New year, and a new Labour existential crisis.
The UK party is reeling from the General Election result, the worst since 1935 in case you forgot. Not to be outdone, the Scottish party is in complete freefall with just one MP returned to Westminster (again), a catastrophic result which built on the disastrous performance in the European elections last May – the worst since 1910 – when vote share collapsed to 9.3 per cent and no red-rosette MEPs were elected.
Without doubt 2019 was an annus horribilis for Scottish Labour and its leader Richard Leonard. But being the kind of chap who believes in shouldering responsibility, he is determined to plough on, taking the party into next year’s Holyrood elections.
In the meantime, there will be, he says, A Review. Such introspection has become commonplace in recent years as Labour in Scotland tries to come to terms with just why it is failing to continue to appeal to those on whom it could previously depend for votes at each and every election.
Tectonic shift in Scottish politics
Ultimately what this one will find, as have others, is it’s not wholly the fault of policy – although you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could tell you a specific Scottish Labour idea separate from the UK party – and it is not entirely the fault of personality, although the subsummation of Leonard into Jeremy Corbyn’s project has been a major hindrance. Neither is it the fault of how Labour campaigned in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, a year which saw Scotland’s tectonic political plates shift dramatically. However the combination of all three has proved almost deadly.
The party and its people know these things already. They don’t need to be told again, but they will go through the motions, and once again, for the benefit of the SNP, it will have an internal fight on independence – from the UK party, and indeed from the UK as a whole.
Will it turn its back on all those Labour supporters, members and voters who campaigned to stay in the UK – people who already have strong enough doubts about its stance on a second vote that they switched to put their x in the Conservative box in December? Or will it realise that it cannot be more nationalist than the SNP, and that it’s a dead-end road for a party whose roots are supposed to be deeply entrenched in international solidarity, and in the pooling and sharing of resources for the benefit of all, but the poorest and most vulnerable in particular?
Scottish Labour independence?
Already Monica Lennon, the party’s current health spokesperson, has set out her stall, parroting a line that is being fed on social media by many in the Nationalist movement, that Scottish Labour need to be completely independent of the UK Labour Party if it’s to regain any credibility.
Her reasons for this are that Leonard wasn’t allowed to be on campaign leaflets in the European election and that he was undermined by John McDonnell on the issue of a second independence referendum last summer. Despite that undermining, she also thinks the party should rethink its position on the latter anyway.
Lennon’s move is fascinating given she – in a last-minute, burning-bridges-as-she-went move – backed Corbyn as leader, and also threw her weight behind Leonard to lead the Scottish party.
If she feels he has not been able to assert himself in his position, then the answer surely does not lie with the creation of a separate party, but with replacing him as leader. But then, perhaps that’s where her thinking is ultimately taking her. She’s not known for shyness of ambition.
Struggle for party’s soul
Then there’s Daniel Johnson – who was Leonard’s justice spokesperson until he resigned after the European election results, criticising the party’s direction and leadership. Johnson is part of a new internal group of members – and rejoiners – who seek to “rebuild” Scottish Labour, who believe that the Corbyn project was too narrow in its focus, ironically not for the many after all.
However, for them, that does not include separating from the UK party, but ensuring that the autonomy won by former leader Kezia Dugdale is fully utilised. That includes Shadow Cabinet MPs not rolling back Scottish Labour policy whenever they fancy a trip to the Edinburgh Festival, and giving the Scottish party the ability to run its own discipline procedures.
For Johnson and others, the election of Ian Murray – that sole Scottish Labour MP – as deputy of the UK party would go a long way to making up for the mistakes of the last two leaders.
It’s a struggle for the soul of the party, and not one of the usual left vs right extremes. It is a struggle which could leave Labour utterly irrelevant at the ballot box, or could actually see the party find itself again and start the slow build back to election competitiveness.
Where both Lennon and Johnson are most definitely right is that Labour does not have the luxury of time to sort itself out. The Holyrood elections are just 16 months away. This review needs to be resolved fast.