Scottish Labour must forge a new pact with voters - Euan McColm

When it comes to the effectiveness of the Scottish Labour Party, it’s difficult to disagree with former Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Picture: John Devlin
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Picture: John Devlin

Interviewed last week, Blair was damning in his analysis. The only effective opposition the SNP has faced in the last decade, he said, was when Ruth Davidson was leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

Doubtless there are Labour politicians who would point the finger at the ex-PM and accuse him and his New Labour project of being at the root of their political demise north of the Border, but election results don’t lie and the party’s crisis in Scotland has deepened since he departed from the front line.

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The unexpected but inevitable resignation of Richard Leonard as Scottish Labour leader on Thursday means the party is now looking for its 10th chief since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. This statistic hardly speaks of a party at ease with itself.

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images
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Though no candidate has yet formally declared themselves, the early front-runner is the party’s former deputy leader, Anas Sarwar.

But whoever takes over faces an extraordinary task in making relevant again a party that once dominated our politics.

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Inevitably, Scottish Nationalists were quick to offer their analysis of Labour’s problems when Leonard announced his departure. The Nat take goes that Labour will only return to full health in Scotland when it embraces and fully supports the idea of independence. Until that day comes, say Nationalists, they can expect to be reviled.

But Labour’s while next leader would be foolish to think that the SNP can be defeated by copying them, it is uncertainty over the constitutional question that helped get Labour to its current place.

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In the aftermath of the 2014 vote, the party made the foolish decision to try to ride both Unionist and Nationalist horses. Although it was perfectly clear to anyone with eyes to see that Scotland’s dominant political fault-line was the constitutional question, the Labour Party seemed to ignore that fact. Like a spurned lover who refuses to accept reality, it thought it would easily win back those who had abandoned it.

While Labour tried to be all things to all people, the Tories under Ruth Davidson positioned themselves as the defenders of the Union and champions of the majority which supported its maintenance.

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The consequence of this was that, come the 2016 Holyrood election, Scottish Labour was the third party in Scotland. Just a few years before, the Scottish Conservatives had been considered a spent force and now they were on the up and leaving Labour trailing.

Richard Leonard’s leadership was a product of the Jeremy Corbyn era. A former trade union official, Leonard was seen as a natural ally of the party’s UK leader. His victory in Scottish Labour’s 2017 leadership election was delivered thanks to the support of the Corbynista left.

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But the Corbyn project is dead and Scottish Labour’s next leader will have to find a path back to the centre ground. There is, for all the stories of radicalism that we tell ourselves, a middle Scotland and those who inhabit it have long been ignored by the Labour Party.

The demise of Corbyn and the rise of Keir Starmer may be useful to the next Scottish Labour leader. Support for Scottish independence is bolstered by the presence of Boris Johnson in Downing Street. And for as long as the Tory who led the Brexit campaign remains Prime Minister, it is difficult to see how the SNP’s position may be weakened.

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But if some voters support independence as a way of removing Johnson’s influence, it stands to reason that they might change their views if he is removed. And so the new Scottish Labour leader should make the case that a Starmer premiership is the simplest route to a Johnson-free destination.

As things stand, the SNP is on course to win another thwocking great victory in May’s Holyrood elections.

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insists that a Nationalist majority in the Scottish Parliament (which, if the SNP don’t achieve on their own, will surely be delivered with the help of the Greens) will provide her with an unshakeable mandate to hold a second independence referendum.

This may be comforting to the committed Nationalist but the truth of the matter is that the power to grant another vote on the constitution resides with the UK government. Now, maybe I’m wrong and Johnson will give the go-ahead to a referendum which he might lose, but I’m not wrong and he won’t.

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Sturgeon is under growing pressure from some Nationalist colleagues to outline a “plan B” to win independence. But the desire to find an alternative route towards the break-up of the United Kingdom does not mean that such a route exists.

Rather than being dragged into interminable debate over the constitution, Scottish Labour’s next leader should concentrate his or her attention on developing new policies which are deliverable under the powers currently available to the Scottish Government, and making the case that Scottish voters can play their part in ousting the Conservatives from power at Westminster.

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I have no doubt that some Labour activists will want to see Leonard’s successor come up with a new constitutional offer. There will be pressure to talk about “Devolution Max” and other variations on that theme, but experience should tell the party that there is little to be won by rearranging the deckchairs.

Rather, Scottish Labour, if it is to avoid extinction, must find the confidence to talk about what it could achieve in the world as it is, instead of in the world as its Nationalist opponents would prefer it to be.

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