Auld acquaintances forgotten? UK Labour’s struggles with Scottish democracy

Ewan Gibbs
© Twitter/@jeremycorbyn

The Labour leadership contest was already taking shape by the time of Hogmanay celebrations, an occasion when it’s traditional for parties across Britain to struggle their way through the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne. By the time of the Bard’s own day, January 25th, it was in full swing. In the meantime, anglicised accents have had more practice than usual in enunciating their way through Scottish scripts. This hasn’t been confined to a single candidate and nor, following four years of pronounced left-wing leadership, can it be written off as an unfortunate characteristic of late-stage Blairism. The biggest problem seems to be pinning down a position at all, not just on a second independence referendum, but also a distinctive Labour position on Scottish and UK constitutional reform.

The most coherent and consistent position is the hardline unionist stance of simply refusing a second referendum and writing off any and all discussion of democratic reform as a ‘distraction’ from the ‘real’ concerns of workers and communities. This was the position that Jess Phillips maintained in a car-crash interview on BBC Radio Scotland early in the campaign. Phillips disrespectfully brushed aside democratic and economic concerns over Brexit by doubling down on the view that favouring membership of the EU but not the UK was a contradiction in terms. Lisa Nandy later took to Medium to explain that she did not in fact support the repressive actions of the Spanish state in Catalonia following a garbled interview. Nandy had unhelpfully juxtaposed ‘divisive nationalism’ and ‘social justice’ without a clear definition of either. Given she has also been an exponent of ‘patriotism’ and ‘social conservatism’, this feels like having a red, white and blue cake and eating it too.

There is no doubt a strong element of playing to the gallery at work. The UK’s only political faction with much track record of loudly articulating support for the Spanish state in Catalonia is former Better Together activists in Scotland. A not inconsiderable number of these ardent opponents of ‘separatism’ are to be found within the Scottish Labour Party. Ian Murray is the chief representative of this tendency and has been given a UK-wide party platform through the deputy leadership contest. The MP for Edinburgh South is attempting to consolidate the hardline unionist position through the logic of Scottish particularity. Murray’s place in the contest rests on his claim to be the sole candidate able to clearly articulate the tricky Scottish political lexicon that his opponents stumble and mumble through. He can speak for Scotland with unrivalled authenticity.

Murray will likely achieve a high level of support as a Scottish voice within the UK party. This ‘unionist-nationalist’ logic is a well-established feature of Scottish labour movement politics, but historically it largely entailed using the British levers of the state to deliver for Scottish interests. Murray’s campaign materials emphasise the importance of ‘having a Scot at the top of the party’. While victory seems unlikely, his major success may lie in convincing Labour that he speaks for Scotland. This will consolidate opposition to a second independence referendum and the strategy that has lost Labour every election since 2010.

Scotland increasingly seems to have the status of a forgotten acquaintance in the ongoing debate over what constitutes a Labour ‘heartland’. Although Rebecca Long-Bailey made a fleeting reference to lost Scottish heartlands in her launch piece for Tribune, the narrative has been dominated by divides within England. Frances Perraudin recently persuasively argued that if the party’s pivot towards ‘left-behind areas’ means abandoning large English cities, it will undermine the remaining heartlands. Scottish voters once figured centrally in the Labour coalition that Perraudin describes. Labour’s electoral support straddled socially conservative and liberal divides across towns and cities and incorporated both manual workers and white-collar professionals. There was a strong dosage of quotidian politics, including support for the public sector, that held this grouping together. Yet it was also able to sustain commitments to social and democratic reforms.

The Labour Party would benefit more from responding to the changes in political economy that have encouraged the growth of SNP and Conservative support over a long period of time, than to succumb to either fatalism or recriminations that blame the party’s remaining supporters. A serious response to the major defeat suffered in 2019 has to include serious proposals for confronting a broken political system and decentralisation. In Scotland, that requires a sincere and democratic debate over the question of a second referendum, even if it makes party members uncomfortable.

Scottish Labour isn’t uniformly behind Murray, despite appearances in the leadership contest. In the aftermath of the election defeat, around 200 Scottish members signed a letter calling on the party to support a second independence referendum. They have since gone on to establish Scottish Labour for Radical Democracy to campaign for this position in the party. A similar stance was also articulated by two prominent MSPs, Neil Findlay and Monica Lennon, who abstained when their colleagues voted against a second referendum at Holyrood before Christmas. Either option was legitimate from a democratic perspective, but now that this legislation has passed, Labour faces the choice of either being on the side of a second referendum or standing with Boris Johnson.

The discussion of the UK constitution in the leadership contest has been short on substance, commitments and principles. All of the candidates have largely been content to paraphrase the commitment to abolishing the House of Lords from the last three election manifestos. Suspicion of political reform reinforces an unwillingness to contest the political terrain of democracy, which now seems to comfortably be in the hands of the SNP and Brexit-backing Tories respectively. The stance of leadership candidates on indyref2 is effectively a litmus test for their seriousness about renewing the Labour Party and commitment to democracy more broadly. Regardless of Labour’s stance, it’s clear that these tensions won’t go away and that if – as seems likely – Johnson’s intransigence will only stimulate opposition. Despite many in Labour having sincere hopes for a sabbatical from the national question, it’s coming soon fir aw that.

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