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10 January 2020updated 24 Jul 2021 5:36am

Why a separate party wouldn’t be enough to transform Labour’s fortunes in Scotland

The truth is that for too long Scottish Labour has lacked a leader with the necessary force of character and clarity of message to gain a hearing. 

By Chris Deerin

There are many things to be said about Alex Salmond, and many of them will be said when he appears in court to face sexual assault charges in March, but he undeniably has a rare strain of political genius.

No one should appreciate this more than the Scottish Labour Party. That sad relic of what was once Scotland’s dominant political force owes much of its decline to the strategic nous of the former nationalist leader. Not least, his decision towards the end of the last century to transform the SNP into an unapologetically social democratic party.

By mimicking Labour’s traditional posture and policies, and aligning his own party with Scotland’s traditional ideological culture, Salmond established the SNP as a ready-made, box-fresh replacement when patience with the existing establishment ran out. By the mid-2000s, with Holyrood firmly established, Labour fell foul of its own longevity, and its evident complacency and arrogance. The nationalists were waiting, like a smiling, sharp-toothed megalodon. They had a bigger vision, a better story and, frankly, better people. They swallowed Labour, and many of its voters, whole.

Salmond ruthlessly exploited the bully pulpit of office and the machinery of government, aided significantly by Labour’s consequent, and dramatic, loss of self-confidence, its identity crisis, and its journey through a succession of leaders who couldn’t measure up.

Little has changed. Salmond may have gone, but in Nicola Sturgeon he has been replaced by a successor who shares his charisma, who learned at his knee, who has operated at the highest levels of the party and then government for decades, and who has found the political climate well-suited to a party that bases much of its politics on a rejection of London-centric elitism.

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Scottish Labour, meanwhile, continues its long trek through the wilderness. Its current leader, Richard Leonard, is a pale Corbynite copy who has no convincing analysis of how to make his party relevant again. To be fair, this is no easy task. It is not clear what space there is for a left-wing party when the government occupies much of the same territory, and has a right-wing British opponent to demonise and by which to define its own authenticity and Scotland-first credentials. The kind of radical socialism proposed by the failed Corbyn project has never been popular north of the border.

So what’s next? Labour may well go into the 2021 Holyrood election with Leonard as leader – though that would be a mistake. The lessons hopefully being learned by the party at Westminster, in the wake of their electoral trouncing, have echoes in Scotland. Debate about direction and positioning has begun in something like earnest. But in truth, what we have seen so far only shows the party remains thick in the weeds of an identity crisis.

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The success of the Salmond revolution can be seen even today – the narrative is about Scotland being intellectually and institutionally different. Senior Labour figures in Scotland are discussing whether they should break completely with the UK party. The idea was broached last week by Labour MSP Monica Lennon, a forceful frontbencher who has until now been a loyal part of Leonard’s circle.

Scottish Labour is treated like a “branch office” by London, said Lennon. If it was to end its “long-term losing streak” – the party was reduced, again, to a single MP at the recent general election – it needed “epic change”. “Scottish Labour needs to stand or fall by its own decisions,” she said. “We either continue at the mercy of the UK party’s distant structures or we become a party in our own right.”

This week, left-leaning Labour leadership candidate Clive Lewis backed an entirely separate Scottish Labour Party and argued that it should have the freedom to support independence in a second referendum. Ian Murray, the party’s sole remaining Scottish MP and a deputy Labour leadership candidate, remarked that a separate party should be “an option”.

These radical suggestions follow the chaos inflicted on the Scottish party by Corbyn and John McDonnell during the election campaign when, in an attempt to woo the SNP and bolster their own chances of making it to Downing Street, they contradicted Scottish Labour policy over the holding of a second independence referendum. This confusion undermined Labour’s message and pitch in Scotland, especially compared to the clarity offered by the SNP and the Conservatives.

The idea of a separate party – which would still take the UK Labour whip at Westminster, but be funded and controlled separately – is controversial but has support in some interesting and unexpected corners. “I think it might be time to do it,” one grandee from the golden era – and no supporter of Leonard or Lennon – told me.

Others have been quick to dismiss the proposal as playing into nationalist hands, but accept some kind of change is needed. Daniel Johnson, a moderate Labour MSP, said today that he opposed a complete break with London, but suggested instead that the Scottish Labour “recasts” itself as more like the Co-operative Party, which is affiliated to Labour but is its own legal entity and has control over policy-making.

Structures aside, the truth is that for too long Labour in Scotland has lacked a leader with the necessary force of character and clarity of message to gain a hearing or to stand up to the party’s often tin-eared London leadership. Thirteen years into government, the SNP administration’s failures on domestic policy should present an open flank to the opposition. On education and health, especially, the record veers between mundane and poor. The Conservatives recognise this and were making headway under the combative Ruth Davidson. Whether Jackson Carlaw, her likely replacement, can continue in this vein remains to be seen.  

But Labour has failed and is failing to make its mark. Leonard, despite his radical politics and obvious passion, lacks the heft and personality to take on Sturgeon effectively. The backbenches are hardly packed with talent. And despite more than a decade out of power, there’s no sign yet of an alternative Labour vision that is likely to convince mainstream Scotland to return to the fold.

Labour remains caught in Salmond’s web, debating whether to support a second referendum, or whether to include a third option on the ballot paper of a form of federalism or devo max. It’s in entangled in a row about its own status as a decision-making institution. It lacks a story, an optimistic vision and the smell of competence, and a policy base that points the way to a successful and modern 21st century for the nation. What is here to vote for?

A break from the stiff harness of London may create the internal space for greater freedom of thought and movement, but it could only ever be a necessary, not sufficient, first step.