The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Scottish Labour may only be saved by independence

Derek Durkin of Trade Unionists for Independence looks at Scottish Labour and the Independence referendum, and says there's an argument undecided Labour voters need to hear loud and clear.

With an ever increasing number of Labour members/supporters, both prominent and otherwise, declaring in favour of a YES vote in the referendum, now is a good time to look at the official Labour Party position and pose a few questions as to why they adopt the position they have, and what will be the consequences, whatever the outcome of the referendum, of their decision.

As the outcome of the Scottish Parliamentary elections of 2007 and 2011 showed, the Labour Party in Scotland has lost credibility with much of the electorate, particularly in what used to be their heartland constituencies. The Party's abject failure in opposition has much to do with their anger at being rejected by the Scottish electorate and has led to an almost unparalleled detestation of the SNP Government. Ironically, had there been a similar attitude to the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition in Westminster, this may have gone some way to a revival of party fortunes.

The decision to continue to send the "big hitters" to Westminster at the expense of Holyrood has obviously had an impact, as the second team could never be expected to be in a position of control. Indeed the Falkirk and Grangemouth debacle showed this only too clearly. Joanne Lamont being posted missing and unwilling to face even her own members in Falkirk was nothing short of embarrassing. Her silence over Grangemouth was quite obviously on instruction from her London leaders and merely underlined the lack of authority of Labour in Scotland.

So, having confirmed London control, their position on the referendum was inevitable. With 41 Labour MPs, Scotland is seen as crucial to the success of the UK party, even if our 8.4% of the UK population have never actually had much effect on UK elections.

The leadership in Scotland, with a few notable exceptions, will tow the party line whatever the consequences. They will co-operate fully with the Tories and all others that oppose Scotland's right to self- determination. They will ignore the fact that polls consistently show that the YES vote is strong and, in a lot of instances in the lead, in working class areas whilst the NO vote prevails in the more affluent areas of the country. They will without fail participate, as the major influence, in Project Fear along with their partners in the NO campaign. This can only lead to the further alienation of their core support and will inevitably lead to a further period of opposition at Holyrood with, potentially, even fewer seats than at present.

The argument that I heard recently from a prominent front bench Labour MSP, that it was absolutely certain that Salmond would be in control, should there be a YES vote, is not only damning and self-defeating from a Labour perspective it is also, I believe, untrue. In fact Labour's best hope, indeed, I suspect, only hope of being in power at Holyrood for the foreseeable future is if there is a YES vote.

There is 18 months between the referendum and the first elections in an Independent Scotland. Harold Wilson said "a week is a long time in politics" if that's true then 18 months is a lifetime. During that period, in the event of a YES vote, I believe that we will witness the reshaping not only of our nation but of the political landscape and the parties that will seek to represent us in Government. The SNPs reason for existing goes with a YES vote and whilst I would not expect the party to immediately fold, there is little doubt that its membership would decrease and those voters who had "lent them their vote" as was requested by the party in the '70s would look to return to their natural political habitat.

The net gainers of this would of course be the Labour Party in whatever form it is re-invented – as re-invented it surely would be. Let's also not kid ourselves here, I suspect there would be an increase in the Tory vote in an Independent Scotland, again as a result of the downturn in SNP allegiance, but also because they could at last throw off the shameful shackles imposed by Thatcher and the extreme right wing policies now being pursued by Cameron and his cronies.

Some within Labour may argue that the return of Ed Miliband in 2015 will see a turn in their fortunes and revive the spirits of the party in the UK as a whole and Scotland in particular. I believe that is wishful thinking and the reverse may well be true. For one, I don't believe Ed Miliband will lead the party to victory in 2015. Should there be a close NO vote in the referendum then I suspect the Labour party will bear the brunt of such a result at the next election. With the UK party already committed to the Tories austerity measures and large parts of England (and not only the South East) hankering for an opportunity to have a vote in a Euro in/out referendum, I believe that Labour will be rejected in Scotland due to their hostility to Independence and in large parts of the RUK due to their opposition to the Euro referendum. Their own support in Scotland is lacklustre at best and the troops will be battle weary, even if elated at a NO vote, from the referendum battle. They will be apathetic in terms of the 2015 election. On the other hand, and given the above scenario of a NO vote, YES voters, regardless of their party allegiance, will be angry and frustrated. They will be looking to wreak vengeance on Labour and they will turn out in force to vote for the only viable alternative at this time – SNP. Labour would have little or no chance of returning its present 41 MPs and it would surprise me little if that number were halved. The normal pattern of voting SNP in Holyrood elections and Labour at Westminster would be set aside.

The dilemma then for the Labour member/voter still to be convinced of Independence is:

• Should I put my faith in Ed Miliband and Joanne Lamont and trust them to rid us of the SNP and Alex Salmond?
• Should I ignore the diktat of Labour UK and trust in the Scottish electorate to deliver a Labour government in 2016 in a new and Independent Scotland?

The first question has largely been answered above. The likelihood of Lamont or her successor being returned at Holyrood in 2016 in the event of a NO vote is highly improbable. Miliband's chances at Westminster are much the same. In fact the Labour party in Scotland could suffer the same fate, due to their venomous hostility to Independence, as the Tories following their similar opposition to devolution. Labour in Scotland has lost credibility in the eyes of many of the Scottish working class and it could well suffer serious decline which would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago.

The second question is the challenge for those that have supported Labour for many years and have suffered the massive policy shift over the past 30 of those. I recall the excitement of '97 after 18 years of Tory control and a period which witnessed the greatest attacks on the Labour & Trade Union movement. It couldn't get any worse. We'd seen the defeat of the miners and the implementation of the most vile anti Trade Union legislation. We suspected there would be no overnight introduction of the socialist nirvana. We had listened as Gordon Brown told us they would have to accept the Tory spending plans for the first 2 years of government. We had witnessed Blair expunge clause 4 and introduce New Labour. We had been through the 80s and saw the language of those in control of the Party, Language almost Orwellian in its nature. Anyone challenging the views of the leadership were labelled "Trots" or idealists.

What we didn't expect was the party would be in government for 13 years and fail to break from the Tory policies after the initial 2 years.

We had, I believe, the right to expect a Labour government over that period to re-introduce workers' rights – rather we got Tony Blair travelling the globe boasting of the UK having the most restrictive Labour laws in the Western world.

The 2007 Scottish election should have been warning enough to the Labour party that they were in danger of isolating their core vote. They refused to listen to the electorate then and suffered humiliation in 2011.
Having suffered the neo-liberal policies of the last 25-30 years the answer to question 2 must surely be yes. YES to an Independent Scotland and YES to a renewed and vibrant Labour party in Scotland that could once again engage with and truly represent the working class people they were formed to represent. A Labour party that would not be looking over its shoulder to check the needs of "middle England" to ensure a majority.

Instead it would have its focus groups concentrate on the needs and aspirations of the people of Craigmillar, Drumchapel and other working class areas of Scotland. A party and government that would address and reverse the labour laws that make it almost a crime to be a member of a Trade Union. Most important of all, a party that would not feel obliged to vote with the Tories on issues such as benefit caps while the elite of British society continue to thieve and plunder the riches of the nation.

So, the choice is simple. A Labour party in terminal decline – or a Labour government in an Independent Scotland that could end poverty and fulfil the dream of Keir Hardie.

It is for the - as yet - unconvinced Labour voter to decide.

Derek Durkin
Trade Unionists for Independence

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books