Scottish Labour appears to be confirming its centrist and unionist direction, writes David Jamieson
It’s been a rough launch for Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party.
Despite his winning outright with 54 per cent in the first round of voting, accompanied by the easy side-lining of the left of the party, he has been immediately beset both by the difficult political terrain and the ongoing internal fights plaguing his party.
The trials of the official opposition mean a great deal for a country continuing, now in the era of the Coronavirus pandemic, to struggle for stability.
From the virus itself, to the economic fallout, party infighting and the national question in Scotland, the party will struggle mightily to present a unified and popular alternative. What prospects are there for Starmerism in the 2020s?
Much controversy has greeted the Labour report leaked to press over the Easter bank holiday weekend; compiled by Labour party staff, intended for submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into the handling of antisemitism allegations, but blocked for unknown reason by party lawyers, it details attempts by leading figures in the party machine – members of a rightwing faction associated with the senior management team and former party chair Iain McNicol – to sabotage attempts by the leadership office of Jeremy Corbyn to deal with antisemitism complaints.
Its specific allegation is that party structures, including the party Governance and Legal Unit, deliberately created a backlog of complaints – the majority of which turned out to have no foundation (indeed, very many complaints were about persons who were not even Labour members).
Perhaps more damning still, the report features WhatsApp and email messages using derogatory and even violent language to describe Corbyn and his supporters, and discussions which make it clear the faction desired a Labour loss in the 2017 election. It appears to show discussions for the direction of funds to defend the seats of rightwing MPs, regardless of any wider party strategy for winning the election.
These revelations come at a time of acute vulnerability for Starmer.
During the leadership election, Starmer skillfully presented himself as the compromise candidate, drawing the support of one-time Corbynite activists in Momentum, as well as right-wingers in groups including Labour First.
Starmer’s real base is in the ‘soft left’ of the party. But one of its supporting plinth’s is the right of the party, who so savaged Corbyn’s leadership from the shadows in recent years. They have real difference with the soft left, but they support both Starmer’s general re-orientation towards the ‘systemic’ (creating a safe environment for big business, defending the interests of the state and its alliances, distancing the party from popular or radical appeals) and they know only a figure from the soft left of the party establishment can achieve rolling-back of Corbynism. Starmer signalled his reciprocation with the right by handing out several positions on his front bench to some of the nosiest critics of Corbyn, including the MPs Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips.
Increasing internal tensions after the leak, including the disgust that many party members evidently feel over attempts to sabotage the party from the right, place new pressure on the alliance. Hopes on the left that a meaningful compromise or balance might be found between them and their opponents within Labour are likely to be painfully exposed by Starmer’s orientation on the leak.
A centrist orientation on the pandemic crisis?
The politics of this new alliance in the party has problems enough. How does its vision of market capitalism lightly regulated for social concerns and mild technocratic sensibilities find room in the new pandemic politics of state intervention and planning? Capitalism with a conscience will have to face down a more rigorous nationally planned capitalism from the right, at least for a time.
Starmer’s major intervention so far has been to advance a national unity strategy in relation to the pandemic and the UK Government’s handling of it. This includes a subdued attitude towards criticising UK Government efforts, with Starmer commenting that “now is not the time” to ask if the government was too slow to move into lockdown.
This, despite advice from the prime minister;s own leading scientific experts that the UK may be the country worst hit in Europe; despite the government U-turn on its own ‘herd immunity’ strategy.
Ideas about national unity sound ‘sensible’ in professional political circles. They are intended to mark Starmer out as a different kind of leader from the more abrasive and critical Corbyn. It may be calculated that while Labour continue to languish in the polls and the Tories continue to surge, criticism will look like sour grapes.
But this forgets the reality that public opinion will turn. The combination of a medical, social and economic crisis will focus public scrutiny on the government. The question is, can it be attracted to a Labour party that refuses criticism?
Starmerism in Scotland
It is often remarked that a Labourite pre-occupation with regaining seats in the North of England is seldom met by a similar concern with Scottish Labour’s monumental collapse north of the border.
In the 2019 election, Labour lost 54 seats in England. Scotland, a nation roughly one tenth of the size of England, saw the loss of 40 Labour seats in the 2015 election. After a brief and slight resurgence in 2017, the trend was reasserted in 2019, when the party again returned a single seat.
One could easily retort that there has been little evidence so far of a genuine commitment to these lost northern English seats. 53 of those 54 lost seats lost were majority Leave-voting in 2016; yet Keir Starmer’s victorious leadership campaign largely evades acknowledgement of the impact of the party’s adoption of a second EU referendum position. His cabinet appointments roundly endorse his own Remainer and second referendum credentials.
But it is true that there is at least a greater acknowledgement of Labour’s challenge in the north of England, a need for dialogue and reconciliation with those who feel betrayed? Does Starmer’s leadership indicate a similar process for the party in Scotland.
The selection of Ian Murray as the party’s shadow Scottish secretary, and the election of Jackie Baillie MSP to deputy leader of the Scottish party indicates that the march is towards what might be described as ‘white-knuckle unionism’.
These figures on the right of the party want to wait out the constitutional storm, no matter the painful loss of influence in many once entrenched Labour parts of Scotland, and taking the opportunity to pivot onto wider (and, in traditional party perceptions, more grounded) social issues as soon as the opportunity arises.
Murray and Baillie’s attachment to the right of the party on wider issues makes it hard to understand what such a social or economic policy pivot might be. Former PM and Labour king-across-the-water-figure Tony Blair has suggested that Scottish Labour can recover if it can find a Ruth Davidson-type personality – “a charismatic, smart, capable figure, standing in the centre”.
This may sound more like a job advert than political strategy as such, but it does beg a question about the general orientation of Starmerism, as well as its application in Scotland.
In a period characterised by enormous social and economic change, required as emergency measures during the epidemic, how can the tinkering centre leftism newly in the ascendancy, match the moment. This is before we even get to Blair’s centrist saviour – presumably (since Blair was hyper-critical of even the soft left in his pro-Davidson speech) advancing and even more market liberal position.
Some on the left of the party have an even less flattering description for Murray’s unionist politics – ‘kamikaze-unionism’. It was a description given some credence by a statement from Murray himself, who said it was right for Scottish Labour to “destroy itself” for the union, referring to the party’s rapid decline since the 2014 referendum when it joined the Better Together campaign with the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
Immediately following the disastrous December 2019 General Election, some in Scottish Labour – including it’s more left-wing figures like Neil Findlay MSP, and some closer to the centre like Monica Lennon MSP – made open demands to a more democratic stance over a second Scottish independence referendum.
Some activists had hoped to push the argument at a forthcoming Scottish Labour conference. That has been derailed by lockdown.
This doesn’t bode well for Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour’s leftist (though avowedly non-Corbynite) leader. He has faced challenges from disgruntled MSPs, including Baillie in the past. Indeed, as we revealed last year, Baillie was part of a backroom manoeuvre to undermine his leadership, specifically over the constitutional question.
Leonard used the leak of the report to kick back at the factional warfare coming from the right of the party. This may be a pre-emptive move; his supporters feel the new strength of the unionist right means he may himself come under pressure.
Picture courtesy of Chris Boland