Labour’s cataclysmic collapse in Scotland at the general election may only be one of the problems facing that embattled party, but it is a big one.
Absent the 41 seats they won in 2010, the mountain they need to climb to return to power is both steeper – in the order of a hundred seats – and much more ideologically uncomfortable, due to the need to win more support in right-leaning England.
Might the rise of Jeremy Corbyn help Labour recover in its socialistic former heartland? Some of his supporters clearly think so.
The logic runs that the SNP ousted Labour in May because they stole its left-wing clothing.
Despite scorning the Union Flag, the Nationalists unabashedly augmented their blues and whites with lashings of red once they realised that mobilising left-wingers in places like Glasgow and Dundee was their best shot at winning.
If Labour tack even further left, therefore, perhaps these voters might be lured back.
To hope that is, I suspect, to fundamentally misread the situation in Scotland, and the appeal of the SNP.
Despite their new pose as a radical party, the SNP aren’t really all that left-wing, at least by the standards of Scottish politics. As I’ve pointed out before, their traditional heartlands actually lay in the prosperous, rural, and (as it turned out) largely unionist North East of Scotland.
Areas which, up to and including 1992, voted Conservative and Unionist.
With our party’s marginalisation in the age of devolution, the SNP became the anti-Labour, anti-central belt party. The sudden influx of new, young, left-wing people will undoubtedly shape the party as time passes but it has scarcely done so yet – the current SNP leadership long predates it.
Many of their policies, such as opposing tuition fees, are effectively cash transfers to the middle classes, and they remain locked into a Scottish educational consensus that sees the children of poor parents condemned to bad comprehensives. They have never used Holyrood’s current capacity to increase taxes.
That they have managed to build such an extraordinarily broad base of support depends on a number of factors, but two in particular matter in the context of Labour.
First, the current setup of the Scottish Parliament means they don’t need to raise taxes to fund public spending, with the inevitable trade-offs between sections of the electorate that this entails.
Second, they have conflated in the minds of many of those left-leaning voters the cause of a progressive society with the “cause of Scotland”.
There’s a reason that most shades of traditional left-wing thinking has been so wary of nationalism: it is a creed that is very effective at diverting the mass of popular enthusiasm away from left-wing goals.
Many Yes voters sincerely believe that the only way to get a more just society, however they define that, is independence. That is terrible for Labour, who don’t (currently) support independence.
But it is only a logical continuation of Labour’s long decades of shrill insistence that the only way to get a just society was more and yet more devolution. When the unionist parties spend most of their time agreeing that Scotland would be improved by being less British, a ‘positive case for the Union’ is not, as we discovered, an easy thing to mount.
So we see at once why Corbyn is no silver bullet: whilst he may be far to the left, simply trying to outbid the SNP on the left-right spectrum is to take a two-dimensional approach to a three-dimensional problem.
Labour’s fundamental task is to persuade defectors that the Union has been and remains a great enabler both of prosperity and social justice. Corbyn, no great unionist, does not seem the man for that task.
What if Labour instead took the opposite approach, obeyed the counsel regularly offered them by seemingly-sympathetic nationalists, and “opened their minds” to independence?
Kezia Dugdale, their new leader, has certainly taken a step in that direction by suggesting the party should be neutral on the question, allowing members to vote and campaign as they wish.
Ian Smart, a Scottish Labour blogger and ardent devolutionary, puts the problem thus:
“The point can’t be made often enough that the SNP exists at all only because its founders could not persuade the Labour Party of the merits of separation. If that changes, the logic is not a separate Scottish Labour Party, it is the winding up of the Scottish Labour Party altogether.”
Even if Labour were to subscribe tomorrow to independence and adopt a public posture as faux-radical as that of the SNP, they’d still be less disciplined, shorter on talent and activists, worse led, and have a much, much weaker brand than the Nationalists.
Why, if you put yourself in the shoes of a left-wing, separatist voter, would you ever choose Labour?
Even if a few might, in most constituencies the SNP enjoys enormous majorities. There is absolutely no reason to look at Corbyn’s Labour and intuit that it deserves the sort of rebound sufficient to overcome them.
The day may come, some years hence, when long time in office finally takes its toll on the SNP and they lose the above-listed vantages, flattening that three-dimensional problem into one where being sufficiently left-wing might swing it.
Nonetheless, converting to the SNP’s philosophy and then waiting around in hope of being adopted as its vehicle at some future date is pathetic.
That’s before you even consider the fact – set out by Alex Massie in the Spectator – that many (most?) of Labour’s remaining supporters are conviction unionists and abandoning the cause of Union will likely see Labour abandoned in turn by what voters it still attracts.
Short version: moving left won’t help because the SNP’s radical appeal isn’t only (or really, depending on your view) about left-wing politics. Moving further onto the SNP’s terrain alienates Labour’s remaining base and narrows the political battlefield to things like leadership, message, brand, and organisation – losing battles one and all.
What Scottish Labour need is both revitalised organisation with new personnel and to start to push back with a bold, coherent, and deliverable doctrine of social democratic (or socialist) unionism using the new powers of the Scottish Parliament
Their current UK leader is unlikely to be involved in the former and seems very ill-suited to contributing to the latter.