Euan McColm: Aping the SNP won’t help a Scottish Labour party in decline

Aping the SNP won’t help a party whose disastrous decline is now as much about personnel as the structure of the party, writes Euan McColm
Monica Lennon MSPMonica Lennon MSP
Monica Lennon MSP

Each time Labour is humiliated in an election, helpful SNP politicians and activists pop up to suggest the party might start to rebuild support among voters if only it would drop its opposition to independence.

Can’t Labour see that if it wants to win, it must first support the nationalist project?

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This advice is not, I suspect, offered in good faith. Pro-independence Scots who once backed Labour will not rush back to the party if it suddenly decides to offer a watered down version of the SNP prospectus.

In fact, the only beneficiaries of a more Nat Scottish Labour Party would be the SNP who would enjoy much needed support at Holyrood for another referendum.

But, devoid of ideas and panicking about the future, some in the Labour Party are seduced by the warm words of their political enemies. Maybe it’s time, they say, for us to change our attitude to another referendum.

The latest Labour politician to fall for that SNP sweet-talk is front-bench MSP Monica Lennon, who last week wrote a lengthy article for the Daily Record in which she argued that if Labour wanted to end its long-term losing streak, it had to split from the UK party.

Scottish Labour was treated as nothing more than a branch office by the party’s London HQ and “epic change” was needed to avoid further Labour decline.

Among the areas where Labour should rethink was on the constitutional question. Health spokesperson Lennon remains opposed to independence but it was time for the decision on whether the question should be asked again to be taken in Holyrood rather than Westminster.

It was no longer tenable, she wrote, for decisions about Scottish Labour to be “taken or undermined by colleagues outside Scotland”.

Lennon’s article could have been written by one of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s press officers. Line after line played along with the SNP narrative that Scotland is being denied its democratic right by a distant and uncaring Westminster.

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Lennon – who backed Jeremy Corbyn ally Richard Leonard during the 2017 Scottish Labour leadership contest – is, in a much diminished Labour Party, an influential figure, and she has kickstarted a debate that will consume a great deal of time and energy while Labour’s opponents get on with the business of politics.

It is undoubtedly the case that Labour has seen many of its Scottish supporters move to the SNP in recent years. The nationalists’ recent successes have come at the expense of a party that could once have taken for granted the support of a majority of Scots.

But is the answer to this really to present a Nat-lite manifesto?

It is not only the SNP which has benefitted from the support of former Labour voters in recent years. The Scottish Conservatives have become the second largest party in the country by winning the backing of a substantial number of pro-UK Labour voters.

The Tories chose a side on the constitutional question and then campaigned relentlessly on the message “no to indyref2”.

If the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives have anything in common it’s that both have a campaign message that’s simple and clear. 
Labour has struggled since 2014’s referendum to do likewise. A woolly, maybe-yes-maybe-no approach to constitutional change ended up satisfying neither side and the party has failed to find a message that grabs the attention.

As Labour prepares to waste time and energy on another interminable internal debate about its structures, its opponents will continue to campaign in primary colours, their messages clear and easy to digest.

There is a particularly bleak irony for Labour in the fact that the party once provided the blueprint for SNP success.

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When Alex Salmond returned as nationalist leader for a second stint in 2004, his party studied carefully how Tony Blair had turned Labour into a winning operation.

The SNP’s first Holyrood victory in 2007 was not based on overwhelming support for Scottish independence but on the fact that voters saw a reinvigorated party with a credible leader. The nationalists won that election with the assistance of unionists who reckoned them capable of competent government.

The SNP – as one senior MSP put it to me back then – built a fortress on the centre ground. The party defeated Labour on what had been its territory.

Scottish Labour – as is also the case with the party across the UK – has lost the knack for offering credible leadership and believable policies. These are the areas in which effort is required.

It will suit Sturgeon down to the ground to spend the year ahead fighting with the UK government over the matter of another independence referendum. In Prime Minister Boris Johnson, she has the perfect bogeyman, a right-winger who’ll deny Scots their right to decide their fate.

What Labour needs now if it is to become a force in any part of the United Kingdom is a leader who represents a credible alternative to Johnson. No senior Labour figure, whether it’s Corbyn’s replacement or the party’s Scottish leader, Leonard, is going to persuade voters they can fill that role by acting as Sturgeon’s lap-dogs.

Scottish Labour was once the sensible wing of the party, rejecting the hard left even as its influence grew strong south of the border during the 1980s.

But, now, it is every bit as infected with Corbynism as the party in England and Wales.

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If there is a debate to be had within the meeting rooms of Labour’s Scottish headquarters, it is not about how the party can become more nationalist in outlook but about how it can move back to the centre ground where there are votes to be taken from both the SNP and the Conservatives.

Of course, a new message to middle of the road voters will have to be delivered by leaders – at Holyrood and Westminster – with charisma and energy.

Looking at the personnel options available, perhaps it’s unsurprising some Labour politicians prefer to focus their efforts on a pointless debate about party structures.