Scottish Labour’s constitutional position is ambitious but at least it’s a strategy says Tom Peterkin
It is true to say that Scottish Labour’s decline had its genesis long before the 2014 independence referendum. Even so, the dilapidated state of Labour came as a surprise to some during the fevered atmosphere that overtook Scotland as the referendum date crept closer. Senior Tories were astonished by the failure of Labour as a campaigning organisation.
The Conservative vote was unwaveringly No, but it was clear that support for the UK was haemorrhaging in the Labour heartlands.
In the run up to September 2014, the Labour grassroots machine was a pale imitation of the formidable organisation it was once. For years it had been joked that the Labour vote in Glasgow was weighed rather than counted. But this dominance had led to the complacency that saw Labour’s denuded grassroots operation struggle to convince its supporters on the constitutional question.
If it is true to say that the decline was in evidence before September 2014, it is also true to say that it was hastened by the vote itself.
Labour voters who had been persuaded by Yes arguments found that their natural home was now in the SNP and contributed to the surge in membership for Nicola Sturgeon’s party. Meanwhile the deeply divided nature of Scottish politics meant that No voters found a billet in the Scottish Tories, which was unambiguous in its opposition to independence.
This realignment damaged Labour still further as the party itself sent out mixed messages on its constitutional position while having to duck attacks from the SNP for its association with the Tories in the Better Together campaign.
So it was against this difficult background that Kezia Dugdale yesterday made a speech in London outlining her constitutional vision at a time when the Brexit vote has added layer upon layer of complexity to the political situation.
At the heart of it is her vision for a federal UK – an arrangement that would bring more powers to Holyroood, other devolved parliaments and the English regions.
This would be achieved by a People’s Constitutional Convention, with contributors from all over the UK and which would produce a new settlement in the post-Brexit era. That would then be followed by a new Act of Union to formalise the new arrangement.
Dugdale believes Brexit offers the chance of a fresh look at the UK constitution and her vision gives Scotland’s political division a chance of healing. For Scotland it offers more power while safeguarding the Union and maintaining the pooling and sharing of resources across the UK which underpins the Labour value of solidarity.
It is an approach developed after much thought and research, including a Scottish Labour membership study under the auspices of the Bath University Politics Department.
Discussions with seven focus groups of between ten and 15 new and long-term Labour members took place in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Thirteen interviews with key party figures were also fed into the exercise.
Labour sources say that all participants recognised the difficulty that Scottish Labour is in and the need for the party to have a position that can appeal across the division between Yes/No voters in 2014. But there was universal agreement that Scottish Labour needs a clear position on the constitution that is agreed and adhered to across the party – hence yesterday’s speech which was discussed with Jeremy Corbyn last week.
According to the focus groups, Labour should be pro-devolution and pro-UK. There were also descriptions of the similarities between working class Scots and those in Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff and Birmingham. This chimed with the Labour notion of pooling resources and redistribution of wealth from high earners in places like London to the most needy areas of the UK.
There was also “general despair” that the Nationalists had “stolen” Scottishness for their own “narrow” interpretation. Labour’s summary of these sessions noted “this feeling is clearly profoundly upsetting for many members”.
Those taking part were of the view that Labour should not be a nationalist party. All “but a small minority” felt Labour should not be a unionist party either. Participants expressed dislike of the unionist label, which they felt had sectarian overtones and had been imposed on the party by Nationalists.
So it is this fine line between nationalism and unionism while embracing the UK and calls for more power that Dugdale wants to tread. It is her attempt to come up with an answer to the constitutional question which still dominates Scottish politics more than two years after the independence referendum. In that way she hopes to meet what her focus group participants described as their “strong desire” for Scottish politics to move beyond the constitution.
There is perhaps a certain irony that another constitutional talking shop and new Act of Union is seen by Scottish Labour as the best way of doing so.
But this week alone has seen Scotland performing dismally in an international education study and experts express their concern at the country’s obesity epidemic and the millions it costs the NHS. Something has to be done to move Scottish politics back to dealing with real lives. Only time will tell if Labour’s approach will succeed, but at least now there is a well-defined strategy.