Re-watching old documentaries about Labour this week – which I know makes my life sound thrilling – made me take a step back and look at the party’s struggles from a different angle. Labour’s last left wing leader, Michael Foot, was regarded as a disaster by many. Although initially elected as a diplomatic figure who could ‘unite the party’, Foot was unable to satisfy the Europhilic right flank and was criticised for being an old intellectual who was out of touch with real people’s concerns.
So far, so familiar. However, it’d be incorrect to assume that their 1983 electoral failure was all down to what MP Gerald Kaufman famously dubbed the “longest suicide note in history”. It was figures from the right of the party that did the most damage by leaving to form the SDP, who then ate into Labour’s vote. Instead of fighting back, the party essentially validated their new opponents by spending the next two decades removing references to socialism in their manifestos and eventually their constitution.
This is highly significant when analysing the party’s dilemmas today. Here in Scotland, huge swathes of the population decided they’d had enough of Labour some time ago, that feeling eventually culminating with the independence referendum and subsequent wipe-out at the general election. For many people – and I include my own family in this, abandoning the party initially felt like a betrayal, like shedding a layer of your identity that you’d worn for years. Thus the oft-repeated saying came about: ‘I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me.’
“I’d urge pro-independence Scots to look at the bigger picture, though. Jeremy Corbyn remains the official leader of the parliamentary opposition to a Conservative government that has dragged us out of the European Union.”
Perhaps that’s why many Scottish voters, particularly SNP supporters, no longer weep for the demise of the Labour party but revel in it. Maybe it’s partly the “bitterness of ex-lovers”, as Owen Jones neatly puts it, but some of the comments I’ve seen are beyond venomous. It’s not just the Blairites that attract the wrath of ex-Labourites who now stand resolutely behind Nicola Sturgeon, but the Labour movement as a whole.
The fact that Labour now have a genuine left wing leader in Jeremy Corbyn means nothing. In fact, Corbyn has a negative approval rating amongst SNP voters just as he does with everybody else (even if it’s higher than amongst his own party’s voters).
There are several obvious reasons for this: Corbyn isn’t particularly managerially competent, he’s not the greatest orator and he’s not got the natural leadership abilities that Sturgeon has. It also must be said that Corbyn’s entire attitude towards Scotland has been disastrous. Despite arguing early on that he’s a ‘socialist rather than a unionist’, Corbyn’s generally failed to engage with Scotland’s constitutional debates whatsoever, usually side-stepping the issue (in fact, he’s hardly been to Scotland at all).
I’d urge pro-independence Scots to look at the bigger picture, though. Jeremy Corbyn remains the official leader of the parliamentary opposition to a Conservative government that has dragged us out of the European Union, steered the country towards shocking levels of inequality and ensured that food banks are the only option for many families around the country. Corbyn, for all his faults, is utterly unequivocal in challenging the government on issues that affect Scotland just as much as they affect the rest of the UK.
Abandoning the party initially felt like a betrayal, like shedding a layer of your identity that you’d worn for years. Thus the oft-repeated saying came about: ‘I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me.’
Of course, the majority of the left in Scotland have found a home within the SNP. I could easily reel off a number of reasons that I personally won’t join them: their reneging on scrapping the council tax, their refusal to tax the rich, their flip-flopping on corporation tax, their proposals on standardised testing in schools and the overall message that class issues can’t be rigorously discussed until after independence. Indeed, I’m sure many in the comments will naturally challenge some of these assertions – and that’s fine – but I believe that most left wing SNP supporters understand that they’re not in a socialist party.
In the past few weeks, for example, we’ve seen a group called ‘SNP Socialists’ pop up with MP Tommy Sheppard set to chair their first meeting on Saturday.
Although this development was missed by the press, it’s noteworthy because it highlights a growing hunger on the pro-independence left to ensure the SNP uphold an anti-austerity approach. As someone who voted RISE in the last election, I’m aware that I don’t necessarily speak on behalf of most pro-independence lefties in saying I’m uncomfortable with supporting an overtly ‘nationalist’ party. But like Cat Boyd, who talked about Scottish politics’ ‘tribal divide’ in her The National column this week, I believe that these disagreements are less important when it comes to fighting the real enemy: the Tories.
What I remember from the independence rallies in 2014 wasn’t just the flags; it was how unified we were in our desire for a new politics, one characterised by fairness, social justice and solidarity.
“Indeed, I’m sure many in the comments will naturally challenge some of these assertions – and that’s fine – but I believe that most left wing SNP supporters understand that they’re not in a socialist party.”
The people joining Labour now to support Jeremy Corbyn are our brothers and sisters in this fight, whatever their position on independence. Thousands even paid £25 to try and get a vote in this latest contest, a ridiculous situation that highlights just how desperate they are.
Whether a formal alliance is possible, I don’t know – although it’s telling that Corbyn would consent to a coalition with the SNP if necessary. Nevertheless, this isn’t just about casting votes at a ballot box, or whether you’re SNP, Labour, Green, RISE or whatever. The British left lost in the early 1980s and have taken thirty years to come together again as a movement. Even if Scotland’s path ultimately lays elsewhere, we should still be a part of that, whether that’s simply attending rallies or linking up with English activists and trying to win hearts and minds.
Laughing at Labour’s failures will be no consolation if the Tories are in power at least another decade. Whilst we remain in this union of nations, the left in England and Wales cannot be left to fight their own battles while we fight ours.