You Want it Darker
Andy Warhol said that everybody would get 15 minutes of fame in their lifetime. In the world of hyper and ubiquitous social media that has been altered to suggest that now everyone was constantly famous – and so would instead get 15 minutes of privacy in their lifetime. Yesterday Richard Leonard got his fame, and one suspects his privacy will come along sooner rather than later.
Leonard’s keynote speech had few highlights but the standout message was “we won’t back a second referendum for Scottish independence”.
This was odd for many reasons, not least the meta-message across the conference being about socialism as a process of deepening democracy, and the pivotal question on whether to allow a ‘Peoples Vote” (aka a second referendum) on Brexit.
The idea that you could be a socialist who was against democracy is really odd in the 21 Century. The notion that either a mandate of elected MSPs running on tickets of independence, in a parliament created by Scottish Labour – or a popular vote by a majority of people residing in Scotland – should be abolished in advance is a really strange stance to take, and one which had Labour members across the country face-palming in unison, if not actually in Unison.
There is some sense in his approach though. Leonard has so little to say across such a wide range of topics, he does need to focus. But the “We said no and we meant it” rostrum is already crowded, and it will be difficult for Leonard to compete with the Saintly Colonel.
The announcement shines some light on the weird relationship between Scottish Labour and UK Labour as they jostle and wriggle into new positions, one placid functional and managerial, the other incoherently radical and dysfunctional. In Corbyn’s UnLeadership style anyone can say anything about anything and it’s all some kind of fuzzy socialist democracy so it didn’t really matter that he’d contradicted Leonard only a few days before.
The deeper problem for Scottish Labour is that they are semi-detached from any real social movement, are divorced from any Momentum-like surge and large amounts of their elected members hate the politics being put forward by their southern counterparts.
This leaves them adrift.
Can you name an extra-parliamentary campaign or social movement that Scottish Labour has actually started or led since 1998?
As Rory Scothorne has written:
“There’s only been one major extra-parliamentary campaign – albeit barely a social movement – that the whole Scottish Labour Party has really thrown its weight behind since devolution, and which has profoundly shaped its character: Better Together. Far from an inconvenient ‘distraction’, the campaign against independence gave a jaded party some kind of non-electoral purpose again. They duly summoned up all the remaining resources of the Scottish Labour imagination and said something along the lines of ‘sorry, it can’t get much better than this’. The party was subsequently obliterated.”
But Scottish Labour aren’t just adrift from social and political movements, they are adrift from their own party.
As Corbyn’s slightly chaotic shambolic pitch settles in an England so desperate to stop the madness that engulfs them, what effect will this have on Scottish Labour?
Some have just left, others will leave.
The Corbyn Labour Party isn’t one that could contain the wisdom of Tom Harris (here writing for the Telegraph, right). He instead is firmly ensconced on BBC Radio Scotland to dispense wisdom. But what of others?
Labour MEP Catherine Stihler refused to recognise Corbyn as her leader on Radio Scotland just the other day, incredibly the interviewer let it pass. But it is a sign of a wider malaise. While in England Labour MPs and members and constituencies have either got on board the Corbyn Express or abandoned hope, here neither has happened. There is no momentum to sweep out the old guard of Scottish Labour that hail from a bygone era of managed decline and treating constituencies like fiefdoms or stagnant swamps.
This Old Guard come from – what Rory calls: “the ameliorative sewer socialism on which Labour’s pre-devolution Scottish hegemony was built.”
They are the Feeble 50 redux. Richard Leonard suffers from the optics of diminishing returns that goes: Donald Dewar; Henry McLeish, Cathy Jamieson, Jack McConnell, Cathy Jamieson, Wendy Alexander, Cathy Jamieson, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont, Jackie Baillie, Kezia Dugdale, Iain Gray, Kezia Dugdale, Alex Rowley, Jackie Baillie.
New Old Labour
But the Labour Party conference of 2018 looked a lot different from 2017 or 2016. Sure the leader still emphasises all THE wrong WORDS in ANY given SENTENCE, but his quiet integrity stands in shrill contrast to the venal Tories’ nest of snakes he hopes to replace.
The idea of ‘re-creating the public realm’ – the populist polices of ‘green jobs’, childcare and attack on ‘greed is good’ capitalism are all obvious vote-winners with a public tired of the madness.
One member of the public tweeted saying: “Decent speech – solar/wind construction boom, more banking regulation and possible remain option (?). Corbyn now least worst option of a vast dystopian landscape of bad options (perhaps that should be the Labour strap-line). They’ve got my vote.”
One of the difficulties examining the Scottish Labour-Corbyn relationship is the impetus of new members and fresh thinking seems to be completely absent north of the border. Writing in the New Statesman Paul Mason writes:
“By my count, there are at least four ideological tribes among the new left membership who have flooded into and transformed Labour since 2015.”
No such flooding and transforming has taken place here.
He identifies four tribes of the new model Labour Party:
“First there is Bennism, mirrored by the rank and file trade unionism of the 1970s and 1980s which, if you are looking for a person to name it after, would be Scargillism. When I campaigned in working class constituencies in the 2017 election, there was always a distinct group who’d been involved in the 1981 “Benn for deputy” campaign and the miners’ strike.
The second tribe includes all forms of anti-authoritarian Marxism, ranging from the remnants of post-68 Trotskyism, to the anarcho-syndicalism of the new, small organising unions and people involved in various anti-imperialist struggles. Though smaller than the first, this group contains at least three generations of people committed to socialism “from below” and traditionally scornful of inner-party machinations.
Third is the Broad Left tradition in the trade union movement. Allied to this trend are various survivals of the orthodox communist tradition itself: the Morning Star, Cuba Solidarity, the various Turkish communist groups etc.
Finally, there is a new generation of activists drawn into left politics through the environmental, anti-racist and social justice movements of the 2000s and 2010s – many of whom have studied left political theory and economics at university. But within this demographic there are two distinct thought-architectures: that of autonomist and horizontalist politics influenced by figures like Antonio Negri, Naomi Klein, David Graeber and (to a certain extent) myself; and then people influenced by the intellectual offshoots of Gramscian Marxism – groups such as Compass, and titles such as Red Pepper,New Formations etc.”
Some of these forces and ideological pathways can be seen operating in Scotland. Virtually none of them are in Labour.
David Jamieson identifies further ways we can distinguish Corbyn’s Labour and Leonard’s Scottish Labour – that between Nationalism and Internationalism:
“Labour General Secretary Ian Lavery infamously told the conference: “We need to kill off the nationalists in Scotland and regain that great country.” Leonard himself was reportedly on a mission to make the SNP “toxic” in Liverpool.
But it’s nationalism, of two different kinds, that breeds this level of animosity to the SNP. It’s seldom recalled that Scottish Labour does itself harbour a version of Scottish nationalism, one based on being “the party of devolution” rather than independence. The second nationalism is the orientation on the British nation-state, which of course Corbyn shares.
A major difference though, is Corbyn’s views on the national right to self-determination. This is not the same thing as supporting national independence wherever there are nations. But it is the view that nations, polities and people’s have special democratic rights which are inherent to them. This colours his views of international affairs, but also his view of Scotland. That is why he differs with Leonard, not on Scottish independence, but on the national right of Scotland to make decisions on its national future.”
This is broadly right but the problem is that the more that Leonard exerts his own independence from London – the sharp-witted among you will have noted the irony – the more he will repel voters who might well be attracted to a seemingly radical socialist reforming agenda.
The only distinguishing feature of Leonard’s reign, is the very thing that makes him unelectable. The paradox for the Better Together parties is that from becoming indistinguishable on the constitutional question they will split their Unionist vote to right and to left.
The national question hermetically seals Scottish Labour from fresh-thinking and the sort of ideas and energy that has rejuvenated the party south of the border. The (relative) success of Corbyn’s Labour only shows the dire for change.