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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser