Scottish Labour & the ‘elephant in the room’

I first met Richard Leonard when we both campaigned in the Stirling constituency during the 1983 election. I voted and campaigned for him in the recent leadership election. I read his manifesto and media releases carefully as I did those of his opponent, Anas Sarwar. Both their manifestos dealt in detail with economic regeneration, jobs and improving public services. However, there was an elephant in the room that was hardly mentioned and often only in answer to questions – the constitutional issue that has dominated Scottish politics for the last 30 years – independence, ‘devo-max’ or the status quo!

This was strange as only in February 2017 there had been a major debate at the Scottish Labour Party conference at Perth on setting up a People’s Constitutional Convention by UK Labour to look at devolution of powers to constituent countries, regions, local government and communities. This was I believe a reaction to Labour’s catastrophic defeats by the SNP at the 2015 General and 2016 Scottish elections and to have a policy position for a likely indyref2 sometime after the 2021 Scottish election. Jeremy Corbyn has said that if Holyrood voted for a second independence referendum he would not oppose the decision of a democratically elected parliament.

There now appears to be a belief of many in Scottish Labour that with the Corbyn bounce, Labour’s radical manifesto, a modest increase in Scottish Labour MPs and a reduced vote for the SNP that the constitutional issue is hardly even on the back burner. We just need to concentrate on bread and butter issues, jobs and public services to win back the voters we lost to the SNP. But many of the policies in Richard’s manifesto require additional powers for Holyrood to be able to implement.  

The mathematical and political reality is that Scottish Labour is third to the SNP and Tories at Holyrood and Westminster. The SNP is just short of an overall majority at Holyrood and still well ahead in polls. If Labour is to win back the voters who deserted it for the SNP, it must come up with constitutional answers as well as a genuine Labour manifesto. Most of these voters were not, at least at the time, nationalists per se but were fed up voting Labour in Scotland and getting Tory governments in Britain. The SNP’s record on social issues has been relatively progressive and it is seen as having protected public services from Tory excesses.

Labour’s record on constitutional change has been inept, timid and self-interested. Witness Tony Blair’s imposition of the second question on tax raising powers in the 1997 referendum which he thought would be lost. This was deliberately to try to diminish the status of the new Scottish Parliament, the commitment to which he had inherited and was never an enthusiast. Then in the 2014 independence referendum despite arguments from many in Scottish Labour, including myself, Labour failed to argue for a second question on the ballot paper on ‘devo-max’, only immediately after the referendum taking part in the Smith Commission to agree additional devolved powers for the Parliament!

During the referendum campaign, despite warnings, Labour disastrously went into bed with the Tories in ‘Better Together’ which was based on misinformation, scaremongering and belittling Scotland as a nation unable to survive on its own unlike hundreds of other small countries. The obvious example was if we voted ‘yes’ we would be forced to leave the EU! You did not have to be a rocket scientist to realise there would be a reaction from ordinary Scots to this denigration of their country. Deservedly most of the senior figures involved have taken their directorships and consultancies and disappeared. Labour was never going to out-union the Conservative and Unionist Party and should have had a more thought out, more inclusive strategy.

Richard has consistently argued that nationalism and borders separate workers and reduce solidarity but unions have organised both in Britain and Ireland for many years and have a proud record on international solidarity. Notwithstanding the ‘Scottish Question’, Britain’s unwritten constitution is a democratic disgrace with a hereditary head of state and an unelected House of Lords. It is deliberately unwritten so that politicians can interpret it to suit their own interests at a particular time. The advisory referendum on Brexit must be treated as sacrosanct while the PM tries to use the medieval powers of the royal prerogative to deny Parliament any say in the outcome. It is in need of radical revision.

The Tories’ refusal to allow the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have any meaningful involvement could lead to a constitutional crisis late this year or early in 2019. A hard Brexit will likely re-energise the independence movement. Scottish Labour needs to have something new and consensual to say to voters on the constitution and not just vague talk of federalism but something more radical to attract voters on all sides of the debate.

Bob Thomson is a former Chairman and Treasurer of the Scottish Labour Party. He had advocated a confederal system for Britain – see SLR 94 (July/August 2016)

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