Scottish Labour fails to move left

08 January 2017

By Chris Taylor

In the 18 months since Jeremy Corbyn first secured a place on the leadership ballot, hundreds of thousands have joined Labour. By population, Scottish Labour should have seen a gain in the tens of thousands. In fact, fewer than 5,000 have joined the party. Unlike in the rest of Britain, there has been no great influx.

With a few exceptions, new members have been coming to Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meetings in the ones or twos, rather than the hundreds seen in places like Brighton and some London CLPs. Of course, there has been an uneven growth in the party within England too, but there is a real sense now that – politically at least – Scotland is very much a different country.

Scottish left and nationalism

Contrary to orthodox opinion in certain quarters, recent years have seen Scottish politics move significantly to the right. This is not difficult to prove with the Scottish Conservatives now the second largest party in Holyrood, the continued electoral dominance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) despite over half a decade of SNP-implemented austerity, and the supplanting of class with nation at the centre of the country’s political discourse.

Corbyn has energised hundreds of thousands with his and John McDonnell’s anti-austerity programme – which, despite its many shortcomings, has reinvigorated the left and at least brought the term “socialism” back into mainstream use; even Theresa May’s government feels the need to explicitly talk about the working class and capitalism. Yet in Scottish politics, everything comes down to “Scotland’s interests”.

Some of the responsibility for this has to be borne by the Scottish left, who have done a sterling job as flag wavers for Scottish nationalism, particularly in the last few years: so much so that they successfully ushered a significant section of the working class into the SNP, many of whom, had they lived south of the border, would now be joining the Labour Party to defend Corbyn and would be open to socialist politics and ideas.

Instead, in Scotland we have no socialist left worth speaking of, much the same Labour Party as before Corbyn’s leadership victory, and a political scene dominated by competing and self-perpetuating British and Scottish nationalisms.

Dugdale’s dual nationalism

On this scene, Scottish Labour – under its Blairite leadership – has struggled to find a role for itself: out manoeuvred from the left by the SNP’s populism and on the constitutional question by the Tories, who under Ruth Davidson have appealed to a chunk of Labour’s middle class supporters as a socially liberal, pro-EU (most notably in Davidson’s debate with Boris Johnson prior to the referendum), staunchly unionist party, apparently distinct from their nasty sister party down south.

From the disastrous Better Together pact with the Tories – which only served to rehabilitate the Tories in the eyes of the Scottish middle classes and confirm Labour as traitors in those of the working class – to the election of Jim Murphy as party leader and the adoption of his infamous patriot clause (which commits the party to working for “the patriotic interest of the people of Scotland”), the party has vacillated between British and Scottish nationalism before settling, under Kezia Dugdale, on both. In setting out her conversion to federalism during her 7 December speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research, Dugdale maintained that the “union must be saved” through a “solution that meets the demands of the Scottish people”.

This mix of soft Brit/Scot nationalism – a “strong Scotland” in a “stronger union” – is politically useless because it continues to feed both varieties of nationalism without offering anything either camp is particularly interested in. It was also distinctly lacking in details. For example, where would England fit in all this, given there is no appetite whatsoever for regional parliaments and we all surely must agree that an English parliament is a deeply reactionary prospect?

The Daily Record reported on a recent study of members and key figures in Scottish Labour, which found that all those interviewed agreed that Dugdale should continue as leader for “at least the next ten years”. No wonder, because the Labour bureaucracy would rather see Labour dwindle to irrelevance in Scotland than risk an influx of socialists and working class supporters along the lines of what has happened in the rest of the country.

The turn to nationalism has not been confined to the far-left over the last three decades. A soft-nationalism – of the “Scotland’s interest” variety – has been the dominant position within the Scottish Labour movement since the 1980s and the rise of Bennism; it was the obvious means of cutting across the working class and stifling socialist politics in the Labour Party and trade unions.

However, since the financial crash started to bite in 2007, it has run away from a Labour bureaucracy now tasked with pushing through austerity with minimal resistance. From the point of view of the ruling class, nationalism has functioned relatively well within Scotland in the current period, dividing the British working class without any prospect of the independence movement actually winning.

The kickback to this has been the concomitant rise in English nationalism, which contributed to the Brexit vote earlier this year. Clearly, the only desirable resolution to the constitutional question is a reinvigorated workers’ movement across the whole of Britain, which promotes class struggle as an alternative to national antagonism; but the chances of Dugdale adopting that position are non-existent.

Momentum in Scotland

All of which should lead the left to conclude that it is time to put up its own candidate against her, with next year’s inevitably disastrous local elections providing the natural opportunity; it’s unlikely that even a left leader of Scottish Labour would save the party from being wiped out next year. Unfortunately, the Scottish Labour left has no such ambition, at least not publicly.

“Campaign for Socialism – Momentum Scotland” is significantly different in character from the national Momentum organisation. Lacking the infusion of new activists joining in the wake of Corbyn’s election victories, it is dominated by longstanding members of the Labour left and to date has only two branches: Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Campaign for Socialism (CfS) was formed in 1994 to defend Clause 4 and counted Bill Speirs, notoriously involved in the anti-Trotskyist “Icepick Express” to the 1976 National Organisation of Labour Students conference, among its founding members. This tradition of anti-Trotskyism is alive and well to this day, though there is little in the way of organised Trotskyist activity in Scotland beyond the dwindling Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party sects, and the various left-nationalists who, for the most part, have abandoned any commitment to Marxism.

The decision to effectively merge Momentum and CfS (hence the catchy name, Campaign for Socialism – Momentum Scotland) has not been met with universal approval within CfS; the main concern being that CfS has worked hard to carve out a space within the Scottish party as the loyal left opposition, a position potentially jeopardised by a more radical (in parts) Momentum in England. That said there have been some steps forward.

Previously, CfS had no branch structure, whereas it now has branches in both major cities: a relatively dynamic and activist branch in Edinburgh and a more staid and tightly controlled branch in Glasgow. The Glasgow branch is recovering from a chaotic period where the secretary was at war with more or less everyone. This was more personality than politics but the episode is revealing: the secretary was appointed without a vote by a senior CfS figure after allegedly answering “no” to the question, “Are you a Trot?” and presumably on the mistaken assumption that he was a safe pair of hands.

The activity of CfS is largely limited to the executive. The members are passive participants who, prior to the formation of the local Momentum branches, met only a few times a year. The political culture lacks any vibrancy or direction; resolutions are rarely put to meetings and almost never by ordinary members, the result being that most meetings are the very definition of talking shops. When actions are organised, they originate from the executive in a process which is completely opaque to ordinary members.

The only recent such actions have been to put together a slate for Labour’s upcoming Scottish Executive Committee elections, a slate which has yet to be made public and which involved no vote or discussion from the membership, and a commitment to coordinate a motion to CLPs condemning Dugdale’s recent nomination of herself to the Labour’s National Executive Committee to represent Scotland.

There has been no visible organising to get CfS – Momentum candidates standing in next year’s council elections, nor has there been much in the way of coordinating activity across CLPs. This may change as the organisation slowly grows and becomes better organised, but the fundamental problem is that those currently controlling the show have no appetite for confrontation with the right wing of the party.

This is partly because the most prominent among them are firmly embedded in the labour bureaucracy – working as paid union officials or parliamentary researchers or, in the case of the younger comrades, clearly harbouring ambitions in that direction (turning up to meetings in a suit and red tie is a dead giveaway) – but more because of a political perspective wedded to British Road to Socialism reformism and ultimately hostile to actual socialism. The dominance of Labour movement officials also ensures a clientelist approach to politics, whereby the officers and committee members undertake all the activity on behalf of the passive membership and, more importantly, a passive working class envisaged as little more than voting fodder.


The lesson these comrades have failed to learn is that Corbyn was not elected leader of the Labour Party because of the existing Labour left; he was elected despite the existing Labour left. To listen to some, his victory was the result of years of patient work in the Labour party. It wasn’t. It was the political awakening of a small but significant section of the working class, given the opportunity to voice a desire for a left alternative to austerity, an opportunity presented by the stupidity and hubris of the Blairite wing of the party.

The “patient work” of the Labour left has seen, at close quarters, decades of Blairism, the rise of nationalism, the decline and depoliticisation of the trade unions, and the decimation of the Labour Party membership and weakening of its ties with the working class.

To be fair, the left outside of Labour has not fared much better, lurching from one failed electoral project to the next. But the key point is that the Labour Party, as currently constituted, is an instrument of the Labour bureaucracy – which is itself an agent of capital – and a barrier to socialism and working class emancipation.

What is required is a democratic, socialist Momentum, which can intervene in Labour, winning new members to socialist politics and getting rid of the right wing bureaucrats and MPs, with the aim of transforming Labour into a party of the working class and socialism. If this process can be driven by the new mass membership south of the border, then maybe class fighters will start to join Labour in Scotland and we can begin to transform the party here.

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