will Labour be able to support Brexit deal with Covid and actually deliver progressive taxation?
            Labour all rhetoric not so hot on detail.

          2. They didn’t. They argued they didn’t go far enough. The SNP campaigned in the last election on a platform on freezing income tax. Labour campaigned on a platform of properly funding public services by increasing it. Do not try to pretend that the SNP is to the left of Labour.

  4. But what does it mean to be ‘EU positive’? Starmer is wisely avoiding the Brexit issue for the moment. The SNP are making good political capital out of Brexit for now but things can change and it is not clear how things will work out. Besides, the evidence of all the flag waving and marches by the People’s Vote Campaign shows that the EU simply represents a different sort of nationalism. It’s easy to be against nationalism, but where does that leave us in terms of supra nationalism and globalisation? The UK’s relationship with the EU will need to develop in a way that recognises the reality of Brexit one way or another, and Labour will need to accommodate that even if some members don’t like it.

  5. Duncan thanks for this. I too was only barely hanging on to my membership card during those hugely ineffective destructive Corbyn years. It’s not only an 80-seat right wing Tory majority in the UK that we have to thank Corbyn etc for. There’s also Brexit itself, where Corbyn sat on his hands.

    When you say Labour is an fundamentally an idea not a tribe, you are right. But we lack ideas, arising from values, that translate into ordinary language. We don’t have a place in Scotland where left-facing ideas can bubble and mature, where people can learn to think new thoughts, test out accessible language and find new stories. It ought to be a prime leadership function to encourage that; but like Mike Lothian I won’t hold my breath on that one.

    If new ideas and new stories do not soon emerge then – in your analysis – we will weaken severely. I agree that the ground on which we stand is anti-nationalism, pro-European and fully supportive of Keir Starmer. But beware, unless we have the convincing language and compelling stories that position will get portrayed as anti-Scottish by the nationalists and anti-British by the Tories.

    I don’t count myself as a “moderate” by the way, as you do. I think our whole country (as well as our planet) is in such a parlous state that only far-reaching radical action will do. And a central part of that radicalism, for me, is being far more inclusive of all kinds of people and far more democratic in the way we do things. “Power wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few” we say quietly to ourselves. Who and where are the Labour people in Scotland who are thinking hard and arguing hard to thrash out the compelling public stories and convincing language that will tell all our people how we will walk that road?

  6. There we have it. Duncan knows Scottish Labour will be badly beaten at next years Scottish elections so what is the solution? Purify The Party. Scottish Labour needs to be cleansed of its illnesses. It is because Scottish Labour is ideologically sick, that is why it keeps losing.
    First to go, anyone that has ever possessed thoughts of an independent Scotland. Broad church no more. Duncan’s vision is puritanical unionism.
    Second to be shown the door; Brexit supporters. This is an odd one, I didnt think there were any Labour supporters that voted Leave. There used to be lots but they all vote UKIP now.
    Finally, the group that Duncan hates the most and wants to eradicate so no memory remains, those that at any time in the past showed sympathy for the last leader. Corbyn was evil. Duncan was ashamed of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Corbynism was a cancer in the body politic. So anyone that had the slightest leaning toward Corbyn has to be purged. That presumably means Duncan Horthesall wants rid of the present leader Richard Leonard who was if I am not mistaken a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn.
    I wonder after Duncan The Witchfinder General has finished his work how many will be left in The New Scottish Labour and Unionist Party?

  7. So let’s see, who’s OUT in Duncan’s New Pure Labour:

    – Lexiters (about 35% of Labour voters)

    – independence supporters (about 35% of Scottish Labour voters, which is going to make winning all those Scottish seats we keep insisting we need to form a government a bit tricky)

    – Corbyn supporters (something like 60%+ of the current membership joined when he became leader)

    – (presumably) all the anti-Semites, although you didn’t mention them

    – (presumably) all the gender-critical feminists, ie the majority of women

    Who’s left:

    – pretty much just Duncan

    At least conference will go fairly smoothly, I guess. If there’s another member you can hire a tandem and cycle there.

      1. Duncan, I have to agree with Brian, if you insist on showing us Labour voters who are supportive of independence the door there will be gey few left. Good luck with that idea.

        1. Oh no, we might face going into the election with incredibly low levels of support. Imagine!

          1. I imagine a time when Labour start losing their deposits because people all over the UK dont look to Labour for the Conservative values members like you want to associate with Labour.

      2. Sorry, you’ve lost me. What mathematical error have I made there?

        1. Duncan’s never heard of a venn diagram, it seems. But then that matches his purity stance.

  8. It’ll be a long haul, but we need to counter the appeal of the nationalist and sectarian ‘left’ among our natural supporters, as well as exposing the failures of the SNP and Conservatives in government.
    Certainly the new UK leadership gives us hope and reminds us of the basic decency and good sense of party members, but we’ve got some hard thinking to-do about priorities and tough organisational decisions to make up here.
    A Scottish political landscape dominated by a Tory/SNP standoff could easily continue for decades, independence or no independence (see Ireland).
    Any stirrings in the party to counter this are still too weak to sense at the moment, but now is the time to exploit the non-nationalist social democratic feelings of ordinary people.

    1. Who do you see as the sectarian left? Sectarianism across the whole of the UK tends to be on the right. The Orange Order and the DUP being glaring examples.

  9. Your idea of “Moderate” is Conservatism Duncan. You want Labour to officially adopt Conservatism as an ideology. You’ll never get that to fly in Scotland and Conservatism is already well served in England. Wales looks like its going populous so there is no fertile ground for your approach of “Reform” anywhere.
    People like you will never admit that Labours downfall began with Blair and Brown with that steady drift from the left to the right you’ll just keep denying reality itself until you get too old to type and read small words.

  10. Duncan “They didn’t. They argued they didn’t go far enough.”

    Nobody in Labour argued that. Labour opposed the Scottish Governments new Income tax bands and voted against them in Parliament claiming WRONGLY they increased tax on the poorest and low tax band earners. They lied as usual. They didnt propose anything that could be recognised as progressive as an alternative. You’re back to making it up as you go along. As usual.

    “The SNP campaigned in the last election on a platform on freezing income tax.”

    Bare faced lie. The SNP campaigned to freeze the higher rate threshold levels in 2019.They havent moved since.

    You just cant help yourself.

    1. Labour said they didn’t go far enough and argued to raise taxes further:

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-42862383

      The SNP campaigned in the last election – which was 2016, since we’re talking about income tax which is devolved to Holyrood – on a platform of freezing income tax:

      https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14375128.sturgeon-snp-will-freeze-income-tax-rates-if-party-wins-holyrood-election/

      Don’t you fucking dare call me a liar again.

  11. Duncan You lied when you claimed they were progressive tax changes proposed by Labour. There is nothing progressive in Labour’s tax proposals.

    The SNP campaign proposed a freeze in the UPPER TAX BAND THRESHOLD. Dont blame the SNP if the Herald prints misleading headlines in the name of sensationalism.

    And yes you are a fucking liar and you do it wilfully. Its not as if anybody who has the misfortune of reading your shite doesnt know. Its not as if you even make an effort to look credible.

    1. From the article I linked:

      However, the First Minister ruled out changes to the main 20p, 40p and 45p rates. She warned hiking the additional rate from 45p to 50p risked reducing income as Scots earning over £150,000, who pay the rate, might move away.

      Overall, the SNP’s tax plans will generate an extra £120million in 2017/18, the year Holyrood is due to take control of income tax. The figure is about a quarter of the extra revenue that would be generated by a 1p increase to all three rates, a move backed by Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems.

      So I reiterate, the SNP campaigned on a platform of freezing income tax, not in the “UPPER TAX BAND THRESHOLD” but in the main 20p, 40p and 45p rates, while Labour’s plans would have raised four times the revenues.

      Seems like it’s you who can’t read past the first paragraph of a newspaper story, huh.

  12. You ain’t fighting that hard. In the time you’ve lived in my clp, haven’t seen you at one meeting.

    1. The fact that you think CLP meetings are how we fight speaks volumes, Andrew.

  13. Duncan, would it not be easier for you just to join the Liberal Democrats rather than try to have the majority of Labour members ejected from the party so you and your clique can be the majority?

  14. Duncan’s remedy for Scottish Labour failure is McCarthyism… Malcolm Chisholm is the red under the bed in Duncan”s world.. Rid Labour of the Malcolm Chisholms’ in Labour and total purity will prevail.

  15. I quite like this paragraph: “The first is a surprising side-effect of those last few years of frustration and despair, namely the realisation that Labour isn’t a tribe, it’s an idea, and that idea can survive just about any level of division and disagreement and still go on to flourish. Robust challenges are okay. Flat out, repeated public disagreement with the leadership and its policies is okay. This coalition of the left is not a fragile thing needing nurtured lest it withers; it is a solid edifice that can, and occasionally needs to be, hammered into shape. So hammer it we can, and hammer it we must.”

    Could say the same of Scottish independence. It’s an idea, and that idea can survive just about any level of division and disagreement and still go on to flourish. Robust challenges are okay. Flat out, repeated public disagreement with the leadership and its policies is okay. This coalition is not a fragile thing needing nurtured lest it withers; it is a solid edifice that can, and occasionally needs to be, hammered into shape. So hammer it we can, and hammer it we must.

    Ironic. But then again, Scottish Labour and the SNP were founded by the same person.

    As for next year, I fully expect Scottish Labour to retake second place. But take care – Johnson needs to distance himself from the independence debate and so he will force Labour to lead the fight for the UK. When it loses, he’ll try to hang Labour in England as the party that lost the UK.

    1. A neat trick, but the pretence that the Scottish Labour Party co-founded by RCG in 1888, which was dissolved in 1895, is the same beast as today’s Scottish Labour Party is arrant nonsense.

      1. That’s the point! Ideas can survive despite failures, change and come back in new forms. Keir Hardie was part of RCG’s Scottish Labour before he went on to found a different Labour party(or two?), wasn’t he?

        1. Yes. It’s the “in new forms” bit that was missing from the original comment. RCG categorically did not found today’s Scottish Labour Party.

  16. Labour was finished in Scotland the minute they chose to line up with the Tories to oppose Scottish Independence! Fight for Scottish Independence and maybe, just maybe, they will have a chance of taking seats in the new independent Scottish Parliament!

  17. Scottish Labour.
    I expect when the independence referendum is being fought, that Ian Murray will happily share a platform with Davidson, Jack and Johnson. I would not expect Leonard would.

    But by then Leonard will be history, and a centre-right muppet will be in place.
    Who would it be? I have no idea. Just about everyone has had a go over the last 2-3 decades. All have failed, Jim Murphy, Lamont, Dugdale, Baillie to name only a few.
    Thing is, like all parties, “Scottish Labour” covers a broad spectrum of views–left/right–Scot Nat/Brit Nat—pro-EU or anti.
    Duncan is but one star in the sky, and not the brightest. Sad that he would extinguish all the rest as having the “wrong kind of shine” but Labourites have a real problem accepting differing viewpoints lately.
    It’s my firm belief that the Labour Party will not come back until Scotland joins the world as a self governing country. Only then will they be relevant again.

  18. Not a lot you can say about Scottish Labour except it’s too little and too late for them to rebuild in a UK context, the battle line’s have been clearly drawn between the SNP and the Tories and it’s all about Independence, anybody who aligns themselves with the Tories as Scottish Labour has done in the past and the present are doomed to failure. Only hope is for building an alternative opposition new Labour Party in an Independent Scotland.

  19. Labour, the answer is in the name- make it easy for us to work and pay or taxes, then spend our money wisely. Support those who can’t help themselves but not those for whom it is a lifestyle choice. We are HUMANS living in 2020 where culture is not some worn out Ideology of left and right. The silent majority are not represented by anyone in our current non-democracy. We can’t live on history alone, Europe is done, the rest of Britain hear hatred as do the non Nat residents. The opportunity is there if Labour had the grit to go for it. It isn’t about the past, it is about the future. Leading not following.

  20. Keep posting stuff like this and you’ll do Labour a lot of good.It is now clear that Labour’s loss was due in part to the actions of those who,throughout his leadership,actively sought to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and to bring him down.As for throwing out certain members I think you will find that this is not really necessary as in many cases they have already left,disgusted,of their own free will.Keir Starmer:I look forward to seeing him,at the earliest opportunity,at the head of a march for freedom for Palestine.

  21. This was a beautifully written article. Unfortunately, the political strategy was not as strong as the writing.

    There are only two routes to Scottish Labour getting some electoral success: i) win votes from the Conservatives or ii) win votes from the SNP.

    I think taking votes from the Conservatives is pretty hard. On the other hand, winning back voters from the SNP could be possible, particularly as most SNP voters have voted Labour in the past.

    If you accept that strategically you need to win voters from the SNP then rather than defining the party as “anti-nat” it would be more effective to define it as “anti-Tory”.

  22. I am grateful for Duncan’s piece inspiring the hope that Labour might just find a reason to exist again. But I was disappointed that the commentary here rather contradicts his claim that Labour isnt a tribe, but an idea. It quite obviously is a tribe, and not one that can agree on the idea.

    Labour should obviously oppose nationalism and promote solidarity – and it should go without saying that solidarity knows no borders. If Nationalism and Labour are not at opposite poles, then Labour is indeed pointless.

    The SNP is not a party of the left, it has merely parasitised the left. It has no interest or talent for improving the lot of people, because everything is calibrated against whether it drives independence. Ironically, it has developed a client state of dependents and supplicants, and it needs to keep them that way. Labour had a bit of a habit of doing the same, when it last had the chance, but that course is low-minded, corrupting and ultimately tribal.

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