Trade Unionism, Not Kamikaze Unionism

The Labour party was founded to give the trade union movement a voice in parliament. The party drifted from its founding purpose and took voters for granted, falling into decline after 2015. Increasingly, Scottish trade unionists are speaking out in favour of a second independence referendum; we must acknowledge our founding purpose and listen, instead of repeating our mistakes.

This weekend, Unison’s Scottish council voted in support of a second independence referendum. This is not insignificant – Unison Scotland represents roughly 150,000 workers. Its membership works across healthcare, local government and the voluntary sector, and are often on the frontline against UK government cuts.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard says he understands the reasons that Unison members are seeking answers in constitutional change. However, we believe that the party should move from understanding to action. Scotland returned 48 SNP MPs to Westminster in 2019, and the party has replaced Scottish Labour as a dominant force since 2007. Since 2014, Holyrood and Westminster have consistently returned pro-independence majorities. This, we believe, is a clear mandate to secure a second independence referendum.

Richard Leonard cannot continue to deny this mandate. For as long as he does so, Scottish voters will see this as a tacit endorsement of the status quo. He would also be disappointing many Scottish Labour members who supported his leadership to reject business-as-usual within the party. We cannot continue writing the terms of our own defeat by calling on people to reconfirm their support for a second referendum by voting SNP or Green. Labour was punished in leave-voting seats in England and Wales for being seen to deny a mandate; by refusing to accept the mandate for a second independence referendum, Scottish Labour risks the same in Holyrood.

When Keir Hardie founded the Scottish Labour Party in the early 20th century, he believed in the principle of home rule for Scotland. Although we welcome Richard Leonard’s clear commitment to establishing home rule and a federal United Kingdom, he must be prepared to address difficult questions over how we move forward as a party. Listening to the trade unions should be central to our approach; they represent the kind of voters that we need to bring back to Labour. Scottish Labour for Radical Democracy believes that the party should come out in support of a second referendum based on the principles of democracy, self-determination and home rule for Scotland.


Scottish Labour for Radical Democracy

Comments (7)

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  1. Robert Buntin says:

    RBCGraham co- founded the Labour Party with Keir Hardie. RBCG later went on to co- found the SNP. The Electorate of Scotland have voted SNP consistently since 2012. No way back for Labour Party in Scotland.
    I was a member of the a Labour Party in 1984.
    I will never again vote for Labour. The Labour Party must not only accept Scotland’s right to have a choice to vote for independence. It must embrace independence from the fascistic, toxic UK or become extinct.
    I am a member of the SNP. That will not change after independence is achieved!

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Or you could accept that there can be no single “class-interest” political platform that represents the views of workers, and keep Labour as a unionist-worker option, leaving other workers to choose a different political option. Wasn’t that the point of having different platforms for the Labour Party and Independent Labour Party in the past? In attempting to have one workers party are you prioritising a political power base over true representation?

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I think this is a sensible view being taken by a group of members within the Labour Party, of which I am NOT a member. The signatories have made a reasonable argument to their fellow members. I hope they succeed in changing the party position.

    However, I think that Scottish Labour, like almost every organisation becomes, eventually, is suffering from ‘goal displacement’ – it comes to exist for the benefit of those within it rather than serve the wider goals for which it was established. Now, those within the group of beneficiaries will claim – and probably with some sincerity – that they still support that wider goal. However, they can always find some immediate thing which needs to be done. Although it is dressed in laudable language, it is essentially, about preserving their privileges.

    Mr Gerry Hassan set this out well several years ago in the ‘Strange Death of Labour Scotland’.

    The most recent opinion poll indicates that of the dwindling number who voted Labour in Scotland in December 2019, about 1/3 support independence. Unless Labour in Scotland changes to be more open to the people of Scotland determining their own affairs and to consider independence, then it will lose that tranche of supporters and members, too.

    Since Ms Davidson colonised, very effectively, the unionist ground, Labour could also lose voters and supporters to the Tories in Scotland. Many are socially conservative, do not want radical economic change and see the Tories as offering this.

    It looks as if they are between a rock and a hard place.

    For the hundreds of thousands of us historic Labour voters, the loss of a socialist or social democratic party gives a degree of regret, but, part of the reason we now support independence is that for many years we have seen England, and hence the majority of the UK, increasingly turn against redistributive, internationalist communitarian politics and see an independent Scotland as a route to achieving these. There are, other reasons why we feel we should run our own affairs – i.e the people who live in Scotland, no matter their place of origin, gender, ethnicity, religios belief or none, sexuality.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Alasdair Macdonald, historic Labour voters have been supporting a Party of Empire. A fine exposition of this is historian John Newsinger’s 2018 piece on War, Empire and the Attlee government 1945–1951. The Abstract gives the essence:
      “In this article, adapted from a speech delivered at a conference on reparative history, the author challenges the dominant view of the progressive radicalism of the postwar Attlee government by exposing the brutality of its imperial adventures. Examining British involvement in Vietnam, Indonesia, Greece, Malaya, Kenya, India, Palestine, Iran and Korea, the piece paints a very different and bloody historical narrative from the dominant one. It argues that the welfare state was accompanied by the creation of the warfare state and that it was the Labour Party which cemented the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, which today the vast majority of the parliamentary Labour Party would still like to see hold sway in terms of foreign policy and questionable foreign interventions.”

      Perhaps ‘worker’ parties have outgrown their usefulness, and in any case Labour is far too mired in the military-industrial-imperial tradition and subordination to the USA in office. How many lies have been exposed by now? I would like to see the political environmental front opened up, with a new authoritarian-Green party opposing the more libertarian brand on offer in Scotland, for example. Indeed I hope we will be able to run our own affairs along the lines you propose. It’s just that Labour’s foreign policies in power have opposed that option for other people since its foundation.

    2. florian albert says:

      Gerry Hassan’s book, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ had many fine insights. However, it missed the crucial change that took place in the Labour Party from the mid-1980s on.
      Until then, it had been – overwhelmingly – the party of the working class. From the 1980s on, it became more of a movement to represent all of Scotland. Thus, you were as likely to find a Labour MP in posh Newton Mearns as in deprived Pollok, just down the road.
      In practice, it proved impossible to represent all the different interests in the country.
      Labour hit on a solution. This was to talk radical and to indulge the middle class. At first, talking radical meant denouncing Thatcherism, to a country in near total agreement. Later, this evolved into portraying Scotland as different to England; more into redistributive, internationalist and communitarian policies than south of Hadrian’s Wall.
      This proved hugely successful – up to a point. This ‘point’ being when it came to implementing such policies.
      What undid SLAB was that somebody else, Alex Salmond, proved even better at their game. Given the choice between Salmond and McConnell, there was only going to be one winner.
      Right now, the Labour Party in Scotland has no future.
      Whether the SNP fares much better remains to be seen. To quote Gerry Hassan again, since 2014 it has shown a ‘lack of substance and strategy.’

  4. Dougie Harrison says:

    Alas, some supporting independence do not appear to understand the importance of the changes in policy on the subject which have been growing in the trades union and labour movement over past two decades. I say this as someone who was for much of my working life an active Communist wee fish in the big pond of left politics in Scotland since the 1970s. (Scottish Chairman [sic], National Union of Students 1973-5; Assistant Secretary Scottish Trades Union Congress 1976-1990; charity Holyrood lobbyist 2000-2003, Scottish Green Party activist now.)

    What has happened since we gained a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 is that many who fought for it for decades have come to understand that it’s not enough, because we remain under the final control of Westminster. Ask former MP and MSP Dennis Canavan, or any of the significant former leaders of the left, who campaigned for a yes vote in 2014.

    Ask the current leader of the Scottish trades union movement, significant figures in the Labour Party, and now the leadership of one of our biggest unions, Unison, who now see the clear post-Brexit democratic need for another independence referendum. And ask yourself, please, whether unthinking sectarian ya-boo anti-labour behaviour in the independence movement is likely to build bridges and win the new allies we desperately need… or harden them against us? Aye, it’s taken them a wee while to understand where Scotland is now. They felt they had reason to mistrust a rightwing SNP who refused to join the fight for our wee parliament.

    Some are being brave enough to ditch generations of anti-SNP sentiment in our labour movement. Sentiment which the behaviour of many in the SNP earned, as when they refused to participate in the civic movement in the 1980s and 1990s, which lead to the creation of oor wee Parliament in 1999. Oor wee Parliament which has finally lifted pro-independence folk and organisations to command around 50% of electoral support some two decades later.

    Don’t we now need to lift that remarkable 50-ish% (which, please remember, was under 30% when the 2014 indy campaign began, and less in 1999), to a significant and enduring majority in the next indy referendum? Where do you think these new supporters will come from? Tartan romantics yet to be created by waving blue and white flags in their faces? Or the hundreds of thousands of honest politically active folk in the trades union and labour movement who are now moving towards an understanding of the need for independence?

    We must understand the gradual shift in policy in the labour and trades union movement with open minds and welcoming arms. Their support and organisations are essential to winning us the independence we need. They are NOT our enemies; they’ve just taken their time to get where we are now.

    Dougie Harrison

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