A few weeks ago I took part in a panel discussion entitled How does Labour represent a multi-nation democracy? at the Progress conference in London. I wasn’t the only first-time attendee – Jeremy Corbyn was there too, giving the keynote address. It was an interesting, comradely day.
But we are facing a crisis of co-operation in our party between Scotland and the rest of the UK. A significant element of Labour’s national voice has shown, at best, a failure to listen and, at worst, a fundamental dismissal of, Scottish Labour’s views and experience. There is a creeping tendency to see Scotland as “other” despite the bruising referendum delivering a clear outcome of solidarity. There is a fatalism in assessments of the recent Scottish election results. And there is an insidious and dangerous misconception that the SNP are our ideological allies, and therefore to be admired, or even embraced.
Recently Keiran Pedley makes the extraordinary argument in the New Statesman that To govern again, Labour must do a deal with the SNP and focus on England. Apart from anything else this suggestion is one giant arithmetical error, because there is only one deal the SNP want, and if they get it then the total number of seats they deliver for a future Labour-led government will be zero. But the suggestion is also an appalling capitulation that suggests throwing under the bus not only Labour activists in Scotland, but the half a million Labour voters who have stayed with us.
Most critically of all, this article, and the many other comments that echo similar themes, betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the SNP and what they stand for. The SNP are not social democrats. They fought the Scottish election on a platform of eagerly passing on Tory austerity rather than using the powers they demanded to make different choices. They joined forces with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament to vote down Labour’s progressive Budget amendment. The leading think tank IPPR Scotland analysed the major parties’ tax plans and showed that the SNP’s economic policy barely deviates from George Osborne’s austerity Budget.
And the SNP’s past record is not that of a centre-left party. They trumpet free university tuition as their key left-wing credential but the reality for students, especially those from the poorest backgrounds, has been more debt and lower attainment. And the glaring truth is that free university tuition, which favours the better off, has been provided at the cost of 150,000 college places. (By the way – this is another instance of the SNP following Tory policy.) And that’s before we look at the slashed funding for schools which is leading to fewer teachers, crowded classrooms and lower standards. The very people who need the most support are being denied it.
These are not social democratic policies or admirable outcomes, and the SNP is not a party Labour should look to as an ally. It is the party of Scottish nationalism. It wears whatever clothes it must to achieve its single aim of independence. Sometimes it might look like our friend from a distance but, close-up, its strategy is designed to destroy and supplant Scottish Labour in order to win independence. The SNP is executing a “kill Labour” strategy in Scotland.
And, while we are exploding myths, let’s just be clear that Scottish independence is not a fun idea for lefties to dream about. It is a threat to the wellbeing of working people, the people for whom our movement stands. We stood against independence because we stand for solidarity and because nationalism acts against social justice. And if you think what matters more is who stood next to us while we made that argument, then you are simply buying our opponents’ spin.
Far too often, comrades who have a national platform think they know better than us on the basis of how Scottish politics is broadly presented in the media. One MP told me last Saturday that I should listen to people who know how to win elections. I have news for him: he was sitting next to one.
We are a movement. We should have each other’s backs. Why did the Fabian Society, during the stress of an election campaign, promote Kez’s throwaway “it’s not inconceivable” line on a hypothetical post-Brexit independence?
The Scottish Labour Party couldn’t be clearer that we will defend Scotland within the UK.
I’m afraid that too much of the comfortable centre of our national party has so little grasp on the reality of Scottish politics. Not only can it not see when it is being damaging, it still thinks it knows better even when we are shouting down the phone at it.
And this is our own fault, for letting the ties between us and the exchanges of understanding become threadbare. We must remember that gone are the days when 40 MPs and their staff took Labour insight up and down the East and West Coast main lines twice a week. We need urgently to reinforce the sharing of insight across our UK party. We all have much to learn from each other about the similarities and differences in our challenges.
One thing a trip to Scotland might teach is that Kezia Dugdale is absolutely right in this fifth Scottish Parliament session to pitch Scottish Labour’s tent firmly in the ground of non-constitutional politics. It is brave and it makes long-term sense. It means engaging with those who seek social justice and were persuaded into thinking independence could deliver it. It means tirelessly and methodically demonstrating that social justice does not depend on where powers sit but on what we do with them.
And if it means getting sand kicked in our face for a time by our constitutionally-obsessed opponents in the SNP and the Tories, so be it. Such is politics. When Scotland is written off as lost forever by our own people? Our family urgently needs reminding of what “common cause” really means.
Labour exists to build solidarity and achieve more together than when acting alone. That doesn’t mean we must all speak with one voice, but it does mean we should seek out and respect the different parts of our party across the UK. And crucially it means we should listen to the folk who know their patch, and trust their insight, not belittle or override it from the centre.
Scottish Labour is not a cypher for internal squabbles. We are not disposable and we are not about to give up. We are your comrades, and we need you to listen.
Duncan Hothersall is editor of Labour Hame