Scottish Labour’s identity crisis

New leader Johann Lamont has to develop a coherent political and constitutional alternative to the S

New leader Johann Lamont has to develop a coherent political and constitutional alternative to the SNP - but what it is?

Johann Lamont woke up this morning leader of a party which has lost all sense of itself. Over the last six or seven years, Scottish Labour has watched as the SNP has gradually appropriated much of its traditional left-of-centre agenda. Now, with a nationalist majority at Holyrood, Labour finds its ideological identity absorbed into a new Scottish consensus, with little or no space to build a distinctive progressive alternative.
 
Lamont's over-arching task is clear. She has to demonstrate that Labour amounts to more than just the anti-independence party; that it has a coherent political and economic vision for Scotland.
 
This will be more difficult than it sounds. If she shifts the party to the centre, she will run it straight into an electoral brick-wall. A large part of the SNP's success can be attributed to the sense of frustration many Scots came to feel with New Labour's neo-liberal project. Alex Salmond understood this and, despite his own baffling fixation with Ireland's low-tax, light-touch economy, developed a package of policies - including free university education and an integrated health service - which adhered more closely to the broad social-democratic instincts of the Scottish electorate.
 
On the other hand, if Lamont tries to outflank the nationalists on the left Labour's support will be reduced to a shrinking core vote in its central belt and west coast heartlands. Lamont has already tested this approach - at the elections in May - and it produced disastrous results. That's not to say there isn't room for Labour to attack Salmond from the left - the First Minister's plans to lower corporation tax and his close relationship to some members Scotland's disgraced financial elite leave him open to charges of fiscal conservatism. In order to be effective, though, such attacks would have form part of a wider strategy which draws in sections of society beyond the party's trade union and public sector base.
 
Lamont faces a similar dilemma when it comes to the constitution. The break-up of Britain terrifies Labour, so much so, in fact, that its response to the SNP's May victory was to retreat into a kind of extreme, reactionary Unionism. In recent months, senior Labour figures have described the nationalists as "neo-fascist", accused them of trying to "rig" the referendum ballot and made repeated - and usually unsubstantiated - claims about online smear campaigns run by pro-independence activists. Yet the angrier Labour has become and the more aggressively it has rejected real constitutional reform, the lower its poll ratings have sunk.
 
What should be absolutely clear is that the status-quo - which here refers to both the current devolutionary settlement and Calman's loaded exchange of fiscal powers - is a non-starter. Scottish public opinion demands more and, by now, Lamont must have realised that. But she must also be aware that were she to embrace either devo-max or full-fiscal autonomy, she would be conceding 90 per cent of the case for independence. A federal Britain would see the Scottish Parliament gain responsibility for all aspects of government in Scotland except defence and foreign affairs. That means the case for the UK would rest on Trident, a seat on the UN Security Council and not much else. Is that the role Labour really wants to play in Scotland, as the principal defender of Britain's dangerous, redundant and hugely expensive nuclear missile system?
 
Whatever road Lamont decides to take her party down, she should be in no doubt that its future hangs in the balance. As her defeated opponent Tom Harris warned during the leadership contest, Scottish Labour has reached a pivotal moment in its history and failure to live up to the challenges ahead will result in "well-deserved obscurity and irrelevance". Serious shock therapy is needed to resolve this crisis of identity - who knows if Lamont is capable of administering it.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496