Joyce McMillan: Labour's federalism smacks of desperation

Labour has effectively chosen to cut itself off from the living debate about Scotland's future, says Joyce McMillan
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdales vision for a new federal Britain went largely unnoticed as her party struggles to remain relevant.Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdales vision for a new federal Britain went largely unnoticed as her party struggles to remain relevant.
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdales vision for a new federal Britain went largely unnoticed as her party struggles to remain relevant.

On Wednesday, at University College, London, the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale delivered what could, under other circumstances, have been the most important speech of her political life. She outlined a vision for a new federal Britain, with each of the four nations, and the great regions of England, enjoying greater powers to determine their own affairs than Scotland has under the present devolution settlement; and she called for a UK-wide People’s Constitutional Convention, to determine the new constitutional shape of the UK following Brexit.

Yet for all the good intentions and reasonable sentiments behind the speech - which drew statements of support from Jeremy Corbyn, his deputy Tom Watson, and Andy Burnham, now campaigning to become Mayor of Manchester - it seemed to fall stillborn from Kezia Dugdale’s lips; and its lack of resonance and traction, in Scotland and elsewhere, speaks volumes about the continuing decline of the Labour Party, and the shocking depth of the crisis it faces.

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There have been times, of course, in recent Scottish and UK history, when this ardent embrace of federalism by Scottish Labour might have mattered, and shifted our politics on its axis. In 1997, when New Labour and the Liberal Democrats together commanded more than 50 per cent of UK votes, and were in broad agreement on the need for constitutional change highlighted by 18 years of Tory rule, a more thoroughgoing and comprehensive approach to UK constitutional reform could have been both possible and popular.

And in 2011, when the SNP won their surprise overall majority at Holyrood and an independence referendum became inevitable, a strong Lib-Lab push to have the option of full federal devolution within the UK included on the ballot, as a compromise third option, would no doubt have attracted overwhelming support in Scotland; but instead, Labour fatally chose to accept the harsh binary option of union or independence, allying itself with the Tories, and offering itself no third way out.

It’s therefore clear that Labour’s failure to embrace full-blooded constitutional reform has played a key part in its decline both in Scotland - where it is now running third behind the Tories - and, more slowly, in the wider UK, where the failure to reform, modernise and decentralise the governance of England, when the chance was there, has undoubtedly helped prepare the ground for the kind of xenophobic retro-nationalism, driven by economic despair in England’s neglected regions, that has now surfaced in the Brexit vote, and in the rise of Ukip.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that, six years on from Labour’s last, best chance to put real UK reform on the table, the main response to Kezia Dugdale’s recent embrace of the cause has been one of exasperation bordering on anger. Supporters of Scottish independence are likely to dismiss the whole thing as a con-trick, not least because of the fatuous assurances about a new age of federalism made by elder statesmen like Gordon Brown just before the 2014 vote. Genuine campaigners for a continuing, vigorous, reformed UK are bound to ask where the Labour Party was when they needed it, not least in 2011-12, when the terms of the Scottish referendum were being set.

And beyond that, everyone who has been paying attention to the seismic political changes of the last half-decade must wonder what political universe Scottish Labour is now inhabiting, if it imagines that the dream of a federal UK currently has any chance of being realised. The Liberal Democrats, once the most likely allies in any federal project, wrecked their own electoral fortunes by joining the coalition government in 2010, and are now basing their modest recovery entirely on a passionate opposition to Brexit; the current leader, Tim Farron, barely seems to know where Scotland is on the map, so ill-informed are his views on it. The Labour Party is now campaigning almost entirely on the defence of public services, without a word about constitutional reform south of the Border. The post-Brexit Tories are about as interested in the theory and practice of a modern federal Britain as is their good friend Donald Trump, and look set to form the UK government for at least the next eight years, if not longer.

And in the bigger picture of world politics, the time for tinkering with modern European constitutions seems to be over, at least for a while. Faced with a US President apparently bent on destabilising Nato, undermining the European Union, threatening war with China and Iran, and setting the planet on the fastest possible course towards environmental collapse, nations are likely to be too busy picking sides, and trying to protect their own most vital interests and values, to undertake major constitutional adjustments unless they seem absolutely necessary.

And in that perspective, the question of whether Scotland should leave an increasingly right-leaning and Atlanticist UK, and throw its lot in instead with the EU or the European Economic Area, has an urgency that the idea of a federal Britain absolutely lacks. Like everyone else, we have to make alliances in this new global stand-off; and insofar as we pick differently from the majority in the UK as a whole, we have to decide what to do about that difference. For Scottish Labour, as for the Scottish Conservatives, the balance of that decision is clear; win or lose, right or left, Donald Trump or Angela Merkel, the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland is Scotland’s most important bond, and cannot be breached.

For a growing number of Scottish voters, though, that decision is a difficult one, problematic, double-edged, and open for debate. By refusing any dialogue with the idea of independence, Scottish Labour - which is supposed to prioritise social justice above any constitutional arrangement - effectively cuts itself off from that living debate about Scotland’s future. And although the day may come when the idea of a federal UK once again acquires some resonance, in these early months of 2017 it smacks only of desperation; combined with a dangerous mood of denial about how much the world has changed, and how far Labour now has to travel, if it is to win its way back to the centre of Scottish and UK politics.