Henry McLeish: There's little love and Labour's lost

PARTY MUST get to grips with the constitutional question if it wants to become relevant again writes Henry McLeish

Labours meltdown at two successive elections proves its dithering on the constitution could sound its death knell. Picture: Neil Hanna
Labours meltdown at two successive elections proves its dithering on the constitution could sound its death knell. Picture: Neil Hanna

Few people could have imagined that, 17 years after the official opening of the new Scottish Parliament in July 1999, the political landscape of Scotland would have been so dramatically and spectacularly transformed. On that July day as the Red Arrows and Concorde flew over the Assembly buildings, the late Donald Dewar delivered such an inspirational and insightful speech and we all sang along with Sheena Wellington, there were few pundits, politicians or journalists predicting the continuing decline of the Union of the United Kingdom or the rapidly changing nature of Scotland’s constitutional role within that Union.

Her Majesty the Queen would certainly have had little inkling that day when she opened the new Parliament that within 15 years a referendum would be held in Scotland with 45 per cent of her “subjects”, now “citizens”, voting to leaving her United Kingdom. This new political era raises a number of searching questions for the Scottish Labour party that will not go away. Stepping out and looking back can be useful therapy.

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Labour has an identity crisis in Scotland. There has been an unprecedented break down in trust between voters and Labour. The party has lost touch with the spirit, soul and sentiment of a rapidly changing nation and its people, whose aspirations and ambitions or doubts or confusion seem to be leaving Labour far behind.

Trying to make sense of this today is a huge and complex challenge. But if the Labour Party is to negotiate successfully a way back into Scottish politics, a new politics of constitutional engagement has to be the number one priority. Scottish Labour has never been comfortable with the constitutional issue, and is still bitterly divided over it, at a time when the Union has never been so uncertain, insecure and unstable. Nor has there been a time when Scotland’s membership of the Union, created in 1707, has hung by a thread like it does now.

The inescapable conclusions to be drawn from a decade of decline and drift is that Labour’s future now depends on getting a grip on the constitutional issue, rewriting a new narrative for Scotland and offering a credible, relevant and radical alternative to the grudging concessions of Unionism and the independence on offer from the Nationalists. No-one should be in any doubt. This is a tough assignment. The “mood” created by the independence referendum, the stark results of the Westminster and Holyrood elections and the divergence of Scottish and English politics provide no guarantee that Scots will be sympathetic to new ideas such as Home Rule or have any faith or confidence in the ability of Westminster to either understand Scotland or embrace four-nation politics and abandon the absurdity of the absolute sovereignty of an institution so completely living in the past.

The future role of the Labour party, certainly in its present form, is at risk and our membership of the Union is becoming less and less secure. Without an understanding of where Scotland is heading, a firm grasp of a viable and sustainable alternative, an enthusiastic embrace of radical change and the steps required to achieve success, Labour will remain overwhelmed and unable to reinvent itself. This is the stark choice facing Scottish Labour. There is a limit to how many earthquakes a political party can cope with.

Ideas matter, “the world is ruled by little else”, said Keynes. They explain how the world is and how it might be changed. Labour needs to offer something that Scots could believe in.

Holyrood was the most political and constitutional election since 1999. There is one simple message for the Labour Party: unless Labour reoccupies the constitutional space, creates a new narrative for Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom and embraces the desire of Scots to see a way through this constitutional impasse, the party will continue to drift to the margins of Scottish politics and Scotland will drift towards independence.

This would be an extraordinary price to pay for a party that has contributed so much to post war Britain and Scotland and has a great deal to contribute to the politics of today and tomorrow. For Labour to reverse its fortunes it has to get to grips with the Scotland question: the substance, the strategic and the sentiment. Thursday 5 May was a master class in how the Tories and the SNP played their constitutional cards. This was Unionism and Nationalism at work, with Labour lost in a political and constitutional no man’s land and squeezed by stark but successful political tactics.

Tories voted for the Union. Tories who had flocked to the SNP in 2007 and 2011 returned to the fold, because their mission to damage Labour was no longer required. Skilfully exploiting the regional or list system, Ruth Davidson boosted the number of Tory MSPs to propel her party into the official opposition slot.

Both the SNP and the Tories were arguing to be the authentic voice of Scotland. In reality this was about the new mood of Scotland where two of the opposing forces in the independence referendum were once again battling it out on constitutional and political lines. Labour doesn’t have a constitutional position other than the ill-advised vows and more powers. Saying no to independence is not a solution or a strategy and the electors see through this. The current Westminster settlement for Scotland will inevitably lead to independence.

The Scotland question is more than vows and powers. It is a battle for the hearts and minds, soul and spirit, sentiment and traditions of an ancient nation and a modern country. These are not the abstract or philosophical footnotes to the history of a nation but the building blocks of Scotland’s DNA and its future.

Every opinion poll shows that Scotland is now bitterly politically divided. We are a 50/50 nation. But where is Labour in this titanic struggle for a new and enduring constitutional settlement? Is there an attractive, sustainable, workable, coherent and popular alternative to independence and grudging Union concessions? Is a form of Home Rule, four-nation politics or federalism, a possible way of keeping Scotland in a new Union? Or is it all too late? Have too many Labour voters decided they are not comfortable with Labour? Maybe all the optimism in the world and well-intentioned sentiment can’t derail the journey to independence.

My mind and mood acknowledges all of this but I remain committed to a different, positive, optimistic and alternative debate.

Labour must take ownership of a new debate on the future of Scotland, not the future of independence. Home Rule and interdependence, not narrow nationalism or grudging Unionism, should be new choice for Scots. Labour has to become an independent party - an independent voice for Scotland, not a voice for independence. The battle of ideas has to start now.