IT’S TEMPTING TO ignore the Scottish Labour leadership election. Here will be two career politicians with milquetoast opinions fighting for the soul of a party that long ceased to matter in Scotland’s real power stakes.
The only relevant question is what they say about independence, not because jobs, education and health are irrelevant, but because independence is the one issue that forces them to depart from the familiar routines of performative gestures and virtue signalling. On independence, risks are unavoidable. Something like drama could ensue. Politics could actually break out.
And yesterday, the debate took a shape, of sorts. Measured by the Kübler-Ross five stage model of grief, Anas Sarwar positioned himself between denial and anger: “for the next five years, the course of the next parliament, focus on making it the Covid recovery parliament rather than a constitutional debate parliament.” Monica Lennon was somewhere between bargaining and acceptance: “I’ll always respect democracy… we can’t just wish it away.”
Do these positions really matter? On the surface, not tremendously. Even electing a dyed-in-the-wool socialist made no difference to the party’s image as servants of yesterday’s orthodoxy. Both candidates in this contest are defiantly post-ideological, and if we can trust anything, we can trust that whoever is elected will do what seems convenient and conventional.
What is interesting is that two utterly mainstream centrist Labour politicians are forced to disagree on independence. Or, more importantly, how to position themselves to maximise their votes among Scottish Labour members. Candidate one views the membership as hidebound, revelling in nostalgia; candidate two believes the membership fancies a cold bath of realism.
Labour could actually matter in a real campaign for independence. Partly, breaking down Westminster obstinacy would require a crumbling of Scotland’s institutional pillars of unionism. If Labour buckles, it would be a signal to other institutions that they are permitted to support the cause of democratic state transformation. This becomes doubly crucial if Holyrood tries to proceed with an unofficial referendum, a prospect haunted by the spectre of Catalonia’s opposition boycott.
But the Labour question is less about Scotland and more about England and Wales. Dismantling Westminster resistance would likely require civil campaigns across the United Kingdom, with others coming behind Scottish independence as the precursor to a breakup of Britain founded on popular sovereignty. That requires engaging socialists and republicans across the two islands, many affiliated to Labour. But some sympathisers in England and Wales continue to baulk, partly out of Labourist ideology, partly out of an unwillingness to offend Scottish Labour members. Maybe, in this very particular sense, the Scottish Labour debates matter.
Equally, don’t expect either candidate to honour their positions . These debates are (simultaneously dull and cheesy) theatre. Political reality, one way or another, will shift after the election. Whoever wins will be shaped by London office calculations, the views of affiliated groups including unions, opinion polls, and ideological conventions. Their mandate from members will be a distant memory.
The crucial question, then, is not what this debate says about the candidates and their honour. It’s how the candidates assess the temperature of the increasingly right-leaning Labour Party. And it’s what imaginable role such a party can play in Britain’s future, now that its dalliance with ideology has been abandoned for Starmer’s witch-hunting banality.