The Double-Edged Sword of Labour Decline
The Scottish Labour Party meets this weekend in Glasgow. It will be a strange gathering. The party’s ninth year in opposition, facing imminent and expected election defeat, and with some polls even showing the party now in third place in votes and seats behind the Tories.
Scottish Labour now finds itself bereft of its usual friends. The Corbyn revolution has witnessed an explosion of new members south of the border, and in particular, in London amongst professionals. Scottish membership over the same period increased from a mere 15,000 to 19,000, falling as a proportion of British membership from 9% to 5%.
Corbyn doesn’t get Scotland. He has unveiled no Scottish strategy or awareness, while no Jeremy bounce has yet been evident here. The recent ‘Corbyn4PM’ rally in Edinburgh didn’t do well ticket sales, but did cause embarrassment for Kezia Dugdale with praise being lavished on the SNP by a number of the speakers, and Jeremy Hardy announcing that if he lived in Scotland he would support independence. Maybe it is just as well neither Corbyn or McDonnell are speaking at this weekend’s conference.
Scottish Labour doesn’t have its problems to seek. It is the once dominant party of this country which has lost its way and looks to be in terminal decline. There has been a generational shift and dilution in the party – from the ‘golden generation’ of the 1980s who contributed to saving British Labour that decade – to a party bereft of talent and well-known figures.
The decline has been so quick that it has caught Labour and everyone by surprise. Some of this is partly the way contemporary politics now evolve across the world, with parties rising and falling much more speedily than they used to, and the SNP should take note about the impermanence of their current dominance.
The politics of the mainstream centre-left are in retreat across the developed world. Scottish Labour’s predicament can be seen as part of this wider development – and one with three inter-connected crises.
First, is the unique Scottish experience. The party was always more dominant than at first seemed – and given the appearance of omnipotence by the distortions of the First Past the Post system. Through the long years of the party being the leading force of Scotland – it became less attuned to external forces and voters, and instead focused on internal dynamics, and distributing the proceeds of office, namely, patronage and preferment, morphing into a clientist politics.
The establishment of the Scottish Parliament contributed to this – with Labour legislating for it to maintain the domestic status quo and its lead position – without having any positive idea about what it was going to do. Eight years of insipid, timid Labour administration with the Lib Dems illustrated this and were supplanted by an SNP which had a story and ambition for the Parliament and country.
The constraints of how ‘Scottish’ Labour was played into this. It was never fully autonomous and still isn’t to this day, and nor was it able to run itself fiscally, in policy or resources – instead, relying on the national party bailing it out at elections. This developed into a co-dependent relationship, where the Scottish party didn’t want to be independent, and the bigger party didn’t trust it to make its own decisions. Some claim that Scottish Labour is a fiction, which is an overstatement given history and tradition, but Johann Lamont’s charge that ‘London Labour’ treated it as a ‘branch office’ got to the core of where power lay.
Second, there is the problem of British Labour. The ‘British’ element of Labour is often understated or ignored by large sections of the party, but this is a profoundly British party: one of patriotism, a respect for national traditions which are conservative and antithetical to radical action, and imbued with an awe for Westminster and the British state. There have been 30 years of post-war Labour Government – with many achievements to their name – but they conspicuously failed to shift the fundamental balance of power and privilege in the country.
Third, is the state of Western social democracy. All across Europe and the developed world, the mainstream centre-left is in a terrible state, its constituency fragmenting and in decline, the economic and social compact which emerged post-1945 in retreat, and the principles of solidarity, equality and redistribution from the wealthy, under savage attack.
Across the world populist and identity politics are finding support – aided by the costs of globalisation and neo-liberalism, economic instability, public service cuts, and anxieties over immigration and terrorism. Sometimes identity politics comes in progressive credentials such as the SNP or Catalan nationalist movement; but increasingly, it is more explicitly populist and reactionary, from Marie Le Pen’s Front National to Alternative for Deutschland, UKIP and the rise of Donald Trump in the US.
The SNP has captured Labour’s traditional terrain, but that carries risks. For all the rhetoric of social democratic, progressive Scotland, Labour was never even at its peak a pioneering, successful party of social democracy: instead it was a party of organised interests: trade unions, local government, council house tenants. Similarly, the SNP isn’t first and foremost a social democratic party, but one aspiring to statehood, and which sees progressive policies as a means to that end.
The standard SNP line that the party is the modern embodiment of the best of Scottish Labour is a double-edged sword. Labour defined social democracy as whatever it did in office, and quickly became the political establishment – in so doing laying the seeds for their own arrogance and insularity – and ultimately, downfall. The warning signs are already there for the SNP and its ‘Big Tent’ politics – trying to be all things to all men and women, invoking centre-left rhetoric and mood music, but doing little to progressively redistribute income, wealth and power.
The immediate future is going to be difficult for Scotland with public spending cuts, a looming economic storm, and an unstable global economy. The SNP leadership will present themselves as the safe, secure, competent management of a maturing, increasingly confident nation, but have they the confidence to allow for a bolder politics to emerge which asks questions of those with power and privilege?
To some the answer to all of the above is wait until the day after independence, when all these debates can begin properly. But the contours of the future Scotland are being made now and the SNP requires critical and detailed challenge – from the left and from the right. Scottish Labour until now has been a hindrance in Scotland’s recent democratic journey – but it may just be away to move further to the margins. If so this will be a big moment for non-SNP Scotland – which is still on every election contest so far – a majority.