Kenny MacAskill: The decline of Scottish Labour and why they only have themselves to blame

Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard in Glasgow. The Scottish Labour leader will go unrecognised at the party conference. Picture: John Devlin
Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard in Glasgow. The Scottish Labour leader will go unrecognised at the party conference. Picture: John Devlin
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Labour should be meeting for their annual conference next week in confident mode. Shadowministers strutting the stage as the government in waiting and laying out a vision of the administration they intend to form.

Yet, despite facing the most inept and dysfunctional government in living memory they find themselves behind in the polls. Quite incredible really given the incompetence and backstabbing of the Tory regime.

It’s still possible that the Tories will fall apart and crash and burn at the polls. But, the freshness that led to the Corbyn surge, that took all and especially Theresa May by surprise two years ago, has faded. Instead, the Labour leader looks anything but that, facing relentless attack from without and division within, and struggling to hold on to opposition leadership, rather than aspiring for the premiership.

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For these aren’t normal political times, reflected not only in Labour’s failure to benefit from government disarray but also in Scottish Labour’s diminished influence within the wider UK party. The days of when Labour were beholden to, if not dependent upon, the Celtic fringe are long past. There was a time when Scottish and Welsh MPs were essential for Labour and stood as colossuses within the party. Labour losing or winning narrowly south of the Border but MPs from across the Celtic borders appearing like the cavalry to deliver victory for beleaguered colleagues. But, no more.

The strength of Labour now isn’t north of the Border but south of it. Indeed, it’s Scottish Labour that needs to look beyond its borders for assistance, as both the membership surge and electoral victories have passed them by. Whilst the Corbyn surge saw them revive from a single representative, it’s a still modest sprinkling on the Westminster benches and insignificant in influence. Understandable, perhaps because of devolution and compounded by their fall from omnipotent political power in Scotland, to being a poor third at Holyrood.

That’s a far cry from the days when Scottish and Welsh Labour were the giants in the land. Then the likes of Willie Ross was able to wield power with a grouping beholden to them, through to more recent times when Gordon Brown and Robin Cook stood head and shoulders above others in the massed ranks at conference. Scottish Night at the event not just a place for a good shindig but an essential place to meet and mingle with potential king-makers. But, not any more.

Now Richard Leonard will be not just unheralded at conference but unrecognised by delegates. Likewise Lesley Laird will be ignored as power and prestige rests with others, whether Corbyn acolytes or English Municipal Leaders like Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. The Scots now a small rump delivering little numerically or politically and largely ignored as a result. It’s south of the Border that the big political beasts now lie and where the debate for the future of Labour’s taking place. Winning a few more Westminster seats north of the Border whilst helpful isn’t essential for UK Labour and the Scottish party is now largely irrelevant to the major policy debates taking place within it.

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But, Labour in Scotland only has itself to blame. It’s a party that hasn’t come to terms with losing power even more than a decade on and seems unsure of what it’s for or where it’s going. It’s a pale shadow of its former self and a pale imitation of its UK sister organisation, whatever travails the latter may have. That in many ways is a tragedy as there are good people within it and Scottish democracy could benefit from their challenge. But, instead its still convulsed by a hatred of the SNP and defined by its stand on the Independence referendum. Rather than seeking to move on from the “Better Together” folly and win back support that was lost, it’s as if they feel they have to justify it and defend it.

That was brought home to me at the last election when a good friend was involved in the making of the UK Labour Party election broadcast themed along the lines “for the many, not the few”. I settled down to watch it only to discover that Scottish Labour had prepared their own diatribe about opposing a second referendum, which was tedious and off-putting. People wanted hope and a future. As it was I caught the UK one online and it was remarkably good. It was easy to see why many were captivated south of the Border.

It’s hard to know just who speaks for Scottish Labour or just what they stand for. On Brexit is it the opposition to a hard Brexit led by Ian Murray or the closet Brexit led by Neil Findlay? On federalism is it the new Treaty of Union pledged by Kezia Dugdale or the total lack of interest shown by Jeremy Corbyn? Even on opposition to the Tories, it’s divided by councillors who prop them up in local authorities, whilst others denounce them as the devil incarnate.

There’s many in Scotland who support social democracy and seek self government for Scotland and it’s been ever thus for over a century. Sometimes it’s been seen as within the ILP, other times in Labour and most recently with the SNP. Its varied in its commitment to socialism from the likes of Jimmy Maxton to his biographer and former PM Gordon Brown. On the constitution it’s oscillated from the limited devolution of Donald Dewar, through the almost Irish Free State model of the Red Clydesiders, to the independence of the SNP.

But, Scottish Labour seems devoid of ideas on society, economy or constitution. With the SNP drifting, a debate and challenge would be good for the country as it’s not where we’ve been but where we’re going that matters. New ideas need considered. Sadly, Scottish Labour neither has the status it once possessed nor the vision now required.