Journalist David Thomson speaks to Gerry Hassan, Lord Foulkes and Professor John Curtice about the options for a Scottish Labour party battling for survival
THE Scottish Labour party selected its latest leader just months after its worst results in a UK General Election since 1955. In her acceptance speech, new leader Kezia Dugdale said: “I have a message for the people of Scotland: take another look at the Scottish Labour Party.”
She insisted to journalists: “I am the leader of the Scottish Labour Party; I’ll decide what happens here in Scotland.”
Dugdale’s comments were an attempt to stamp her own authority on a party now commonly referred to by detractors as a “branch office”.
The term was coined by none other than former party leader Johann Lamont, who gave something of a surprise critical interview to a tabloid newspaper shortly after stepping down from the position after the Scottish independence referendum.
“Any attempt to rectify its current plight cannot be simple and only about one part of the problem. Nor is changing all of this entirely in their hands.” Gerry Hassan
Lamont told the Daily Record : “The Scottish Labour party must be a more autonomous party that works in partnership with the UK party. We must be allowed to make our decisions and control our resources.
“The Scottish Labour party should work as equal partners with the UK party, just as Scotland is an equal partner in the United Kingdom. Scotland has chosen home rule – not London rule.”
Lamont’s comments, combined with the disastrous result for Labour in Scotland at the UK General Election as the party fought the fallout from the Scottish independence referendum, have helped prompt much speculation about the future of Labour in Scotland, and whether or not it’s time to split completely from London.
Dr Gerry Hassan, co-author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, explains: “The Scottish Labour party’s current predicament is caused by a number of factors: Scottish home grown, the state of British Labour, and the wider condition of mainstream social democratic parties in the developed world. Therefore, any attempt to rectify its current plight cannot be simple and only about one part of the problem. Nor is changing all of this entirely in their hands.”
UK Labour leader contenders Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, albeit unsurprisingly, are not in favour of separation between Labour north and south of the border, although Burnham did at least accept in the aftermath of recent events that “there is a case” for a separately run Scottish Labour party.
So far it has come down to the candidates for the deputy leadership position of UK Labour to put forward some thoughts for the future of the Scottish operation.
During the deputy leadership hustings in Glasgow in July, former culture secretary Ben Bradshaw said he would be in favour of a more federal setup for the Labour party.
According to one grassroots Scottish Labour party member, discussions within the party membership recognise many that solidarity and unity with the UK party is critical, however, the need for something to change in Scotland is clear.
“Holyrood requires a change of thinking and there is some discussion on social media sites around a federal arrangement, as it happens with other socialist parties on the continent,” a source said.
Former Scotland minister and MSP Lord George Foulkes argues that a “quasi-federal” structure could improve Labour’s fortunes in Scotland, but a separate party entirely is the wrong way to go.
“The party structure should reflect the structure of government, with increased autonomy as we develop a federal or quasi-federal structure.” George Foulkes
“It would not be impossible to have a separate Scottish Labour party but it would not be desirable,” he says. “However, the party is, and should be, even more autonomous, with responsibility for deciding policy on all the devolved areas.
“The party structure should reflect the structure of government, with increased autonomy as we develop a federal or quasi-federal structure.”
With a mixture of coalitions and federal structures on the continent, the most prominent example is the left wing coalition party in Greece, Syriza. The party swept into power in January 2015 on an ‘anti-austerity ticket’.
Led by its charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, the original coalition comprised of a broad array of 13 groups and independent politicians which included social democrats, democratic socialists and anti-capitalists. Within the coalition, there is a Eurosceptic element to the group.
But on 20 August, Tsipras resigned as prime minster after a live television address due to a rebellion from MPs in his party over the agreed bailout with the EU in July. The rebels are intending to split to form a new party called Popular Unity, led by Panagiotis Lafazanis.
In Spain, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party has what is called ‘Barons,’ which is an unofficial term for the party’s regional leaders. They can be very powerful as they run an autonomous community. The problem with this setup is that there has been in-fighting between the barons and the central office.
Other socialist party setups in Europe include the Irish Labour party, which has held a policy of not allowing residents of Northern Ireland to become members. Instead, it supports the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the formation of the Northern Ireland Members Forum to discuss common policy – a structure that bares similarity to a proposal put forward by former culture minister Tom Watson during a recent deputy UK Labour leader hustings event in Glasgow.
Instead of a member’s forum, Watson hopes to chair a meeting of the three leaders of the home nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) four times a year to discuss policy ideas.
Political commentator Professor John Curtice says there are a number of possible scenarios: “There are two possible outcomes that can happen. Firstly, you can go down the route of the Murdo Fraser suggestion for the Scottish Tories of having its own separate party.
“Or you can go down the route of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany. The CDU has an agreement with the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) to cooperate on a multiple of issues.”
The arrangement between the CDU and the CSU is that the CSU will only field candidates in the German state of Bavaria for the German Bundestag and the European elections. The CDU will only field candidates in the other 15 states for the same elections.
The representatives of both parties in the Bundestag are known as the CDU/CSU faction, or unofficially known as the Union. For Scotland, a set up like this would mean that Labour would have its Scottish identity, but retain close working ties with the UK party.
Professor Curtice adds: “This system is similar to the one that is in place for the Lib Dems in Scotland. The Scottish Lib Dems will field candidates in Scotland and the Lib Dems will field candidates for the rest of the UK.”
The problem for Scottish Labour is that it had been in decline for some years before it came to a head during the campaign for last year’s Scottish independence referendum.
For any future direction of the party in Scotland, the structure of Scottish Labour is going to be important.
“Scottish Labour can help itself by being distinctly and autonomously Scottish; it has to kill forever the phrase ‘London Labour’ hung around its neck by its opponents and validated by Johann Lamont.” Gerry Hassan
“In terms of organising and financing any separate Scottish Labour party, the organisation of the Scottish Labour party would be irrelevant as there is already one in place,” says Professor Curtice. “There will be a need to have a financial setup in place to make sure that it is financially independent.
“For the Scottish Labour Party, both routes [separate Scottish Labour party or a federal Scottish Labour party] are a possibility.”
Professor Curtice goes on to say that the links with the trade unions in Scotland would be unlikely to change as there is already a “Scottish element” to the UK-wide unions.
According to Gerry Hassan, it’s vital for Labour to shake off the London badge stamped on it during the Scottish referendum campaign to have any hope of moving forward.
“Scottish Labour can help itself by being distinctly and autonomously Scottish; it has to kill forever the phrase ‘London Labour’ hung around its neck by its opponents and validated by Johann Lamont,” he says.
“It has to come to terms with a Scotland which has changed dramatically in recent decades and recognise that the old ways of Labour councils and place people knowing best is over. Moreover, it has to cut somehow through and be heard – having for most of the devolution era had nothing of
the distinction to say.”
With the SNP set to increase its majority at next year’s Holyrood elections, it will be up to the Labour party membership to embark on a period of self-reflection and decide whether or not separation, a federal system or the status quo is the best for the party.
For Kezia Dugdale, it will take significant work and bold decisions to prove to both her membership and her critics whether or not she can really take control of the party.
Picture courtesy of x_goMad