Tom Peterkin: Labour needs conviction on Scots independence

Kezia Dugdales efforts to try and move the campaign beyond talk of a second referendum were scuppered as the constitution came back to haunt her partys efforts. Picture: Hemedia
Kezia Dugdales efforts to try and move the campaign beyond talk of a second referendum were scuppered as the constitution came back to haunt her partys efforts. Picture: Hemedia
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Scottish Labour’s recovery depends on doing better on the independence question, writes Tom Peterkin

The amateur pathologists, who like to conduct post-mortem examinations of electoral meltdown, are always swift to offer their diagnoses in the aftermath of a party’s downfall.

The recent Scottish election has been no exception with analysts from within and without Scottish Labour appearing to revel in their gory task.

The benefit of hindsight allows for all manner of pontification. But for those charged with breathing new life into the grievously wounded organisation, the challenge is more difficult.

Yesterday a YouGov poll found that more than a third (36 per cent) of those surveyed believed Scottish Labour was “finished” as a political party and would not be force within ten years. Whether the outlook for Kezia Dugdale is as bleak as that is up for debate. What cannot be denied is that the road to recovery is a long and arduous one.

But amid the acres of analysis offered by the political pathologists, one observation has emerged time and again as last Thursday’s election result has been dissected.

The frequency of the observation suggests it is one that ought to be taken seriously.

It has been almost universally acknowledged that Labour failed to deal convincingly with the constitutional question, which has become embedded as the defining feature of Scottish politics.

Ms Dugdale made a bold decision to try and move her election campaign beyond talk of independence and a second referendum by focusing on her progressive tax plans.

But her well-intentioned efforts were repeatedly scuppered as the constitution came back to haunt her party’s efforts.

As far as the leader was concerned, part of the reason for the difficulty Labour experienced was self-inflicted, and her ill-advised admission in a Fabian Review interview that it was “not inconceivable” that she would support independence in the event of Brexit was the most obvious example.

This sort of confusion over Labour’s constitutional position was manna from heaven for the Tories, who were only too ready to exploit it.

By attempting to look beyond constitutional arguments, Ms Dugdale was hoping to reach out to those on the left who had deserted Labour for the SNP during the referendum.

But by doing so, supporters of the UK felt let down by Labour’s failure to set out a convincing position. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were uncompromising on the constitution. It came as no surprise that Ms Davidson portrayed herself as the defender of the United Kingdom. Given the fault line that runs through Scotland it was always going to be a tactic that would work at the polls. But when combined with Labour’s hesitancy it proved devastating.

In the aftermath of election defeat, Scottish Labour’s former deputy leader and newly elected MSP Anas Sarwar gave a telling interview.

Grilled by Gordon Brewer on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Scotland, Mr Sarwar said: “Up against the binary situation where we have Unionism versus Nationalism – that’s a real difficult question for the Labour Party.

“We have to move past that, but the reality is that we are not comfortable Nationalists and we are not comfortable Unionists and in that binary election process the Labour Party has got a problem.”

Faced with the competing ideologies of Nationalism and Unionism, Labour is like a rabbit stuck in the headlights, unable to decide which way to turn as disaster looms. The over-riding impression is that despite Labour and Ms Dugdale paying lip-service to the Union, they lacked the courage of their convictions.

By attempting to be all things to all voters, all they did was create an air of indifference. This studied ambivalence to the constitution harmed them. One can understand why politicians would want to move beyond the divisions of the 2014 referendum. But like it or not, Scotland has been split into a land of Yes and No and the reality is that for many voters their politics is defined by their position on Scottish independence.

Labour cannot ignore this problem and must come up with a position which is more convincing than simply hoping that it goes away. In some ways it is difficult to understand why Labour got itself in such a tangle on this issue.

Labour had a ready-made and compelling pro-United Kingdom vision that party strategists chose to keep under wraps.

It was a little over 18 months ago that Gordon Brown was making a series of pre-referendum speeches, culminating in a barnstormer at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow on the eve of the 18 September referendum.

Brown talked of fast and friendly change towards a stronger Scottish Parliament. He also talked of Scotland pooling and sharing resources within a United Kingdom – a notion that chimes perfectly with Labour’s belief in solidarity.

If her party does truly believe in the United Kingdom, perhaps it is time for Kezia Dugdale to dust down some of the former Labour Prime Minister’s speeches.

Labour may be down but it is not yet out and still has the potential to play a considerable role in the way Scotland is governed.

If the United Kingdom is to survive, securing that future must involve embracing a positive and convincing vision of its benefits. Further ambivalence will reduce the constitutional debate to a fight between the SNP and Conservatives. In that battle, the numbers suggest that Nicola Sturgeon has the upper hand over Ruth Davidson.