Breaking BLiS – Part 2

In his recent blog piece, Pete Wishart MP asked Could SLAB become a party of independence?. The short answer to that is, No! It is, as I pointed out in Breaking BLiS – Part 1, quite impossible for “SLAB” (so-called ‘Scottish Labour’) to become a party of independence because it isn’t even a party. It is the branch operation of a British party which is inherently unionist. It is British Labour in Scotland (BLiS).

Pete Wishart, I’m sure, has not actually been misled by the hesitant, half-hearted and entirely unconvincing attempts to portray BLiS as somehow less dogmatically unionist than the party of which it is part, but which actually decides how non-unionist BLiS is allowed to be. He is merely being mischievous.

In various utterances by Kezia Dugdale we see the branch manager of a unionist party desperately trying to find a form of words that allows her spin-quacks to muddy the waters around BLiS’s attitude to independence – as in mislead voters – while not bringing down upon her subordinate wee head the wrath of her bosses in London. She knows that she dare not stray too far from British Labour’s ideological unionism. She is merely testing the limits of her choke-chain. And, perhaps understandably, with very little evident enthusiasm. The penalties for branch mangers who step out of line can be quite severe. Ask Jim Murphy.

But that is not all Dugdale is doing. She is also obeying her instincts as a professional politician by leaving herself enough wriggle-room to claim that she was never really against independence. It’s a question of survival. There will be little room in Scottish politics after independence for hard-line British nationalists. Any politician hoping for elected office is going to have to be able to make at least a vaguely credible claim to having been open-minded on the constitutional question.

Which leads us neatly into the second aspect of Pete Wishart’s article that I intend to address. As he says, “Nothing is going to save Scottish Labour for this election”. Given that they obviously aren’t going to “become a party of independence”, it may be entertaining, and perhaps even illuminating, to speculate on what may to British Labour in Scotland after May. All assuming, without complacency, that they suffer the electoral slapping that polls are predicting.

If we assume that British Labour’s past behaviour is a fair guide to their tendencies and predispositions – and why should we not? – then we should assume a few things right away. That they will allow the Tories to set the agenda. That, ultimately, they will join forces with the Tories to defend a set-up that suits both. and that they will take precisely no lessons from the messages voters are sending them.

The agenda that the Tories in Scotland are setting is very much founded in explicit, union flag-waving, Rule Britannia chanting, aristocratic arse-kissing, militaristic, jingoistic, saccharine-nostalgic British nationalism. Their election strategy is, not to compete with the SNP in terms of suitability as a party of government (stop giggling at the back!), but to try to steal hard-line unionist votes from BLiS. If they are true to form, BLiS will dutifully follow the Tory lead and fight the election on the same ground.

To be fair, apart from the grindingly negative and all to often ludicrously contrived attacks on the SNP, the British parties don’t have much else besides their shared British nationalist ideology. They don’t have leaders with either the charisma or the credibility that might appeal to voters. They certainly don’t have the polices. The only part of the electorate they can hope to garner additional votes from to pad out the die-hard party loyalists is the dubious fringe who put the preservation of the union before any other consideration.

All of which has obvious implications for BLiS, as they will come out of the election not only as a crippled political force, but as an avowedly unionist party. It’s going to be very difficult to backtrack on the pro-union rhetoric that they’ll be lured into deploying by the Tories. Very difficult indeed.

We’ll come back to that. First, let’s look at some broad scenarios for BLiS in the aftermath of May’s election.

They could split away from British Labour. BLiS could become, at least nominally, a real Scottish Labour Party with real autonomy; real policy-making powers; and a real leader – although probably not Kezia.

Two things immediately strike one about this scenario. Firstly, it’s not going to play well with voters who will tend to see BLiS’s new garb as no more than a thin disguise for a pseudo-party that continues to be in thrall to the party bosses in London. The more of the ‘old guard’ that remains, the more sceptical people will be of the ‘party’s’ shiny new credentials. There would be trust issues.

But the fewer established figures there are, the less the ‘new’ party will look like a viable political and electoral contender. There would be confidence issues.

Besides, a lot of the ‘old guard’ won’t support such a split. They are genuinely loyal to British Labour just as much as they are to the British state. Some simply would not countenance such a move. There would be allegiance issues.

Which leads us to the second scenario, in which there is a split, not between BLiS and British Labour, but between this ‘old guard’ and a breakaway faction. Oh dear! There’s the “F” word! We can probably assume that it would be predominantly the left wing of BLiS that would depart to form a new Scottish Labour Party. The problem is that, once they start splitting, they don’t know when to stop. The left do not so much split, as fragment. How long would it be before we were being treated to the unedifying spectacle of spats between the Scottish Labour Party and The Real Scottish Labour Party. Shortly followed by what I believe is called in wrestling circles a ‘Battle Royal’ of tag-team squabbling among a multitude of factions all testing the power of the English language to provide variations involving the words ‘Scottish’ and ‘Labour’. My mind is numbing at the very thought of it.

There is also a problem common to both of these scenarios. Whatever form of ‘Scottish Labour Party’ were to emerge as the main contender, it could only be after a protracted period of unelectable turmoil. By the time the ‘new’ party was ready to seriously contest elections – and we’re probably talking 2025 at the earliest for Holyrood – would there still be a space for them to occupy? Or would one of the existing Scottish parties have already filled the vacuum? The Greens, perhaps? Bear in mind that the SNP is currently contriving to leave precious little space for any other parties. Competition for what is available will be fierce.

Bear in mind also that this new pro-independence ‘Scottish Labour Party’ is likely to have been overtaken by events. Scotland will almost certainly be independent by 2025. What worth their new-found faith in Scotland then?

All of which prompts me to consider an altogether more prosaic scenario for post-election BLiS. But I think we’ll save that for the third part of this series.

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5 thoughts on “Breaking BLiS – Part 2

  1. alasdair galloway

    Well first of all I cannot wait for part 3.
    But more specifically re this part, observations
    1. you draw out two scenarios, but why two? Oh I know these are particularly likely, but why not both at the same time? In other words, someone in Scottish Labour – for illustration purposes only, lets say Alex Rowley – raises head over battlements of Castle New Labour to suggest a Scottish Labour Party separate from UK Labour Party. This creates, as you suggest, a battle in the party over this as a course of action (been said before actually), but at the same time some factional in-fighting over just how to do this – set up on their own, make cause with RISE, etc. It seems perfectly possible for both these things to happen at the same time. Not that this will help them – quite the reverse.
    2. In terms of your second scenario, I can see your point quite easily. If its not overly Marxist, it is the lesson of history at almost any point in the Left (which is its tragedy of course). But might this not happen on the Right as well? For instance Unionism – no more than Nationalism – is not a one-dimensional creed if we look at it closely enough. For every ‘strong’ Unionist whose aim would be to get rid of that place at the bottom of the Royal Mile and restore Scotland to its rightful place as part of the UK at Westminster, there will be others who if pushed would quite happily accept a genuinely federal solution – just as long as our flag is the Union flag. This will happen in Labour in Scotland as well – the Right is no less factional. It is just less squeamish about the means it uses. Then, of course, there is a third group – those who will calculate on the basis of what is best for their career (why does Anas Sarwar come to mind here?)
    I seem to have gone on a little longer than I had intended so two final points.
    First I think your focus on personalities is misplaced (yes I mentioned Rowley and Sarwar but only as illustrations). The problem for Labour as I mentioned re part 1 is structural. Its Kezia who is the wishbone just now, but it could be anyone. Labour is a UK national party and none of the succession of leaders they have had since Donald Dewar’s passing have any credence in London, and are largely ignored, which rebounds on them in Scotland. For sure Kezia’s limitations are a factor in what happens right now, but their problems are more fundamental than any one person.
    Secondly is it wise that “the SNP is currently contriving to leave precious little space for any other parties”? For sure the SNP are a political party, and as such seek power, to win elections etc. To expect otherwise is rather like me expecting my dog to share his dinner with me. However from the pov of the wider case of independence is this a good thing? Pete Wishart wrote in his blog ” When Scottish Labour join us (which they eventually at some point will have to) we win. Doing it on our own with only the Greens for support last time round was tough and Labour will bring with them their still significant and important social partnerships and historic constituency. We can fashion a wide ranging and inclusive new constitutional convention encompassing the whole of civic Scotland on the scale of the consensus secured on the Scottish Parliament. The argument then becomes about a future independent Scotland pursuing our left of centre political heritage and consensus versus continued, unwanted Conservative Westminster rule.”. In other words Peter, to win we need the sort of broad, wide-ranging, vibrant even coalition that was represented by Yes Scotland during the referendum. With the best will in the world the Scottish electorate will not ever all vote SNP. While they are doing an almost unbelievable job getting the sort of they have just now (if someone had said 10 years ago that the SNP would win almost every seat in Scotland at Holyrood never mind Westminster they would have been put away), can the SNP on its own get enough support to secure independence? The lesson of the last referendum is not, but it is also the lesson of Catalonia that a coalition is needed. I hope that will be a matter for consideration for part 3 (or 4?)

  2. Peter A Bell Post author

    There are endless variations and permutations of the kind of scenarios I’ve envisaged. That’s the nature of speculative analysis. It simply isn’t possible to cover everything. I’m already running to three parts. I could run to three volumes. But I have to leave something for others.

    I don’t recognise this focus on personalities to which you refer. Throughout, I have been talking about British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). If I mention any individuals, such as Kezia Dugdale, it is only because they are in a position to represent BLiS as a whole.

    When I wrote that “the SNP is currently contriving to leave precious little space for any other parties” this was in the context of Holyrood. The context of policy and election strategy. This is quite separate from the independence campaign. Although, obviously related. What I mean by “leaving little space” is that the SNP has managed to establish a broad appeal, across the electorate and across the political spectrum. This poses a problem for other parties in that it is difficult for them to differentiate themselves from the SNP without taking policy beyond the scope of electoral appeal and/or feasibility. BLiS’s tax proposals illustrate this nicely.

    There is no suggestion that the SNP is leaving no space for others in the independence movement. In fact, when you express it so plainly, the very idea seems obviously nonsensical. How could the SNP exclude others even if it wanted to? And why would it want to?

    The SNP is the de facto political arm of the independence movement. That is an inescapable fact. But this is not the same as saying that it is the entire independence movement. It means only that the SNP has a particularly crucial role within the wider movement. It is unfortunate that some resent the fact that the SNP has this role. They should remember that the party only has it because it was given to them by the people of Scotland.

    1. alasdair galloway

      1. Yes speculative analysis can be almost without end. The problem is dealing with as many of the factors as possible at the same time. I dont think we are disagreeing about this. I wasn’t disagreeing with either scenario, just it seemed to me that both could happen at the same time.
      2. Re Kezia, if you look back to your second (and third) paragraph in part 1 – they are all about her. Indeed a good part of that article is based on her recent flip flops about independence. A more astute leader (or even one that is astute) would not have got into this bother. But the structural problem in British Labour would still remain.
      3. “How could the SNP exclude others even if it wanted to? And why would it want to?” I think it did the former by letting Yes close so precipitately after the referendum. Clearly in the context of the referendum it had served its purpose, but it might have had uses beyond that. But these were not even explored. Why would the SNP want to? They are a political party, who want votes, election success and power. Simple really. But then again they are not a “normal” political party in the sense that independence is a clearly defined objective – we either are or we are not, whereas when do we reach the nirvana that is socialism, what is it? I agree with you that the SNP is not the entire independence movement. It is though far and away its largest part which is a strength, but also a weakness – for instance charges of throwing its weight about/ was Yes any more than an SNP front? Its not a matter of resentment, but that some people (and cards on the table, I am one) who have not chosen to become members of the SNP because while we are committed to independence, we have differences. But achieving independence on the basis of a strong mandate will require support from further than the SNP, including folk like me who are members of no party.Within that independence coalition there are, it seems to me, at least two crucial conditions. First that we are all signed up to independence (sine qua non), but secondly that we might have a range of views otherwise – for instance on what might happen in an independent Scotland. One of the weaknesses of the White Paper was its determinism which gave BT an endless range of targets because that was their modus operandi, but also because the future is inherently uncertain. Another way forward would have been to put forward the range of opportunities or possibilities that we might have achieved as an independent country. A reconstituted Yes movement could “host” such debates, where a political party, like the SNP could not.

  3. John McCall

    I don’t think there is any space for Labour in Scotland now, let alone post election. They’ve been replaced by SNP, which is basically a grand coalition assembled for the purpose of independence and will remain so until that is achieved.

    After that there will be room for others. But any talent that would have been in Labour is now in SNP, Greens or RISE or one of the activist groups. I don’t see any of them rallying under a now-toxic banner pot independence.

    Labour is dead.

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