May didn’t quite end in June but her mantra of providing ‘strong and stable’ leadership turned into the actuality of being ‘weak and wobbly’ while Corbyn went from being (allegedly) unelectable and an electoral liability into something akin to a conquering hero – certainly if his reception at UNISON annual conference and Glastonbury were anything to go by. Just as with after the independence referendum in September 2014, it seemed that the vanquished were actually the victors. But there are also other historical parallels to be cited for the Tories did as much to lose their slim parliamentary majority as Labour did to bring about this situation. The same situation has afflicted the SNP – still the biggest party by seats and votes in Scotland but looking and feeling a lot like Labour after its involvement in the ‘Better Together’ campaign – somewhat dejected and on the back foot.
Serious left analysis must start by asking two fundamental questions, namely, why did Labour do much better than any of the polls (including its own) indicated it would, and why did Labour not actually win? The exposure of Theresa May as weak and wobbly as well as cold, austere and without any common touch certainly helped but so too did Labour’s programme. Under the heightened exposure of an election campaign, under which reporting had to be more balanced, Labour’s pledge to govern for the many and not the few resonated widely. Jeremy Corbyn was more at home and a much better performer at the countless mass street rallies than in the Westminster chamber. And, Labour was able to create its own direct link to voters, especially younger ones, via social media without being reliant upon the mainstream media. Its organisation of activists especially via a dedicated app used by Momentum in particular was also notable. But Labour still received just under 800,000 votes less than the Tories, with the Tories gaining 5.5% more votes than in 2015, and it is doubtful that Labour would have won had the election campaign run for another two weeks as John McDonnell claimed. In other words, ‘Jez he did’ but by not quite enough.
The ecstasy and exhilaration of moment of advance for Labour will surely dissipate – not so much as the Tories are still in government but because Labour is not and it is not clear how, when and where it can act to bring the Tory government down. This means Labour is likely to something of a bystander, waiting for the Tory-DUP coalition to tear itself apart. Meantime and no matter saying that it will remain on a war footing as well as boosted by tens of thousands of new members recruited during and after the election, Labour could easily return to the narrow confines of the parliamentary arena. Here, and despite the fillip to his personal confidence and stature with weakened Tories and a becalmed Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn is on weaker ground as he was before in the last parliament. Indeed, the last Scottish Left Review editorial argued that Corbyn needed to be ten times better than May – it turned out that he easily was but that was during an election campaign when normal rules did not apply.
Since he was elected leader, Corbyn has endured vilification from the right and soft left of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Some of these figures have indicated they are now willing to serve in his Shadow Cabinet, but he should be very careful in his choices. He may find it prudent for the sake of party unity to invite some to join the cabinet, but their numbers should be limited.
Yet only if Corbyn looks to act where he is strongest, namely, outside parliament, can he seek to replicate the strength and support he had during the election campaign. Here, rather than saying what a future Labour government would do, he should be putting much more emphasis on what citizens can do for themselves through collective struggle in their workplaces and communities. The message should be ‘Rise up!’
Like many others on the left, the Morning Star has become an uncritical cheer leader for Corbyn. This is not helpful and it serves no positive purpose for the left to suspend its critical faculty when it comes to Corbyn. Yes, he should be defended from attacks from the right but his support should be not be unconditional and without criticism. One of Corbyn’s weak points is the absence of the use of the vocabulary of class. In an age where working class consciousness is at such low ebb, ‘for the many, not the few’ could too easily be interpreted as the 99% against the 1% following the Occupy movement. The ruling class and its functionaries are much bigger than 1% and the working class does not comprise 99% of the population. In similar terms, Corbyn must explain his socialist vision because, while to be welcomed, what he sets out is merely social democracy albeit a progressive version.
The left in the Labour Party, especially Momentum in England and Wales and Campaign for Socialism in Scotland, must seize the initiative with the increase in popular support and membership and take control of the Party constitution, structure and organisation in order to hand power back to ordinary members and isolate the right wing careerists who have ruined it. This should start with a radical agenda for change at this year’s National Conference in September.
For Labour, Scotland continues to provide a particular and continuing conundrum. If Labour had done much better than its extra six seats and 2.8% vote increase – like winning Aberdeen South, Renfrewshire East, Stirling and the Ochils (which they held before but which the Tories took) as well Airdrie and Shotts and Motherwell and Wishaw, the Tories would have had difficulty forming any kind of government. Compared south of the border, neither the Corbyn effect (10% vote increase in England) or a popular Labour devolved administration (12% vote increase in Wales) existed in Scotland. The legacy of ‘Better Together’ and a politically and personally woeful leadership in the form of Kezia Dugdale are the critical explanatory variables. So it is all very well saying, as left Labour MSPs Alex Rowley and Neil Findlay and others have said, that Labour would have done better in Scotland with more radical approach, namely, empathising Labour’s manifesto, and one less based on opposing indyref2. Logic then dictates that Labour can’t win in Scotland with Dugdale so the left needs to move to remove her and do so soon. Not doing so is to ignore the elephant in the room.
We asked eight of the leading voices on the left in Scotland to give their thoughts on ‘where now for the left?’ The plurality of perspective is evident over Brexit and independence. What is common though is that the SNP over-estimated, as this editorial has argued before, its impact of, and importance to, the cause of independence. Since the SNP’s parliamentary retreat on 8 June, many have pointed out that the SNP is not synonymous with independence movement. That has always been the case but it cannot hide the essential truth that the SNP is the major – and controlling- part of that movement and so what happens to the SNP does have a significant impact on the prospects for independence. Its defence of access to the Single European Market and the freedom of movement for labour have not gained the degree of traction with voters as the SNP thought – certainly not being the material change Sturgeon regarded Brexit to be. Just like the neo-liberal version of independence that the SNP offered in 2014, it provided no compelling social democratic reason for people to vote for it to hasten independence on 8 June. In consequence, Sturgeon has had to accept that the mere possibility of a second indyref has been put out to pasture for the foreseeable future.
(As an aside, the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) has characterised the Labour Party as two parties in one since Corbyn was elected leader in September 2015. While there has always been some truth to this – and well beforehand too – it seems that the characterisation is also apt for the SNP. Its setback on 8 June ever more indicates that it is (or was) two parties in one, with a thin veneer of social democratic illusion for those in the Central Belt and a Tartan Tory base in the North East.)
Where does this leave the independence movement? It leaves the Scottish Independence Convention, Commonweal, the Radical Independence Campaign and those that marched on 3 June in Glasgow in the biggest show of support for independence, at best, just treading water. It might provide others with an opportunity – if not a sense of coercion – not to view all economic, social and political struggles through the lens of independence. Indeed, just a week before the election and rather ironically, Nicola Sturgeon said independence was not the solution to every problem.
The view of the Scottish Left Review is to support the call for another referendum on independence as an expression of the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament. However, this mandate for holding another referendum needs to be reviewed in either 2020 or 2021 depending upon when the next Scottish Parliament elections are held. As before Scottish Left Review does not take a position on how people should vote in a forthcoming referendum.
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