We have a problem here in the party, and the sooner we start talking about it the better. We are slowly failing to make an argument as to why people should vote for us and not Labour.
The kind of haphazard argument we constructed in the last weeks of the campaign, an argument that probably made some voters’ heads explode, was “if you want MPs that will actually support Corbyn – the leader of the Labour Party – don’t vote Labour, vote SNP.” We essentially tried to argue that we are the real Labour party north of the Border, which is an insane argument to make because we’re not. Labour is Labour, the SNP is the SNP, and that is the end of things on that front. It was a general election campaign. We were not running against Kezia Dugdale. We were running against Jeremy Corbyn.
And the truth is, it’s not Scottish Labour we need to distinguish ourselves from. It’s Corbyn’s Labour. We need to think of an argument why voters should vote for the party of Nicola Sturgeon, not the party of Jeremy Corbyn. Otherwise, we will essentially bury our chances in further general elections and, even more, in the very independence debate.
In all likelihood, especially given the scale of the disaster a Tory+DUP-negotiated Brexit will be, after the next general election, the UK will have a Labour government, one of the most left-wing Labour governments since the seventies. We cannot rely on the argument that independence is the shortest way to end Tory rule anymore. The window for that argument may just about be missed forever in just four short years. Tops. And the argument that Scotland is more left-wing than the UK as a whole has always rung feeble when you dug deeper. What will we do with that argument when the UK actually has a left-wing government? Accuse them of not being left-wing enough, even when we agree with them on nearly everything?
We have only one choice: it is to remind the country and the electorate that Scotland’s politics is not just distinct by being on average significantly to the left of Middle England, but also distinct by virtue of there being unique national interests Scotland possesses that the rest of the UK simply does not have. No matter how left-wing the UK Labour Party becomes, they will never, by virtue of being a unionist party that runs for office in the entire UK, understand the intricacies of Scottish interests simply because their very DNA refuses it. They will not understand the need for land reform in the Highlands. The more esoteric successes or failures of the Barnett formula. How EVEL in practice locks Scottish MPs out of decisions that affect them. How we need not managed immigration, but more immigration. The Europhilia in Edinburgh, the utter and complete rejection of Brexit this nation as a whole demands. Labour already object to membership of the Single Market and of the free movement area, positions overwhelmingly supported across the Scottish political spectrum. This alone should cause outrage in the heart of anyone who believes Scotland may have interests distinct from those of the UK at large. And yet even if Labour were to understand these things, they would never stand up for our interests in them, because Labour is simply responsible for the entire UK, not just Scotland, by virtue of running in elections in the entire UK.
In the fifties, the Attlee government was far to the left of anything Corbyn proposes – and yet, by virtue of being a centralising party whose understanding of socialism was based not in decentralised democracy, but in a single powerful government based in London, was frequently at odds with the interests of Scotland. They even opposed devolution. A belief that being left-wing is always and unequivocally equivalent to standing up for Scotland is simply not true, as there are many ways to make left-wing policy. Some of them are quite centralising and unhelpful to Scotland. And I say this as a sworn left-winger and a socialist.
There has been much talk that we need to, as a party, go left to counter Labour surges up here. I agree. I think the party needs to be a lot bolder and a lot more radical. I also, however, think that we need to stop being afraid of criticising Corbyn for fear of looking right-wing. Corbyn is an English politician. He may be our ally in the fight against the Tories, but in four years, when he is, in all likelihood, in Downing Street, he will be our opponent in the fight for independence. We need to prepare our arguments and revise them for that.
We need to make an argument for independence that applies regardless of who’s in power. That independence is not just about left and right, but also valuable and intrinsic in its own right, that no condition within the Union can be actually better than the alternative we propose.
The party itself needs to go left, to propose a radical and liberating vision of independence, and to go back to our pre-2014 ways, provide inspiration and confidence and regain public trust. And at the same time, we need to argue that independence itself, and the defence of Scotland’s interests, are virtues in their own right. When the dust after the GE settles, we need to get back for fighting for those interests. We need to put the second indyref on the backburner, probably for a good long while – but in the meantime, we need to aggressively and relentlessly critique both the Tories and Labour in their failure to stand up for Scotland, a failure that is still ongoing. We need to work for our constituents and the residents of this country as hard as we did until fairly recently, fight for more devolution, and continue making a stand against hard Brexit.
Finally, we can never again allow the debate surrounding independence to be defined by “what the English are like” – it is electoral suicide to chalk independence down to what England votes for. That way we’re essentially saying we wouldn’t want independence if England’s centre ground wasn’t to the right of Scotland’s. Which is absurd. At the end of the day, our key belief must be what it always was: that Scotland’s future is better off in Scotland’s hands. Everything else is circumstantial.