GIVEN EVENTS INSIDE Scotland’s ruling SNP, you could be forgiven for not noticing the contest to lead Scotland’s third party, Scottish Labour. It’s difficult to reconcile the jarring contradiction between the Labour we grew up with, still regarded as synonymous with the Scottish nation, and the deflated rump we see today, pleading with Scotland not to hate them.
In case you missed it, both candidates appeared on the BBC’s Politics Scotland show, and, this being a leadership election, both went through the ritual of declaring themselves the voice of “change”. Stargazers searching for meaning in these debates have fixed on Monica Lennon’s recognition that the Labour Party’s relationship with Scotland is “broken”.
Superficially, Lennon appears the more plausible “change” candidate, if only because she admits to the realities of the constitutional battle. But that fact also makes her the underdog. Scottish Labour still feels like a party clinging on to the status quo, unwilling to reckon with the consequences of a likely SNP landslide. Thus, the candidate most in denial will win. Messengers will be shot on sight.
Lennon often seems to misinterpret this mood in her party. After Labour’s 2019 General Election debacle, Lennon called for Scottish Labour (a “branch office”) to split off from its Westminster mothership. But this contains a contradiction. A more autonomous Scottish Labour may actually be less likely to face up to Scotland’s everyday political battles.
Indeed, the one instance where Richard Leonard truly rebelled against the UK leadership was over a referendum on Scottish independence: specifically, he defended the Scottish party’s right to block any McDonnell deal with the SNP. Lennon thus appears to be addressing a membership that no longer exists, a fantasy party rooted in working class communities and thus willing to address complex realities.
Her rival, Anas Sarwar, found that his elite background and private education counted against him when he stood in the previous leadership election. However, in a healthier Labour formation this wouldn’t be the same issue. Historically, some of Labour’s finest politicians (Tony Benn, for instance) came from lofty origins. The problem of Sarwar’s background is less what it says about him, and more what it says about his party’s social base.
Of the last four possible Scottish Labour leaders, Leonard included, three had a private education. Labour retain a rump of working-class support, but now have the unshakeable aura of posh, somewhere between the University of Edinburgh PhD student and the career politician. Electing another public-school boy could re-emphasise the gap between reality and Scottish Labour’s Mitty-esque idea of itself as the voice of “the communities”.
Since losing to Leonard, Sarwar has in fact undertaken some commendable work breaking taboos on Scotland’s problem of racism, particularly Islamophobia. By all accounts, this work was undertaken in a spirit of good faith and personal commitment. Sarwar’s father may have been a millionaire, but he shamed most of his Scottish colleagues with his bravery confronting New Labour’s “war on terror” rhetoric. So his family background cuts both ways.
Yet moralising over class and race is perhaps besides the point. Sarwar’s virtuous deeds might help win over an increasingly liberal Labour membership. And both will say the standard virtuous Scottish pieties about addressing poverty (naturally, with the attendant Holyrood hypocrisy of saying nothing specific about redistribution). But neither Labour candidate seems willing to address a vast democratic deficit that is equally symptomatic of the neoliberal era. And that explains the cringe they feel whenever the topic of independence arises.