Two years on from the most cataclysmic defeat of Labour in Scotland’s history, Labour is back in play. The six new MPs and umpteen new SNP/Labour marginals defied all the odds and contradicted all those who prematurely reported the permanent demise of Labour in Scotland. Importantly, the outcome of the election demonstrates another step forward in the revitalisation of Labour in Scotland. This revival has potentially profound implications for the future and the Scottish political landscape.
The 2015 General Election was undoubtedly unique. Shortly after the referendum in 2014, Labour was punished by a still emotionally charged electorate for the ill-fated decision to work alongside the Tories in the Better Together campaign. For many, Labour’s decision to do so confirmed their suspicions that Labour had compromised its values once too often.
Thirteen years of Labour Government did make the lives of many better, including lifting millions out of poverty. However, we were still seen as being too close to big business and too comfortable with the political and economic orthodoxy that saw huge bubbles of super wealth being accumulated by too few with a parallel inequality and poverty for far too many. Alongside an apparent comfort with the increasing hollowing out of the state and – tragically – of a gung ho, interventionist foreign policy, Labour was seen as being part of the establishment rather than as a challenge to it.
By 2017, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Party is transformed and as a result has presented Labour with a huge opportunity in Scotland. Our resurgence under Jeremy has rattled the SNP, which seems confused about how to tackle the Corbyn phenomenon, illustrated by its approach during the election, which started with Corbyn being too inept to be PM to before the end of the election telling voters in Scotland vote SNP and help get Corbyn in!
Labour is now rediscovering its purpose and its soul. People in Scotland and beyond now know exactly what Labour stands for: dignity, decency and opportunity and that achieving this will be paid for by government investment – paid for by redistributive taxation policies – in health, education, housing and jobs; public ownership and control of our public services; full employment, fair pay and security at work complemented by a humane social security system.
Labour provided hope, which resonated. Many people who voted ‘yes’ 2014 in the hope that independence would create a fairer society and saw independence as a means to creating a socially just Scotland have been given a lot to think about. In 2014, they simply assumed the discourse that said big bad Westminster could never again be the catalyst for any kind of transformative change and that only an independent Scotland offered the potential for a fairer society.
Now with Labour’s programme for government, the choice is either the road to fairness and equality led by Jeremy Corbyn, or support for – albeit tacitly – the reactionary SNP, whose record in government is woeful and fails to protect Scotland when in power despite their hollow rhetoric of progressiveness at Westminster where they have no power.
Corbyn’s manifesto related to the material realities of people’s lives, which represents a refreshing shift from the almost total focus on constitutional politics that Scotland has been consumed with in recent years – albeit granted the constitution continues to be a factor, evidenced by the resurgence of the Tories in Scotland. Their revival is in part due to a realignment of Scottish politics back to days of old when people did vote Tories in as MPs in Scotland. The return of the Tories also exposes the shallow argument of Scottish exceptionalists, who deny the evidence of history with the false democratic deficit claim that Scots never ever got/get the Government they voted for.
All of that said, there is still much for Labour to do in Scotland. Yes, we are regaining in heartland seats and giving people much to think about but we still have to convince many more to ensure we take the next steps on our road to government. This must necessitate positive messaging coming from all constituent parts of our Party. Labour must, front and centre, offer a vision of positivity that moves beyond the divisiveness of 2014 and distinguish itself in full from the competing nationalisms of the SNP and Tories. From here on in, there must be no ambiguity and at all times we must make clear that it’s the politics of Labour and trade ‘unionism’ that provides our ideological bearings and inspiration. We must provide all those people who have in recent times drifted from Labour reasons to vote for us again not excuses to stay away.
If Labour in Scotland follows the lead of Jeremy Corbyn, vis-à-vis campaigning with positive messages, then we can take our next steps to turning the very many SNP marginal seats into Labour seats. This is vital in electing a Labour Government. When at that point, having elected the most transformative and progressive Government since Atlee, the focus on constitutional politics will become peripheral and confirm how another world really is possible.
Lesley Brennan is a former Labour MSP and councillor who now works for Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, and is a constituency representative on the Executive Committee of the Scottish Labour Party.