The Labour Party, according to a recent Fabian Society report, could soon cease to be a nationally competitive political force. In Scotland, the situation is bleaker yet; here, the party’s electoral collapse is not a matter of future prediction but stark reality. Reduced to one MP at the 2015 General Election and demoted to the third largest party behind the Conservatives in the 2016 Holyrood election, the Scottish party is described in the report as having “no signs of recovery”.
Where does the party in Scotland go from here? As a step towards understanding these questions, we carried out a series of focus groups and one-to-one interviews with party members, activists and key individuals. These covered a range of issues from the constitution, party autonomy, the relationship with the unions, and the party’s leadership. As the first study of Scottish Labour’s membership since the independence referendum, this research offers an important insight into the state of the party.
What it indicates is that, counterintuitively, Scottish Labour is in some ways ahead of the national party. The party acknowledges how bad things are.
Members are generally happy with the party’s social policy, supportive of Kezia Dugdale’s leadership and believe their party is closest to the Scottish electorate on a socio-economic scale. Their frustration, however, is that this cannot be heard above the constitutional question.
In England and Wales, Labour currently finds itself between rock and hard place on Brexit. Such contortions are familiar to the party in Scotland, although in this case they revolve around a different union. Here, the SNP appeals to those who voted Yes for Scottish independence in 2014 whilst the Conservatives act as a clear unionist voice. Labour, electorally reliant on support from both sides of the referendum, has subsequently found itself squeezed out.
In such circumstance, there is an understandably strong desire amongst party members for politics in Scotland to move beyond the constitution. Since this looks unlikely, members tended to agree that Scottish Labour needs to formulate an easily-communicated constitutional “answer” that sits between independence and unionism. What this position should be called, however, was left open.
It is into this space that Kezia Dugdale has stepped with her recent proclamation that Scottish Labour supports a federal UK. This is more than just addressing the asymmetric distribution of power across the UK. Federalism provides a clear constitutional stance for Scottish Labour, and thus, possibly, a route back into the dominant political conversation.
Still to be fully developed, federalism may or may not plug the constitutional gap. Members will nevertheless hope that it will allow political discussions to shift back to their preferred “bread and butter” social policies, where the party can hold the SNP to account.
No one in our focus groups or interviews is under the illusion that this will be easy, quick or guaranteed. But one thing in the party’s favour is that members are united in a general rejection of any knee-jerk reactions. For a party that has worked its way through eight leaders since devolution, this desire for stability extends right to the top. Members are in this for the long haul, and expect the leadership to be also.
This research was carried out during the Westminster Labour leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. This was a period of widely reported tension within the national party, with newspaper reports of purges and “chicken coups”. Yet, while our focus groups contained a mixture of Corbyn and Smith supporters, there was agreement across major issues of devolved policy and the constitution.
And when it came to the idea of a “progressive alliance”, such as advocated in the Fabian Society report, Scottish members were in agreement. For them, the concept of a “progressive alliance” reflects an English-centric conception of British politics.
According to Scottish Labour members, the Scottish National Party should in no way be considered a progressive left-wing party. When asked to rank parties on a left-right scale (0 far left, 10 far right) the average response by members was to place the SNP at 7 – the same ranking as the Conservatives. Moreover, such talk of an alliance with the SNP at Westminster is seen as tantamount to giving up on Scotland, a historic Labour heartland. If the British left genuinely wanted to break up the union, the sentiment was, there could be no more efficient route.
The Fabian report on the future of the Labour party paints a gloomy picture. In Scotland, however, Labour has at least acknowledged how bad things are. Furthermore, listening to members and comparing their views to recent pronouncements from the Scottish leadership, along with signals that Corbyn may also be ready to support the concept of a federal UK, the party appears to share an understanding of how they might move forward and re-join the political conversation.
Dr Sophie Whiting and Dr David Moon are lecturers in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.