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20 December 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 5:35am

After another crushing defeat, can Scottish Labour ever recover?

By Chris Deerin

Would Corbynism do better without Corbyn? We needn’t wait until the next general election and a Labour Party led by Rebecca Long Bailey and Richard Burgon to find out. It seems all but certain that Scottish Labour will go into the 2021 devolved election on an unabashed hard-left ticket.

The recent trouncing at the hands of Boris Johnson – Labour lost all but one of its seven Scottish seats – may finally force the UK party to confront the reality of its misadventure in ideological purity. But it’s hard to see much changing north of the border over the next year or so. Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard is a conviction Corbynista who has consistently advanced a policy agenda of nationalisation, trade union power, and distaste for the wealth-creating parts of the economy. He is unlikely to change now, or to be removed.

So the party will stumble towards 2021, making noises about when and under what conditions it will support a second independence referendum, confusing voters further about what it actually stands for, and what it has to offer them.

“We couldn’t be further away from the kind of politics we need,” a senior Scottish Labour figure tells me. “We have to get back to a centre-left policy platform talking about economic growth and enterprise as well as public services. The movement needs to stop talking about free things – that’s not an economic and social policy. We need policy on climate change, on education, something novel to say on the NHS as well as criticising the shambles it is under the SNP. We’re not doing any of that at the moment.”

“We can’t ignore the obvious,” adds a Labour strategist. “Corbynism is as unpopular in Scotland as it is in the rest of the country. It’s unpopular in all our traditional heartlands – Wales, Scotland, the north of England.”

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A regular critique emerges when you talk to thinkers on the moderate side of the party – Scottish Labour lacks a clear identity. Under Leonard, it has tucked in behind the Corbyn regime, even describing itself as “Labour in Scotland” on its leaflets and referring to Leonard as “the leader of Labour in Scotland.” “This is not good enough –  it’s amateurish 1980s stuff,” says a party grandee.

The recovery of Scottish Labour – if there is to be one – is viewed as a 10-year project. The right people have to emerge, with the right agenda. The party cannot hope to be more nationalist than the SNP, or more unionist than the Conservatives, so it must find a distinct platform and language. It must present itself as a competent manager of public services, while exposing the weaknesses in the SNP’s handling of those services – this is effectively what Alex Salmond did in reverse to take the nationalists into power, at Labour’s expense, in 2007.

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This can’t be done from a hard-left position. When it comes to elections, social democracy can be a winning proposition – socialism cannot.

“The SNP can’t deliver what Scottish kids need from the education system or patients need from the health service because they are obsessed with the ideology of independence. That will always come first,” says the strategist. “They are a government of Scotland that will not talk about being the government of Scotland. We should force them to.”

An old piece of strategic advice is to always pay attention to what your opponent doesn’t want to talk about – “if you’re losing at chess sweep the pieces off the board and start playing checkers instead,” a source says. Holding the Nats to account based on data and facts in relation to public services and the economy, without promising radical socialism as a fix, is a starting point. Figuring out a way that Scotland and the UK government can work together, within the Union, to address the major challenges of our time, is another. Trade, immigration and climate change are obvious areas of partnership.

And the case for the Union should be made, robustly. “Redistribution is the engine of the Union,” says a source, “but no one makes the case for that fundamental social democratic principle. The Union is social democratic in form and principle. We need to tell people that.”

Finding clarity of identity is another urgent task for Scottish Labour. One senior party figure is even coming round to the view that it should adopt a Bavarian-style approach and split from the UK party, becoming its own distinct institution, perhaps while still taking the Labour whip at Westminster. No more “branch office”.

The Conservatives could also play an important part in any Labour revival north of the border. “If we can get away from talking about the constitution we’d benefit,” says the strategist. “We would benefit from a return to left-right politics. But to do that in Scotland we need to stop talking about the Tories as if they are inhuman devils who have no right to exist. All that does is strengthen the case for getting out of the Union.”

There is an expectation that Boris Johnson’s government will spend heavily in Scotland over the next few years, effectively trying to buy Scottish support for the United Kingdom and to prove the party isn’t the Thatcherite demon claimed by the hard left.

There’s also a view that Johnson could seek to steal the SNP’s thunder by undertaking a significant programme of constitutional reform across the UK. “Boris is determined to be a good PM and leave a legacy – it could well be that he reforms the UK and seeks to builds support for a stable union,” says a senior figure. “These are the kinds of things that he and Michael Gove will be thinking about. Scottish Labour could find itself not just behind the Nats on the constitutional debate but out-thought by Boris.”

No one that I spoke to has much hope of a Scottish Labour revival in the short term. No one could identify a leader-in-waiting who has the vision, strength of character and charisma to put them back on track. But they point to the sudden emergence of Lisa Nandy as a contender for UK leader, and wonder whether something similar might happen in Scotland.

“What we need is a leader with the strength to say no to the SNP, no to the Tories, but also no to the Labour leadership in London,” says a respected former Labour MSP. “Until we have that, we’ll remain stuck.”