Labour’s Scottish problem

Róisín McLaren argues Scottish Labour’s star cannot rise until it changes course on independence

A YouGov opinion poll published on 16 December showed the Tories with 40% support at the UK level, up 2% from a fortnight earlier, Labour was on 36%, down 1%, and the Lib-Dems on 10%. If accurate, these figures are both astonishing and surely deeply worrying for Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of forming the next government. It seems incredible that, in the week Theresa May was forced into a humiliating climb down over her ‘meaningful vote’ on the EU Withdrawal Bill and a vote of No Confidence in her was backed by 117 of her own MPs, Labour actually lost ground.

Yet it is against this discouraging background that Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, marked his first year in office – a year when he too has also regularly found himself trailing behind the Conservatives in the polls. The SNP continues to dominate the social democratic arena in Scotland. In England, Corbyn can draw crowds of thousands while in Scotland 100,000 marched through Edinburgh for independence – marchers who if not SNP members are certainly nationalist voters and crowds to which the ‘Corbyn bounce’ just bounced off. When presented with Labour policies, 2 out of 5 Scots say they support them yet go on to vote SNP – they believe such policies are unachievable via Westminster and because voting Labour in Scotland often means sending Corbyn an enemy, not an ally.

Scottish Labour is widely seen as being to the right of Labour in England and Wales. And unlike in England and Wales, Scottish Labour has not seen such a dramatic influx of new members. Most Scottish Labour members (54%) have been members since before 2015, whereas in England and Wales it’s only 40%. Neither is Scottish Labour seen as a force for change but rather as part of the old-style politics with a new coat of red paint. At the heart of this dilemma, of course, is the party’s infamous alliance with the Tories in ‘Better Together’ in defence of a British union which, as the Brexit drama amply highlights, is often dominated by a free market fundamentalism – with a neo-racist fringe.

Dundee looking across to Fife
Tay Bridge at Dundee

While it remains on the wrong side of the national question, Scottish Labour cannot attract the ‘yes generation’ of activists because this milieu has already drawn the conclusion that progressive politics is not possible to achieve via Westminster. It’s that ingrained belief that has become the foundation of the political consciousness for a generation of young Scots, the equivalent of whom in England makeup Corbyn’s base. That’s the reason why 2 out of 5 Scots say they support Labour policies but vote SNP.

Scottish Labour, fully aware of these problems, is trying to build links with movements of the sort which proved successful in England. But Richard Leonard can’t get past the sticking point that many politically conscious Scots are likely to have become first engaged with politics through the ‘yes’ movement – and the foundation of their political identity is, therefore, support for independence and the conviction that Westminster is not a vehicle for radical change.

Richard Leonard cannot convince them that he, or his party, is to the left of the SNP. His political opportunism on issues like the Glasgow Equal Pay settlement, the SNP’s ‘PFI-lite’ Scottish Futures Trust, its refusal to return Scotrail to public hands, its failure to replace the unfair Council tax or its cuts agenda are all undermined by Labour’s own vapid record at local and Scottish Government level. Consequently, Scottish Labour is seen as no more socialist under Richard Leonard than it was under Donald Dewar.

This leaves socialist opinion in Scotland facing a choice in an increasingly right-wing Britain, either to gamble on the remote chance of a Corbyn government being elected or campaign for independence as the opening to a renewed class politics. For the last 20 years, the Scottish Socialist Party has argued independence is the key that unlocks the prospect of a Scotland that puts working people and the planet before profit. Rather than ignoring the repeated failures of British and Scottish Labour, we campaign for socialist change and a modern democratic Scottish republic.

Meanwhile what does 2019 hold for working class Scots? More insecurity and greater exploitation: as more companies like Michelin relocate to cheap labour climes; another year for retail staff to worry about their job prospects; greater indebtedness and deeper social divisions.

More than ever Scotland’s working class majority need their political leaders to provide a coherent explanation of why things are as they are and to outline a way out of this misery; employing tactics based on democratic socialist values; mobilising mass support; and emphasising conscious solidarity and collective action for the good of all.

Róisín McLaren is the joint national spokesperson for the Scottish Socialist Party (