The result of the Labour leadership election will have limited immediate impact on the Scottish Labour Party. While British members face a choice between Labour remaining a force concentrated at Westminster, or continuing on the current trajectory in becoming a mass membership party, active in extra-parliamentary politics, Scottish members are not offered this choice. If Corbyn retains his position as expected this September, the autonomous Scottish party will do all it can to limit this shift. This defence of the status quo will not salvage Scottish Labour.
Endorsing Owen Smith, Kezia Dugdale stated that the challenger to Corbyn can appeal to enough voters to lead us to government; a trait that nobody in Scottish Labour evidently possesses. Smith’s alleged ‘credible plans’ to win power at the next election are far removed from the reality of Labour in Scotland, where the party is hardly an opposition-in-waiting, let alone a government. The parliamentary efficiency and smooth leadership promised by Smith is not enough to save Labour from our unmanaged decline; British Labour leaders are viewed at a distance and relying purely on what talent is left in Labour’s disconnected group at Holyrood could not possibly improve our standing.
What Corbyn represents is likewise divorced from Scottish Labour. While membership has increased considerably, under an apparatus hostile to its ambitions, it has remained largely detached. Scotland’s closest comparison to the forces driving the contemporary transformation of the Labour Party was the surge in support for Scottish Independence. Anger at a political system removed from the concerns of day-to-day life was channelled into support for constitutional change, and then materially into mass SNP membership. Any radical potential this anger possessed has now been absorbed into the parliamentary management of the Scottish state. Labour has been left as neither the political establishment nor the insurgents. Drifting purposelessly into the fringes, the party led by Dugdale finds itself with little else to offer apart from a slightly nicer and fairer way of managing the society they used to maintain.
Yet the root causes of this anger and disenfranchisement which led hundreds of thousands to support for independence have not been resolved; there is an opportunity for a Labour and union voice to offer an explanation of, and a solution to, the fundamental problems within the structure of our economy and institutions. For Scottish Labour to have any chance of recovery, it must seize this chance.
But the party is clueless on how to do so; the narrative we should be expressing is alien to those in the machine, most of our MSPs, and especially to Dugdale. Responding to the crisis in the North Sea, Dugdale stated the government has a responsibility to re-skill the most skilled workers in the country, oblivious to the idea that an economy is largely the result of decisions made by governments and firms. Upon hearing the recent GERS figures stating Scotland has the largest budget deficit in Europe – predominantly because we are too reliant on natural resources and financial services – all Scottish Labour had to offer was self-vindication for their position on independence. At the Scottish Parliament elections earlier this year, the party aimed to outflank the SNP from the left; and whilst the manifestos represented this shift, we were stranded, simply saying we’d increase taxes and printing the word “socialism” on our leaflets.
The further cuts to public services which will be forced by the Scottish Government, and approved by their official opposition, will be felt across Scotland. If Labour is not there making the case for their cessation, voters cannot expect a solution through a Labour administration. Activists on the ground have been making the case for a radical shift in the narrative and the purpose of Scottish Labour, but those in office are afflicted by a deep rooted inertia. MSPs and staffers who have served throughout ‘new’ Labour are not equipped to comprehend, let alone turn around our decline. If Corbyn wins this September, Dugdale and her team will spend even greater effort undermining and resisting the direction the party is travelling, further accelerating our decay. Yet this change is essential to retaining a Labour Party in Scotland.
Neither victory for Corbyn or Smith will transform Scottish Labour and its standing with the public. Activists and members in Scottish Labour must be empowered if we are to turn our situation around. However, Smith and a return to parliamentary manoeuvring as the sole activity of Labour at Westminster, and the subsequent reforms limiting the powers of members and unions, will block any chance of this empowerment. A victory for Corbyn, whilst facilitating this shift, will not guarantee it. Only members organising within the party, dedicated to socialist politics, can.
Liam Gleeson is the Vice-chair of Scottish Young Labour