Carol Mochan says there’s a mountain of political leg work needed but that it can be done.
Scotland’s status as a devolved nation worthy of its place on the world stage is in no doubt after yet another well contested election. But the most recent campaign did little to evidence the life changing debates going on in our country and, where serious alternatives were presented, they were drowned out by the constitution – again. The pandemic should have sparked renewed attention to the arguments of the left, but with the UK government perceived to have handled the vaccination programme well and the popularity of the SNP still incredibly consistent despite a decade of underwhelming managerialism, it was not to be.
I stood again in my home constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and as the second placed candidate for Scottish Labour on the South Scotland list. As such, I am in the strange position of now writing as an MSP representing the region I am from and have raised my family in after my party secured three list MSPs for the region. I hope from that position I am able to reflect both on the limited successes of the campaign and the failures.
There is no doubt that it could have been worse for Scottish Labour, as was made abundantly clear by results coming in from Hartlepool and many English councils over the days following the 6 May election. But at the same time, we cannot present our worst ever electoral performance in a Scottish Parliament election as a good result. Socialism has to be built on an honest assessment of what the people of this country are telling us and based on that it is clear we have once again not done well enough.
In my own constituency, a place that was once one of the safest Holyrood seats for Scottish Labour, we finished third behind the Tories for the first time ever. I was over 18% behind the winning SNP candidate and I know that despite the COVID pandemic restrictions we did a great deal to speak directly to voters in the area. The sad fact is though we are no longer met with anger on the doorsteps or the phones, what remains is a worrying indifference. Labour simply is not seen as a serious challenger to the SNP by most and those who remain wedded to our cause are clear that for many of their friends and family the SNP is now the obvious anti-Tory vote. In order for Labour to have taken the anti-SNP (or more accurately the anti-independence) vote, it would have to come from behind and usurp Douglas Ross’ faltering Scottish Conservatives. When the dust settled over the weekend following the election count, we were not even close. That is of serious existential concern to a party that once utterly dominated Scottish political life.
For two elections running, the Scottish Conservatives have effectively mounted a very simple list campaign targeted at unionist voters when at times, in Scottish Labour, it seemed our messaging was designed primarily to maintain the three constituencies we held on to in 2016. Overall, our vote dropped across Scotland in terms of the constituencies and the regional lists, and on the latter the Tories were comfortably ahead of my party. In a ‘first-past-the-post’ system we would be heading for Liberal Democrat levels of annihilation, I take that very seriously, and I know my colleagues do as well.
Yet now the election is over and we did manage to secure 22 MSPs there is time and space to build a new alternative. It will be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I believe the policies and priorities of Labour’s 2017 ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ manifesto should be the model for how we begin again. Popular targeted socialist investment is not the past – it is an absolutely necessary future. In fact, outside of the 2017 General Election, Scottish Labour has not advanced its share of the vote in a Scotland-wide election since Gordon Brown was Prime Minister in 2010. It seems odd then that ever since so little has been done to understand why Jeremy Corbyn bucked the trend. For me it is obvious: he presented an image of a completely different Labour Party and a new Britain separated from the economic greed of the past. That should be at the forefront of our thinking going into next year’s council elections and beyond.
Fortunately, there was a distinct emphasis on an investment led recovery in Scottish Labour’s 2021 manifesto. This reflected a fact I witnessed time and again whilst campaigning, namely, voters do not want another referendum when the worst economic effects of the pandemic are yet to hit. Scottish Labour correctly attempted to move the emphasis towards the future of work and improving incomes by guaranteeing every young person a job and developing a community recovery fund that was not simply a soundbite. These building blocks are now in place, and alongside the clearly set precedent that Labour can never again return to being a party of austerity, there is a basis for pushing forward with a radical platform based on the needs of the many not the few. I see it as my duty to deliver those promises as best I can and to hold my party to its commitments.
It would not be a Scottish election analysis without mention of the constitution. I have been a candidate and a campaigner in innumerable elections now in which Scottish Labour has campaigned on an unclear constitutional platform, an issue on which the membership is for the most part split. As someone who has always backed a reformed union with our friends across this island (and will continue to do so), I am, of course, dismayed that again we have seen a gigantic victory for the SNP – a party that does not appear to prioritise helping the poor or building the sort of state that can truly tackle economic inequality. Yet instead, it seeks to capitalise on the politics of separation. This is not news and we should not have expected anything else, nor is it news that the Conservatives have one policy and one policy alone – protecting the interests of the union without an inch of reform. It is difficult to understand how Scottish Labour can break free of that vice without either mimicking the Tories or laying out their own alternative to nationalism and the status quo. Despite promises from leaders of the left, centre, and right of the party that alternative has never seriously come to fruition and it is obvious that the notion of federalism remains largely academic with little public support. If we reach the next Scottish Parliament election with the same muddled priorities, I think it is more than likely our vote will drop further.
Fundamentally, the Labour Party has at its very foundation the concept of self-determination. Given the SNP and Scottish Greens are highly likely to form the government, either formally or informally, it is impossible for my own party to claim there is not an appetite in a large part of the country for another referendum. Whether Nicola Sturgeon will actually attempt to hold one is uncertain, few have done as well as her at stoking the flames of separation. Why would she stop now? Despite this, I would warn against removing ourselves from the territory of calling out the SNP’s hypocrisy on this matter. It is absolutely clear that we were told the 2014 referendum would settle the matter for a generation and given the large mandates the SNP have won off the back of a perceived democratic deficit, it is deeply concerning that they have done so little with it. Let’s not forget Scotland is now the drugs death capital of Europe, we have suffered two years of gargantuan incompetence regarding school exams, and we are sitting with a public spending deficit of over £15 billion (a figure set to only get worse due to Covid-19) with little to show for it. Under these conditions, it will take a great leap to convince a majority of Scots they want to go over the economic cliff edge into Andrew Wilson’s vision of a country built for the rich at the expense of the poor (as laid out in the report of the Sustainable Growth Commission).
What space for the left of the Scottish Labour Party in the years to come then? I cannot pretend the left is well organised within the party and in terms of targeted activism and education, there is a lot of work to be done. Sadly, some of the brightest young minds of our movement either took on party roles during the Corbyn era or felt underwhelmed by the perhaps inflexible nature of groups on the left that are slow to respond and overly focused on talk rather than action. It is no surprise also that many people who joined the party to support Corbyn’s vision of a compassionate socialist state have subsequently left in light of decisions by Starmer’s administration to distance themselves from that vision. Combine this with the party still not publishing the findings of the Forde Inquiry, sacking popular member-focused regional secretaries, not voting against parts of the Spycops Bill, sacking all of the Community Organisers who did their best to bring about a new form of grassroots organising, as well as pushing out of the cabinet anyone vaguely left wing, and I think we could be in for a concerning decline in the number of people we can deploy as members to get out our message.
There is, however, cause for positivity in Scotland as we saw Monica Lennon run for the leadership on a cohesive left wing platform that gained the support and attention of a lot of people both within and without the party. Equally four Campaign for Socialism/Momentum endorsed candidates were elected this May including Katy Clark, Paul Sweeney, Mercedes Villalba and myself. Add this to the presence of Richard Leonard and other MSPs with a history of taking a clearly left Labour outlook and you have the biggest left wing grouping in the Scottish Labour Parliamentary Party for some time.
My message to members across Scottish Labour then is this. We can organise for a serious socialist future, but you have to get involved. In the age when social media posturing online has become the currency of activism for some, some will have to wake up from that. It’s a smokescreen and an echo chamber. I am one of the least likely people to ever become an MSP, I never saw myself in this position, but it happened because I saw the devastating effects of austerity on ordinary people who are under the boot of capitalism.
I want you to come to Holyrood with me, but it starts on the streets and doorsteps of Scotland. I will see you there.
Carol Mochan is a Labour MSP for the South of Scotland and secretary of the Campaign for Socialism group within Scottish Labour (http://www.campaignforsocialism.org.uk/).