With so much attention directed at the race to choose Labour’s next national leader, little attention is being paid south of the border to the contest to succeed Jim Murphy as leader in Scotland.
Yet in the aftermath of last month’s car crash, this election could have far-reaching consequences for Labour.
With Scottish Labour now finding itself in desperate straits, a call has gone up which will be familiar to the long-beleaguered Scottish Conservatives: for an separate Scottish Labour Party, independent of London.
Leadership hopeful and former deputy Kezia Dugdale MSP has gone on the record to oppose this suggestion, despite her desire to shift the party’s focus onto the Scottish Parliament. National contenders such as Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham have also opposed a split.
Yet it is significant that Burnham – whose unionist credentials are so sound he endorsed standing candidates in Northern Ireland during his last leadership bid – was making sympathetic noises about a parting of the ways only a month ago.
Scottish Labour is now more vulnerable to separatist pressure than it has ever been, for by destroying its corps of MPs the general election has stripped the party of one of its most important internal power blocs, and the one best disposed to London.
There are two possible sources of this pressure. The first is from the left. The SNP’s referendum campaign has amply illustrated that it is the left which is the political instinct best disposed to independence, and it is left-wing voters who have been swept up by the nationalist crusade.
One legacy of Labour’s decades of dominance is the membership of many who joined it for reasons of expediency, rather than principle. Many left-wingers who weren’t ill-disposed towards independence, but were driven primarily by being left wing, will have signed up when the SNP were either centre-right or an irrelevance.
If the Scottish Labour leadership resist the temptation to lurch off to the left in pursuit of the lost tribes of Glasgow and Dundee, some of these people may reconsider their loyalties. The Jim Sillars path – of Labour, to independent Labour, to SNP – may become a well-trodden one.
As Labour blogger Ian Smart points out, those counselling an independent Scottish Labour Party usually want, or at least wouldn’t really mind, an independent Scotland.
The second source of pressure is the instinct to shift blame. As we have seen from Welsh Labour’s response to its own poor election, the instinct to blame London and demand more power is deeply ingrained. “The fault was someone else’s, and the solution is to make me more powerful and important” is a very attractive answer to criticism for devolved politicians, and is thus very commonly employed.
Yet as Scotland amply demonstrates, all this does is serve the Nationalists, both by further undermining the common bonds of the United Kingdom and by fooling unionists into believing there is a route to victory that doesn’t involve a long, hard, principled fight against the SNP, it’s record, and its raison d’etre. As a unionist battle cry, “Retreat to Victory” has been tested to destruction since 1999.
What Scottish Labour didn’t realise – and perhaps still haven’t realised, their Welsh comrades certainly haven’t – is that once you frame the battle in nationalist terms, sooner or later the actual nationalists are going to win.
If you believe the UK is “better together” you need to live that example, and Scottish Labour’s failure to do that in decades past undoubtedly made it harder for their former voters to buy their case during the referendum.
A unionist party dissolving its British connection and seeking victory through the further diminution of the kingdom’s common institutions sends Scottish voters one, ridiculous, message: “The SNP are right. Don’t vote for them.”