Duncan Hothersall, editor of Labour Hame, says the posturing in the conference hall yesterday over who we are prepared to work with to defend the UK against nationalism was self-indulgent and wrong.
Good morning from Perth, where Scottish Labour is gathered for conference.
Yesterday was a splendid day of comradeship, and I was particularly proud to be part of the delegation from Edinburgh Southern CLP as we saw our first-time conference attendee youth delegate fearlessly address the full room and urge our party to listen to young people’s voices.
Conference also gave fulsome support to the leadership’s proposals for a UK-wide constitutional convention and the plan for a federal future to secure this United Kingdom. It is a proposal that seems to chime with both the right and left of the party, although accompanying this unanimity was an underlying theme that we don’t want to be talking about the constitution any more. Needs must.
Unfortunately another recurring theme ran through yesterday’s debates, and here’s where I have to stand apart from the apparent unanimity for a moment. Several speakers in the constitutional debate and in fringe meetings expressed the forceful view that Scottish Labour must never again share a platform with the Tories should a second independence referendum take place. Each time this sentiment was expressed conference erupted in applause.
Conference, you are wrong.
In 2014 I was proud to be a Labour man setting aside party differences and working alongside people of all parties and none for a crucial constitutional debate. Better Together was not perfect by any means, but it was both necessary and successful. The reason the Nats crowed about it at the time was that they knew a united campaign would have a better chance of beating them. And we did beat them. Remember? We did it.
Compare and contrast to last year’s EU referendum. The Remain side was fractured. In Scotland we refused to share platforms with the SNP. In the UK we refused to share platforms with the Tories. We allowed party politics to dominate a constitutional debate and the result was a confused message, especially from our UK leadership. What should have been an unassailable argument about our country’s best interests became mired in internal disagreement. The ultimate result was that we lost to the lying Leave side – a catastrophic result for our country’s future, and an indictment of a divided and disorganised Remain campaign.
We have to learn our lessons. When we set aside party differences to unite in our country’s best interests we can beat the forces of nationalism. If we are unable to rise above the party political fray at such a time, we will lose.
I know the argument goes that it was a result of our working with the Tories that we suffered so badly subsequent elections. I don’t buy that simplistic explanation. Apart from anything else, it is confounded by the fact that the Scottish Tories in the same time frame have enjoyed an almost unprecedented surge in popularity. We did not lose in 2015 and 2016 because of Better Together. We lost because the erosion of trust which had start in 2007 and continued in 2011 was never abated. We lost because in the aftermath of a divisive referendum we ran away from our principled position and pretended to be all things to all people. No-one was ever going to buy that.
Labour is not a unionist party. But in stark constitutional times, our commitment to solidarity and wealth redistribution means we are right to be firmly a pro-UK party. We should be proud of that stance and those principles. We should not indulge in back-slapping and posturing about never working alongside others who are firmly pro the UK.
If there is a second independence referendum, I will share a platform with any mainstream party which is prepared to work together to fight against nationalism. Our party should grow up and make the same pledge.