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.

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