The 2019 General Election further emphasised Scottish Labour’s decline, and its struggle to adapt to constitutional politics. Lauren Gilmour, a Scottish Labour and trade union activist, makes the case for the party to re-orientate towards a defence of Scotland’s right to a referendum on independence.
Despite their best efforts to avoid the constitution, Labour paid a heavy price for their lack of answers on its central questions last month in the form of their worst performance in a general election since the 1930s. In Scotland, the party was reduced to just one MP for the second time in five years. The scale of the loss has ignited a debate within Scottish Labour, with senior figures such as MSPs Monica Lennon and Neil Findlay calling for the party to back a second referendum on independence. 200 Scottish Labour members have also put their signatures to an open letter, calling for the party to respect the Scottish Parliament’s right to hold a second referendum. Not only would Scottish Labour be respecting the democratic will of the Scottish people in backing a second referendum, but it would present a number of opportunities to begin its slow climb back to power.
Decades of political dominance led to Labour being cemented as the political establishment in Scotland. Over the course of just a few years, this dominance collapsed as the SNP secured themselves as the hegemonic political force in Scottish civic society. Having painted themselves as an anti-establishment party, rallying against the British state, former Labour voters have largely got behind them, returning several comfortable SNP victories since 2007.
Until 2015, Labour had maintained a significant presence within Scottish politics, but aligning themselves with the Conservatives in the 2014 Better Together campaign led to complete annihilation of the party in the 2015 general election. Scottish Labour have struggled to shake off the perception that they are in cahoots with the establishment, despite the changes to leadership at both a Scottish and UK level. Labour’s confused stance on both Brexit and Scottish independence failed to translate into votes. In England and Wales, the party’s policy of a confirmatory referendum on the government’s Brexit deal left voters in Leave voting areas feeling betrayed. In Scotland, the refusal to support the right to a second referendum meant voters backed a party who would not only support it, but do their best to deliver it.
Supporting a second referendum on Scottish independence will enable Scottish Labour to hold the SNP to account for their cautious approach to securing one. Nicola Sturgeon’s request to the UK government to grant a section 30 order to transfer the power to hold a referendum was rejected last week by the Prime Minister. This calls for a radical rethink on how to proceed. Sturgeon says she will lay out the Scottish Government’s plans next week, but it is starting to become clear that there never was a plan. Securing a second referendum after the election of the most jingoistic government in our generation will take more than polite but firm letters to Boris Johnson. Backing a second referendum means that Scottish Labour will be well placed to call for non-violent direct action and protests. This is something that the SNP would be too cautious to call for, but what does Scottish Labour have to lose?
In the minds of many Labour activists, the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections must seem a lost cause for the party. But they don’t have to be. Confident in knowing that whether they vote for Labour or the SNP, a pro-second referendum majority will be delivered, Scottish voters may critically engage with a new choice. Many would simply vote for the SNP in order to secure an independence referendum, despite their failings in government over the last few years – but a Labour option friendly to a second referendum could disrupt this status quo.
Not only would an independence referendum be delivered with Scottish Labour, but Scotland would have the opportunity to elect a government who would be able and willing to use the powers of devolution for the purpose they were intended. Changing position would force the SNP to defend their record and propose something radically different. After twelve years in government, the SNP is a party rapidly running thin on big ideas, failing to hit the mark on key indicators such as health and education. Targets for A&E waiting times are not being met, and Scotland is down in PISA ratings in reading and maths.
There is already clear evidence that simply having the debate within the party has seen the mood towards Scottish Labour shift, with many independence activists cautiously welcoming the launch of Scottish Labour for Radical Democracy. Changing position will allow Scottish Labour to be taken seriously on the constitution by showing a willingness to have the debate within the wider party and movement.
There will also be challenges in getting the party to a position where it supports a second referendum. Among some of our core membership, largely made up of the home-owning and middle aged, there will be hostility to the prospect of even holding the debate, let alone voting for the party to reconsider it’s stance. With Ian Murray, Scottish Labour’s sole MP for Edinburgh South, making a pitch for the deputy leadership of the UK party, it can only be assumed that the majority of Scottish Labour members will get behind him in much the same way Scottish people tend to back the token Scottish contestant of any TV reality show, regardless of how good they are. Those who want to open Scottish Labour to a defence of national self-determination through a referendum have much work to do.
The party’s saving grace in recent years has been it’s new, younger membership and activists coming through who were inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Centred around the Glasgow area, they are kickstarting the party’s recovery in Scotland by organising events, meetings and discussions on where we go next. In recent days, left wing Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr has secured enough nominations to proceed to the next stage in the party’s Deputy Leadership election, calling for the party not to stand in the way of a second referendum if the people of Scotland demand it. Winning the contest with such a platform will be a significant move towards a position supporting a second referendum. The argument will be won from the grass-roots by submitting motions to Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), lobbying Scottish Executive Committee reps, electing pro-second referendum conference delegates and becoming prominent voices in the media. Grassroots campaigns were responsible for securing both Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard as leaders of the UK Labour Scottish parties. There is no doubt that with the clout that young activists now have in the party that they can bring about another historic change in direction.
Picture: Rosi Gritl-Hutton