Lesley Riddoch: Why Scottish Labour must back independence

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale speaks during Labour's Women's conference in Liverpool. Picture: Getty
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale speaks during Labour's Women's conference in Liverpool. Picture: Getty
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Another day another car crash of an 
interview for Kezia Dugdale. After repeating her view that Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t win a general election straight after his re-election, Dugdale told BBC’s Sunday Politics that Corbyn could re-unite the party “if he really wants to,” and that unity matters more than negative opinions uttered previously, because “only a united Labour Party can defeat the Conservatives at the next elections”.

I suppose few other Corbyn-opposing Scottish Labour politicians would have done any better as they tried to reconcile the irreconcilable and Dugdale managed to maintain a jaunty, optimistic air throughout her ten-minute TV ordeal. Each time Gordon Brewer suggested she was ducking the question, she smilingly replied that she had been “clear and consistent” and that Brewer was the only one dragging up the past.

Clearly the Scottish Labour leader hoped to reach dry land by body-swerving “flip-flop” questions and reciting her mantra about the need for party unity.

It didn’t work. For Labour protestations of unity through gritted teeth won’t work anymore.

It has to be the real deal – and that’s not going to happen.

Sometimes break-ups are reversible but the Labour Party’s MPs and its membership have already separated. Divorce can be messy or civilised, but that really is the only choice left.

Spouting about unity, Labour leaders seem blissfully unaware they have exhibited more fratricidal intent over the past year than Brexiting Tories – and that’s saying something. The time for delivering wooden platitudes on TV is long past. It was past when Gordon Brown was still trying to make it an artform. Straight-talking is something Jeremy Corbyn understands. By and large he does what it says on the tin and it’s part of the reason he is popular. By contrast every evasive, obfuscating interview his opponents give digs their political graves a little bit deeper.

Voters are not falling for false promises or false bonhomie from Labour any more.

Some realignments in British politics are long overdue and Labour can still be in the vanguard or at the rear.

Firstly, Britain urgently needs proportional representation so that a spectrum of political opinion can replace the current binary divide between capital v labour, the establishment v the underdogs, the rich v the poor and Tories v Labour. PR would allow Labour activists to split into separate parties instead of pulling the present one apart. Admittedly though, that’s not immediately in their gift.

So Jeremy Corbyn should spurn MPs trying to set preconditions before deigning to serve in his shadow cabinet. Labour’s membership has changed as dramatically as its leadership but many MPs have been in post since the old Miliband days. The only relevant question is which side should compromise or quit? Democracy and public opinion suggests it should be the MPs.

Indeed what are Labour’s tribes actually fighting over? Their arm wrestling contest for control of Labour’s National Executive Committee will dominate the party’s Liverpool conference this week. Yet in truth, there’s relatively little disagreement over policy – just total disagreement over Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to win the election.

So maybe it’s fairer to say the divide really exists between those prepared to court middle England with honeyed words (and run the risk of achieving power again without a real mandate for political reform) and those who want to support left-wing policies even if that means losing in 2020 and maybe beyond. This is not a difference a single Labour Party can encompass any longer – nor is it one Kezia Dugdale need be involved with or tarnished by.

Scottish Labour should be established as an entirely separate party now. One suspects the only reason it isn’t happening is that Kezia Dugdale wants to remain harnessed to the troublesome mothership so she can join Labour’s National Executive Committee and tip the political balance away from Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s shallow reasoning.

But there is an alternative.

If Kezia could lift her head from the present morass and look five, 10 or 30 years down the line she might see the only way to revive the Labour party in Scotland is to change tack and support Scottish independence. It makes sense tactically, politically and strategically.

The opinion polls suggest union-backing Scots believe its most robust defender is Ruth Davidson, the Conservative Party and the establishment. Warm words from Labour about sharing social burdens will not alter that reality.

The public knows – especially after the Brexit vote – that independence is neither as scary or unthinkable as Labour has maintained. Most Scots who want to live in a social democracy now support independence as the only way to achieve that goal.

Scottish Labour can deny that reality, accept it once their party has been completely obliterated north of the border or shock the living daylights out of everyone by seizing the moment and kick-starting a process to rethink their opposition. Without a strategic change to supporting Scottish independence Scottish Labour will consign itself to the dustbin of history and Scotland to a continuing but unpopular union with a dangerously disorientated UK.

I can hear the counter arguments – after years opposing independence who will believe any Damascene conversion now? A pro-indy Scottish Labour party could simply be opening itself up to attack from both sides. That’s not so different to their embattled position today – the difference is that taking a pro independence stance would suddenly make Scottish Labour relevant again.

As it is, Kezia Dugdale can ask pointed questions about SNP education policy and coin useful slogans like “cuts to councils are cuts to care.”

But until Scottish Labour updates its thinking on the really big question of independence, she is like a player who hasn’t thrown six to start. A bystander.

But should Scottish Labour embrace a crucial policy change they don’t basically believe in?

I don’t know if those who remain as leading lights in the Scottish Labour Party are wholeheartedly opposed to independence as a means of transforming Scotland. I do know that on many political platforms during the indyref, I was privately thanked by senior Labour MPs for berating their limp stance on constitutional change. Perhaps it helped their hand in internal discussions – nuanced efforts that ultimately led nowhere fast.

Gradualists must stop deluding themselves. There is a decision to be made now by Scottish Labour’s leadership.

History and voters are waiting.