Scottish Labour as we know it is dead, and that’s okay.
One of the biggest stories from last week’s Scottish parliamentary election was the Scottish Conservatives supplanting Labour as the largest opposition party in Holyrood. The most popular reason offered for this is that Scottish politics is now mostly based around Nationalism versus Unionism, and that the Tories were seen as the better defenders of the Union against the SNP. The response to the party’s failure within this new dynamic has been largely confused. Indeed, one of Kezia Dugdale’s most notable missteps during the campaign was her perceived confusion on the issue of independence.
Politicians and pundits alike have debated how Scottish Labour comes back from this historic third place showing. All discussion has centred around what Labour can do to reclaim its former status as Scotland’s natural party of government. As yet no clear answer has been offered. Some claim Labour needs to be more firmly unionist, others say it has drifted too far to the left with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and their promise to raise income tax, while some, including even the party’s deputy leader Alex Rowley, believe simply offering more devolution is the silver bullet that will slay the SNP beast.
Simply put, asking how Labour gets back into power is a pointless question. As long as the issue of independence rules the Scottish political landscape, it’s not going to happen, Labour are never going to be better Unionists than Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives, and no matter how much “home rule” they propose, they are never going to be better nationalists than Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP.
What next then for the party it used to be disparagingly said could stick a red rosette on a monkey and get it elected in Scotland? Labour must adjust to their new political reality. In this reality they are not contenders to be the party of government, as Dugdale tried in vain to suggest during the election, but are the third party of Holyrood.
Many seem to regard this prospect with disdain, the ultimate shame for the giants who once weighed their votes in Scotland rather than counting them, as the cliché goes. But this is a huge misjudgment. Just as Willie Rennie says his MSPs will be a “Liberal voice” in parliament, think of the impact Labour could have as the truly social democratic voice in a parliament where no party has an overall majority, and the SNP will inevitably have to make deals to see their legislation passed.
It is arguable that it would tarnish the SNP’s brand as the defenders of Scotland against the Tories of Westminster to cut deals with the Conservatives as did during their first term, while the idea of the avowedly centrist SNP trying to negotiate a budget past the Citizen’s Income-supporting Green party almost certainly works better in minds of Scotland’s radical left than it will in reality. Scottish Labour therefore has an opportunity, unprecedented since the SNP deposed them as Scotland’s government nine years ago, to apply pressure and enact real change. It would be a shame if, in the pursuit of past glories, they missed it.