Labour can be forced to unlock democracy in Scotland

Calls to destroy Scottish Labour on the pro-independence left are misguided. There is still a deep affection for the party in much of working class Scotland, and this can be mobilised by those who yearn for democracy.

Cailean Gallagher
17 October 2014

The red flag in George Square, 1919.

The democratic source of independence was like the spring in Jean de Florette - blocked by jealous cretins who would only see it used it for their own selfish advantage. UK-wide parties and capitalists combined to crush the aspiration for autonomy. Like the tragic farmer, our weary Yes campaign died in fitful anguish before the source ran free. But the story is not finished – on doorsteps and streets the story was heard, that deep down beneath the barren field of Scottish politics there lies the democratic means for social empowerment.

Democracy has long been stifled by UK governments and by the jealousy of British Labour. In Scotland, Labour has tried to divert the self-governing aspirations of many of its voters with promises of further powers and more devolution. As Yes Scotland Labour Coordinator it was therefore encouraging to see the support for independence build among Labour voters: in spite of the Labour leadership, thousands of voters came to believe the best future for Scotland would be with a Labour government in an independent Scotland.

If this Labour surge to Yes is in any doubt, look at findings in the polls. The number of Labour voters backing Yes doubled in a month between August and September, from about 18% to over a third (35%) according to a Yougov poll. Another survey found that a full 42% of those who voted Labour in 2010 are now backing independence. A further poll said voters would back a Labour government at Holyrood in the first elections after independence. The prospect of an empowered Labour party in an independent Scotland may well have helped to fuel the rebellion of so many Labour voters who voted Yes.

Of course, this is only one analysis. Who knows just what motivated Labour supporters to vote Yes, and how many of them were tipped back to No? The Yes votes were not simply about getting a government that empowered working people and their families. But nor, surely, were they votes for the shallow programme of state-driven social reform offered by the Scottish National Party, or the worthy but comfortable aspirations of the Green party, or the utopian assertions of a radical campaign that spun visions of Scotland’s future out of Nordic stereotypes. The fact is that hundreds of thousands of voters abandoned faith in Labour and joined in the wide movement for Yes, representing the greatest democratic rebellion Scottish Labour has ever seen.

When this demand for democracy did break out, Labour leaders did all they could to divert this principle into their own agenda – with a timetable for devolution, a pledge, a guarantee. Gordon Brown, wielding the shovels of the British state in those great clunking fists, started channelling the spring of pro-independence sentiment into the ‘Home Rule in the UK’ silo. The leaders’ promises, alongside Brown’s appeal to ‘security’ and ‘solidarity’ of the union, seem to have halted the stream to Yes. This was perhaps because no-one explained why only independence could give the Scottish people the potential to share economic power from below, by increasing wages and instituting collective bargaining, and using various other tools of an independent country to increase workers’ power. The SNP’s agenda said little or nothing about challenging the ownership of assets and the concentration of power in the hands of the rich. The radical case was vocal but unconvincing, giving few credible plans for government. In any case, the Labour tide to Yes was halted.

So how should democratic socialists go about rebuilding this rebellious tide, and what should they learn from the apparent success of Labour’s end-game? Some people, furious that Labour diverted the demand for independence, are determined to extinguish the party’s support in Scotland by exposing the undemocratic and self-interested agenda of Scottish Labour. But these people are blind to the barriers that block popular rebellion, and underestimate the size of Scottish Labour’s deep support. Of course Labour has undemocratic methods and principles that are consistent with preserving its power in Britain. Of course the leadership of established parties will constantly create new barriers and means of blocking the demand for democracy. Most of the time, ordinary voters accept that in politics you get what you’re given.

By blindly opposing Labour, the Yes left is failing to contend with the obvious political paradox: that people’s support for parties that undermine democracy will always be stronger than their belief in the principle of democracy itself. That would be true in an independent Scotland as much as in the UK. It is tempting during the referendum fallout to (re)form left cliques and new projects, which will present principled challenges to political parties. A better tactic is to use democratic moments like referendums and elections to loosen the political elite’s strangle-hold on parties, and make popular empowerment an imperative that existing parties - including the Labour party - must adopt. This requires engagement with the parties, their structures and traditions.

There remains a deep attachment to the Labour party and its principles in the labour movement and in communities throughout Scotland and the UK. Fighting those who make society unequal, and ruthlessly confronting the elite levels of corporate, civic, and political life will be a task for members of the Labour party, both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom. There is also a growing belief that Scottish Labour should demand that more powers come to Scotland to enable this confrontation with the powers that be. That is why Roch Wind is prepared to critically engage with efforts at reform within the Scottish Labour party – both the ‘Labour for Scotland’ initiative that is being launched today, and the Campaign for Socialism meeting next weekend. Both seek to pressurize Scottish Labour onto more radical, democratic and socialist bases, and force the party to respond to the demand for social and economic empowerment that caused such a rebellion among Labour voters last month.

Inevitably, many frustrated pro-independence campaigners on the left will back the SNP in future elections, and work in the new constellation of left-wing groups to rearticulate the democratic and emancipatory principle that helped drive the vote to Yes. But as they build their projects, they should not dismiss the campaign for a democratic socialist Labour party in Scotland and across the UK that aspires for a fair distribution of wealth in our economy, and directs people’s collective strength into a programme of socialist renewal.



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