2007 - 2022

State Power and Party Myth: the managed decline of Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour conferenceChristopher Silver on the background to #DevoNano

George Galloway’s analysis of the referendum, though often so far from the reality on the ground, hits the nail on the end in one respect. New Labour was the handmaiden of Scottish independence

The answer, according to George, is for the British people to get ‘their Labour party back’. A return to the pre-Blair organisation will, as many sincere activists believe, provide the only vehicle for progress in these isles.

This problem is a complex and damaging one, both for the party itself and for Scottish politics in general. The cult of Labour, its insistence that it can once again represent the working class and that it is the exclusive owner of this ability, results in a strange complacency in the face of a rapidly changing politics. One Nation Labour is clearly the only party that can save the union, this most unequal of countries, while claiming to be the only vehicle to make it more equal. The party that oversaw the greatest transfer of wealth to an elite since the 1920s, offers the sole vehicle to escape a problem of its own making. This week its Scottish branch suggests that it can do this by offering something that Devo Max campaigners describe as: ‘a tinkering of the tax powers contained in the Scotland Act’.

The party repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the nature of the debate. It’s not about technocratic offers of a set of minor powers wrapped in tartan. It’s about something far more resonant, as Ian Bell put it in response to David Cameron: ‘what happens when the society you mean to create is not one we would consent to inhabit?’.

All too often we think in terms of nations, not societies. The two terms are closely related, but pundit after pundit has failed to recognise that Scotland, already a nation, is really holding a vote about the kind of society it wants to be part of. This is something that Labour has refused to acknowledge. Its offering on more devolution, suggesting such radical moves as a Scottish Health and Safety Executive, is a rather sad void where there could have been real vision.

This peculiar phobia that the British left has developed for democracy outside the remit of the palace of Westminster may be thinly veiled by invoking claims to otherwise absent ideals of solidarity and socialism. However the truth is never far from the surface: if you want to rule a highly centralised unitary state, you have to defend that state to the hilt, however reactionary the results of that act of preservation might be.


Though a smattering of left-wing unionists claim the disease of ‘nationalism’ as the ultimate capitalist demon, this is grounded in theory, not history. The left slays myths with theory: that’s what it prides itself on. Stuffy old romantic nationalism is the sworn enemy of all that the British left holds dear. Britain often likes to flatter itself that, in 1848 for example, the wave of nationalist revolutions that swept Europe did not reach the shores of old blighty. Red Clydeside, though it has its own mythic quality, is little more than a footnote in the story of how Britain, uniquely in Europe, did not witness a revolutionary moment, but developed a parliamentary workers’ party instead.

For those who subscribe to this view ‘nationalism’ in Scotland provides the ultimate mythic beast to slay. Yet behind this apparently ideological objection is just an even greater, perhaps more compelling, spiritual monster: the Labour Party itself.

Underneath those contemporary right of centre robes, many still believe there is a throbbing heart of proletarian politics waiting to be uncovered. Gone are the neo-imperialist wars, PFI contracts, Foundation Trusts, free schools, Trident renewal, spiralling inequality and Asbos. Rather than face up to this legacy, the party clings to a romantic, mythic, continuity that pales in comparison to that invested in most nation states. Ironically this is all premised on the lack of a genuine revolutionary movement in British history.

In this sense, unionists also have their Bannockburns. For many it’s the largely fictive class struggle that the historic Labour Party is supposed to have conducted, or might lead in the future. Soothed by this notion, the British leftist forgets a catalogue of uncomfortable realities and floats off to the idea of a more abstract ‘labour movement’. In this new red dawn, Nye Bevan’s visage will beam down upon rows of trade union banners, bearing portraits of Benn and Jenkins. The chorus of ‘The Red Flag’ will swell as Gillian Duffy and Peter Tatchell enjoy a lingering embrace, while a distraught Peter Mandelson chisels the old Clause Four onto a tablet of stone. The worker’s party will be reborn.

1932278_832805086735247_2095550285_nBuying the idea of a renewed left wing populism emerging from the Labour party involves re-writing a lot of history. Forget the party’s recent scurrying to the ‘filthy rich’ for a few hundred votes in Kettering and look at the abject failure of Labour as both a revolutionary and parliamentary party. An organisation that showed no solidarity with the two totemic labour struggles of the 20th century and was so used to the touch of ermine that even in its moment of post war triumph it left the carriers of one of the world’s most pervasive aristocracies intact. Guess what? If you don’t abolish Eton, Etonians get back into power. What makes this failure so galling is that the trauma of past division means that questioning loyalty to the party is the ultimate crime. No one is dead to the party in quite the same way as a leftist who has spurned the righteous path to the promised land.

To put it bluntly, the British labour movement failed. It failed so thoroughly that even moderate social democracy is hard to come by in a UK government today. Far more than any ‘nationalist’ on the pro-indepedence left, it resorts to exhortations of pride and abstractions: knocking back the Kool-aid of social justice with the cyanide of British nationalism. Leave the system in tact, we are told, and somehow the New Jerusalem will be recreated. Just don’t ask for a map showing how we get there.

What is remarkable about the work of Owen Jones and the prospect of a renewed left wing populism his work represents, is how timid he is on constitutional structures. The English left’s poster boy recently showed himself to be committed to the ‘dream’ of a federal Britain. This then is the state of the union: radical thinkers equate a perfectly normal European form of government, not as some attainable political project, but as a dream.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Labour party, still trapped in its own existential crisis, argues against change not on the basis of workers rights, but instead cites board-room threats of capital flight from the big four supermarkets and massive financial institutions. It fails entirely to speak to the idea of federalist dreams and insists that Scottish politics must remain provincial in its concerns.

This straightjacket will be seen as a massive strategic error: whatever the result of the referendum. What is thrilling about the current phase of Scottish politics is the opportunity to allow ideas to inform policy. To return to first principles to create the kind of political structures that would make many of the obscene policies that Scotland has to bear impossible.

However much you might try and sweeten the neo-liberal reality with student politician enthusiasm for Marxist theory, Labour is not a radical party. Its potential to be one is questionable. It has a support base, no doubt, yet its safest seats enjoy the lowest turnouts in the country and it has not produced a charismatic leader for a generation.

Labour abandoned the workers because the workers lost. The workers lost because the party they thought to be their own abandoned them. The party remains caught in a trap of its own making. Steadily, it has hollowed out, leaving a brittle New/Blue Labour husk. What is left there but a set of lessons in how not to build solidarity? Shorn of that mythic identity as the only progressive force in Britain, we see a dogmatic mistrust of the masses and the ‘working class’, a term that is perhaps the greatest causality of the war against the majority started by Thatcher and continued by Blair.

On the other hand groups like Radical Independence, Green Yes, Labour for Independence and Common Weal are concerned with engaging the missing million, whose sense of class consciousness is lost at sea. We live in a UK of Benefits Street, rampant inequality and an austerity based consensus. Without a Common Weal to occupy the vacant gap left by the idea of Labour’s 1945 socialist commonwealth, solidarity cannot be reborn on the back of the fragmented, low pay, workforce that the party helped to create.

In Britain at least, neo-liberalism’s great achievement was to sever the link between the unskilled working class and the skilled who would once have backed Labour without question. Many C2s now own their own home in Scotland and do not feel the kind of solidarity with those who missed out on the smash and grab opportunities of the 1980s. Throughout Britain class politics has shifted to mirror America: in which only a poorly defined ‘middle’ is referred to.

The great tragedy of the Labour Party today is that many activists remain so psychologically scarred by the abandonment of its every shibboleth that it cannot displace the new professional caste that has replaced Blair and Brown. Numerous well meaning left-wing politicians are trapped, powerless, by the reality of Iraq and the crashing failure of the new dawn heralded in ’97.

The greatest problem that the post-New Labour party has to grapple with is its lack of a cohesive vision. As Scottish Labour gathers for their pre-referendum conference they continue to fail to understand that, without Clause Four, without the post-war vision of socialism and an attainable, easily identifiable goal that supporters can rally behind, it cannot compete with the SNP. The party’s operatives remain too blinded by hatred to realise that a tangible outcome in the form of independence is their opponents’ key strength. All too easily they mistake the compliance of a pro-union media with the potential of a ‘more powers’ platform as something activists and citizens might rally behind. As September looms ever closer the convening, visionary potential of Yes is evidenced more and more by a blossoming grassroots campaign that Labour cannot match.

Perhaps the trauma is still too intense. This was the party that, in 1997, had everything. Youth, money, confidence, an activist base. As sociologist Stein Ringen, points out with great clarity: if even a party as fortunate as New Labour fails so lamentably, the system has to change. He states:

During the last 30 years or so the British constitution has been drastically reshaped. Mr Blair and Mr Brown inherited Mrs Thatcher’s centralisation. Had they broken with that legacy they may have succeed, instead they slipped into continuing it and, inadvertently perhaps, undermined their own cause and condemned themselves to ever more effort for ever less gain. If New Labour, with all that the gods gave them in 1997, could not rule this country, then no government can.

Ringen’s solution is radical decentralisation and a systematic renewal of democracy. Perhaps, as is evidenced by Miliband and Lamont’s deafening silence on such issues, the one real tenet of the Labour Party, from MacDonald, through to Callaghan and Blair, is to always leave the system intact. Distracted by its own socialist/reactionary schizophrenia, social justice must always come a poor second to the sanctity of a powerful British state.

Comments (32)

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  1. Douglas says:

    Chris, interesting piece, though I don´t think it´s completely fair to say that the Labour movement failed. The Labour movement gave us the welfare state, one of the greatest feats of humankind. If we were living in a country governed by the wise, we would have a national welfare state day. The welfare state is one of the most civilized things human has produced on earth. We should be proud of our grandparents.

    But we are living in a country run by an out of touch oligarchy of neo liberals, the most insatiable people on the planet. They are one step away from being cannibals, frankly.

    The great Labour party conferences of the early 80´s, I remember them well enough, I mind kipping school to watch Tony Benn or Denis Skinner on the TV, the conference hall packed, the atmosphere electric. That was a movement, and there were lost of very well intentioned people in it, people with great ideas and lots of passion. People, like Benn, who could have just not bothered and wallowed in his wealth. Benn himself was worth being in the Labour Party for, though I never was myself, I was too young.

    But the Left lost the Labour party two decades ago. Principle became suspicious. Anybody who challenged the dogma that wealth trickles down was deemed an idealist crank. The notion that the State was incapable of running anything became mantra. The onslaught began and has never ended, the onslaught of lies, of smears and falsehoods.

    But we must reach out to Labour Party voters in Scotland. We need them, and we are not so different from them. After all, so many of us in the YES movement once believed in the Labour Party, or more accurately, in the potential of the Labour Party.

    1. DM says:

      You cite the Welfare State, which (since it also includes the NHS at its heart) is the most-cited example of why Scotland should remain governed by London, and its having been so oft-cited has been demonstrated to be a nonsense. It has been being systematically dismantled over the course of the last thirty-five years, with Cameron’s government going the furthest towards its removal. Only in Scotland does there seem to be a desire to continue the Welfare State and for the NHS to be free at the point of need, which is why independence is necessary if for no other reason.

      So yes, the Welfare State is being slowly taken apart at a UK level, and the Labour movement has failed.

      1. Douglas says:

        I agree with most of that, but I think it is a bad use of language to say the labour movement has failed. If it wasn´t for the labour movement we wouldn´t have the NHS. So, now it is being taken to pieces by New Labour and the Tories? Okay, but that is not the fault of the labour movement. The labour movement is a fundamental part of the new Scotland when indie is delivered. The Labour Party, as the expression of the labour movement,has been dead for two decades, and has betrayed the labour movement…

    2. tartanfever says:

      Would the welfare state have been brought into existence if it hadn’t been for WW2 ?

      I doubt it.

      It’s like those journalists that cite The Telegraph for revealing the expenses scandal as a reason not to reform the press – It wasn’t the newspaper that uncovered the facts, it was the Freedom of Information Act.

      1. Douglas says:

        Possibly not tartanfever, though it would certainly not have been brought into existence if there hadnay been a labour movement fighting for it, of that we can be sure.

        There are plenty of other things we owe to the labour movement, like the five day week, the eight hour day, and the vote. The vote!!!

        My point is a lot of people in the labour movement over the past century sacrificed a lot of time, energy and often their wages to strike for so many things we take for granted today, like the vote; and also that the labour movement is not synonymous with the Labour Party, and certainly not with New Labour.

      2. tartanfever says:

        Again, I’d put forward that ‘the vote’ was a product of WW1 as much as any labour movement.

  2. atypicalscot says:

    The guarantee of greater profit in cheaper foreign labour and lower taxes has removed the single most important bond of the proletariat.

    Workers lost the battle with globalism thus Labour lost its direction.

    The wealth divide in the UK is symptomatic of this. The value of British labour is so devalued on the global market only a few industries can survive the neo-liberal necessity of profit first without outsourcing abroad.

    It’s easy enough to point at Labour and state that God gave them all in 97′ but it’s just not that simple.

    As we (im)patiently wait for 19/09/2014 it would be great if we put our thinking caps on and thought about the mandatory provision that a workers solidarity requires…,


  3. andygm1 says:

    One of the best accounts I have seen of the state of the British Labour Party. It’s a busted flush. What is so puzzling is that in places like Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath, people are still willing to vote for it in large numbers. Perhaps they just don’t watch the news.

    1. hektorsmum says:

      So many here in Dunfermline are in thrall to Labour, they flirted with Willie Rennie for a short time but the Labour Apparatchik got Thomas Docherty in 2010. since then the people seem to cling to what they knew. I cannot for the life of me understand it but then I am only a Fifer by recent adoption. I understand though that many in both Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath are voting yes.

      1. anon says:

        The reason the Cowdenbeah area vote labour is partly due to the amount of masons in the area. Several of the councillors are members of masonic lodges, and there is strong ties between the masons and various echelons in the local authority.

        When SNP took over the adminstration of Fife Council, Labour immediately sent in their activists and unions into the Community Councils all across Fife, some areas were able to fend this political invasion, other areas were not so lucky.

        On top of this, Labour has a tight control over the local press so very rarely do we see an alternative political viewpoint, except for those individuals that would seek their political news from other sources.

        Lastly, they have a strong base from all the miners and Labour in these areas play to all the old fears and politics that emerged from those times, even though their words are hollow.

        Ultimately their power is held through the corruption of the media and a corruption of the people through deception ut people are starting to awake at what Labour has failed to achieve for these areas.

        Sadly I do not think there is enough voters especially from the ‘old guard’ that have awakened to the fact that Labour stopped representing their interests years ago.

        1. hektorsmum says:

          Oh I remember the 80’s and the Community Councils from my days in Inverkeithing SNP, and yes we have a real problem with the Masonic Lodges everywhere. No idea how to counter that, I worked in Edinburgh Council and the bit I worked in became a hotbed for the Masons. I was fortunately a woman and impervious in my way to them. My Husband was in BT and was not. To say I dislike them is to be very mild.

  4. evan says:

    Question: What has the sovereignty of a people got to do with political parties?

    If any politician cannot understand this, then he or she should never be listened to!!!

    1. habibbarri says:

      You are right. The sovereignty of a people is above party politics. The sovereignty of the Scottish People is in opposition to the sovereignty of a parliament of elites for elites, not elected by the People and unaccountable to that People. A unelected chamber composed only of the elite is a total contradiction to the sovereignty of a People.

    2. manandboy says:


      The politicians continue to speak and act as if this was all about them and how they plan to run the country – almost as if this was a General Election.
      How utterly blind they are and I fear even Specsavers can’t help them

  5. bringiton says:

    Lamont’s announcements yesterday emphasise that the British national Labour party has little or no relevance to current political discourse in Scotland and perhaps has no interest either other than making sure that we continue to send Labour MPs to Westminster.
    After independence,the political landscape in Scotland is going to change dramatically and we should see the emergence of new parties of the left who will,for a change,represent the interests of working people.
    One thing for certain is that the British national Labour party will play no part in an independent Scotland and it will be interesting to see where those Labour politicians who currently claim allegiance to London rule end up.

    1. manandboy says:

      Bringiton – So good.

  6. That photograph of Johann Lamont kissing one of the evil Milliband twins will haunt my nightmares for years to come. Shudder!

  7. An Gille Ruadh says:

    Regarding Hektorsmum’s comment above re Labour voters in Fife voting Yes, certainly the mood on last night’s Referendum programme from Fife seemed very pro.

  8. evan says:

    Even though a party is elected….this does not mean that the peoples’ sovereignty has been handed to that party!!! Sovereignty always lies in the people…these simple ideas have been lost im the masses…

    1. tartanfever says:

      Not in the UK, Westminster is sovereign, not the people.

  9. Alex Buchan says:

    I enjoyed the article. Its a long time since I read Tom Nairn’s books, but this article very much take up the baton from Nairn. Nairn’s central point was the Glorious Revolution in the 17th cent led to the creation of a state formation that was very different from anything on the continent. If I understand Nairn’s argument correctly it is that everything that has happened since, including the way that the labour movement was co-opted into a support for the constitutional status quo, has to be understood as flowing directly from the ability of the elite structure established by the Glorious Revolution to co-op and subvert. Nairn argues that this was not a true revolution but a pact between merchantile and landed interests to preclude any future revolution. The glamour of the [retained] royal family and the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament are the two totem poles that this counter revolution set up that became a litmus paper test. Any political movement which did not show complete allegiance to these would be undermined by the extended network of the elite in business the press and civil service etc, thus ensuring the continuation of the system.

    So any party that plays by Westminster’s rules will of necessity be tamed and will end up betraying its earlier principles. Of course the details of the extent to which it does this will depend on things like the success of globalisation etc. But even with favourable conditions, all a Labour Party could do under these conditions was ameliorate the position of working people they could not move against the system itself, because to do so would require revolution and the system set up by the Glorious Revolution was extremely resistant to revolution. As long as the SNP does not water down its policy of wanting independence it is more threatening to the British system than Labour ever was after it became a parliamentary party.

  10. barakabe says:

    What I cannot understand is how these diehard old Labour ideologues & ‘Internationalists’ from Galloway to Wilson cannot even see the ‘strategic’ case for Independence: this is our chance to inflict a major ( maybe even fatal) blow to the Westminster/Brit/London elites- wouldn’t it be easier to liberate the power of labor from capital in England, Wales or elsewhere in the rUK if these elites were significantly weakened? It’s a real no-brainer. This makes voting YES an absolute strategic necessity for anyone on the left. People like Galloway et al are implicit in propping up the fallacy of the Big Central State at the expense of all else, including labor, social justice & even the very sovereignty of the People. From that point of view I agree with most of what is said in this brilliant article.
    Despite this I cannot agree the labor movement has been a complete failure for the reasons stated by other comments.

  11. Giving Goose says:

    The labour movement may not have failed but it is a past tense. It does not continue to deliver, to move forward. It is stuck in a rapidly fading past.
    The party that oversaw the greatest , transfer of wealth to an elite since the 1920s, actually very intentionally became part of the Elite, so in one sense, it only transferred wealth to itself.
    As for making statements about the British Left. There is no British Left., there is a Brutish (the spelling is intentional) Labour Party and they are not the same thing.

  12. Macart says:

    People before party. The sovereignty and right of the people of Scotland to determine their own form of governance. For way too long parties of all stripes ignored this fundamental right. They placed the needs of a manufactured political institution and titled establishment before the needs and rights of the electorate. Labour’s fascination with and loyalty too this establishment is perhaps the most inexplicable and inexcusable of all. Their remit was to stand for the common man and woman, to reform, to change, to improve. Their problem? They tried to do it whilst working within the establishment. The establishment won and Labour changed to suit. It’ll be a while before I put my cross against a Labour candidate.

  13. Jim Kennedy Cairo says:

    Forget the NHS the scottish mps are a bunch of self serving crud. We have had 50 of them for long enough and they have done nothing for Scotland. The Labour Party (Scotland) is a spent force. Time to get real and live in the modern world.

  14. tom healy says:

    No mention of 1820 Baird Hardie et al.

  15. dennis mclaughlin says:

    Lions led by donkeys is what happened to the British Labour Party,here in Scotland epitomised by ScotLab’s Johann Lamont.
    If this is the very best they(ScotLab); can be led by ,well the game’s a boagie!
    Johann Lamont as First Minister is enough to make anyone vote YES!.

  16. evan says:

    You cannot have any respect or time for people that do not want his or her own people to be sovereign….and you cannot accept someone that holds winston churchill in high respect(after all, churchill had mussolini on a pedastool and advocated for the gasing of iraqis!!!) and i can go on and on about this “great” statesman, if statesmanship is about wiping peoples’ existence around the world in the name of democracy and bringing civilisation….

    Scottish people vote YES and after independence do not make the same mistakes as in the past….only way to check your politicians, is to ensure that the politicians are continually scared, knowing that the Scottish people who have assigned certain powers to them can be taken away QUICKLY!!!

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