Gerry Hassan says Scottish Labour has to execute a dramatic forward-looking change if it is to reverse decades of decline
Scottish Labour has been on a downward spiral for a long time. The recent UK election saw it win a mere 18.6% of the vote, in third place behind the SNP and Tories, and reduced to just one seat – the same total won in the 2015 almost wipeout.
The Scottish party has barely said anything relevant to debates since it lost power to the SNP in 2007 and is currently going nowhere. This has consequences not only for Labour’s path back to office in the UK: the party has to win big in England – to the extent it did in 1945, 1966, 1997 and 2001 – to offset Scottish loses. Politics north of the border suffer from the absence of a coherent, plausible alternative to the left of the SNP, the Greens not being powerful enough to fulfil that role.
Post-election Labour are revisiting their position on independence and the constitutional question. There are at least five distinctive positions. First, it could double down on status quo unionism. However this is dressed up it is a complete dead end for the party, confirming it as an advocate for constitutional conservatism.
Second, it could embrace federalism – often cited rhetorically by Gordon Brown. The devil in this is in the detail – and so far Labour in Scotland and the UK has not produced in its entire history one detailed set of proposals.
Third, is the position currently being debated of supporting a future referendum. This can be seen as a narrow process point or about the principle of democracy and self-government, but does not really go far enough in addressing what Labour stands for on this big question.
Fourth, the party could decide that, having moved on the above, it is too much to take a stand on independence. Rather it could say that it is trying to heal a divided Scotland and concentrate on bread and butter issues. This has echoes of the abdication of responsibility that was Labour’s policy on Brexit post-2016, which cost it dearly in 2019.
Fifth, would be Labour in Scotland supporting independence. This would be a dramatic shift and isn’t likely in the near-future, but could happen if a referendum is further down the line with a chaotic, damaging Brexit where it became clear that Labour couldn’t win in England.
This is what happens to a party in serious decline. No option comes without risks. Doing nothing carries threats as does every other choice. The Labour experience of Brexit points to the dangers in trying to be all things to all voters. But it also underlines the damage that can be caused by delay and dithering, which increases the prospect, once a change in policy has been adopted, of voters questioning its sincerity – hence undermining its effectiveness.
It isn’t very surprising that at every Scottish Parliament election since 1999 Scottish Labour has fallen back. It won 908,392 votes in the first Scottish elections constituency vote and by 2016 had fallen to 514,261 votes in constituencies – a fall of 43.4%. Meanwhile its Westminster support has fallen even further from 1,283,350 in 1997 to 511,838 in 2019 – a collapse of 60.1%.
Labour MSP Neil Finlay says: “I am clear taking a hard unionist approach will be a disaster. We cannot fail on this for one second longer, we need to develop a credible and workable devo max position based on the principle that all powers should be devolved to the lowest possible level.”
The trade unions are key movers in the labour movement. Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary of the STUC, commented: “Trade union members were very evenly split over independence in 2014. For the SNP to effect a decisive shift in the support for independence …they will need an offer which speaks to the potential for a fundamental shift in poverty and inequality and for a Just Transition to tackle climate change.”
Too many Scottish Labour politicians – Richard Leonard being a good example – pepper their speeches with Labour totems from the past such as Keir Hardie, Mary Barbour and Red Clydeside. It comes from a romanticised, sentimental view of Scotland and the working class, with little relevance for the present and future.
The irony is that Labour was once a party of the future – at its peak appeal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Over this period, which probably ended in the mid-1960s, Labour projected a vision of Scotland that was forward-looking, dynamic and ambitious and did big, bold things such as massive house-building, slum clearance, public health programmes and the hydro-electric schemes in the Highlands.
That Labour Scotland is a long time ago, and for decades now the party has been one harking back to the past, seeming to promise a better yesterday. It has to change and do so dramatically if it is speak to the future, help shape it, and have a future itself.