On Labour’s travails
A week, as they say, is a long time in politics and there must be many Scottish Labour members out there wishing the past week had never happened.
It all started when John McDonnell made it clear that a UK Labour Government would not stand in the way of a second independence referendum which had the support of the Scottish Parliament. This followed the publication of a poll indicating majority support for holding a referendum and for independence itself.
The politics of this is clear. Labour needs SNP support in Westminster. They are willing to agree to an independence referendum to be sure of getting it. To be fair to John McDonnell, he also articulated a clear understanding that Scots have a right to vote on independence even if he disagrees with it.
This is not the position of Scottish Labour, however, and McDonnell’s announcement kicked off a spate of bitter infighting among Labour’s Scottish MPs and MSPs without the slightest effort being made to hide it. Popcorn all round! (For everyone not in the Labour Party, that is.)
Later on in the week some form of federalism made a not entirely unexpected appearance, championed by Paul Sweeney, who suggested that there should be a multi-option referendum with federalism on the ballot paper.
The only problem with this is that there is very little appetite for federalism down south and it would be impossible to put it on the ballot paper without some form of worked out and agreed scheme. So I think we can dismiss this as a realistic option.
Rather, it is a sign that Scottish Labour is in a very difficult place.
They can’t out-unionist the Tories. Equally, however, they can’t embrace independence as most of their members and activists remain opposed to it (though there are a significant number who either support independence or are open-minded).
So they have to try and find a middle ground of some sort but, rather than find that middle ground, they have locked themselves into the position of saying there can’t be another independence referendum because, essentially, they don’t want one.
Clearly I disagree with Scottish Labour’s position on independence but I respect the fact that there is a principled case for the Union and there are many good and decent people in the Labour Party who believe in that case. But they do need to recognise that their vote has collapsed and consider why that has happened.
There have been seven Scottish Labour Party leaders since 2007 and all of them have said they will listen and learn. But they haven’t. If Scottish Labour had listened, they wouldn’t keep coming out with soundbites about people voting for a flag. That’s not why people vote SNP, it’s not why people voted Yes.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some people who vote purely on the basis of nationalism. There are – but there are nothing like enough of them to put the SNP into government or to deliver a 45%vote for independence. The SNP understands that, even if Labour doesn’t.
But the Scottish Labour establishment really doesn’t understand the first thing about Scottish nationalism – that it only exists because Scotland is not independent. This is an incredibly basic point but one which I frequently see overlooked by those who draw links between the kind of nationalism behind Trump and Farage and the nationalism which exists in Scotland.
Understanding Scottish nationalism should be easy for Labour. Actually listen to people. Understand why they support independence, don’t assume you know already. You probably don’t. (The same, of course, is equally true for us. It’s all too easy for Yes supporters to caricature unionists, to not really listen to what they say or to try to understand why they want to remain part of the UK.)
There is, as I said, a principled case for remaining in the UK. The mistake Labour made in 2014 was not that they articulated that principled case. It was the fact that they didn’t.
Instead, they stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories as part of a Better Together campaign that relied on Project Fear, which to many voters just came over as Project Threat. They turned that big clunking fist on their own, essentially. That was what made so many Scottish voters finally turn their backs on Labour for good. They just felt that Labour was no longer on their side.
Which brings us to Scottish Labour’s current predicament.
I fully accept that they have every right to oppose independence. But that cannot possibly justify opposing the right of Scottish voters to choose the future they want. It shouldn’t be up to John McDonnell to articulate the case for self-determination. That should be understood and supported by Labour members everywhere and, when you really think about it, it’s a disgrace that it isn’t.
Endless reiterations of “once in a generation” can’t obscure the fact that we have been on a political rollercoaster over the past 5 years. The UK that 55% of Scots voted to remain a part of no longer exists. Many people are re-thinking their position. Polls only show part of this – but they show enough to indicate that most Scots now want a choice.
There is simply no democratic argument for denying that choice. Indeed, last week also saw former Scottish Secretary David Mundell indicate that a blanket opposition to a second independence referendum was not politically sustainable. Can it really be that David Mundell has a better grasp on that reality than the Scottish Labour leadership does?
As and when public opinion shifts, political positions also shift in response to that. If Scottish Labour continues to set its face against a second independence referendum, against the trend of public opinion, it could be their final mistake, a mistake which leads to them being quite simply wiped out as an electoral force.
It would be a hell of a way to go.
Are Scottish Labour members really willing to take that risk? Over the next few months we may find out.