Looking at UK Labour’s Leadership Election through the wrong end of a tartan telescope (Caledonian Kaleidoscope?) my first thought is that, rather like the UK General election just past, whatever is happening seems to be going on on Mars. It demanded an effort to recognise that these things matter more than as a matter of detached concern for the neighbours. Then Owen Jones pointed out on Sunday morning that the Observer, in several worried think pieces about the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn actually winning the leadership election, and what Labour’s chances might be of denting a Tory Majority in 2020…never mention Scotland once. So it seems that even labour’s House Sunday has been digging a conceptual ditch along the Southern bank of the Tweed. Scotland is written off to the degree of not its fifty odd winnable seats not even being worth a mention.
And the depth of the crisis facing the left in these islands become clear. Labour can’t win ANY election without offering hope of something better than the economic brutalities and ideological idiocy of market nihilism. They need to offer hope and a paractical prospect of being in a position to deliver on hope/. And they clearly don’t believe it of themselves any more than the electorate in Scotland did in may. They can’t offer a hope that they don’t have themselves. The sense of doom and drift feels inescapable. With Scotland gone, the British Road to Socialism has finally led into the sucking mud of terminal despondency. Liz Kendall waves the defeat of any distinctive Labour Values like a flag over her head. A vote for Liz is an act of existential suicide. Yvette Coop[er is a half conviced technocrat with the air of having backed the wrong computer programme. Andy Burnham imitates them both but in an “authentic” accent. He wears his class like Cooper wears her motherhood…as a meme. And to elect the old fashioned bourgeois radical Jeremy Corbyn as leader may make the endlessly exploited and shat on membership feel better, but the Labour Party after nearly a hundred years as a potential party of government in the UK, looks from here to be abandoning the ambition of power in the unitary UK.
We have long lived with the paradox of the need for a principled and powerful opposition to power at least looking as if it is capable of taking power itself in order to be effective. And there will no doubt be those who will blame us for taking away the last glue that held the shaky broad church of St Albion’s parish church together. But if UK Labour need us that much, then UK Labour was already doomed. Or that we have looked to the SNP as a substitute for something that seems to lack all credibility. That this lack of credibility seems, according to the research published over the weekend, to be shared all across the UK, is more to be lamented than celebrated, even from the most narrow sectarian viewpoint of the SNP. After all, you can’t make progressive alliances if there really is a terminal break in communication between the aspirations of the electorate and their would be representatives.
In the short term, one can easily see scenarios where in the event of a Corbyn victory, the Parliamentary Labour Party simply refuses to recognise the result, and where some new version of the SDP split off as a minority to eventually be subsumed into the Liberals. But that was a minority of Labour MPs who made the split back then. In this case I think it would be Corbyn who be left with a rump of fifty or so MPs and that the other 200 would either coalesce around a charismatic centrist (who isn’t visible yet but might be Alan Johnson, say…) or just fall apart where they’re sitting. Even if it is the comparatively “safe-pair-of-hands” candidates of Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham who end up in charge of the Titanic, it takes a colossal effort of optimism to envisage either of them steering the Party past the looming Iceberg of electoral indifference next time round.
The deeper cultural problem of which all this is the symptom rather than the cause is the malaise inherent now in the very project of Progress to which both the SNP and Labour theoretically subscribe. The very culture of a combined trade unionist collectivism combined with a progressive social liberalism that made their success possible was itself only a by-product of optimism in the culture itself. And it is cultural exhaustion, the death of hope, the end of the future, that is hobbling the left all over Europe right now. There is only one law and one truth, say the Merkels and the Camerons…and here it comes, crashing onto your head like an anvil in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Which brings me to the nub of the matter. Time to put down the tartan telescope and get hold of the microscope.
Scotland’s different, we say. The SNP are genuinely socially democratic. Given half a chance, we’d introduce all manner of yummy progressive social policies. Oh really? Said the NO campaign last , year to the electorate? Do you really believe that? …and we lost the vote. Hope lost to fear.
We have to face the possibility that our assumptions of the greater appetite for social equity we detect in our fellow citizens is conditioned by what David Torrance has identified, I think correctly, as a rather ugly Scottish penchant for exhibiting our moral superiority in the comfortable certainty of never having the power to back that up. never to have to put our taxes where our principles are. The same psychological trap that makes for cosy Unionism..the ability to blame other for what benefits the Scottish Middle Class as much as it does the English, combined with the positivist echo chamber of the invisibly shrinking Yes campaign that is already visibly fragmenting, may be leading us astray. I also recognise from Good Old Labour Days the way that the SNP and its supporters, myself included, tend to circle the wagons in the face of criticism and dismiss all doubt as a tool of the enemy. We may be in danger of substituting a very Scottish “Big Man” client-ism to the Labour hierarchy to the SNP. Defensive deference to our defenders may be one of our defining cultural characteristics for all I know. .
It seemed self evident to me last year that when asked to chose between Hope and Fear that one was bound to choose Hope, as one would choose Life over Death. But I am living as part of a wider set of cultures than that Yes or No aspiration can encompass. And in the UK and in Europe, to hope seems culturally hopeless.
Are we just kidding ourselves up on our Misty Mountains? Is New Scotland Cloud Cuckoo land? We know what “Better Together” said about that, and we were stunned at their negativity, at the poverty of their arguments which all seemed to boil down to “No point. Don’t try. All doomed. Have a drink”…(which always seemed to me an authentically Scottish attitude.)
But we are coming down now to a new set of tactical realities in a new sense of normality. And a normality which does not include the UK Labour Party as at least a POSSIBLY positive contributor to the cultural life of these islands is not one I can comfortably welcome in the same way I welcomed the doomed time-servers of Scottish labour tumbling down in May.
We must learn to navigate new waters. And it may be that our celebration of maiden speeches and a popular first minister are about to shown as insufficient.