It’s Win or Die for Scottish Labour. So Why Is the Party Fighting to Lose?

Anas Sarwar's charisma may not be enough to bring the party back from the brink today.

by Finn Smyth & Coll McCail

6 May 2021

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar sitting cross-legged in front of a sign that reads 'Scottish Labour'
Scottish Labour/Flickr

In October 2014, after years of Labour complicity with austerity, writer Tariq Ali concluded that “we live in a country without an opposition”. His remarks were true of the entire continent: across Europe, social democratic parties, lacking ideas and loyalty to their former bases, were ceding ground to fiscal conservatism.

Nowhere has this phenomenon been more pronounced than in the Scottish Labour party. South of the border, we might worry that the Conservatives maintain a cool lead in the polls. But at least there is a Labour party in England. In Scotland, not only is the Scottish National party (SNP) set to remain the largest party in Holyrood after today’s elections, the party may emerge with a majority they could wield to break up the union.

The stakes in today’s election, then, could not be higher: it is win or die for Scottish Labour. And yet the party is fighting to lose. At this point, it would be unrealistic to hope for anything better than second place. To achieve even this, Scottish Labour must do three things: take a bolder stance on the constitution, rather than hide behind it; cooperate with its membership, rather than shut it out; and move back in step with the Scottish people ideologically.

Scotland is a fallen Labour heartland. The nation’s love affair with Labour culminated in 1997, when the party won 56 of the nation’s 59 seats. By 2015, things had fallen apart: it was the SNP who held 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats. But cracks in Scottish support for Labour have been visible since devolution: the party’s share of the vote has decreased at every Scottish election since then. Today, Labour has one seat in Scotland.

It is hard to envisage a realistic path to power for Labour without Scotland. Considering this, you would think the party would have expended more energy on investigating what caused working-class Scots to switch to the SNP. And yet Labour refuses to learn its lesson.

Labour’s position on Scottish independence is partially to blame. Despite the electoral cost of supporting the Conservatives’ Better Together campaign in 2014, the party’s stance on the constitution remains unchanged. Unionism is still Labour’s response to self-determination, even though research demonstrates it is not politically pragmatic for the party to prevaricate on the issue: 44% of Scots will not vote for any party which does not share their position on the constitution. Meanwhile, none of Scottish Labour’s most recent leaders (Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale and Richard Leonard) has taken the bold constitutional stance that their members – 39% of whom support independence, and 77% of whom are open to a second independence referendum – demand. Instead they ducked the issue, and suffered the consequences at the ballot box.

Scottish Labour has even actively suppressed questioning of their constitutional policy. Just as Leonard began to lash out against Labour’s disastrous performance in 2019, calling for the Scottish party to take a more tenable stance on the constitution, he resigned. Leonard was a socialist and trade unionist, one of few remaining high-profile Corbynists in a party shifting back to the centre. His tenure had been defined by a failure to cut through to the electorate, thanks in part to attacks from the party right.

When potential party donors threatened to withdraw support from Labour with Leonard still in post, the central party leadership agreed, over Zoom, that Leonard should step down. Not only did this give credence to nationalist accusations that Scottish Labour is a branch office run from London, it handed back control of the party to a faction that had overseen its collapse.

Leonard’s successor Anas Sarwar has already renewed Labour’s disastrous approach to both a second referendum and party infighting. In March, he withdrew the party’s endorsement of Hollie Cameron, Glasgow Kelvin’s elected candidate for Holyrood, for saying a second referendum “should be when the public wants”. Sarwar is reinforcing Scottish Labour’s position as unwilling to compromise with its own members, a position that failed the party in 2016. Generally, refusal to unify is to choose failure over compromise.

The issue is that Sarwar’s thinking does not chime with working-class Scots, who never fell in love with New Labour; as Blair’s pro-market agenda and interventionist foreign policy came to bear, Labour lost Holyrood to a nationalist minority government in 2007. The new leadership has not yet offered a convincing, radical alternative to distinguish it from an ideology that led so many to abandon Labour.

Sarwar’s campaign shows signs of cutting through to the electorate in all areas, except the constitution – the area in which he needs to gain the most ground. In trying to prevent a second referendum, Sarwar is disconnected from whole chunks of his party and the electorate. Labour maintains the stance of the last decade: it can usurp the SNP on every issue other than independence. This hasn’t worked for Labour, or anyone else, since 2007. What makes Sarwar think it will work for him? If the polls are right, the party will find itself as inconsequential this Thursday as it has been since 2007.

Tariq Ali went on to write in 2015 that “the origins of the new politics [of the left] are firmly rooted in Thatcher’s response to Britain’s decline”. Ali was right then and he is right now. Even today, the left of Scottish politics is dragged to the centre. But Scotland needs a Labour government.

The SNP has escaped criticism for 14 years simply by outperforming the Conservatives. Failings are dismissed because the situation isn’t much better in England. But good governance is not about being marginally better than your neighbour. Nicola Sturgeon said her party “took our eye off the ball” of the drugs death crisis. In 2018, 1,187 people lost their lives to drugs. This is a 160% increase from 2007 when the SNP came to power. Funding for drugs and alcohol services was £114m in 2007, now it’s just £53m. The drug deaths crisis can’t be dismissed by a sports cliche, it’s a human tragedy, exacerbated by SNP cuts.

The SNP survive in blaming Westminster austerity for issues in Scotland, but look closer and their own policy of fiscal austerity is clear. Since 2014, the Scottish government’s revenue budget has increased by 3.1%. In the same timeframe, total revenue for Scottish local government has fallen by 2.4%.

Amidst these cuts, the SNP manifesto for today’s election lacks a wealth tax, even a rise in the top rate of income tax, to make those with the broadest shoulders bear the weight of the pandemic. Under their progressive exterior, the SNP has failed to deliver for Scotland’s poorest. But it is certainly keeping its middle-class base happy.

The issue is: so is Labour. Sarwar is better placed than anyone to hold the SNP’s failings to account, to ensure wealth is taxed to generate funds to invest in services run down since 2007. Yet there is no sign of anything like this in Scottish Labour’s manifesto. This is a question of political will. The SNP have sacrificed good governance for the constitution, but even Labour lack the courage needed to make the changes that would set the new leadership apart from the days of New Labour. This inaction only serves to alienate former voters on the Scottish left, and guarantees that Labour will remain in second place, at best.

Although signs of hope for Labour in Scotland are few and far between, they do exist. Labour gained six seats in 2017; more Scots backed Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard’s radical platform than they did Miliband’s stale, centrist one in 2015. Admittedly these seats were lost two years later, but the problem of a muddled Brexit stance, among other crises which then engulfed Labour, may have been a greater cause of defeat here than the party’s leftwing leadership.

However misdirected his ideology, Anas Sarwar does have political talent – this is clear from his recent media performances. If he takes second place this Thursday, Labour will have made gains that he will be largely responsible for. But if Labour ever hopes to do more than finish second (ie lose), it must adapt. Adapt to the Scottish people’s constitutional demands, which are more prevalent than the party would like. Adapt to its membership, more varied than the party would like. Adapt to a radical ideology, more popular than the party would like.

Unless Sarwar can convince Scotland that social democracy, as opposed to democratic socialism, is a desirable alternative to the SNP’s agenda, unless he can turn Scotland away from what he keeps calling “old arguments” on the constitution, Scottish Labour will not just flounder – it will be finished.

Finn Smyth and Coll McCail are writers for the Progressive International and producers of the PI’s show The Internationalist. They are both young Scottish activists and Labour members.

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