Robert Burns, A Bottle and Friend
Here is surely a mutiny worth waiting for. Old hands and new recruits have swung into action for Jeremy Corbyn, the old sea dog of Labour socialism. A startled Captain Harman whipped her Labour MPs into supporting Osborne’s Welfare Reform Bill – Burnham dithered then walked the plank, and Cooper fell over a barrel. The media barrage will try and hit its mark, but, as Aneurin Bevan wrote soon before becoming Health Minister in 1945, “the national newspapers have become so accustomed to writing up personalities in place of principles that they have completely lost touch with the people.” It’s not a personality that’s winning popular support, but a set of principles both radical and realistic. Blairite gabs can only gape as 40% of members intend to vote for Corbyn, who last week became the bookies’ favourite to lead the Party, and secured the most nominations from Constituency Labour Parties across the UK.
It has been the worst of times to be a socialist in Scottish Labour – skulking beneath deck like stowaways, and licking our wounds. Last year’s campaign to elect a socialist leader and deputy failed, the slog to re-elect Katy Clark got nowhere, and a coup against Murphy won us nothing but another contest, this time without a left-wing candidate. So it’s brilliant that Jeremy Corbyn may be winning the race to lead UK Labour – but what it means for Scottish Labour remains unclear.
There is a fair chance the new Scottish Labour leadership team will be totally at odds with Corbyn’s socialist principles: Kezia Dugdale thinks that “too often in the recent past it has looked like we are only on the side of… the most vulnerable in society.” Meanwhile Gordon Matheson, Glasgow City Council leader and deputy hopeful – who is benefitting from rule changes allowing councillors to become Deputy Leader and thereby snatch a top slot on a Regional List for the Scottish Parliament elections next year – was seen slithering silently away from a rally in George Square before he was able to hear a homelessness caseworker explain why he and forty other Unison comrades were striking for a fair deal against the local authority Cllr Matheson runs. Contrast their politics with Corbyn’s: he wants Labour to be seen as the party that “supports the poorest and most vulnerable”, and has won the backing of Unite and Unison.
The counterintuitive solution being talked about most on the Scottish Labour left in the case of a Corbyn victory is to demand full autonomy from a Corbyn-run UK party, and to use a newly empowered conference (alongside new policy-making bodies soon to be established in Unite and potentially in other unions) to restate the socialist aims of the party. Nice thought – but such an inward turn risks strengthening the right rather than empowering the left. The remnants of Scottish Labour are more New Labourite than ever: Dugdale, Murray and their “new generation to take the Scottish Labour Party forward” will likely continue their swing to the dismal centre, leaving the interests of ‘the vulnerable’ to the SNP, and attempting to build Scottish Labour into the middle class unionist bastion of Jim Murphy’s dreams. On this path, Scottish Labour might even become an outrider for an SDP-style split at UK level, initiated by the likes of Jim Murphy, John McTernan and David Miliband, that some are forecasting if Corbyn wins.
So despite Corbyn’s optimism that Scottish Labour can rediscover its roots, if he wins, is it really possible for socialists to re-grow the withered Scottish party into a social movement? The washed-out party will be lucky to survive until next year, let alone till 2020. The clearest solution for revitalising the Scottish Labour party is to reconnect with the roots of post-referendum radicalism. Most of the 30%-or-so of Labour voters who shifted to Yes late in the campaign were motivated by solid left-wing principles, which flowed into a nationalist mould in the closing stages of the referendum campaign. ‘Real’ Labour ideas and identities continue to dominate the SNP’s message: both Mhairi Black and Tommy Sheppard made speeches about their essentially Bennite principles.
In a word, Labour is the ghost in the SNP machine. The challenge for the Scottish Labour left is to put these socialist convictions into a different mould: by reaching out not turning in, and building a party-based campaign group that joins with anti-austerity activists, trade unionists, non-aligned socialists and community campaigners to strengthen the broad movement for socialism. With Corbyn’s blessing and the backing of affiliated trade unions, a new organisation could create an openly radical identity for the Scottish Labour party, sponsor left-wing parliamentary candidates, and pose a choice to Labour members as to whether they remain loyal to an ossified hierarchy, or opt for a movement that, at Corbyn suggests, rebuilds the party on the basis of its roots in a popular campaign for socialism.
Paradoxically, then, a Corbyn leadership could enable Scottish Labour socialists to unite with the non-aligned left, working with those involved in the likes of the Scottish Left Project. Mutual engagement in campaigning for Corbyn would be a healthy way to nurture enduring relationships between Labour and non-Labour socialists – something that could come in handy in any realignments in future on the Scottish Left. Corbyn’s campaign may only want votes from genuine Labour backers, but will welcome the support of the broad left in Scotland.
Of course, forging a non-parliamentary alliance capable of challenging the growing hegemony of the SNP will prove challenging for those preoccupied with parliamentary ambitions in both camps: ballot boxes make natural allies into artificial enemies. Cooperation will also prompt a stramash that has long been stifled, about the priority of independence for socialism in Scotland. But judging by tentative conversations between Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party and the activists working in the Scottish Left Project, we can share a treasury of common ends.
And what of the SNP? Do they not represent just the kind of anti-austerity movement which socialists desire? After all, Jeremy Corbyn has already suggested he would be open to working with the SNP on a range of issues, such as the initiative to delegitimise the House of Lords. Mhairi Black’s speech pumped blood into this vein: ‘I reach out a genuine hand of friendship which I can only hope will be taken. Let us come together, let us be that opposition, let us be that signpost of a better society’. The implication – promoted by Salmond and Kerevan – is that the SNP are united against austerity and as far left as Corbyn would ever go. But the fact is that the SNP is internally divided: from ferry franchises to fracking, council tax to colleges, the SNP speaks left without getting round to acting left.
The Labour left would have been canny to have Corbyn call Black’s bluff: to accept her invitation to unite in opposition, not just to Tory policies, but to the very principles of austerity – and then to invite the SNP to adopt radical policies; say, to raise income tax to pay for social security, college funding and personal care. Or on Europe he could dismiss the SNP’s bluster about the illegitimacy of an EUref No-vote if Scotland votes Yes, and demand the Scottish Government joins him in “making demands about working arrangements across Europe, about levels of corporation tax across Europe…”. Socialists across Scotland should challenge the SNP’s support for NATO and TTIP and expose their void of ‘socialism’. Many recent SNP recruits are socialists. The appeal of populism and the aspiration for another referendum will only go so far to hold the SNP together if a radical movement generates its own momentum.
There is a paralyzing situation on the Scottish left whereby in Labour, in the radical pro-independence movement and in the SNP there are many folk whose first commitment is to socialism, but who cannot manage to cooperate because of factional and partisan allegiance. This old dilemma is not due so much to disagreements about independence as to mutual suspicion: the indyleft cannot thole members of a party that undertook illegal wars when it was in government; the Labour left cannot comprehend the obsession with national independence when it offers no guaranteed benefits for the working class; and the SNP left believes their party’s programme and Sturgeon’s leadership are as good as things get short of independence.
Socialists agree it will be a great opportunity if Corbyn wins the Labour leadership – but for what? Amidst the tumult of this mutiny, radicals could catch the moment as it flies, campaign for Corbyn whether Labour supporters or not, and so start to link up a disparate Scottish Left under the banner of common socialist objectives. If we miss this chance, the stowaways in Labour will return to their cabins and the castaways on the radical Scottish left will remain marooned on an isle of dreams, as we watch the “best thing to come out of Britain” sailing off to sunnier climes.
Image credit: cover of Scottish Left Review publication available here