Scotland: Will the Corbyn uprising save Scottish Labour?

Lessons of indyref and need for active anti-cuts policies

Can the massive influx of new members into the Labour Party that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the UK Labour leadership on an anti-austerity wave, and who are fighting to keep him there, lead to a recovery of Labour in Scotland?

A feature of the inspiring movement around Jeremy Corbyn – in essence an attempt by radicalised anti-austerity young, working and middle class people to reclaim the Labour Party from the Blairite agents of capitalism – has been its muted echo in Scotland.

Scottish Labour has been in an existential crisis since the independence referendum of 2014. Two cataclysmic election defeats later and the once dominant “People’s Party” have been reduced from 41 to a single Westminster MP. Relegated to third place by the Tories in the Scottish parliament elections this year, there seems to be no end to the decline.

The first wave of Corbynistas into Labour in 2015 saw the party membership in Scotland increase by a modest 4,000. While the membership of Labour across the UK has rocketed to over half a million, in Scotland the surge has been far more modest in its scale.

According to an analysis in the Financial Times in early 2016 the Scottish total stood at 19,000. This number will have increased a bit since as a result of the second wave as part of the #KeepCorbyn influx. Nevertheless, the proportion of the UK membership contributed by Scottish Labour has fallen to below 4%, a historic low. The contrast between the 80,000 who joined the SNP following the 2014 independence referendum and the few thousand who have joined Labour during the Corbyn events is striking

Inspiring mass rallies have taken place in towns and cities across England in particular in support of Corbyn’s current re-election campaign – the largest political meetings in decades. The public meetings that are planned later in the campaign for Scotland are unlikely to match the scale of those in England.


There are a number of factors as to why this is the case. Principle among them was the damage inflicted on Scottish Labour by the disastrous decision to form a bloc with the Tories in opposition to Scottish independence. Coming on top of Labour’s transformation into a right wing, Blairite, pro-capitalist party during the 1990s, Labour’s role in the referendum campaign led to the shattering of their already weakened base among the working class in Scotland. As a result the Scottish National Party (SNP), who stood to the left of Labour during the last 20 years, have emerged, albeit temporarily, as the dominant force in Scotland.

In addition, Scottish Labour has also been hampered by the lack of a left leader. Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s Scottish leader, is supporting Owen Smith for leader. Following the attempted coup by MPs in July, Dugdale said: “I cannot see how Jeremy can continue without the backing of the Parliamentary Labour Party.” She even appointed one the coup plotters, Ian Murray, to her own shadow cabinet after he resigned as Corbyn’s shadow Scottish secretary. Dugdale has spent much of the summer in the US on a government funded “leadership course” combined with a 3-day visit to support US capitalism’s preferred candidate, Hilary Clinton, at the Democratic convention. In addition, the role of Labour councillors in carrying out cuts in those councils they still control, Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Edinburgh etc., have left Labour as a toxic brand for big sections of the working class in Scotland.

There is quite widespread sympathy and passive support for Corbyn in Scotland. But it has not translated into an active movement as yet. His general perceived weakness and failure in taking on the right of the party and his tendency, up to know, to seek compromise with the pro-capitalist majority in the PLP have raised further doubts in the minds of workers and young people.

However, there has been a shift leftwards among local constituency Labour Parties recently, reflected in the number who nominated Corbyn for the leadership. 61% of Scottish CLPs who backed a candidate supported Corbyn. While this is not as overwhelming as the 87% of CLPs who supported him in England and Wales, it is a significant advance on last year when only 33% of Scottish CLPs nominated Corbyn.

Moreover, it is significant that the right-wing candidate Owen Smith was unable to get a nomination from any CLP in Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Edinburgh, Dundee or Aberdeen. The majority of his nominations came from Labour Parties covering the more rural parts of Scotland.

Nevertheless, the relatively small numbers of those participating in the nomination meetings is also a contrast with England. Reports indicate that some of the Glasgow CLP meetings had only 20-30 in attendance. This compares poorly with the many hundreds strong CLP meetings that have taken place in London, Bristol, Merseyside etc. There is evidence that some of the Blairites are abandoning the Labour Party in Scotland. Most likely because the opportunity for their careers as elected MPs, MSPs and councillors are now currently hugely reduced.

How can Scottish Labour recover?

To undermine the electoral base of the SNP, itself the beneficiaries of a huge anti-austerity movement following the indyref, will require a clear left and a consistent socialist political alternative.

Socialist Party Scotland supports Jeremy Corbyn against the right. We will also support all efforts to win the Scottish Labour Party to a clear anti-austerity and left policy. An attempt to accommodate the Labour right is impossible. The civil war that is taking place inside the Labour Party will have to result in the emergence of a victor. Either a newly constituted left party is created by the defeat of the pro-austerity, pro-capitalist right or the Labour Party will remain under their control and will never recover in Scotland.

It looks likely that Jeremy Corbyn will win the election against Owen Smith. This is despite the deluge of vitriol against him from the vast majority of the establishment media and the use of exclusions and the courts by the Labour right to remove up to 200,000 new members from taking part. But the majority of Labour MPs will never accept Corbyn as leader. They represent the capitalist class inside the Labour Party. In that sense they are the real “entryists” into a former working-class party that was hi-jacked by big business interests. Nor does the ruling class as a whole want to give up what they see as an historic conquest: the transformation of a party that at its base represented the political expression of the organised working class into a party that defended the interests of capitalism.

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in Scotland would be making a huge mistake if they sought to repeat the “compromise and conciliation” strategy with the Blairites that they have employed up to now. It may be that the right as a whole, or a sizeable group of MPs, will split away and form, effectively, a new party if Jeremy wins. However, that is not certain and a more protracted battle may take place. Either way the left in Scottish Labour, possible around a figure like Neil Findlay, should challenge for the leadership immediately as part of a campaign to transform Scottish Labour into a fighting anti-austerity party.

A democratic party

The Labour Party should be opened up to all anti-austerity and left activists, including the right of affiliation by not just trade unions but also socialist organisations and anti-austerity campaigns etc. This would be more like the federal model that the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party, was founded on. It brought together socialist organisations and trade unions, including the ILP, the Social Democratic Federation and at a later stage the British Socialist Party that evolved into the Communist Party.

Some of these organisations had pioneers such as Keir Hardie, John McLean and James Connolly as participants. To even pose the question that such stalwarts of the socialist and Marxist movement would be excluded because of their membership of pre-existing socialist organisations shows how absurd the argument of Tom Watson, and the leadership of Momentum for that matter, that the “Trotskyite” Socialist Party has no place in the Labour Party.

Democratic structures, including the mandatory reselection of MPs and MSPs, should be rapidly introduced by Corbyn and the left. Above all, a fighting anti-austerity platform should be debated and adopted which has support for widespread democratic public ownership and a refusal to implement cuts at its core.

This would require a change of approach by Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in Scotland who have so far refused to support the demands of many trade unions to set no-cuts budgets. Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell, speaking at a Momentum meeting in Glasgow in February 2016 said: “It’s clear we cannot go down the road we took in the ’80s in some places of defiance of cuts. We have to say the real culprits are the Tories and up here the SNP, that’s why we need to be in government in 2020.”

The refusal to take a fighting stand over austerity under Corbyn and McDonnell’s leadership will undermine the possibility of a recovery in Labour support. Scottish Labour’s “solution” to the cuts crisis in local government – supported by the Labour left as well – has been to call for income tax increases and council tax rises. This policy would hit working-class people and has allowed the SNP to portray Labour as being prepared to shift the burden of austerity onto low-paid working families.

The SNP are increasingly vulnerable to a challenge from the left on a clear anti-austerity, socialist platform. The scale of the cuts they have implemented through domination at Holyrood and in the councils they control, as well as the SNP leadership’s shift rightwards following the Brexit vote, has opened a new space. The modest but significantly increased votes for Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates in May reflected this new mood. If Scottish Labour were to adopt that type fighting of approach then it would be possible to begin to rebuild what has been destroyed by decades of Blairite right-wing domination.

National Question

In the context of Scotland, a complete overhaul in Labour’s position on the national question is as vital as a fighting anti-austerity policy. To his credit, Jeremy Corbyn has rightly criticised Scottish Labour’s participation in the “Better Together” campaign with the Tories. However, he has also indicated his view that it was correct for Labour to campaign against independence in 2014. In addition, key Corbyn supporters in Scotland, heavily influenced by the disastrous policy of the Communist Party of Britain, still seem to be arguing that Labour would oppose independence again in the context of a second indyref.

To put it bluntly, if that position was not to be changed a sustained recovery in Labour’s support in Scotland would be ruled out. While a second indyref may still be a few years off, although it could take place sooner, a correct approach to the national question will play a decisive role in whether a mass working class party can be built in Scotland.

Both Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left in Scotland should reassess their position on Scottish independence as a matter of urgency. As a minimum they should adopt a policy that is clearly in favour the right of the Scottish people to self-determination and concretely for a second independence referendum, with the timing of that to be decided. In addition, a full discussion should take place, including in the trade unions, on how an internationalist, left and pro-working class policy in favour of independence could be developed.

The position advocated by Socialist Party Scotland of an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland is a concrete way of fighting for working class unity across Britain, while standing for the democratic rights of the Scottish people. Only this, linked to a fighting policy against all cuts, would allow Labour to cut across the pro-business nationalism of the SNP leadership.

As we anticipated long in advance of the 2014 indyref, and as it subsequently proved, the referendum became a lightning rod for the mass anger of broad sections of the working class and then youth. It is very likely that a second referendum would be seen in the same way by millions of working class people in Scotland. If Scottish Labour did not change its position on independence then it would suffer the same fate as it did after the 2014 referendum.

Anti-austerity mood

A second victory by Jeremy Corbyn over the Blairite establishment and the capitalist class that lie behind it would be a huge step forward. It could open the door towards the building a new mass working class party, including in Scotland.

An overhaul of the democratic structures of the Labour Party, its effective re-founding as a distinct anti-austerity and pro-socialist mass movement could have a major impact in Scotland. On the other hand, a continuation of “cuts as usual” by Labour councillors, seeking an accommodation with the right wing, a refusal to face up to the national question and a rejection of a fighting policy would throw away that opportunity.

As has been seen in the US with Sanders, Europe with Podemos and Syriza, the Corbyn surge itself and the tidal wave that joined the SNP in 2014, there is huge support for anti-austerity ideas. But a correct programme, underpinned by socialist ideas and a rejection of capitalism, is essential if these movements are to succeed.

  • No compromise with the Blairites
  • For the right of Labour Party members to democratically reselect MPs, MSPs and councillors
  • Stand against austerity – Labour’s elected representatives should always vote against cuts
  • Build a fighting anti-austerity and socialist movement


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