Drawing on interviews with Labour politicians, Coree Brown Swan explains how the party is both squeezed and divided within a constitutional space. She writes that while Labour has largely avoided positioning itself on such issues, the constitution is likely to be a core theme of any future general election.
John McDonnell recently made a major speech in Glasgow setting out Labour’s plans ahead of any UK General Election. This was the Shadow Chancellor’s first engagement in Scotland since he sparked intra-party tensions at an Edinburgh Fringe event with remarks that Labour would not block a second independence referendum in the House of Commons. This time, his remarks focused on investment in public services, improved social support, and economic reform throughout the United Kingdom. He concluded by pledging ‘[a] radically better Scotland in a radically better, socialist, United Kingdom’. Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, joining McDonnell, went on to outline an overhaul of the way devolved institutions are financed, extended borrowing powers for the Scottish Government, land reform, and economic democratisation.
This intervention represents an effort by the party to re-enter the debate on the constitutional future of the UK and Scotland. Efforts to date have been minimal. In interviews with UK, Scottish, and Welsh Labour politicians conducted in spring and summer 2019 as part of the Centre on Constitutional Change’s Between Two Union project, interviewees have repeatedly explained that they did not get into politics to talk about the constitution; but in a Scottish political context defined by the constitution, it is difficult to avoid the issue.
Since 2014, Scottish Labour has been squeezed between the open unionism of the Scottish Conservatives (although cracks may be emerging here) and the independence-ambitions of the SNP, culminating in devastating defeats in 2015 and 2016. The party attempts to position itself as an alternative to these British and Scottish nationalisms, with efforts to refocus the debate on social and economic policy – the things that, according to Labour, voters really care about. However, in the absence of an answer to the constitutional question, it remains marginalized within Scottish political debates.
Brexit has only compounded the issue. Yet interviewees interpreted Brexit differently. For some, Brexit represented an existential threat to the union, illustrating the deepening divides between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom while others argued that Brexit played into the grievance politics of the SNP and would be employed as an excuse to reopen the independence debate.
In addition to facing an increasingly challenging electoral landscape, the party has also struggled with intra-party dynamics. Scottish Labour is deeply divided on the constitution. It is divided between those who believe that Labour should focus on its ideological aims, outlining a radical social and economic vision for Scotland and the United Kingdom – a faction which includes Richard Leonard and Neil Finlay – and those who fear that the party ignores the constitution at their peril – including former leadership candidate Anas Sarwar and former leader Kezia Dugdale.
Amongst interviewees, there was a lack of consensus on both the next steps for Scottish devolution and how the party should position itself in this space. Three main tendencies were identified within the party: those who felt the Scottish Government should use the powers it has before demanding more; those who argued in favour of the devolution of certain powers, like employment tax; and those who advocated a more radical constitutional positioning, along the lines of federalisation.
Divides also exist over the party’s stance on any future independence poll, both within the Scottish party and between London and Edinburgh. Richard Leonard had adopted a hard-line stance, suggesting that Scottish Labour would seek to block any referendum in the near-term. In some respects, this hardened stance on independence may appeal to unionist voters disillusioned with the Conservatives, but it may further alienate the one-third of Labour voters who voted for independence in 2014. It is also not a position around which there is consensus, with interviewees expressing fears that this fails to recognise Scotland’s right to self-determination and further distances the party from the voting public.
The constitution is likely to be a core theme in any future general election, in light of ongoing debates about the union, increases in support for Scottish independence, and a marked increase in support for Welsh independence. This combination of factors also happens at a challenging time, with polling suggesting low levels of support for Richard Leonard and reports that the party is struggling to find candidates for seats. So, while Labour politicians did not enter politics to talk about the constitution, they may well have to.
Coree Brown Swan is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change and leads on the Labour strand of the ESRC-funded Between Two union’s project.
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