Labour for Indy?

With Theresa May flailing on Brexit and the UK government in crisis, the prospect of another general election is increasingly likely. In such a scenario, Scottish independence will inevitably return to the agenda. Labour’s position on the issue remains firm, but is there scope for it to change? Jonathan Rimmer investigates by speaking to the party’s small but growing pro-independence base…

When Richard Leonard was elected as Scottish Labour leader last year, campaign strategists were confident he could replicate Corbyn’s success among young people. After all, this was a man cut from the same cloth, a Bennite socialist who wanted to reform the private rental sector, build council housing and abolish zero hour contracts. Leonard reiterated Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda after election polling showed more 18-24 year olds identified austerity, cuts and inequalities as the most important political issue than other age groups.

This message certainly seems to have cut through to some extent: Scottish Labour lead the SNP among 18-24 year olds, according to the most recent poll. However, the same demographic also continues to overwhelmingly back Scottish independence (66%), which Leonard unequivocally opposes to the point he’s even pushed Corbyn to block any prospective referendum in the event he becomes Prime Minister.

Squaring this circle continues to be a strategic minefield and Leonard has been criticised by many activists on the Scottish Labour left for doubling down on his unionist credentials. However, it opens other questions: why do young pro-independence voters support a party with such a dogmatic position on the national question? And to what extent are such voices being heard within Scottish Labour’s activist base?

Tam Wilson, an activist in Dundee’s Constituency Labour Party, only joined the party at the start of this year. Like so many working class Scots, he was energised by the independence referendum and believed self-determination offered the opportunity to advance a “pro-worker vision”. He says: “At that point [2014], Labour were doing some indefensible things. If someone told me Jeremy Corbyn would be the leader or that I’d end up joining the party, I would have laughed.”

What changed? He continues: “My opinion in Scottish independence hasn’t changed, but my priorities have. I would still vote Yes, but it got to the point where I saw what was happening in England and started to really think about the infrastructure of this country and how desperately it needed a Corbyn-led Labour government. I just feel like the class narrative has been taken out of the independence debate. I know many people still keep that going, but the general conversation around independence seems to lack a class narrative. I’m not here to make excuses for previous Labour politicians – I just wanted a space to talk about class politics.”

For many Scots, of course, Labour’s perceived indiscretions are unforgivable. The narrative goes that the mass exodus towards the SNP after the independence referendum along with subsequent unionist defections to the Conservatives left Labour a hollowed out husk. The Labour For Independence campaign was a prominent voice during the referendum, but it has long appeared dormant in terms of organisation. An estimated quarter to a third of Labour supporters voted Yes in 2014, but interestingly that figure hasn’t dwindled. In total, 32.5% of 2017 Labour voters say they’re inclined to vote Yes in a second referendum (once don’t knows are removed), a statistic which has remained steady over the past year or two.

This isn’t a surprising phenomenon – research by Democratic Audit concluded that “emotive nationalism does not explain Scotland’s young ‘Yes’ voters. Has Labour reclaimed what Wilson describes as the “class narrative”? Edinburgh-based academic Rory Scothorne, who voted Yes but went against the grain in 2014 by switching from the SNP to Labour, thinks so. He says: “My own politics shifted towards class power and the fact there are political conflicts you can’t resolve by moving power around. The SNP believe conflicts in society are between national groups. My thought was you could only build independence on the backs of independent, class-based organisations.

“A lot of the people I know on the Labour left voted Yes. On the other hand, a lot of older nationalists see Corbyn as just another example of people being drawn back to the British state by the siren song of the Labour party. I think people are sceptical of how transformative Corbyn can really be. If he said he understood the socialist argument for independence, there’d be articles the next day saying ‘Corbyn supports socialist independence’. Nuance now just gets lost in the meat grinder of Scottish political discourse.”
But how do Scottish Labour’s young pro-independence activists reconcile their membership of a stridently pro-union organisation? Rory Steel of SNP Socialists describes Labour as a “centralising party with paternalistic elements” and suggests their “opposition to a second referendum stems from the foundations of the party to protect the British state and socialism in one country”. Interestingly, none of the activists I speak to necessarily contradict this. One Labour member, who campaigned for Better Together and doesn’t wish to be named, goes as far as saying “the party’s policy is nonsense and we’ve learned absolutely nothing”.

In September, Corbyn appeared to offer a less strident position, suggesting he’d “not rule out” consenting to an independence referendum if it was the will of the Scottish Parliament. Leonard appeared to contradict him by saying a future Labour manifesto should provide a mandate against one. Stella Rooney, a pro-independence Labour activist from Glasgow, says she’s “totally embarrassed by the stance”.

“As a socialist, I thought a Yes vote was to the benefit of the working class,” she says. “I believe that you don’t wait for others to organise themselves and I stand by that. It’s terrible politics – Scottish Labour should have a position where if a majority of Scots want a second referendum, they should get one. There’s a key difference between not supporting independence and that being your tradition and actively blocking it. The key thing about the referendum is it wasn’t run by the SNP –campaigns were led by working class people. The party should talk to these people, not make it a conspiracy.”

The members I speak to claim grassroots discussion about Labour’s position on independence isn’t at the top of the agenda, but you get the sense their support for Labour’s programme is to some extent conditional on its respect for the principles of democracy. A more settled position may be urgently needed: as the British state crisis intensifies and Brexit continues to tear apart the Conservative party at the seams, figures in both Labour and the SNP are talking up the possibility of another general election. The Labour leadership have spoken of their aspiration to win back seats in Scotland, but the right to a second referendum would surely be an SNP red line in the event Corbyn is reliant on their support to enter office.

How realistic is such a scenario? Steel insists he’d be open to another cross-party leftist platform developing and that Labour activists “would be a major asset to the movement”, but “those who do believe in independence need to be far more vocal”. The long-held antipathy between the two parties means that isn’t a simple prospect at this point, but Scothorne believes there’s still for a scope for a Labour line that says “parliament has the right to decide… but we offer a complete upheaval of how the British state works”.

Rooney agrees: “I think the first step is a unified left position on the right to hold an independence referendum,” she says. “There’s some ambivalence, but it’s not just about the members. Labour doesn’t just belong to its members – it belongs to the whole Labour movement and it belongs to the working class. How do we win people around? We should be open, have a presence in communities and actively support the work trade unions and Living Rent and others are doing without feeling the sole need to recruit people into Labour. And so if a majority of folk want a referendum on independence, we should have it. I believe that’s democracy.”

Comments (17)

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  1. Frank says:

    I’m sorry but Richard Leonard is not cut from the same cloth as Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has been a known figure in the Labour left for the best part of three decades and has played prominent roles in numerous social movements, most notably the anti-War movement of 2003. Corbyn’s support is broad based whilst, Leonard on the other hand comes from a bureaucratic trades union background, which is obsessed with an old politics based on class, trades unions and workers. In a nutshell, he lacks Corbyn’s authenticity. There is not the space to go into it here but Labour’s class fundamentalism prevents them from understanding the national question, or contributing constructively to indy-debates. I’m sorry to be blunt but anyone who thinks that the centuries old British state could be reformed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is delusional. At the high point of British trades unionism in the 1970s, Labour were incapable of reforming the state – what makes you think they could do it now?

    1. Jonathan Rimmer says:

      Hi Frank,

      Just to clarify – this is a feature, not an opinion piece, and so the implication was that was senior figures on the Labour left’s characterisation of Leonard. Personally, I’d agree on almost all of your points. I think Corbyn faces an extraordinary task given the crisis of the British state (see my last piece on Bella linked under More By This Author). I’m not a Labourite myself, although I do think some of the pro-independence left underestimate how far removed the Corbyn project is from even the most left wing Labourite traditions.

  2. Chris Downie says:

    What I feel pro-independence supporters (Labour or otherwise) need to challenge much, much more, is the glaring hypocrisy of many Labour politicians (Corbyn, McDonnell, even former members like Galloway) who actively support a United Ireland, yet remain resolutely against Scotland’s right to self-determination. I see no logical reason for this position, yet it is prominent even at grassroots level among Labour (many of whom are Irish descent, none of whom oppose the Republic of Ireland’s sovereignty).

  3. Hamish Kirk says:

    Richard Leonard – who went from an English Public School and from there to a Scottish University. Thence to a series of jobs with Trade Unions. What can I say about this carpetbagger ?

  4. w.b. robertson says:

    steady on when the accusation of “carpetbagger” surfaces….quite a few Scots politicians, past and present, – from all parties – might qualify!…

  5. Andrew Morton says:

    If Jeremy Corbyn wins a general election, no matter how much he may change things, as always, a Tory government will follow right on behind and undo it all again. Scotland will be back to square one once more.

    The only way to guarantee policies which Scots want is to have our own, independent government. Anything else is just a waste of time.

  6. Alexander Ritchie says:

    Rory Steel says Labour is a centralising party…not so…not compared to the Scottish Government that has attempted to emasculate Local Authorities regarding education and centralised the Police force removing local accountability.
    Furthermore the recent hatefest by Nationalists railing against trade unions exercising their right to challenge the Nationalist government’s teacher pay offer and Nationalist led Glasgow local authority dragging its heels regarding equal pay, confirmed those of us on the left of the blind view that Nationalism offers. Changing chairs from WM to HR is no change. Only a Corbyn and Leonard Socialist view of GB and Scotland offers working classes any hope for the end of austerity and their future.

    1. MBC says:

      Labour created that problem in Glasgow and well you know it. Westmister holds the purse strings over Holyrood and well you know it, you client of the British state.

  7. Ronald AlexanderMcDonald says:

    As far as Scottish Independence is concerned, Corbyn is as much a British Nationalist as any extreme right wing rabid Tory is.

    1. Frank says:

      I’m sorry but that’s nonsense and politically incorrect. Anyone with a basic understanding of radical socialist politics knows that most socialists equate nationalism with right wing politics and even fascism. Corbyn is no exception hence why he struggles with showing any signs of patriotism – note his obvious discomfort with singing the UK national anthem.

      1. Ian Clark says:

        Hardly nonsense Frank. Granted it was a bit much. But so is your comment about Jeremy’s radical socialism. Mumbling the British national anthem doesn’t quite cut it in my book. And neither does his support – by his presence – for the annual November celebration of the deaths of working class men and women in the service of the British ruling elites. I accept it’s difficult balancing principle with the pragmatism required to attain power. But even allowing for that he’s hardly radical. A genuine internationalist perhaps. But that still makes him a British nationalist, albeit one who has a far greater amount of socialism in his political make up than most of the rest of his party.

  8. MBC says:

    I’m sorry but the reason that 18-24 year olds might be inclined towards Labour is that they are inexperienced and have little grasp or understanding of politics. They hear the right noises coming out of Corbyn but don’t understand that devolution severely constricts what the SNP government in Scotland can do. If they are not hearing the class narrative from the SNP it is because the SNP don’t have control of the foghorn. The SNP have abolished the short assured tenancy and are tackling austerity and land reform. The young don’t understand that Labour are a trap, that Scotland is always an afterthought in any jamd and nationalisation is just another word for English control of Scotland and our resources. Labour are never going to do anything for Scotland except turn Scots into needy clients of the British state.

  9. Graham Ennis says:

    OMG. What, these days, is the “Scottish working class?…..the structure of working people is now very stratified. The old industrial working class has been shattered, by Thatchers deliberate destruction of Scotlands industrial base. A large section of those with jobs in Scotland is skilled middle class. The latter tend to have liberal personal attitudes, but are conservative as to economics and the national question. The Labour party in Scotland is an accurate reflection of these attitudes and values. It is NOT a socialist party. Neither is the SNP, but it is radical on the idea of Independence. But on other issues, it is drifting steadily to the right. It has a Bourgoise leadership. It will NOT do land reform and other radical measures. It also will not do serious legal reforms, that would lead to radical changes in Scotland. There is no chance of a radical reformist Government at the moment. So I see no chance of major shifts in Scotland, towards a more progressive society. The SNP has now been colonised by careerist politicians. Yes, really. Craig Murry has written carefully about all this. Sadly, we are in a quandary. The best we can hope for is a basic Independence.

    1. MBC says:

      Nothing can be done without power. The SNP needs to be broad based to stay in power, even to wield the very limited powers given to us by devolution. It cannot do anything really radical or it will alienate its broader base and thus lose the very limited power it now wields.

      Last month I was canvassing in Morningside for the SNP. This is just the kind of middle class area you refer to. I met one SNP and Yes voter who said he would no longer vote for independence or the SNP as Nicola Sturgeon was a communist. Seriously.

  10. Craig P says:

    Labour delivered devolution for which I am eternally grateful. But having fulfilled their purpose they have nothing more to offer.

    They are as irrelevant now as the SNP will be after independence.

  11. Kenny Smith says:

    Can’t be said enough, Labour, Tories, two cheeks of the same arse. Any yes voter who would even consider giving/lending their vote to labour really need to have a deep think and a good read about how both have shat on Scotland from a great height. I personally should be labour through and through but I would rather be dipped in shit n rolled in breadcrumbs than vote for that lying shower. The Tories are horrid but they don’t pretend to be anything else how dare labour stand and sing the red flag at conferences then watch them pick up robes in the house of lords. The only time I’ll even consider voting labour is when we are independent and it’s a proper Scottish party

    1. Angus Baird says:

      Even after independence, it will be the same trumpets in the party.

      The same people that voted for Leonard as leader.

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