While the SNP struggle in Scotland Labour’s culture and approach has not shifted in 16 years. Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour shows a different way says Gerry Hassan
For 16 years the SNP dominated Scottish politics. They set the terms of debate, made independence mainstream and vanquished a host of opposition party leaders. Yet after 16 years the SNP are showing signs of division, disunity and lacking direction.
This is a time of opportunity for Labour and chance to challenge the SNP’s hegemony. The polls show movement to Labour, former Labour voters who shifted to the SNP returning to Labour, and a host of SNP seats now being up for grabs at the next election, aiding the prospect of a Labour Government being elected.
What is the Scottish Labour offer? What is it that Anas Sarwar and his team are standing for that is aiding Labour’s rising poll prospects? On this there is little positive or of substance beyond the party rising on Keir Starmer’s coat tails and the gathering problems of the SNP.
Today, Scottish Labour have become advocates for resisting far-reaching change in the union and across the UK. In part, this is fear of playing into SNP territory but it is also about more, including a lack of critique about what the UK is and who gains from its present power structures.
Scottish Labour needs to become unambiguously Scottish Labour and an autonomous party. It has to stand for Scotland’s right to decide its own future. And oppose the hard Brexit which the Tories have imposed on Scotland and the UK.
Scottish Labour need a different approach to politics. A new generation of Scottish Labour politicians do not see the need to continually be in an existential conflict with the SNP, rather seeing them as just another political party.
Labour MSPs such as Paul Sweeney, Monica Lennon and Daniel Johnson bring a fresh approach to how the party does politics, and are not hung up on past battles. Yet this is still not where Scottish Labour sit as a leadership or party culture. The likes of Anas Sarwar, or potential returnee MP Douglas Alexander, still define themselves by past battles and attitudes.
The party’s culture has not moved fundamentally in 16 years of opposition. There has been no collective assessment of why Labour was booted out in Scotland or attempt to understand the appeal of independence and the SNP. The party’s inner world has yet to be shifted by the rising new generation of voices and instead a dead shell exists around the party preventing new life and intelligence from becoming Labour’s raison d’etre.
Big Five Challenges for Scottish Labour
This brings us to five challenges for Scottish Labour. First, there is the content of its policies. These could say something about Scotland that goes beyond itemising what is wrong and laying that all at the door of the SNP. Second, Labour’s tone and attitude would at last indicate that Labour recognises Scotland has changed from the days when the word of Labour was law and went unchallenged. Too often Labour comes across as miserabilist, scowling at the SNP and believing the ‘natural order’ of Labour dominance should be restored.
Third, Scottish Labour needs a different approach to the union. One less Gordon Brown and more Mark Drakeford, leader of Welsh Labour and First Minister of Wales. Scottish Labour’s tragedy has been that it boxed itself into a cul-de-sac in the 2014 indyref. Labour in 2014 ended up arguing the case for the union as an end in itself: an absolute principle.
Labour has ended up advocating what is, in essence, the Tory unapologetic argument for the union whatever the circumstances. The Labour case for union in the past, and which needs to be remade now, says that the union is not an end itself but a means to an end. That qualification would allow Scottish Labour a degree of distance in how it views the union – and advocate for a different union.
This has ramifications in how different parts of the Labour coalition understand the union. Mark Drakeford talks with ease about a “union of four territories”, the importance of sovereignty and of Scotland having the right to decide its own future.
Whenever Drakeford does this, it is a red rag to a bull to Scottish Labour. According to one party insider north of the border, “When Drakeford goes down this line the Scottish party gets on the phone and complains to Starmer’s office.” This is confirmed by Welsh Labour. One party figure told me that when this happens Starmer’s operation gets on the phone, that causes much annoyance: “We are fed up being told off and being told to cling on to what is in effect a Tory interpretation of the constitution which does not help Labour in Wales or elsewhere.”
Fourth, embracing a different union would assist Labour in understanding the nature of the UK. This is about more than constitutional matters, but about where power sits, who exercises it and how they do so. The many interventions of Gordon Brown and his Devolution Commission cloud the waters. A programme centred on English local government piecemeal reform is not fundamental reform.
Welsh Labour’s Mark Drakeford and previous First Minister Carwyn Jones have shown the way. They have articulated a different vision of the UK that challenges traditional Tory and Labour accounts, recognising the problem is the political centre, its undemocratic mindset and absolutism.
A Scottish Labour senior figure summarises the trap the party has fallen into: “Scottish Labour embraces a hugely unimaginative, conservative take on the UK. They cannot grasp this needs to change.” They conclude with the observation: “The party has to stop looking like it is standing up for Britain in Scotland and instead stand up for Scotland in Britain. These are two entirely different things and the gap between the two has grown as the UK has become an increasingly hostile place for so many people to live in.”
A Welsh Labour insider told me: “Wales is a sovereign nation. The UK has to be a union of consent not a union of being told you have to belong to it. That is the future Scottish Labour has to embrace.”
Fifth, Scottish Labour needs to tell a new story of Scotland. What would that new story entail? It would not (as too much of Scottish Labour does) hark back to its past, yearning for some golden era of “Red Clydeside”, the ILP and a more straightforward class politics of Labour versus the Tories.
It would look at present-day Scotland – inequalities, inequities, poverty, powerlessness, and the closed shop of insider Scotland – and be an unapologetic champion for change. It would call time on this country’s establishment classes – political, administrative, professional, civic and business – and demand they change.
Understanding Welsh Labour’s take on the UK
Scottish Labour must stop clinging to outdated, reactionary ideas of the union and the UK. This brings us back to its disagreement with Welsh Labour. The Welsh Labour insider reflects that “they despair at Scottish Labour.” The Scottish Labour senior source states that “the Scottish party have much more clout with the British party than Welsh Labour. This is historical, about independence, and the electoral importance of Scotland.” Labour currently has 22 of 40 seats in Wales and one seat in Scotland where it hopes to make significant gains in 2024.
One difference between Welsh and Scottish Labour is how they understand national identities and their respective nationalist parties. Welsh Labour are in a co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. They unambiguously embrace their Welshness. The Welsh Labour insider reflects: “Our tanks are firmly parked on the lawn of national identity, culture and autonomy. It is part of who we are; not about who we are against.” There is a lesson for Scottish Labour who used to sit on this ground in the 1980s, but have vacated it to the SNP.
Can Scottish Labour be the “change” it boasts it is? Can it challenge not just the limited politics of the SNP but critique the current insider politics which the SNP have come to personify and which before characterised Labour’s dominance of Scotland? In short, can Labour have the ambition to break with its own recent past of taking people for granted, recognise the failings of the SNP, and chart a new future story for Scotland? It has been given an opportunity by the changing tides of Scottish and UK politics. The jury is still out on whether Scottish Labour will seize it.