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Scottish Labour – A prisoner of Unionism.

John McAllion

Devolution simply isn’t working for Unionism’s largest Scottish Party. It is now up to the socialist and nationalist Left in Scotland to exploit that weakness.

A prisoner of Unionism

Johann Lamont. Scottish Labour’s sixth leader since 1999. Photo by Scottish Labour

Johann Lamont is Scottish Labour’s sixth leader since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Unlike her predecessors, she leads all of her Party in Scotland – MPs, MSPs, councillors and party activists alike. She heads a Party that is now more fully devolved from UK rule than at any time since 1999.

UK Labour leader Ed Miliband, describes her as having inherited a leadership position that carries with it the “weight and authority of the whole Party in Scotland”. According to him, this new and powerful position equips her to revive Scottish Labour’s fortunes and to challenge the SNP’.

She herself has promised to initiate a process of internal renewal that will reach out to include those who have never before thought of themselves as being Labour as well as reaching back into lost Labour communities. She promises to make Labour Scotland’s Party again.

Of course, any political party recovering from an historic electoral defeat believes it must talk up its prospects of recovery. However, coming from an as yet untested Party leadership these are brave words that border on the foolhardy.

Since the dawn of devolution, Labour in Scotland has been in persistent political and electoral decline. With each successive election to the Scottish Parliament, the Party has lost seats, constituency and list votes.

Overall since 1999, they have lost a third of the parliamentary seats they originally held, more than 100,000 list voters and more than 40,000 constituency voters. The 2011 election marked the worst defeat in Scottish Labour’s history. An already parlous electoral position is made more difficult for Scottish Labour by the looming independence referendum that for now remains under the control of a buoyant and majority SNP Government.

Labour, as the largest unionist party in Scotland, will be expected to lead the campaign for a No vote. This is where the complications begin.

Will it form a broad campaign with the other unionist parties or will it stay politically well clear of the Tories and LibDems? If it is to be the former, Scottish Labour runs the risk of being contaminated by association with the parties of the hated Coalition Government in Westminster. If it is to be the latter, it runs the risk of splitting the NO campaign.

Already the Party’s spokespeople find themselves trying to dodge questions about sharing platforms with the Tories while effectively supporting the Coalition’s line on an early referendum with a single question.

Without wishing it, they are forced onto the same political ground as some of the most reactionary hate figures in Scotland today,.

Political predicaments of this kind can only increase as the referendum campaign gathers pace. Yet, even more potentially dangerous political pitfalls lie ahead for Scottish Labour. In a rare display of unity at the end of December, Labour MSPs joined with their SNP counterparts to refuse the necessary legislative consent to Westminster’s current proposals for welfare reform.

While this opposition was largely token (the reforms will go ahead in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK), it afforded Labour MSPs the opportunity to claim that they were on the side of the angels and opposed to the Coalition’s attacks on the poor.

During the Scottish Parliament’s debates on the reforms, Labour’s Jackie Baillie promised to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone against the Coalition Government’s welfare reform agenda that targeted cuts on pensioners, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.

She highlighted her opposition to changes to housing benefit that threatened more than 60,000 Scottish tenants with cuts that averaged £40 per month per tenant.

Unfortunately for her and for the other Labour MSPs, all of them support a devolution settlement that allows Westminster to impose such reactionary changes.

Even more unfortunately, Liam Byrne MP, Labour’s Westminster spokesperson on welfare reform, is far from sharing Labour MSP’s anti-cuts stance. In a recent speech spun as a “radical rethink of the welfare state”, he let it be known that a future Labour Government would pursue an equally tough line on welfare.

The housing benefit bill was “simply too high”. Too generous benefits were skewing the behaviour of the long-term unemployed whom, he implied, were happy to coast along on unearned income. Labour would no longer support the undeserving poor, only those who “work hard and do the right thing”.

Without consulting the Scottish Party or its new “powerful” leader, the Labour leadership in London had begun to move their Party closer to the Coalition Government’s position on welfare reform. The anti-cuts stance of Scottish Labour had effectively been undermined. So too was any idea that Scottish Labour policy on reserved issues could be any different from that of London Labour. The new fully devolved Labour Party remains incapable of defending Scotland on the big policy issues of the day.

Johann Lamont has therefore inherited a Party that is in long-term electoral decline. She leads a Party with no coherent position on the independence referendum. On paper, she may be the nominal leader of Scotland’s 41 Scottish Labour MP’s. In reality, the Westminster MPs continue to call the shots on the big policy issues of the day.

Arguably, she is in a weaker position politically than any of her five predecessors.

Devolution simply isn’t working for unionism’s largest Scottish Party. It is now up to the socialist and nationalist Left in Scotland to exploit that weakness.

This article first appeared in Scottish Socialist Voice, the journal of the Scottish Socialist Party

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