Scottish Labour have missed chance after chance to be relevant in post-indyref politics. By Lesley Riddoch
Nationalists rejoice over Kezia Dugdale’s latest indyref clanger, Tories taunt and Greens continue to quietly outflank – but I weep for Scottish Labour.
For the bold social democratic party that might have been. For the party that should have developed a sufficiently distinctive Scottish agenda by 2014 to have a genuine debate or even a policy change over independence – reflecting the radical popular will as other social democratic parties have done across Northern Europe for centuries, instead of working with the Tories to stifle it.
I weep for the party that could have championed workers’ rights and led the campaign to transform workplace relations in Scotland – but instead pulled devolution of the minimum wage, trade union law and much besides out of the Smith Commission deal.
I weep for the party that brought STV to council elections but failed to ditch first past the post at Holyrood elections and so has partly contributed to its own demise.
Of course it’s not fashionable to feel any pity for Scottish Labour in its present tormented state. Far easier to scoff at policy stumble after stumble by Kezia Dugdale – dismissing then embracing Jeremy Corbyn as UK leader, dropping the rebate for the poorest workers in an otherwise promising assault on the SNP’s timid tax stance, opposing the named person scheme after voting for it, and U-turning spectacularly on independence.
In an interview this weekend, the Scottish Labour leader said it was ‘not inconceivable’ that she would support independence if Brexit saw Scotland hauled out of Europe against its will. At long last a clear, brave and reasoned stance reflecting the political priorities of this century not the last one.
Within hours though, her remarks had been replaced with the standard line that Dugdale was against independence -- in all circumstances. This latest flip-flop has buried any renewed interest by Yes voters.
Once again Scottish Labour has revealed itself to be more worried about alienating Tory voters than wooing back Yes-supporting progressive ones. Ms Dugdale boxed herself in further by telling STV’s Bernard Ponsonby that she would not respect the desire for a second independence referendum should the SNP ask for and receive a mandate to hold one.
Why try to out-Tory the Tories like this? Kezia Dugdale will never convince unionists that she’s a more stalwart supporter of the Union than Ruth Davidson. She could have appeared more progressive and far-sighted but now the Scottish Labour leader has pulled her party dogmatically behind the Union – no matter what chaos Brexit or a Boris-led UK Government may bring.
It didn’t need to be this way. In recent months, many Scots were looking for a party with stiffer land-reforming zeal than the SNP – but Scottish Labour again failed to rise to the occasion. Certainly MSPs Sarah Boyack and Claudia Beamish worked hard to improve aspects of the SNP Bill, but didn’t advance a clear, more radical alternative. Now the Greens have claimed that space.
It seems Scottish Labour is infected with the same fear of bold, progressive policy that gripped the UK party for most of the long Blair/Brown decades. That’s no surprise – the decision not to form a stand-alone Scottish party was a profound mistake. Not because a name change would have persuaded savvy, critical voters to give Scottish Labour another try, but because the party’s proxy membership of the Westminster club allows the values of that very different political establishment to keep muddying the waters of Scottish debate.
Scotland does have conservative voters, but the kind of Conservatism and thus the kind of consensus possible here would be very different, if each opposition party was not constantly trying to find its guiding star somewhere south of Surrey instead of somewhere north of Selkirk. In social democratic Scandinavia, Oslo and Helsinki councils have been run for 20-30 years by conservatives who believe that investing in the public domain will safeguard private investments.
That’s a very different brand of Conservatism to the privatising, judgmental and callous brand running Britain, and it’s been shaped by the confident, constant presence of a strong left – not always in government, not all in the same party – but always dominating the political agenda.
Compare and contrast Scotland, where there is near unanimity on many issues, but tortuously slow progress – partly because unionists need to appear adversarial in the Westminster tradition, partly because Labour and the Lib Dems failed to back beefier devolution and partly because domestic issues easily become proxies for the unresolved independence debate. Can that change?
The wisdom is that Kezia Dugdale is in a hopeless position. On the one hand, ex Labour voters have nothing but contempt for a party that looked south for much of its policy orientation, took voters for granted, presided over complacency and cronyism at local level, campaigned with the Conservatives and tried to stifle growing feelings of Scottishness instead of responding with ambitious constitutional reform.
On the other hand, Ruth Davidson has proved a better match for the personality politics begun by Alex Salmond and developed into an art form by Nicola Sturgeon.
It’s true that Scottish Labour has also been stymied by a leadership contest which robbed Kezia Dugdale of a strategy-planning summer and by a lack of cash as membership continues to plummet.
But special pleading like this cuts little ice with Yes voters accustomed to crowd-funding everything from online magazines like Bella Caledonia to the Orkney Four’s legal case against Alistair Carmichael.
Scottish politics needs progressive parties to work together and make the most of an unsatisfactory devolution settlement. If Labour can’t rise to the occasion, a new political force will fill that vacuum. Outside political parties, it is already gathering.
So this is Kezia Dugdale’s final chance to take a sincere stand and stick to it. Otherwise Labour will be finished in Scotland come 5 May and a Tory opposition will make building a progressive Scotland longer and harder. That truly is a sad prospect.