Earlier this month, several Labour MSPs resigned their posts in the Scottish shadow cabinet and called for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard to quit.
This was a prelude to a “botched coup” attempt over the weekend. Leonard’s opponents withdrew a no-confidence motion at the party’s Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) at the 11th hour, after failing to gather enough support to win the vote.
The Scottish Labour leader’s critics accuse him of being virtually unknown throughout the country, and even to Labour members. They have also pointed to dismal polling figures as an indictment of Leonard’s leadership.
The party was recently projected to get just 14% of constituency votes at the next Holyrood elections, just nine months away. Labour currently sits in third place in Scotland, behind the Tories, and on historically low levels of support.
The would-be rebels come from the right wing of the party. This is evidenced by their suggestion that Leonard’s failure – and by extension, the party’s failure – is due to his association with Jeremy Corbyn.
In his time as Labour, leader Corbyn was popular in Scotland; and his campaign translated into a boost for Scottish Labour in the 2017 election. Nevertheless, as in England and Wales, the right wing of the party still blame Corbyn at every opportunity.
Leonard’s connection with Corbyn is not so much a problem for Scottish voters, then, as it is for the Blairites.
The failed attempt to depose Leonard is a blow to the ‘moderates’, who had been confident of their chances of securing a leadership challenge and removing the left-wing incumbent.
Nevertheless, Leonard himself has not emerged strengthened from these events either. Even Leonard’s old trade union, GMB, were said to have abandoned him in advance of the narrowly-avoided no-confidence vote at the SEC.
Having survived the coup plot, Leonard called for “unity not division”. Not everyone got the memo, however. One anonymous union source described Leonard as a “lame duck leader”, stating that he “is presiding over the final death throes of the Scottish Labour party”.
“They have had a botched coup about a lame duck leader. They hardly look like a party of government in waiting. Leonard is presiding over the final death throes of the Scottish Labour party.” https://t.co/Znskt7SvTP— JOHN NICOLSON M.P. (@MrJohnNicolson) September 12, 2020
As with the rest of the UK Labour Party, then, it appears that the period ahead is unlikely to be one of peace and quiet.
This escapade raises the spectre of the ‘branch office’. This is a term coined by former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont – and is now one frequently applied to the party by SNP supporters. It means the perception that the Scottish Labour party is merely a front for the UK party, not able to take independent decisions about Scottish politics.
For nationalists, this is the devil of ‘Westminster’ again dominating over Scotland. And it is why many view the party as out-of-touch, or even hostile towards Scottish interests.
In the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, Lamont complained the party was treated like a ‘branch office’. She warned that Labour was ignoring the seismic shifts in the Scottish political landscape after the Yes campaign; and that the party was unable to adapt due to the overbearing influence of the UK Labour leader's office (occupied, at the time, by Ed Miliband).
The situation was untenable for Lamont. She quit the leadership once intrigues were set in motion by her replacement Jim Murphy, who then lasted a pitiful six months in the role.
With the party polling well below 20%, seen as completely irrelevant by the working class, her words still ring true today.
Labour and the Union
The ‘branch office’ label has stuck to the party throughout its period of decline. Leader after leader has sought to dispel the image (Leonard is the third Scottish Labour leader since 2014). So far, Keir Starmer has respected that, resisting calls for him to directly intervene, despite the rumour that he has “lost confidence” in Leonard.
The ruling class is also quickly losing confidence in Scottish Labour, when it comes to preserving the Union.
For such an outcome to happen under Boris Johnson’s premiership, at a time of acute national and international crisis, would be a paralysing blow to the ruling class. Presiding over a chaotic Brexit, the pandemic, and the breakup of the Union would be too much for the Prime Minister and his government to survive.
The establishment knows that there is a widespread hatred of Boris Johnson and the Tory Party in Scotland. They therefore wish to front the cause of the Union with the more acceptable face of Labour, as happened in the last independence referendum campaign.
It is precisely this connection with Unionism, however, that has destroyed the Scottish Labour party. Labour was severely punished by the working class for getting into bed with the Tories and Lib Dems in 2014, as part of the ‘Better Together’ campaign.
Soon after, at the 2015 general election, the party saw a hemorrhage of support north of the border, in one of its former ‘heartlands’. This cost them 40 seats, as almost a million voters flocked to the SNP.
Every time the Scottish Labour Party boldly attacks the SNP’s slogan of self-determination for Scotland, or proudly calls itself a Unionist party, it does tremendous self-harm. Every invocation of the Union summons the legacy of the ‘Better Together’ campaign, the betrayals of Blairism, and the toxicity of the Tories.
The more Labour bases itself on defending the Union, the weaker it becomes, and the more closely associated with the Tories and the establishment.
For the right wing of the party to insist that this is what constitutes ‘Labour values’ is madness. They are on a mission of self-destruction, happy to sacrifice themselves at the altar of the Union and do the Tories’ dirty work.
If the Labour left does not go on the offensive to boldly fight for socialist policies and to defend the right of self-determination for Scotland, it is hard to see any future for the Scottish Labour Party.