JEREMY CORBYN got a great welcome from party members and supporters when he came to Glasgow recently, which is not surprising given that large numbers signed up for Labour and voted in our leadership election, enabling him to win in Scotland, just as he won across the UK as a whole.
However, a well-received speech does not transform the difficult environment for the Labour Party in Scotland.
A near wipeout in the general election demonstrated that there was little mileage left in Blairite political solutions and then the comparable disaster of the Scottish Parliament elections showed that we have not managed to avoid being squeezed between hard-line unionism and zealous separatism.
There is not much opportunity for a third way to thrive in a bifurcated debate. Labour in Scotland needs to challenge the parameters of zero-sum constitutionalism and to get back to our old-time religion: basing our party upon class-based radical politics which offer analyses and solutions to the problems faced by working people in their daily lives. That is where Corbyn’s leadership and ideas are vital.
He is seen, correctly, as a break with the same-old, same-old complacency that has led Labour in Scotland into our present predicament. Changing Scots’ perceptions of Labour is not going to be easy; our class analysis has to compete not only with the polarisation of separatism, but also with that of Brexit.
Thus it was welcome that Corbyn gave us a clear message: that he is continuing to pursue economic issues such as inequality and high pay.
What is important in this debate is not the last dot and comma of policy, which are the obsession of commentators and experts, but the direction of travel and a clear, unequivocal statement that Labour is concerned about these issues and wants to work with others to identify workable solutions.
Labour in Scotland needs to have the courage to argue on a different axis to the Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics of the mutually self-serving SNP/Tory duo.
There is a desperate need in Scotland for a politics of change which works. The SNP campaign well but govern badly. Scottish education used to be our pride.
Now, with deteriorating standards, it is our shame. Our trains don’t run on time, pregnant mothers are turned away from our flagship hospital, ferries on government contracts pay below the minimum wage and public contracts are being awarded to blacklisters. The SNP talks left in Westminster but walks right in Scotland.
Now Scottish Labour is preparing for council elections with both the SNP and the Tories rampant, both benefiting from polarisation.
The size of the problem facing us should not be underestimated, and there is no guarantee that things will not get worse before they get better. Indeed, there can be no guarantee that they will ever get better.
Progress in radicalising the party is too slow, which is why the election of Corbyn-supporting candidates to the Scottish executive is so vital if some recent positive developments are to be built on and to bring about change.
In Scotland, the legacy of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson continues to cause us great difficulties. While Blairism as a named political ideology has collapsed, its policy strands have been adopted by the SNP, which has also absorbed and magnified its organisational and presentational methods.
It runs a totally centralising cult of leadership, which stultifies debate, equates discussion with disloyalty and encourages intolerance.
It runs by far the most professional and best-funded propaganda operation in Scotland — truly Mandelsonian — combining a publicly funded Civil Service machine with an integrated party operation to give a focus and a message discipline that has enormous advantages for the party in dominating discussion, setting the agenda for Scotland’s political discourse and magnifying grievance.
Scottish football journalists were once described as “fans with typewriters,” uncritically anticipating a success for our national team which never arrived.
Now an underfunded Scottish media finds itself on the receiving end of a well-resourced government and party propaganda machine, unremittingly focusing attention on its chosen subjects, knowing that the howling mob that lays siege to the BBC during the Indyref have not gone away and that the cybernats, the separatist outriders who are encouraged in their intolerance by the silence of their leaders, are ready to complain and abuse at the smallest real or imagined slight.
No wonder that criticism is marginal and that Labour and the left struggle to get our agenda into the public arena.
At the present time the SNP government and party message is focused on the claim that “another referendum on independence is more likely because of Brexit” in an effort to create some sort of momentum and to give the impression of inevitability.
Observers of the Scottish political scene will recognise that there has never been an occasion or an event which we were told made a referendum on independence less likely.
Again, keen observers will note that, wisely, the SNP never commits itself to actually having a referendum in case it gets one and loses: it is waiting to see if the opinion polls move.
It also cleverly makes no absolute commitment to a referendum for the very obvious reason that the smartest of the SNP leadership recognise that the only thing worse for them than losing a referendum would be winning one in the present economic climate.
While “poor but free” is an accurate prospectus for a separate Scotland, it is not an attractive electoral slogan.
However, Corbyn and Scottish Labour should not be entirely depressed at such hype of SNP hegemony. The establishment is not omnipotent.
The most remarkable political success of last year, and the least recognised, was the amazingly successful Leave campaign in Scotland.
Virtually the entire Scottish political, cultural and social elite campaigned for Remain. For example, every single Scottish MP and all bar a handful of the 129 MSPs were identified as Remain.
Yet Leave, on a shoestring and hampered by the parallel campaign of Ukip, running a positive campaign about opportunities from Brexit, polled over a million votes, (1,018,322).
Indeed Leave polled more votes than the SNP did in the Scottish Parliament election on the list (953,587), and only marginally fewer than the SNP got in the first past the post seats, (1,059,897 — when they had the boost of over 100,000 Green voters).
Now, with over a third of voters for Leave having previously voted for separation there is no guarantee how they would vote given a choice of Scotland being in the UK or in the EU.
Corbyn and others should be aware that while the SNP speaks of Scotland as having voted overwhelmingly for Scotland to remain in the EU, this is false on two counts.
First those who voted Remain, voted for the UK as a whole to remain inside the EU. It was the same question throughout the UK — the question of Scotland separately remaining inside the EU was not on the ballot paper. The SNP conceded this position at the time, by having Nicola Sturgeon and others participate in UK political debates, arguing to all UK voters.
The second untruth relates to the idea that there was an “overwhelming” vote in Scotland for Remain. Of voters in Scotland only two out of five voted Remain, one in three didn’t vote and one in four voted Leave. Hardly “overwhelming.” Indeed, not even a majority — simply the largest minority.
The SNP understands the weakness of its position, though of course it doesn’t admit it. Hence the loud cries of: “This is not a bluff” when they threaten Indyref2 unless they get all that they demand.
More experienced card players than I will be willing to give tutorials on when and how to bluff successfully. Just don’t admit you have any money when asking for such help. W
hich brings us to Brexit itself and how it should be handled in Scotland. The Scottish government has produced its manifesto for Brexit.
Now, I can’t be certain about Corbyn, but I have had enough meetings with Trotskyists to be able to recognise a transitional demand when I see one.
Its list of non-negotiable demands is deliberately designed to be unworkable within the framework of the UK and thus any rejection, or anything less than complete and immediate acceptance, designed to provide another grievance which can be used to fuel the drive to separation.
Notwithstanding the cynicism with which the Scottish government’s proposals are being put forward, we should nevertheless consider each element carefully.
Labour should also press the Westminster government to analyse the practicalities and desirability of implementation, consult with our socialist comrades in other EU parties to see if any parts might be acceptable and urge Westminster to lay the document as a whole before both the EU bureaucracy and the individual states in the EU to receive and assess their reaction to the various strands of the Scottish government’s schemes.
(Incidentally, it will be a test of Scotland’s academic independence to see the objectivity and enthusiasm with which these proposals are dissected. I am not optimistic.)
In among the mischief there may well be some proposals of merit, upon which we could build co-operation to improve the governance of both Scotland and the UK.
Labour should not be afraid to support proposals from the SNP or anyone else if we think they have merit. For example its legislation on minimum alcohol pricing. The fact that implementation is currently being blocked by the vested interests of the Scotch whisky industry, taking legal action under single market legislation, is an irony upon which we can all reflect.
This article is not the place to outline the need for left Brexit with Labour’s issues to the forefront but simply to make the case that the mood for change which has fuelled the rise of nationalism and populism across Europe and the United States has to be addressed by left solutions if we are not to descend into xenophobia and parochialism.
A revitalised Labour Party is the only vehicle for this in Scotland. Corbyn’s visit gave the left in Scottish Labour an encouragement to regroup, organise for the left slate in our internal elections and refresh the faith that brought us into political activism. Scotland must not be a no-go area for Labour leaders and radical ideas.
Like others, I look forward to Corbyn having a prominent role in Scottish Labour’s conference and to him spreading our message in other public gatherings.