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Meanwhile in Scotland … it’s still 2015

The general election was deja vu all over again north of the border, writes STEPHEN LOW

FOR Scottish Labour activists there was a hideous sense of deja vu as we watched the SNP tide flood across the country. 

It was 2015 all over again — Labour having just a single seat and the people of East Dunbartonshire returning Jo Swinson to the private sector again. 

2015 — Jo Swinson apart — wasn’t any fun either. That’s not to say the situation is lacking in irony. Indeed, it abounds with it. 

The SNP swept Labour aside with the slogan “Lock Boris out of No 10 and stop Brexit.” 

People voted for that but of course, having won almost everything possible, they are incapable of delivering on either pledge. 

They are — surprise, surprise — keen to start procedural wrangling about another independence referendum.

The reality, which the SNP leadership is well aware of, is that not every SNP vote (45 per cent incidentally, another irony) is a vote for independence. 

Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues don’t want a referendum right now. A fight about an indyref with the Johnson government, though? That would be a fine distraction from their domestic failings in government. 

In a further parallel with 2015, Scottish Labour’s sole MP is again Ian Murray. Some might be reminded here of Marx’s famous aphorism about history repeating itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” — but such comparisons elevate the return of a member for Edinburgh South to the status of a “world historical event,” which is patently not the case. 

Murray is of course being held up by the Labour right as the model of politics to which the party should aspire — he is after all, a winner. 

This overlooks a number of factors. Murray was a relentless critic of the Corbyn leadership, fixated on a relentlessly unionist (rather than simply anti-independence) position and a long-time advocate of a second Brexit referendum. 

He was hardly alone in this among Labour candidates — Martin McCluskey in Inverclyde and Kate Watson in Glasgow East were similarly active in undermining the UK party’s efforts.  

They, however, failed to convince the electorate, who opted for Scottish rather than British nationalism. It seems that while Murray appeals to the douce burghers of Morningside, much like a mediocre wine, his politics do not travel well.  

That Scottish Labour MPs have gone, once again, from being a group to a solo act does of course beg the question of where we go from here. 

This will require a degree of reflection. Which in turn requires the capacity to reflect. To suggest that this is something Scottish Labour’s right has shown little capacity for is something of an understatement. 

This was amply illustrated by Anas Sarwar MSP. In a previous incarnation as an MP he resigned as deputy leader to facilitate Jim Murphy’s leadership bid, which is perhaps an indicator of judgement. 

Last night, however, he simultaneously bemoaned the divided nature of our post-Brexit referendum politics and appealed for more unity. He then criticised the party for not coming down more firmly on one side of that divide. 

Thankfully, there are more substantive opinions available. Not least from Richard Leonard. Unlike in 2015 when Jim Murphy had to go from the count to the jobcentre, Scottish Labour isn’t looking for a new leader. 

Leonard was clear that he will lead the party into the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.  

While he was in no way downplaying the seriousness of the results, he pointed out that while there were elements of nuance to Scottish Labour’s positions on Brexit and another indyref, parties with absolute positions on these issues had also been rolled over by the SNP. 

In addition, while Labour had a clear constitutional offer, it tended not to talk about it, focusing rather on matters we deemed more important — meaning the £10 per hour minimum wage, ending zero-hours contracts, public ownership etc.  

And there’s the rub. In post-indyref Scotland the centrality of constitutional issues has closed off any prospect of social radicalism.  

It is not the case — whatever progressives in the rest of the UK might hope or believe — that SNP and Labour votes have some sort of “anti-Tory” equivalence. 

Scotland voted against outlawing bogus self-employment, against a publicly owned national grid, against having a publicly owned railway, against having full employment rights from day one. 

Scotland voted for a nationalist party that does not support any of these things. 

The hope of Scottish Labour in this election was that by offering to change people lives rather than the flag they salute, we could make an appeal that would break the stranglehold of the two nationalisms on politics in Scotland. 

Our programme was imaginative and moreover met the needs of the difficult times we live in. We need to rethink how we communicate our ambitions for society. 

That is a substantive discussion and one outside the scope of this brief summary. There is one observation, however, that is worth making. 

Thinking that the correct response to the eclipse of the politics of class by national identity is to embrace nationalism — of whatever stripe — and is almost certainly an error.


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