Many questions are being asked about how British Labour in Scotland might be saved. Nobody seems to be asking the more pertinent questions. Questions such as, “Why?”. Why bother? What’s the point? There is an unthinking assumption that British Labour serves some vital role in Scotland’s politics. Does it? Do we need them?
When you listen to the likes of Steven Purcell talking about what Scottish Labour must become in order to be relevant again, it increasingly seems that what they are describing is the SNP. Or perhaps it would be more fair to say that Steven Purcell is trying very hard to avoid describing the salvaged Scottish Labour as something indistinguishable from the SNP. He, and others, are desperately trying to find a formulation which allows “reborn” Scottish Labour to occupy the same political niche as the SNP, yet still be different enough to justify existence as a real political party.
Interestingly, the only area where any significant difference can be found is on the constitutional question. It seems that Steven Purcell aspires to a Scottish Labour metamorphosed into a unionist version of the SNP. And he recognises that even the unionism will have to be diluted in order to make this new version of Scottish Labour electable.
Let’s set aside, for the moment, the difficulties involved in matching the SNP on policy. Difficulties which arise from profound differences in the ethos of the two parties; the overarching imperatives; and the policy-making environment. Let us consider only the constitutional issue, which is seen as the principal way in which “Scottish Labour Reborn” differentiates itself from the SNP. Basically, that comes down to “Home Rule” instead of independence.
So! The idea is that Scottish Labour should redeem itself by acknowledging that everything it said during the first referendum campaign was untrue. That may be something of an oversimplification, but who is minded to cut them any slack on this after they allied themselves with the Tories? At the very least, it is going to be problematic for this “new” party to reconcile it’s new-found enthusiasm for Home Rule with its previous enthusiastic participation in Project Fear.
Part of the problem will be defining “Home Rule”. It can’t sound too much like independence, because that ground is owned by the SNP. But it must sound more meaningful than what is already on offer through the UK Government’s latest round of constitutional tinkering. Which itself is awkward because British Labour in Scotland has heretofore been loudly singing the praises of this constitutional tinkering and portraying it as giving the Scottish Parliament all the powers that it needs.
Scottish Labour Reborn would be looking to define Home Rule as something more than the maximum the British establishment reckons it can concede without conceding independence, but less than independence. That sounds like something which may only be discovered in the same place where you find singing pink unicorns.
Believe it or not, the non-existence of the formulation of Home Rule that would be required is not the biggest problem for the putative Scottish Labour Reborn. If they can talk confidently about an “autonomous” Scottish party-within-a-party, then talking about an entirely mythical form of Home Rule should not be too difficult. But there is another aspect of the plan to become an anti-independence facsimile of the SNP which may not so readily succumb to bluff and bluster.
British Labour in Scotland’s role at present is, pretty much, as the home for non-Tory unionists. Unionists tend to be people who have never questioned the political union between Scotland and England. People who have questioned the existing power arrangement tend to be independence supporters and, hence, SNP voters. Steven Purcell’s plan to reinvent Scottish Labour as a Home rule party would necessarily involve inviting its remaining voters to question the status quo. And if they’re questioning the status quo then they are also likely to question the alternatives being offered.
How well might the existing constitutional arrangements stand up to such scrutiny? What chance is there that the fragile bubble of an ill-thought Home Rule proposal won’t burst as soon as somebody pokes it?
Isn’t it much more likely that people will simply decide that Scottish Labour Reborn is no more than a last-gasp groping for credibility by a party whose time is past? If Scottish Labour’s only hope is to recast itself as a pale reflection of the SNP, but lacking any credible answer to the constitutional question, what is the point in them?