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.Views: 4865