Can Labour ever win again in Scotland?

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Baroness Helena Kennedy chaired this week’s meeting of Labour for the Common Good group in Parliament – this is her report. You can read all reports of the meetings here.

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Can we win again in Scotland? It should be the question on every Labour member’s lips. Yes, our historical reliance on Scottish MPs to form a working majority is frequently overstated. But it is hardly a bold prediction to suggest our chances in 2020 depend in part on winning back Scottish hearts and minds. Then of course there is the far from small matter of MSP elections this May.

Throw in the ever present potential for another independence referendum and it becomes clear that Scotland should command our collective attention.

This topic was debated at length at the latest meeting of Labour for the Common Good, following presentations from academics and commentators who have intimately studied the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party. And it is fair to say we left with cause for both hope and pessimism. Hope, because there are weaknesses within the SNP’s political argument which Labour could expose. Pessimism because, at least for the moment, such weaknesses show no sign of registering at the ballot box.

According to the panel the most important task for Labour now is to develop a confident and easily communicable position on Scotland’s constitutional future. This is unequivocally the big debate within Scottish politics – independence, yes or no, remains the big question. One panellist made a compelling argument that Labour should develop and commit to a federalist ‘devo max’ position. Moreover, Labour should then campaign for a second referendum – as long as its new position found its way onto the ballot paper.

Labour’s biggest strategic failing, he argued, was to allow the SNP to position themselves as the party of anything short of status quo unionism. By 2015 the SNP had become not just the party of independence, but also the party of any further devolution. Labour, he  suggested, needs to reclaim that mantle and in doing so make a confident, pro-democracy argument to give the Scottish  people a say on the matter. In addition this would make Labour seem less timid and defensive in TV studios, whilst finally shining a light upon the vagueness of the case for independence. This imprecision, he suggested, was a quite deliberate attempt by  the SNP to avoid debating the hard choices which would expose the diverse – and often contradictory – intellectual impulses within their coalition.

To be fair, the new Labour leadership in Scotland has regularly highlighted the  credulity gap between the SNP’s rhetoric and policy, particularly on the economy. However, the panel universally contended that without a positive, distinctly Labour constitutional platform that charge might struggle to cut through.

The second task is to understand what sort of messages and political positioning succeed in Scotland. A historian on the panel suggested that actually what Scotland wants from its politics has not changed all that much, even now. Scotland, he argued, had always been prone to monolithic, one-party rule, moving, almost overnight, from being a Tory country, to a Labour country  and now finally to an SNP country. Similarly, you win in Scotland, he suggested, by adopting the tone of a “nice Kirk minister, gently preaching about social justice”. In this line of argument it is wrong to see Scotland as a hotbed of radicalism. Rather, it is a small ‘c’ conservative country in its own unique way, with a strong preference for patriotic, centre-left, pragmatism (albeit a penchant with much fiercer rhetoric than in England). What went so badly wrong for Labour is that it was no longer perceived as the party which stood up for Scotland’s national interest against those hostile to it: the Tories, anti-Scottish sensibilities in England and those against more powers for the Scottish people.

There is some truth to this. After all, there is a remarkable similarity between the arguments used by the SNP now and those used by Labour in the 1980s and early 1990s – albeit with devolution, rather than independence, as the constitutional end game. And there can be no denying the toxicity of Labour, quite literally, standing with the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ campaign – a clear tipping point moment. But arguably it also underplays the unique  atmosphere of the referendum and the sheer positive force of the SNP’s more hopeful message.

However, there is also the fact – acknowledged by all – that the SNP has been preparing the ground for this breakthrough for decades. One panellist pointed out that Nicola Sturgeon was using the language of ‘Red Tories’ on the doorsteps against Neil  Kinnock! In my own Glaswegian Catholic community I have seen how the dilution, over the decades, of Scottish sectarianism  has lessened the fear of what nationalism might mean for Catholics and other minorities. But that has come alongside year upon year of Alec Salmond and others putting in the work to bring such communities on side.

Hard yards. Sometimes in politics there is no substitute. And whatever else Labour does in Scotland, it’s going to take an awful lot of them to bring the Scottish people back.

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