Sean Bell: Imagine there’s no Scottish Labour – it’s easy if you try

“The argument that Scottish Labour can or does represent a hope for the Scottish Left hinges, unwittingly or otherwise, on the belief that such hope cannot exist anywhere else.”

LOOK, I don’t want to waste your time.

Attempts to explain and account for the decline/uncertain future/inevitable death of Scottish Labour have been grist for the mill of Scottish political journalism for over a decade now. There are few more reliable ways of filling column inches, and the bulk of these analyses are now so predictable they could be written by an AI program with a Glasgow accent. I doubt you want to read another one any more than I want to write it.

Do I really need to say that Scottish Labour is in a hole, and all those concerned with extricating it have no better ideas than to “dig up”? Do I need to make pompous generalisations about what voting for the party once meant to our vanished industrial working-class, or produce another dose of narcolepsy in prose form about the changing nature of Scottish civic society? Do I need to point out that, for Labour, the 2014 independence referendum was the kind of victory Pyrrhus of Epirus would think twice about?  Is there anyone left with any interest in the matter who doesn’t know this, and is anything achieved by trotting it all out one more time?

Alas, circumstances have conspired against us, just as his party colleagues have conspired against beleaguered Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. It is no secret that a campaign demanding his resignation, coupled with a potential no-confidence vote by the party’s ruling body, have been gathering steam, if not competence. It has long been the accepted wisdom within Scottish politics that Leonard is not a particularly able leader; he is unrecognised by swathes of the voting public, and is set to lose several MSPs and maintain Labour’s dismal third place position in next May’s Holyrood elections. His one shred of good fortune has been finding opponents whose ineptitude so far outstrips his own – Machiavellian geniuses these are not.

Few of them, for example, appear to understand the internal mechanisms of their own party, but that may be forgiven, since it seems not to have an agreed process on how to challenge the leader. Today, following entreaties to party officials over how a leadership contest could be triggered, Labour MSP Daniel Johnson hinted that court action may be the next step – a surefire recipe for party unity and revitalisation.

Despite the bumbling of these coup-plotters, few would deny Leonard’s position is weak, and that it may be only a matter of time before his tenure comes to an end. Should that occur, Anas Sarwar – who Leonard unexpectedly defeated in 2017 – may finally achieve his dream deferred, provided the Scottish Labour grassroots decide they are too exhausted to care about his family’s business affairs, or what school his children attend. Jackie Baillie has also been floated as a possible interim leader, though how exactly she would demand loyalty from Labour MSPs and activists without triggering outbreaks of hysterical laughter is as yet unknown.  

If Leonard is replaced, what then? Even those within the party eager for Leonard to be shown the door acknowledge that a change at the helm will not solve their long-standing, deep-rooted problems. Regretfully, I perceive no apparent threat to the Death-of-ScotLab Think-Piece Industrial-Complex just yet.

For the first time, I may have a modicum of sympathy for those who complain of Scotland being trapped by the gridlock of constitutional discourse. I still maintain that this position – the view of those who not only oppose independence, but deeply resent that they have to talk about it at all – is a losing proposition from the get-go. In politics, you rarely win an argument you don’t want to have; deeply-held beliefs and a petulant lack of enthusiasm do not mix well. However, Leonard’s latest travails have given me some understanding for how those tired, frustrated unionists must feel. Put simply: when can we stop talking about Scottish Labour?

Hard as it may be to believe, there are those who do not think as I do. As Leonard is nominally on the party’s left – though he was never a dutiful lieutenant of Jeremy Corbyn, despite much misinformation to the contrary – some feel that the threat to his leadership merits protection. Such defences have generally come from those who, against all evidence, still believe that Leonard might be capable of advancing some version of socialism worth the name.

This bizarre phenomenon has been in effect since he was first elected; even within the independence movement, there were those who optimistically wondered if his presence might shift Scottish politics in a more progressive direction. Since then, we have been told earnestly that Scottish Labour under Leonard “would be a victory for the left; not just in Scotland, but across Britain too” (it wasn’t), and that the party is “moving towards constitutional radicalism” (it isn’t). It is long past the point we recognised the reality of this – not for Scottish Labour’s sake, but for the left-wing causes, aspirations and movements which supposedly justify its very being.

The continued existence of Scottish Labour is an albatross around the neck of Scottish politics, and the Scottish Left in particular. Questions of what might replace it, of who could speak and act and represent in the manner it once did – at least, in certain imaginations – are speculative thought-experiments so long as the party is still indulged. And provided it keeps limping along, always dying but never quite dead, it will continue to be a source of false hope for the small but simultaneously inexhaustible supply of credulous fantasists happy to consider anyone to the left of Jim Murphy a bold radical who just needs some support and encouragement in order to turn things around. Even Yukio Mishima realised when it was time to call it a day; for Scottish Labour however, the needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before.

Whenever this state of affairs becomes impossible to ignore, some bright spark will invariably suggest that Scottish Labour’s problems could be solved if it simply changed its position on independence, or are least opened itself up to debate on the matter. Strangely, this never seems to do the trick. As Tom Nairn recognised, the Labour Party is not a vehicle which can be divorced from the British state, and attempts to pursue socialism within that state have been a dead-end since day one.

As easy as it is to criticise Labour, Scottish or otherwise, it is worth recognising that the pro-independence Left has its own problems. It has absolutely no clear path to seizing control of the SNP as it stands, and that frustration has led to some very odd conclusions (whatever is being smoked by those who consider Joanna Cherry to be on the party’s ‘left’ would make a hell of an anti-drugs campaign). The Greens represent a significant enough constituency, but one whose growth is incremental; furthermore, if it hopes to win more of the Scottish Left to its side, it runs into the difficulty of asking socialists to vote for a non-socialist party (the SNP and Labour have tried this before, with varying success, and it does not get any less wearisome with repetition). Smaller outfits, new and old, past and present – RISE, the Red Party of Scotland, the vestigial remains of the Scottish Socialist Party, and whatever Tommy Sheridan is doing this week – encounter the same problems and the same personalities again and again.

None of this encourages leftists within Labour, whatever their opinion on independence, to leave that dispiriting but familiar environment. Yet the argument that Scottish Labour can or does represent a hope for the Scottish Left hinges, unwittingly or otherwise, on the belief that such hope cannot exist anywhere else. Much like those on the English Left hesitant to leave the party after the fall of Corbyn, those rallying behind Leonard have no idea of what awaits them if they leave Scottish Labour’s trappings – but they know exactly what to expect if they remain. There may be a kind of comfort in that, but nothing else. As Nairn wrote, “Labourism’s unity has paralysed the vital contradiction of tendencies inside it, imprisoning British socialism instead of liberating it, and deforming its whole development.”

We are not short of independence supporters who were once Labour voters, who come from Labour families and grew up in the nebulous Scottish Labour ‘tradition’. I am not one of them, and so they might argue I do not – perhaps even that I cannot – understand the attachment some feel for the party, or at least their hopes for what the party might be. That may be true, but with the difficulties of Comrade Leonard inspiring Groundhog Day analysis once more, I’m not sure that’s a disadvantage.

As my father was fond of pointing out, somewhere in the National Library of Scotland there is buried a letter from my ancestor James Connolly to Keir Hardie, castigating him for his lack of organisational ability. I bring this up only to reinforce the point: my family have never been particularly impressed by Labour, or considered the idea that we could live without it to be verboten. This perspective has served us well.

In 2014, one of the most dishonest roadblocks some attempted to throw in the way of the Yes campaign was the historically illiterate suggestion that there was no left-wing case for nationalism. Now, the idea that left-wing unionism can be said to exist in any significant or serious form in Scotland is arguably more open to dispute.

If the end of Leonard’s leadership can help us settle that question, and if the Scottish Left can free itself from the ball and chain of Scottish Labour as a result, then maybe, finally, we can talk about something else.

Imagine there’s no Scottish Labour. Imagine something else.

Picture courtesy of Son of Groucho