It has been a turbulent few days for the Scottish Labour Party.
Its leader, Kezia Dugdale, on Friday, quietly came out, choosing the time, place and manner of her announcement. There was no controversy following this – beyond the use of the word ‘admitting’ in ‘The Scottish Sun’ piece – with all the prejudice that implies.
In the same ‘Fabian Review’ interview Dugdale stated that in the scenario of a Brexit vote in the June 23rd referendum and Scotland voting to stay in the EU, it was ‘not inconceivable’ that she would then support independence. This was a rare moment of clarity and honesty, even bravery. But it was quickly followed within a couple of hours by a retraction and rewriting of what she had said in the ‘Daily Record’ – with her repeating the standard line that she was, of course, in all circumstances against independence.
Labour colleagues have not minced words: using words such as ‘an almighty clusterfuck’, ‘a massive gift to the Tory party’ and calling it Dugdale’s ‘Subway’ moment. This is more than a new leader misspeaking or being lent on by party heavies. Instead, Labour is caught between a rock and a hard place – damned if they do or don’t between unionist and trying to accommodate the independence dynamic. In the indyref, up to 37% of Labour’s Westminster vote supported Yes, and following on from this, many of these voters have shifted to supporting the SNP. To compound this, from the opposite direction, the party is hemorrhaging votes amongst No voters, with the last survey showing the Tories outpolling Labour in this group (35% to 30%).
Where this leaves Labour is that an uncompromising unionist message (no to more powers) loses it some of these indy voters, while a more soft on independence line is seen as weak and loses Labour unionist voters, and infuriates some of the party’s hierarchy here.
There is in this confusion and chaos a simple human element. Kezia Dugdale is decent, humane and not a machine politician or operator. But she is the party’s eighth leader in seventeen years – a sign of a party where something fundamental went wrong a long time ago. She was only elected to the Parliament in 2011 and became leader after serving as an MSP for four years. In short, she is a rookie, learning as she goes along, and importantly, she has no one behind her with the grandees off earning big bucks or nursing their wounds after electoral defeat. There is very little left for her to draw on in the party in terms of resources, organisation, policy or personnel.
Something seismic is going on in Scotland. Part of this is the effect and aftermath of the indyref and the ‘Big Bang’ of democratic engagement it facilitated. First, there has been the explosive growth of the SNP membership wise – which has yet to fully impact on the nature of the party and politics. Second, has been the rise of a new current and generation of radical activism – which has found some home in the Greens, Scottish Socialists and RISE, but is more located beyond parties, in a disparate and ad hoc array of groups and energy.
This is the context of Scottish Labour’s accelerated decline – aided by the Tories finding a new purpose. Yet, Labour’s malaise is about much more than siding with the Tories in the indyref, and recent events. It even dates back further than the 2007 and 2011 defeats, limits of New Labour, Blairism and Brownism, to the nature of the party and its dominance: a caste party based on patronage, clientism and even kin politics – with a subterranean culture of inter-generational Labour favouritism and insularism.
All of this: long-term and immediate trends point to some big dynamics about the future. Scottish Labour have lost their place, purpose and any feel for how they do politics effectively. The party which in 2010 won 42% of the Scottish vote is now trundling along regularly at or below 20% in the polls, and worse, in a number of them, coming in third place behind the Tories.
The defining feature of post-indyref politics is the appeal of the SNP. But this is not the left vision some hoped pre-2014 and in its aftermath; the rhetoric and hype of ‘Red Nicola’ which was always misplaced has mostly dissipated. In its place, there is a soft centrist, slightly centre-left nationalism which dominates the middle ground.
If the Tories finish in second place then politics could become about a soft, moderate nationalism versus a measured, but unapologetic unionism. This would also have a centrist-left versus centrist-right frame, which could aid discussion on specifics, rather than generalities, and leave lots of room for radical voices at either end of the political spectrum, most obviously on the left. The SNP’s centrism, Tory small rise and Labour Armageddon could create conditions where new spaces open up for the new radicals: the Scottish Greens and maybe beyond 2016, RISE and the wider forces which emerged in the indyref.
The SNP’s front-runner status in this year’s election – is rather like a football team facing the run in to win a league championship. There is now a different culture in and around the Nationalists: they expect to win, are becoming defined by power and the aura it holds, and face increasing pressure not to do anything to jeopardise their new found popularity, while everyone else takes pot shots at them trying to bring them down.
This produces in the SNP leadership an inherent caution which was always evident in the party, but become even more accentuated. The Sturgeon-Swinney leadership is one combining some social democratic sentiment with fiscal conservatism, and for now the latter seems to have come to the fore, on public spending, taxation and local government finance. There is even an element of strategic triangulation in this redolent of New Labour: saying look at Labour increase wholesale taxes, and the Tories propose no change, whereas we have a sensible middle position.
Scottish Labour’s saga is a historic moment for politics to depart from the safety first script. Labour is the product of a politics pre-devolution which was successfully British and Scottish at the same time and which now cannot bring off this balancing act since the Parliament was established. The SNP have taken the Scottish card, while the British angle has become more difficult to navigate and explain, leaving the party bereft of any real political message.
As Scottish Labour potentially sinks – it is important to remember that even in its golden era it was never a very convincing social democratic party (and never ever a socialist party, even in the 1920s and 1930s). It was first and foremost, a party of organised labour, and then of numerous vested interests. But then again the SNP are not a social democratic party – as this isn’t the DNA or soul of the party – but instead one with social democratic sentiment which is a very different proposition.
Scotland’s radical tradition have been ill-served by Labour and the SNP – who have occupied the energies and spaces where a more considered and challenging politics of the left could emerge.
This is an opening to make sure politics isn’t just about consensual, ‘Big Tent’, power, patronage and pretending that ‘we are left’ because most of us reject the ‘‘effing Tories’. Instead, Scotland’s radicals – can if Labour shrinks further and faster – use this opportunity and begin to showcase the limits of SNP Scotland pointing towards a politics which doesn’t postpone all bold and imaginative possibilities until the day after independence. That was never a Scottish future offering much beyond party loyalists, risk aversion and a conservatism which dared not call itself such in nationalist and progressive circles. The 2016 election could witness historic changes which have been a long time coming.