Our chair, Martin McCluskey, writes about his contribution to Scottish Labour’s work on the constitution and what the party needs to do before the next election he lays out three challenges for the party ahead of the next General Election.
One. That so many of the Labour Party’s own internal divisions around the constitution can be traced back to tensions that were never settled at the start of devolution. And we must resolve them to move forward.
Two. That we must get comfortable with where the limits of devolution might lie and what that means for the arguments we make.
And three. That the next election will not be a rerun of 2015 and we need to stop the memory of that defeat living rent free in our heads.
THE HISTORICAL CHALLENGE
Turning to the first of these challenges, we need to face up to the fact that Labour has never had an easy or comfortable time dealing with the constitution. And we can’t wish it away.
Much is made of Keir Hardie’s early commitment to home rule in the first part of the 20th century and Labour’s campaign for a Scottish Parliament at the end, but less is said about the intervening years.
This was the Labour Party’s Scottish Council – a precursor to the Scottish Executive – in 1958:
“The Scottish Council of the Labour Party has never been in any doubt that enormous problems which we face can only be tackled by firm Government from Westminster.”
That was in response to the Kilbrandon Commission on the UK constitution – arguably the last time the UK Government really took a close look at how we govern ourselves.
The intervening twenty years and the fights that led to the 1979 devolution referendum saw the Labour Party in Scotland debate and divide over the question of devolution.
This was a long way off from John Smith’s “settled will of the Scottish people”. At this point, it was difficult to even get the Labour party to agree.
But the upshot of the failure of the 1979 referendum and Thatcherism was a boost in support for devolution, and the signing of the Claim of Right by every Scottish Labour MP – bar one, Tam Dalyell – in 1989. This signed the Labour Party up to a position that endorsed:
“the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs.”
That is the position that stuck, through the 1990s, during the debates about the form devolution should take and right up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
But the divisions in the Labour Party never went away – the early years of devolution in Scotland were often plagued by infighting between those in Holyrood and those in Westminster.
In the words of a former Scottish Secretary, I recently interviewed, recalling what it was like to deal with relationships between Holyrood and Westminster in the Labour years:
“my job was to hold the coats while [people] fought.”
But the argument I would make is that in these early days, the failure to resolve our differences within the Labour Party about devolution, was the starting point of how we ended up with differences over the constitution today.
And there were essentially two camps. One that primarily believed devolution was about ensuring a devolved Scotland, alongside Wales and later Northern Ireland, inside a constitutionally refreshed UK.
It was a constitutional expression of Tony Blair’s “New Britain”.
The other saw the Scottish Parliament as primarily a vehicle for Scottish interests inside the UK and a platform to make those views known.
An early precursor to “Stronger for Scotland”, perhaps.
They are – in very crude terms – a unionist and nationalist tradition inside the Labour Party. Professor Nicola McEwen from the University of Edinburgh made an argument similar to this as far back as 2004.
But both can still be found represented in the Scottish Labour Party in today.
This central tension, I would argue, needs to be resolved or at the very least mediated.
In the work we did on the Scottish Constitutional Commission, we tried to address this by setting out a clear set of principles to explain what the Scottish Labour Party believes about devolution today.
Getting them right – at the outset of our work – was absolutely crucial.
Among them is the view – first expressed in the Claim of Right – that people in Scotland are best placed to decide how we govern ourselves.
But also that primary function of the Scottish Parliament is to represent the Scottish people, hold the Scottish government to account, and scrutinise the operation of our public services.
And the function of Government is to run those public services and the country effectively.
Finding agreement on those principles is, in my view, essential before we even begin to move on to other arguments about the constitution.
THE LIMITS OF DEVOLUTION?
My second challenge is that we need to get comfortable with where the limits of devolution might lie. And be confident in our arguments about working together and not pulling apart.
If we believe in powers for a purpose, and not just for their own sake, we should be thinking through the consequences of our proposals.
There are two arguments for why we need to get comfortable with these limits – a practical argument and a principle argument.
The principle argument is that at the next election we need to mount a defence of the redistributive benefits of the union, and how a Labour Government will take that forward.
In the first Scottish Labour constitutional paper, we set out in our principles that we believe the UK is a redistributive union. This is something first made explicit by Gordon Brown ahead of the 2014 election and repeated by UK and Scottish Labour Leaders since.
But if we believe that is a primary function of union then we need to accept that chipping away at the welfare state or employment rights risks chipping away at what we believe is the very purpose of the UK.
The more we say that we should draw a border at Gretna when it comes to our welfare state, the more we limit a future Labour Government’s ability to use the wide and deep tax base of the UK to redistribute wealth to all corners of our country.
Our argument for this is now even stronger than it was in 2014. We have benefited from support schemes that under the SNP’s proposals for independence, with no central bank and a new currency, would have been impossible.
And in focus groups I’ve been involved in for the Scottish Fabians, it’s clear that the experience of Covid has made many people understand this more clearly.
The second, practical, argument is that we are hitting up against the limit of areas that we can devolve from Westminster to Holyrood.
The Smith Commission made the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. So instead of a one-way street of shifting powers for the sake of it, we need to start talking in the language of co-operation and, in policy terms, hard wiring that into how our country is run.
That means – as Scottish Labour’s papers have set out – a legal duty to co-operate on key policy areas such as energy, social security, transport and support for refugees.
And a new framework for joint working between the UK and Scottish Governments that makes co-operation inescapable. That means new Joint Governance Councils between our two Governments – managing areas of shared interest.
And in Parliament a new Senate of the Nations and Regions where members are elected with a national or regional mandate.
I would argue that now is the time to be making an argument that puts co-operation at the forefront, and not a race to the bottom on powers.
STOP LIVING IN THE PAST
My third and final challenge is that we need to stop the 2015 election defeat living rent free in our heads. Most of us would acknowledge the residual trauma that the election put us through and how we have been working to pick up the pieces ever since.
But the world we are living in bears little resemblance to 2015. And the next election will only be on the same terms as 2015 if we allow it to be.
There are a few reasons we should believe this. First, Labour only needs to win 1 in 5 SNP votes – that’s 20% – to be in the running for 24 Scottish seats at the next election. Recent polling has shown Labour very much closing the gap on the SNP. And that’s before a campaign has started.
Second, by the time of the next election the SNP will have been in Government for 17 years, public services will have continued to deteriorate with the likelihood of another indy ref as distant as it ever was.
If the next election is one of change versus the status quo, Labour will have the stronger argument for change.
Third, the independence referendum is not the winning argument in a general election that it used to be. In 2015, the SNP won by bringing the entire yes vote in their direction. Today, 3 in 10 yes voters would not vote SNP. Those votes are up for grabs. And even among those pro-independence voters, the appetite for a referendum is low.
And remember again, we only need to win 1 in 5 of them.
THE CHANCE FOR CHANGE
And this takes me to my closing points. The SNP will do everything they can do drag us on to their territory at the next election. And we have to fight it on our terms.
That doesn’t mean ignoring the constitution. As I said at the outset, we must engage but it. We should have a big and bold offer that meets some of the challenges I have set out, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that a constitutional offer is going to be the key to winning the next election.
We can’t allow our opponents to force us into the cul-de-sac of appearing as the status quo choice. That means we need to have answers on the constitutional question, but far more important is our answer to questions on the economy and how we will deliver and secure public services and the welfare state for the rest of this century.
The next election will be determined by those 1 in 5 SNP voters from 2019 who are looking for change – and we need to persuade them that we are that change. It’s something that I think we have the best possible chance to do.