1 August 2013

On Labour for Independence...

This morning, we've seen several statements from Labour politicians online, pooh-poohing the Labour for Independence group as an SNP confection, a front, as if it was unthinkable that such a group, however large or small, might emerge from amongst the ranks of Labour supporters, voters and members. 

Part of this concerns the involvement of SNP politicians and Yes campaigners in the group's activities. I've no interest in that here. What does interest me, however, is how keen these Labour politicians are to leap on the notion that Labour for Independence must be inauthentic. This enthusiasm seems significant, and highlights an incongruity between Labour's rhetoric and its constitutional politics which has always struck me as interesting.

It's a familiar sang. I didn't join the Labour party because I'm a Unionist.  Nor am I a British or Scottish nationalist, either.  That's not my politics.  I joined because I'm passionate about equality, about addressing poverty, about ensuring that workers - all workers - enjoy decent wages, good conditions and are not exploited, mistreated, or their interests marginalised.  I see the constitutional question - indeed, any constitutional question - through that lens. 

It's impolite to accuse folk of bearing false consciousness. This sort of thing encapsulates the views of many of my friends, and generally speaking, I take them at their word.  They hate all the right things. Jingoism, deference, crony capitalism. The United Kingdom and its politics frustrates them in many ways I share. On the nationalistic front, at most you could accuse them of being lethargic advocates for European or world government. Practical souls, they're generally prepared to toddle along, quite quiescent, within the limited confines of the British state.  They wear no concealed Union jack underpants.

In the public eye, we hear similar rhetoric from many of the party's elected politicians about not being political nationalists. Sometimes this takes on a suggestive Marxisant shape, albeit that of socialism in one country (the UK) rather than the internationale, with talk of the shared interests and struggles of working people on both sides of the border.  The power of capital, by contrast, rarely gets much of a look in.  

Of these elected Labour figures, it is all too tempting to diagnose a lack of political self-awareness, or of disclosure. As we've seen in the referendum debate, the Labour leadership has, from the very top, increasingly de-emphasised these instrumental Unionist arguments about achieving favourable political outcomes within UK political structures (pace Colin Kidd). Supplanting it, Labour figures have begun to draw more concertedly on the resources of British nationalism, to make their positive case for continuing Union. 

But it's puzzling.  Apparently no unionists and no nationalists, you might expect agnosticism from Labour supporters on the Scottish national question, not uniform, passionate opposition to independence. Deprived of the ultramontane Tory's love of Union for tradition's sake, or the British nationalist's sense of national (or even ethnic) solidarity, believing that shared culture, goods and interests should entail shared institutions of government and politics, this Labour supporter would have to engage in a different calculation. Would independence for Scotland advance or retard socialist strategy, however vaguely conceived? What are the likely consequences of such a constitutional change, for Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom as we know it today? 

If Johann Lamont and her colleagues are to believed, there can be only one answer to this strategic question. This is unconvincing. Wouldn't we expect at least part of a truly non-nationalist, non-unionist party to support independence? Surely this, above all, is an issue where reasonable folk may reasonably differ in their assessments.  As Better Together never tire of emphasising, it isn't so easy to look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not.  You've got to exercise your reason, and your judgment, and resolve one way or the other.  If for Labour supporters, it's simply a question of democratic socialist strategy, and not primarily a question of identity or national feeling, wouldn't it be a touch strange if everyone in the party agreed that Britain's best in that utilitarian calculation?

Why might this be? One explanation might be that all of the democratic socialists who see independence as the most viable route to a leftier future have already bled away to the left of the SNP, alienated over the years by the drift of leadership and policy.  Generally unremarked upon, one of the interesting challenges faced by the Yes campaign, and its attempts to be distinct but accommodate the SNP, is that the Nationalists and much of their support are arguably already the independence movement: a muddled, ideologically motley clamjamfrey of folk who support the party as the best motor for their constitutional preferences, liable to suffer mutinies and runaways once (if) independence is realised. 

But what gets lost in all of this partisan zeal, and the simple binary between Nationalists and Labour, is the more interesting, muddled, ambivalence many more Scots may feel, who've been both Yorkists and Lancastrians in their days.  One of Gerry Hassan's favourite topics is the ensemble of stories constituting what he calls "Labour Scotland".  That tradition still has a strange glamour.

Despite Labour's dire current polling, despite the savagery with which many nationalists attack the outfit, the smack of nostalgia - and the abiding hope of redemption - is remarkable.  Whatever frustrations and hostilities the really existing Labour Party in Scotland provokes, many independence supporters, and even some SNP members, stoke a cherished, if low-burning, flame of hope, for a Labour Party they could believe in again. 


  1. Fabulous last paragraph, in particular. I made the same point to Aidan Skinner the other day. I'm convinced that the subtext to Labour's utterly unselfcritical attempt to crush LFI is their failure to recognise that the sorts of people who might be attracted to LFI are the very people they've lost to the SNP over the last few years.

    Part of the indistinct appeal of LFI has to be their cross-party narrative. It's the most overt exclamation in Scottish politics today that, despite everything, the SNP and Labour are at their hearts two sides of the same coin (mixed metaphor alert!). This will not do for the careerist Scottish Labour leadership though, for whom oppositional politics is all they have been trained to understand. Even a mild caveat to the Nats must be extinguished.

    It's all quite sad, at the same time as being a reminder of the truly extraordinary feats the SNP have pulled off between 2005 and today, in transforming from gnats nipping at Labour's ankles to keep them honest, to actually BECOMING Labour in all but name (and central policy commitment).

    Fascinating, as ever. Could I trouble you to one day put out a glossary of Peat Worrierisms, and call it "The Clamjamfrey Files"?

  2. Macwhirter's book is most enlightening and informative on the myth of "Labour Scotland". That's not to say there isn't a yearning for a Labour Labour to go back to, but it's a much shallower one than folk (including me, until last weekend) would imagine. One more election defeat will just about wipe it out.

    Labour is a dead party walking, like the Whigs. Its future, if it has one, will come from a post-independence realignment of the entire Scottish polity.

  3. Like the Whigs a hundred years ago, that is. I don't think there's much prospect of a revival in their fortunes, independence or no.

  4. Yearning for a Labour party untainted by power, the inevitable compromises that that involves, or any achievement...

    1. That's a piss-poor excuse. Labour had 13 years of majority government, with no need for "compromises". 13 years in which it could have done something about the runaway housing bubble, 13 years in which it could have done something to redress the balance in industrial relations, 13 years in which it could have executed policies with mass public support (eg renationalising railways), 13 years in which it could have extended civil liberties instead of brutalising them, 13 years in which it could have prioritised public services over wars and nuclear weapons, etc etc etc.

      The worst thing about New Labour is the craven surrender to Tory values, when we KNOW from the decades after the war and from some of our near neighbours that social democracy IS still perfectly viable, especially for a fundamentally rich country like the UK.

      If you want to be a slightly less evil version of the Tories, join the Tories and change THEM. Don't you cringe when the leader of the Labour Party contemptuously mocks the idea that he might be "Red"? Don't you die a little inside? Don't you wonder what on earth Labour is for if it's not "Red"?

    2. So the only way to achieve anything is to surrender all your values completely and become a party that implements what are essentially Tory policies, minus the blatant disregard for anyone but the well-off? UK elections are now nothing more than choosing whether you want to be stabbed in the front or in the back.

      Oh but of course, Labour gave us the (bare) minimum wage. That makes up for everything!

      There's a difference between compromise and capitulation. New Labour didn't compromise, they abandoned their ideological roots and embraced neo-liberalism like a long-lost lover. Rather than convince the electorate that what the Tories were doing was fundamentally wrong, they simply adopted their policies and put a slightly more palatable sheen on them.

      The Tories may be bastards, but at least they're honest about it.

  5. Unlike the Labour party, incidentally, the Whigs actually did dominate the political scene for a very significant chunk of British history, from about 1689, with brief interruptions, until the 1770s.

    Hard to parse 18th century politics but the dominant division between Whig and Tory in that period was the former's concern with British investment and influence in Europe, and the latter's concern with Britain's maritime empire. Whigs relied on standing armed forces and powerful financial institutions, weapons that required a powerful state capable of raising significant taxes and in tightly regulating trade. Tories, by contrast, preferred free maritime trade and a concentration on the wealth of the plantations and colonies rather than the wealth of the people within it, thus favouring a small state finely tuned to free up trade. But Britain had three European monarchs in the long 18th century (as in, they were born in Europe), namely William III, George I and George II, and at the height of George III's power they suffered their biggest colonial setback in America.

    Only Whig sympathies for Republican France brought them crashing to the ground again. Not sure what will do it for the Labour party but their 25-30 years of real power are paltry compared to nearly a century of Whig oligarchy.

  6. What you miss is that there are many pro-indy Labour members, actually active in the party. Its not a choice between LFI or a Labour party that has no dissenters on the indy question, its a matter of LFI not actually representing the pro-indy Labour members. They are a pet group of the YES campaign, the very few actual card-carrying members that they have mostly joined Labour AFTER joining LFI, for appearance purposes. Their Chair, Alex Bell, told me in October 2012 that he was considering joining the party. Of the 3 people who set up the original facebok page, only Alan Grogan was a Labour member.

    Originally the group was "Labour VOTERS for Independence", that soon became Labour For Indy. They then used the party's branding to create an impression that they were an actual Labour group, then developed into calling themselves "real" labour, bypassing all party structures, ignoring all in the party who wanted to change the party towards "traditional party values" and those in the party who were pro-indy.

    Grogan has stated that his preferred choice of leader of Scottish Labour would be Dennis Canavan, who hasnt even been a member for over a decade. The policy conference at the weekend, along with the stated desire for a party registered separately as a party in Scotland, makes it pretty clear that what they are about is the formation of a new party, not changing Labour.

    On Newsnicht last night he couldnt name a Labour policy that he preferred over an SNP policy. On their web pages there are no arguments for voting or joining Labour, no links to other Labour groups, only attacks on the party and, in particular, Scottish party leader Johann Lamont.

    They have failed to recruit or even attempt to recruit those of us making the difficult arguments within the party or any high profile pro-indy Labour members such as Mary Lockhart.

    If they had stuck to being about disaffected Labour voters or those who had abandoned Labour during the Blair years and represented that voice then they wouldn't be in the position they are now.

    Their mistake was to try to portray themslves as a growing movement within Labour, a challenge to the Labour leadership. The zest with which leading SNP and Yes campaigners attached to this, left them where they are now - exposed as nothing more than a YES publicity stunt.

    I imagine that YesScotland will quietly drop them now after Grogan's disastrous Newsnicht performance where he was again exposed for trying to talk up his membership. Interviewed by Newsnicht last year he said that he had been a member for "the best part of ten years". He now admits to joining in December 2010. He did add that he had joined "as a teenager" but left in 2003. In 2003 he was still a teenager!

    There are quite a few Labour members who are pro-indy, openly so within the party. There are many people within Scottish Labour who are arguing for a different position, a more "Old Labour" perspective, but, sorry, LFI isn't those groups.

    Professional wrestler Grogan is used to creating fake back stories for his wrestling characters, but that is usually understood to be fake creations and part of the wrestling world's way of doing things. In politics, when you step into public view, your story has to stack up. His didn't, it was all bluff, the game is up now. I am surprised it took the press so long to see it.

    1. the above was by me Jim Monaghan, Labour member and openly pro-independence

    2. "On Newsnicht last night he couldnt name a Labour policy that he preferred over an SNP policy."

      Hardly a fair question. Who could name a Labour policy full stop?

  7. Defeated by the blog's defences, James Morton published this on Facebook. Cross-posted here.

    This sort of reminds me of one of your earlier posts, were you quoted from a book called "a view from the foothills". It was a prophetic statement that Labour would lose in 2010 and that the Tories would do a great deal of damage to the country, but that this time, labour would be silenced. Labour had opened to many doors that should have remained closed. If labour so much as uttered a single word in protest, the conservatives would truthfully reply that they were continuing labours policies to their logical conclusion. This would explain the absence of hand wringing that the status quo of the union is being eaten away at by condem policies. It also I think explains the de-emphasis you mention at trying to fix things through the union. They are using "British" nationalism to counter the SNP. But here is the rub. If you listen carefully, you cannot help but detect a theme were Scotland isn't really part of Britain. It benefits from it, but doesn't really contribute to any of it. From the banks being bailed out, taking part in sports, cheap mortgages, the NHS and culture...Scotland it seems is only able to enjoy this through union with "Britain". This is were the apparent lack of awareness comes in, Britain being a collective identity, no attempt having been made to forge it into one. I don't think that it is a lack of awareness at all. In my opinion, its the only hand they have to play. It's a bad hand they have dealt themselves, and they are playing it badly. Hence the increasingly surreal arguments being made form more expensive crisps and ginger to roaming charges. something like Labour for Independence has thrown them into denial overdrive.