Elections 2016: the Scottish earthquake continues

Paul Mason
May 6, 2016 · 7 min read

I’m watching the UK election results from Athens. One thing I am not missing is shrieky BBC journalists frame it all as a “disaster for Jeremy Corbyn”. In fact it’s much bigger and more complex story.

The main issue is, once again, . This does, indeed, pose a big challenge for Labour but an even bigger challenge for Conservative unionism.

As I write (07:00 BST) it looks like

  • the SNP has swept Holyrood, with the Tories pushing Labour into third place there; a strong Green surge should put a pro-independence majority in place, despite the SNP’s failure to win a majority
  • and Plaid Cymru may have made enough gains in Cardiff to force Labour into coalition government; both these progressive parties have lost out to UKIP who are effectively the new representatives of white working class racism in Wales
  • Labour won the two parliamentary by-elections in working class seats, but in both places UKIP came second
  • Labour is winning the mayoral races, and looks set to win London — in a spectacular defeat for a Tory campaign couched in Islamophobic language, and for an outgoing Boris Johnson administration which will come under increased scrutiny for its dealings with foreign property tycoons now
  • Labour’s aim — of eroding the Tory share of the local council vote — hangs in the balance; they look to be 4% up on the night in a 6am BBC analysis of key wards; losing some ground in the Midlands but maintaining control of some councils in the south of England.

My snap analysis follows:

Labour lost in Scotland because radical left cultural nationalism has gained momentum — both since the referendum of 2014 and the UK general election of 2015. This is the biggest story of the night.

Scottish politics have polarised between a project of left-led independence and conservative unionism. Labour is trapped in the middle and needs to decide which side it’s on. Meanwhile it looks like some of unionist vote has now switched to the Tories.

While parts of the Scottish Labour Party will now push for a more radical Home Rule offer — with a federal Britain and a federal Labour Party — I doubt this will be enough.

More likely Labour will have to re-frame its project around shaping the character of an independent Scotland: promoting, for example, Sterling rather than the Euro, and offering a defence union of the British Isles. But what’s left of Labour’s membership may be incapable of doing this.

The fate of Kezia Dugdale, who couldn’t get elected to a seat but only via the list, shows this is not about competence or “modern-ness” in leadership: she is both competent and an engaging politician. The issue has become independence, yes or no, and she still is identified with the dirty tricks of the Better Together campaign, as is the Labour brand.

The second reason autonomy is gaining ground in Scotland is the virulent hostility of the English establishment to Labour.

Basically, Scots can see that Labour south of the border is being treated as a “threat to national security” simply for espousing radical social policies and rejecting military adventurism; Scots voters do not trust English working class voters to see thorugh this, especially when so many of them are in thrall to the conservative nationalism of UKIP, and given the total bias of the London media.

So this leaves the for Labour that I’ve written about before.

We can only have a progressive government in the UK when it involves people elected by the Scottish and Welsh working class, the north of England and the big urban centres. Even that doesn’t win you the election — it only gives you the platform to appeal to the swing voters of England who are vital for a working majority.

Yet such is the hostility to Scottish independence among the south-east English establishment, the financial elite, and their mass base of support, that any electoral alliance between Labour, the SNP and Plaid creates its own obstacles to Labour winning in England.

So now to Labour’s strategic problem.

The first thing is, clearly, parties that are locked in internal warfare do not make electoral breakthroughs. Corbyn has the firm support of less than half the PLP and around 20 MPs are openly hostile and trying to sabotage the party’s election campaign. In addition he does not fully control Labour HQ — and it is Labour HQ which is supposed to organise election campaigns, not Corbyn’s office in the Commons.

Any attempt to blame Corbyn for the absence of a breakthrough is nonsensical: if anything, this is due to the small army of Blairite saboteurs who contribute to the endless mixed messaging coming from the PLP.

Labour is clearly winning in the English and Welsh urban centres — and whether candidates like Sadiq Khan in London stand a bit to the right of Corbyn is irrelevant: Khan stands to the left of what the neoliberal faction of the PLP wants; he was Ed Miliband’s ally and if Corbyn did not exist it would be Khan and Burnham getting it in the neck from Labour’s enemies in the media and the rump of Blairite MPs.

But Labour is being strongly challenged in small-town England and Wales by UKIP.

Overall, according to the BBC analysis of the local election results, Labour is 4% up on the general election and the Conservatives 4% down. That is nowhere near where Jeremy Corbyn needs to be in 2020, but also nowhere near triggering the conditions for the Blairite coup.

So what should Corbyn and his supporters do?

1. Take control of the party HQ. Within 6 months it needs to be wholly staffed by people who are demonstrably competent and loyal to Labour’s left and centre; not people from its neoliberal right.

2. Turn the PLP into a clear alliance: of the left and centre, excluding the right. Corbyn should use the decent showing in the English council elections to “bring to battle” any rightwingers who carry on sabotaging the party. At the same time he should offer increased responsibility and power to figures like Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, Jon Cruddas and Yvette Cooper (and Ed Miliband). To be clear this means the Corbyn wing of the party ceding some policy issues to the centre.

3. Reorganise Labour as a federal party, creating Scottish Labour as a fully separate legal and political entity, with its own right to set policy on Scotland, including fiscal policy. Then Labour at Westminster should propose an alliance with the SNP and the Greens in Westminster to erode the Tory leadership; the aim would be to reverse and defeat key policies in parliament; and expliot the Tory disarray that will follow the Brexit referendum. Any proposal to reorganise Labour along federal lines needs to go to this September’s conference, not beyond.

4. Bury the Trident issue through the of voting for the submarine renewal but promising a triennieal Nuclear Posture Review. If this pisses off the SNP, thats not really a problem since Scotland is clearly on a trajectory to independence. Labour should promise to move Trident from Faslane in the event the Holyrood Parliament votes in favour of nuclear disarmament.

5. Activate the mass base Corbyn still has inside the Labour Party. I would not do this via Momentum, but form a new pro-Corbyn organisation of party members only, designed to secure trade union political and financial backing, and dissolve Momentum into that. Instead of dreaming about mass deselections, that movement would be used to activate the kind of local struggles that have driven the popularity of radical parties in Europe like Podemos, and to turn Labour control of key cities into an opportunity for radical localism.

6. Get better at managing the party. The team Corbyn needed to win the leadership, and then take control of an unwilling PLP, may not be the same kind of team he needs to establish real political momentum towards a general election. That may come earlier than 2020 if (a) Conservative electoral expense fraud leads to by elections and (b) the Gove-Johnson wing go nuclear after 23 June. In this situation, though Corbyn needs an overt, formal agreement with the Labour centre, you cannot tolerate whips and and rogue Blairites acting as saboteurs.

7. Labour needs a lot of new, young parliamentary candidates of all stripes; people who get that the world has changed and are prepared to reformulate all strands of Labourism in light of the new political reality. Part of Labour’s problem is that it is still tainted by the war-crime apologists of the Blair era, and when Chilcott comes out Corbyn should use this to finally settle accounts with what’s left of the Blair machine.

In summary:

This election reconfirms is that, until the moment Scotland leaves the union, progressive politics in Britain will be about alliances. The dream that a left-led Labour could win back Scotland to unionism is over. Labour itself in England and Wales has to be an enthusiastic alliance of the left and centre.

To win back the working class supporters who have flipped over to UKIP can only be done through radicalism: actually delivering solutions to the problems of low pay, exclusion, drab towns and low opportunities that are driving people into the arms of the racist right.

And Labour should forget about blaming the media: as a radical party, it will only win in 2020 in the teeth of active sabotage from the millionaire press and the pro-Tory elements who run BBC political coverage. In power Labour should pledge to switch BBC regulation to Ofcom — but that won’t affect the outcome of the next general election.

On this note, it’s encouraging that Labour’s core vote held up in England and Wales. Not even an avalanche of smears about anti-semitism co-ordinated by the BBC, ultra-right bloggers and the press could make the electoral base desert Corbyn.

Though they recognised Labour may have a few antisemitic bad apples, the electorate treated the BBC’s attempt to smear the entire party as what it is: propaganda. They ignored it.

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Postcapitalism and the Radical Left

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Paul Mason

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Journalist, writer and film-maker. Former economics editor at BBC Newsnight. Author of Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being

Mosquito Ridge

Postcapitalism and the Radical Left