Scottish Labour has lived in the shadows of Scottish politics since 2007 when it lost out by one seat to the SNP.
Labour supporters told themselves the result was an aberration, soon to be reversed. The 2010 Westminster election suggested that natural order of Scottish politics had been restored. But the SNP’s overall majority in Holyrood a year later began a process that has forced Labour to awaken to the new politics of Scottish devolution.
For almost three decades before, the SNP had been the party living in the shadows. Labour had taunted the SNP that the nationalists brought down a Labour Government and let Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street in 1979. It mattered little that events were a bit more complex. Myths are important in politics and the SNP would spend years confronting this most potent accusation for any non-Tory party in Scotland. But now the same accusation is levelled against Labour for working with the Tories in Better Together.
Just as the SNP needed to disavow any association with the Tories so too must Labour now. The SNP did this by moving leftwards in its rhetoric, emphasising policies where it could ‘out-left’ Labour (or, this being Scotland, being seen to hate the Tories more than Labour). But the electorate stubbornly supported Labour in Scotland as the most effective anti-Tory vehicle.
Devolution gave the SNP the opportunity to present itself as an alternative party of government and memories of 1979 faded. But, as is often noted, oppositions don’t win elections – governments lose them. By 2007, Labour became unpopular, appeared to have run out of steam and the SNP’s projection of itself as a party of the left made it easy for former Labour voters to shift to the SNP.
Running out of steam
And once it won in 2007, the SNP benefitted from the very arguments that had previously undermined it. The sky did not fall in when the SNP formed a minority government. Its modest achievements between 2007-11 – not least surviving a full term without any massive catastrophe – were judged as evidence of competence measured against the spectre of an SNP government suggested by opponents. Politics is an expectations game and the old scare tactics (Project Fear has a long history) proved counter-productive.
Scottish Labour has run rapidly through a succession of leaders since 2007, none of whom could stem the party’s decline. It is easy to blame the leader when things go wrong but Labour’s problems were deeper. Progressive parties cannot rest on their laurels for long. There is always more work to be done. It helps to frame new policies within a tradition of reforms but parties cannot hide behind past achievements for ever.
The SNP has run out of steam just as Labour did by 2007. It now looks to the Greens as a fillip but just as Labour hid behind past achievements, the SNP hides behind the constitution but that cannot shield them forever. There is a core independence support that will continue to vote SNP but the key group are those who support independence instrumentally, because they see it as delivering across a range of non-constitutional matters. These are the voters who are likely to lose patience and these are Labour’s target voters.
Peasant’s stockpot of ideas
The constitution is still important but it is not Labour’s natural territory. It is, at best, secondary for Labour. Labour thinking on the constitution is rooted in its primary social and economic concerns. But there is growing evidence that streams of thought are coming together. Frank Bealey, one of the great scholars of Labour thought, famously referred to the ‘peasant’s stockpot’ of ideas, constantly being replenished while old ingredients still flavoured the mix. Scottish home rule had been an early ingredient but one diluted as Labour turned to central demand management of the economy and association of equality with centralisation. But even at the height of Labour’s centralist thinking there were always thinkers who recognised the importance of local, regional and sub-state national dimensions.
The key streams that are now discernible in Labour’s thinking remain under development but offer the party hope include a major report on reforming the state commissioned during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, ongoing work on radical federalism in the Welsh Labour Party, regional and local assertion led by Labour Mayors across England, and notable developments in Scottish Labour linking the need to empower local government and reimagine devolved government not as separate from local government but intimately connected. These developments are animating debate in different parts of Britain and across Labour’s spectrum from left to right. There are differences to be resolved but plenty of common ground. The vital importance of local governance ought to be one lesson learned from the pandemic and should resonate well with the public.
The greatest challenge will be drawing the streams together and that is in the hands of Gordon Brown. This takes him back to his life as a doctoral student. In a fascinating appendix to his thesis, he noted: “No theorist attempted in sufficient depth to reconcile the conflicting aspirations for home rule and a British socialist advance. In particular, no one was able to show how capturing power in Britain – and legislating for minimum levels of welfare, for example – could be combined with a policy of devolution for Scotland”.
Forty years on we have learned much that should allow the apparent gulf between social justice and decentralisation to be bridged. Centralisation does not create a more socially just polity. The centralisation pursued by London and Edinburgh governments undermines the ability to encompass the needs of diverse communities and address deep-rooted inequalities.
Mackintosh’s intellectual/political legacy
A key figure who understood this well was the late John P Mackintosh. His death in July 1978 is often seen as a tremendous blow to the devolution cause. Mackintosh was an eminent scholar, holding chairs in Politics in Strathclyde and Edinburgh University, as well as serving as an independent-minded Labour MP for Berwick and East Lothian (1966-Feb 1974; Oct 1974-1978). His thinking on devolution is worth recalling not least as there is evidence that Scottish Labour may be returning to the kind of thinking that drew him to advocate reform.
Mackintosh supported Scottish devolution before most MSPs and Scottish MPs today were born. And while much has changed, clear and consistent themes and principles are discernible over the course of his very active academic and political career that remain relevant. In 1958, he argued that the Scottish Office had become ‘merely a conduit-pipe’ for information rather than a mean of finding Scottish solutions to Scottish problems and that local government was being undermined. What was needed to ‘remedy both situations’ was a ‘revival of local self-government’ meaning Scottish devolution and empowered local government. Improving the machinery of government was needed to improve life chances and maximise the impact of policy interventions.
Through the 1960s, he objected to divorcing debate on reforming local government and reforming the UK constitution. There was, he argued in 1970, ‘no dividing line between the constitution and local government’. Self government had many institutional forms and needed to considered within the whole system of interacting government. He objected to Harold Wilson establishing separate Royal Commissions on the constitution (Kilbrandon) and on local government (Wheatley). This encouraged silo constitutionalism with a focus on one part without taking account of implications elsewhere. He privately pleaded with Ted Heath after the latter became Prime Minister to hold off from legislating on local government reform until Kilbrandon reported.
Mackintosh was well aware of the importance of ‘sentiment’. Indeed, one of his criticisms of Wheatley was that it took inadequate account of local sentiment and he popularised the notion that Scottish and British identities need not be antagonistic but mutually supportive. But, and this resonates with emerging thinking, he noted the importance of a combination of identity or sentiment and practical issues of public policy and what we would now call multi-level governance. The multi-faceted approach – local, sub-state national, state-wide, plural identities and the practical delivery of services – meant that the separation and narrowing of debate were unhelpful.
Opportunities for Labour arise from an SNP that excels in performative politics but fails in policy performance. The respective and competing nationalisms of Edinburgh and London governments are shrill and limited in their understanding of self-government. You cannot ‘take back control’ by focusing on empowering London or Edinburgh at the cost to all else. Labour has some way to go but with an independence referendum unlikely any time soon it does have some time. Labour shows signs of intellectual life, a prerequisite of any hope of breaking through electorally. It will need to draw the streams together and avoid factionalism undermining where agreement is possible. It would be easy to disdain the slick messaging of its opponents but one of the biggest challenges will be to convert this thinking into a coherent, easily understood message that can be sold on the doorsteps. This is Scottish Labour’s chance to come out of the shadows.
Detail of plaque to John Pitcairn MacKintosh, Gifford, East Lothian via Own work CC BY-SA 4.0–
Further reading: Remote chances of transformational change, Mandy Rhodes, Holyrood.com; Christie can’t wait another decade, Auditor-General Stephen Boyle; Analysis: Programme for Government, Craig Dalzell, Common Weal