The pro-independence left have written off the Scottish Labour Party, writes Jim Monaghan – but polling figures for left of Labour parties are tiny, and we need unity to fight austerity and war.
The election of Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour leader will have a profound effect on Scotland’s current fluid political landscape. From optimistic cheers from Labour members, expecting a rebirth of the party in Scotland, to doom and gloom predictions of the result meaning an acceleration of the death of Scottish Labour. Both are probably based on wishful thinking more than evidence.
Murphy represents the Labour Party that has become a focus for much of the left-leaning aspects of the YES campaign in the referendum, a party of foreign wars, privatisation and Better Together (BT). This image is the most damaging for Scottish Labour and it is one that the Better Together campaign fostered. In Westminster, Ed Miliband has worked hard to minimise the Blairite influence – the major figures of that era have been pushed from main roles in his shadow cabinet. Miliband himself was against the Iraq war and that was a major factor in his election as party leader, primarily from trade unions. He has since surrounded himself with others untainted by those dark days, almost all of his shadow cabinet were elected in 2010. Better Together allowed Alistair Darling, Murphy, Douglas Alexander, Gordon Brown and others to have centre stage in that debate, undermining efforts to shed Labour of the Blairite image here in Scotland.
In fact, Murphy’s leadership challenge was, essentially, an extension of the Better Together campaign. He had more or less the same team of people, his launch event even used the BT email address as a contact. The staff at BT were employed till the end of this year but got an early advance on that, paid off in advance just before Murphy launched his campaign, allowing them all to volunteer for Murphy on the back of what was essentially Tory funding. There is no doubt that this will make it difficult if not impossible to make any inroads into the votes Labour lost to the SNP over the last 4 years. Whether his election will kill Labour is another matter – it depends very much on how he reacts to the results and the clear message from members.
The voting system for the party leader in Scotland splits the electoral college into three sections. Each section – the parliamentarians, the direct membership and the affiliate members in trade unions and co-ops – is allocated a third of the votes. This gives a heavy bias to the wishes of 80 MPs, MSPs and MEPs, equal to the voting power of the total membership, which in turn has a favourable bias over the union members, who have vast numbers compared to the other two sections. Overall Neil Findlay had the most votes cast – this is significant, as it means that attempts to portray the Labour membership as a dead movement who won’t support a progressive set of policies would be wrong. It also means that Murphy has to try to carry those members with him if he is to get the party behind his leadership.
The candidacy of Neil Findlay alongside Katy Clark standing for deputy leader was a major breakthrough for the left in Scottish Labour. In recent years, even getting enough nominations to stand a left candidate has proved impossible, and attempts by Elaine Smith in Scotland and John McDonnell at UK level failed at the first hurdle. The nominations and support for Findlay and Clark is a reflection of a significant number of people in the party recognising that the SNP’s claim to be a left party or a party of social justice is just the “Emperor’s new clothes” and that Labour must respond to the electorate and take on the SNP from the left. Findlay’s platform was pro-public services, including taking all of the PFIs back into public control, a huge national programme of housebuilding, creating 50,00 council houses and, significantly, Findlay’s clear opposition to the renewal of Trident. It’s clear that the overall membership of the wider party were behind such a radical programme. Murphy would ignore that at his peril.
The Scottish left need to take notice of this too – recently the move towards nationalism by the Trotskyist left and others have led to them being uncritical of the SNP. New polls show that, despite the important role played in the referendum campaign, despite the huge numbers RIC can pull to events, the electoral benefits all belong to the SNP, with the Greens polling lower than previous elections at 3%, and the whole left combined looking at less than 1% of the vote.
The pro-independence left have written off any and all of the Labour Party, unless it is members who share their view on the constitutional question. The campaign for Findlay and Clark demonstrates a significant force for progressive politics within the Labour Party that they shouldn’t ignore.
If we are to build an effective left opposition to austerity, war, inequality and nuclear weapons here in Scotland, the radical forces in the country must unite behind policies and campaigns rather than pin their hopes on any specific electoral vehicle at this stage. Supporting an incumbent government who haven’t had a single wealth redistribution policy in 7 years, who support tax cuts to “grow” the economy and are fully behind the EU project would be a retreat. It’s clear that we don’t have a left electoral vehicle in Scotland and there isn’t one on the horizon. It’s time to build the movement away from electoral and constitutional arguments and unite the forces for change outside of parliaments. We cannot afford to narrow membership of that campaign to those who support independence.
The Labour leadership campaign has, despite the disappointing result, shown clearly that Scottish Labour contains as many or more who seek the same reforms and programme as the pro-indy left, we should be grateful for Findlay and Clark’s intervention for reminding us of this, and build on the information and evidence it has provided for us as a movement. The left in the Labour Party need the support of the wider movement, radical Scotland need the members of that group on our side. This result should be used as a platform to build on, not an excuse to use Labour’s woes to benefit the SNP.
Jim Monaghan is a Labour Party member who supported a YES vote, a former parliamentary researcher for Solidarity and was employed by Scottish Labour in a press and strategy role in the run up to the 2012 council elections. He is a member of UNITE and the Campaign for Socialism.
For an alternative view, see Jim Murphy’s election: a death sentence for Scottish Labour?