Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Is there still hope for the Labour Left in Scotland?

Martyn Cook of the Campaign for Socialism looks at the Scottish Labour leadership contest and its aftermath

January 29, 2015
6 min read

With Neil Findlay MSP standing for the leadership and Katy Clark MP standing for the deputy leadership of the Scottish Labour Party, there came a real shock of possibilities, which electrified the Labour Left in Scotland in a way that hadn’t been felt for some time. Following a bruising referendum campaign in which explicitly class-based politics had been absent from both the dominant Yes or No campaigns, here was an opportunity for the Labour Left to unashamedly place its agenda front and center.

There was even, whisper it, an outside chance we could win. The electoral college, after all, has done strange things in the past (just ask International Rescue’s own David Miliband). Could Findlay and Clark perhaps perform the almost unthinkable and take the top jobs in Scotland?

Defining a win

You know the outcome by now. The party leadership’s preferred candidates in Jim Murphy MP and Kez Dugdale MSP won both crowns after a brief, but intense, campaign. Both won the votes of the parliamentarians and the membership, with the unions and affiliates opting more for Findlay and Clark. There’s no point hiding it: by taking 55.77% and 62.9% respectively, Murphy and Dugdale won and won well. So yes, disappointment for the left.

The above snapshot undoubtedly portrays a fairly glum position for the Labour Left. Factor in the referendum hangover – the SNP surging ahead in most polls and seeing an explosion in their membership numbers – and you may begin to think there is little hope for attempts to organise the left in Scottish Labour. Is there any fertile ground for creating a radical anti-austerity alternative through Scottish Labour?

Before those questions are asked, we must take a step back and look at what we define as a win. The SNP lost the referendum, but anyone looking at them now would think the opposite is true. That is because, as the SNP know, not winning isn’t the same as suffering defeat. In politics, you can define your own wins, and seize momentum. There are many battles in a war for hearts and minds. To judge our success we need not to look at a snapshot result but our overall trajectory: after all we are and should always be seen as a movement.

Take a look at where the Scottish Labour Left has come from in the height of the last Labour government, to where we are now. The left is more organised, and motivated than it ever has been. The only possible conclusion that can be drawn is that we are have gained and continue to gain ground. It is our narrative, and language, and our principles that are in the ascendancy.

The last time that the Labour Left was even capable of putting forward explicitly socialist candidates running for leadership positions was the early 80s, under the late Tony Benn. Since then, left candidates have failed to even get on the ballot paper, as any potential candidates have to secure a set number of nominations from Parliamentary colleagues before they are even allowed to run. In this campaign the left not only managed to get two candidates on the ballot papers, but also were able to bring the debate to the assumedly anointed candidates in what was a real contest.

Wider audience

For the first time in, well, decades, we have elected Labour representatives arguing for massive redistributions of wealth to fund public services, starting a mass council house building program, scrapping Trident, and taking major utilities and railways back in to public ownership. This message was spread not just amongst the Labour membership, but penetrated into the public debate through national TV and press, extending our arguments to a much wider audience. We know these arguments are what is needed, but they are now also popular – with the majority of voters also endorsing these same policies according to most social attitude surveys.

With such an appealing platform both old and new volunteers became engaged and came forward to pledge support for Findlay and Clark, through two well-organised, effective campaigns that garnered huge support from the wider labour movement.

So why wasn’t all this enough? Anecdotally, most volunteers from either Findlay’s or Clark’s campaigns will be able to cite you a common refrain. Often members would say how much they supported the policies the left candidates put forward, but believed that in Murphy (with his seniority and now infamous referendum ‘Irn-Bru box tour’ portraying him as a street fighter) and Dugdale (with a high profile newspaper column and frequent TV presence) were the ones to take the fight to the SNP.  

Was this just a lack of conviction from members?  Perhaps for some, but the very real and imminent threat of electoral annihilation will inevitably make many to look to what seems the more pragmatic and less idealistic options. We on the left don’t believe that the delivery of the message is the main problem – it’s the message itself we need to get right, and it was radical change in policies that the left candidates stood on: the same policies and ideas that the newly elected leadership has seized upon.

It may be that Scottish Labour can scrape by though the general election, and I don’t expect the result to be as devastating as the polls currently suggest. What we need to do is continue to press for a bolder, more radical policy agenda if we have any desire to avoid the fates of Pasok in Greece or the Socialist Party in Spain. It is interesting to note that due to the vibrancy and resonance our campaign struck we were able to define the parameters of the debate, and in doing so found that even Murphy was forced in to taking up the mantle of arguing on a social justice basis, increasing taxation on top earners and building new homes.

A small concession, perhaps, but it also provides a glimmer of what can happen when the left is seriously organised. That is the real aim for us now. The Labour Left in Scotland, organised around the Campaign for Socialism group in particular, will be holding a series of meetings to reflect and build on the campaigns for the leadership, with the first being a public meeting at the STUC on Sunday 1 February from 10.30am. By keeping the network of volunteers and organising within our local parties we will keep the momentum from the campaigns going, so that it won’t be just glimmers of victory that we see from now on.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase