Scotland in the sun. © Terry Vine/J Patrick Lane/Blend Images/Corbis
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Leader: After the referendum

If Scottish Labour is to be rebuilt, it must draw inspiration from the energy, civic nationalism and creativity demonstrated by the pro-independence movement.

The Scottish independence referendum was one that Labour long believed would never come to pass. Optimists were bullish: the former cabinet minister George Robertson confidently predicted that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. Others, among them Tony Blair, recognised the potential for the Scottish National Party to dominate the new parliament but believed that the proportional electoral system used by Holyrood would deny the party the majority it needed to win a mandate to hold a referendum on independence. Both were wrong.

After forming a minority government in 2007, the SNP achieved a landslide victory in 2011. That result, which we predicted, exposed the enfeebled and hollowed-out state of the Scottish Labour Party in a country it once dominated. Having won nearly a million constituency votes in the first devolved election in 1999, Labour achieved just 630,000 in 2011. Its local branches have the lowest membership of any outside of southern England and it now holds fewer council seats than the SNP. In addition, many intellectuals, writers and artists in Scotland have long since given up on Labour. These people matter because they help to create a climate and a culture.

The SNP, once derided as a fringe party of eccentric nationalists and “tartan Tories”, has prospered by colonising the social-democratic territory historically occupied by Labour. As the frontiers of the welfare state have been rolled back in England, Alex Salmond has rolled them forward in Scotland. Since taking office, his government has scrapped National Health Service prescription charges, abolished university tuition fees and introduced free social care for the elderly. When the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, denounced this settlement as fiscally unsustainable and declared that Scotland could not be “the only something-for-nothing country in the world”, she misjudged the national mood.

From the beginning of the referendum campaign, Mrs Lamont and her colleagues struggled to win over disillusioned voters. Labour’s decision to offer the lowest level of devolution of any of the three main Westminster parties, despite polls showing majority support for “devo max”, left it without an attractive alternative to the status quo, until a desperate late scramble led by Gordon Brown.

With the exception of the quietly effective Douglas Alexander, it was outside the party’s front ranks that the most signs of life were shown. Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary, engaged thousands of voters through his admirable “100 Towns in 100 Days” speaking tour. In an age when stage-managed appearances drain mainstream politicians of all authenticity, Mr Murphy’s unrelenting defence of the Union from a platform made of two Irn-Bru crates was proof of the virtues of traditional campaigning. He has the look of a future Labour leader in Scotland, someone who has the qualities to take on and even defeat Mr Salmond and his popular deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.

Against the expectations of many, Mr Brown thrived in the final weeks of the campaign. Having presciently warned in the summer that Westminster had mistakenly framed the contest as a battle between Scotland and the UK, rather than one about Scotland, he seemed to take charge as the cross-party Better Together campaign floundered.

The former prime minister spoke at public meetings with passion and clarity. It was Mr Brown who reframed the debate by proposing a “modern form of home rule” and who, because of his deep understanding of history, articulated the unique achievement of the Union: the creation of a multinational state in which not merely civil and political freedoms but economic and social rights are shared.

Such was his righteous fury at the SNP’s claim that the Scottish NHS was threatened by Westminster, despite health being a devolved matter, that Mr Brown even vowed to stand for election to Holyrood if the First Minister did not desist. If, as expected, he resigns his Westminster seat in May 2015, he could yet thrive as a political pugilist in a new arena.

Yet if Scottish Labour is to be rebuilt, it will not be through the efforts of individuals such as Mr Brown and Mr Murphy alone. Rather, it must draw inspiration from the energy, civic nationalism and creativity demonstrated by the pro-independence movement. The emergence of what Gerry Hassan, the co-author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, calls the “Third Scotland” has been one of the most inspiring legacies of an invigorating campaign in which a nation asked itself fundamental questions about identity and purpose and, in so doing, inspired a democratic reawakening. 

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.