In the age of identity politics, Keir Starmer must learn from the mistakes of Scottish Labour.

Daniel Johnson MSP

There is a certain ‘reaction’ Scottish Labour Party members know all too well. It arises most frequently at UK Labour events when frontbenchers are asked about how their plans relate to Scotland. It starts with a pregnant pause. A furrowed brow. Then a slow, deep intake of breath. A furtive glance down at notes, which offer no assistance. An earnest expression is applied to the speaker’s face, from whence the inevitable is uttered: ‘Ah yes, Scotland. It’s a bit different up there, isn’t it?’.

That sense of detachment from Labour’s fortunes in Scotland is frustrating to those of us working to restore them. It was born of a complacency, of which almost all of us are guilty, that ignored how politics was changing in Britain and right across the world. Having lost seats in the north of England and in Wales – in the very areas that nurtured the rise and growth of Labour politics – there is a growing realisation that what has happened in Scotland over the last decade is not unique and may be replicated.

This is the crux of Keir Starmer’s challenge as Labour leader. The lesson from Scotland is that unexpected losses in heartlands can turn into a haemorrhage. 

There are large parts of Scotland that, until recently, were thought of as forever Labour. Now, winning them back from the Scottish National Party (SNP) seems like an impossible dream. To prevent this from being Labour’s fate in the North of England, the Midlands and in Wales, Starmer must study and learn from Labour’s mistakes in Scotland.

The SNP and Boris Johnson’s Conservatives share the same political underpinnings. Let me be clear, I am not claiming their policies are the same. However, the SNP and the Tories share a common politics, one that is based on identity and which is particularly toxic for Labour.

Popular nationalism is in the ascendancy around the world. It goes some way to explaining Brexit; the Conservative gains in 2019; and the SNP’s transformation of Scottish independence from being the view of an extreme minority to one held by nearly half the population. Both Johnson’s Tories and Sturgeon’s SNP follow the same underlying political formula: identity is core, buttressed by constitutional exceptionalism and ideological expediency. 

On each of these points, Labour has attempted to respond to the SNP insurgence with a traditional left-right political analysis. This approach makes us look at best irrelevant, at worst, alienated from the electorate. Scottish Labour has attempted to re-use the ‘Tartan Tory’ tag first applied to the SNP in the 1970s, accusing them of talking left and acting right, to no avail. 

This tactic has failed. In part, it is not necessarily true in today’s boundary-blurring political sphere. But more importantly, to those who the SNP have won over, whether they are left or right politically is always secondary to the fact that they are Scottish. ‘Stronger for Scotland’ is perhaps the most successful political slogan in recent years – there is no value statement or policy prescription, simply an articulation of identity. The politics is merely detail.

More problematically, making national identity primary and putting policy detail second is what renders Labour’s political counterargument so ineffective. When we criticise the SNP for being right-wing, their supporters interpret that as not just an attack on the political party but, by extension, on Scotland. The detail of whether our analysis of the SNP’s policy as right-wing or not is simply ignored. 

That is what makes identity politics such a stubborn politics to fight. It operates on a visceral, emotional level. In a battle of hearts and minds, the former beats the latter. Every time. 

Dominic Cummings’ ‘red wall’ strategy fed on the alienation felt by many, offering up a new  common identity based on voting Leave and perceived disenfranchisement at the hands of the urban elite. This strategy has been so effective, it has demolished a habit of Labour voting that had endured for generations.

Clearly, this is an unfinished project. The Tories do not have the same level of identification with Englishness, let alone Britishness, that the SNP do with Scottishness. But, assuming achieving that equivalence is their intention, Labour needs to understand and operate within a politics built around of identity and understand the dynamics and pitfalls. In short, we need to learn the lessons of Scottish Labour’s downfall – and quickly.

While this adjustment is necessary, by itself it is not sufficient to beat the Tories and win back Labour voters. Constitutional positioning and political flexibility are equally important. 

The language used by Brexiteers and Scottish Nationalists simply substitutes references to one undesirable union (European) for another (British). In their lexicon, distant political institutions are responsible for impeding national flourishing and freedom from them would release boundless potential. Focusing on constitutional issues affords them a flexibility on domestic policy which would otherwise be obviously Quixotic. With national liberation from ‘foreign control’ as the ultimate goal, how that is achieved through domestic policy is secondary. 

For example, the SNP have enjoyed a reputation for being pro-business while presenting themselves as to the left of Labour (justifiably or not). In the context of the pursuit of Independence, espousing Scandanavian style social democracy while seeking plaudits for lowering taxes is not seen a contradiction. Inconsistencies are excused because they do not have access to the full levers of government, which reside in the remote “elsewhere”.

For the Tories, economic transformation beckons once we are free to do international trade deals unrestrained by Europe and its endless regulations. This tack is the political gift that keeps on giving. In a global economy, liberation from international regulation is an impossibility so this line can be peddled ad infinitum. 

To me, this is the most dangerous feature of the nationalist political formula. If identity and constitution are what is most important, the Tories can bend and flex to pursue whatever policy is expedient. 

We are used to a Conservative party defined by economic and personal libertarianism, even when that proved unpopular. John Major tested monetarism almost to destruction. Free market solutions were sought by Andrew Lansley in the Coalition government in spite of public opinion. Austerity has been pursued over the last decade almost as an article of political faith. A mere matter of months into Mr. Johnson premiership, it is clear none of these old shibboleths are sacred.

Recast as a populist party, the Tories are less restrained about borrowing from the traditional left’s policy prescriptions, cherry-picking as the SNP have done. Keynsian capital investment, central spending on public services and initiatives to protect vulnerable groups have emanated from No 10. Austerity is forgotten and capital largess is such a priority, even bridges to Ireland are discussed as serious political projects. 

This dynamic of national identity and an ever fluid policy platform eroded Scottish Labour’s monopoly on progressive politics in Scotland. The challenge Keir Starmer must face is that the Tories are trying to carve out the same niche in UK politics. 

Labour has long campaigned on investing in and growing public services. With the Tories now unencumbered by selecting policies solely on the right of political spectrum, the main reason for voting Labour could disappear for many. In Scotland, the SNP have created a political platform where you can vote pro-business and pro-big state, leaving Scottish Labour looking clumsy and marginal. By following the same formula, the Tories are intent on doing the same to us across the rest of the UK.

Labour cannot talk in policy alone. We must cultivate and articulate what our character and identity is and how it relates those we seek to serve. This is not easy, especially for our party. Labour does not easily talk in the language of national identity and can sound awkward and jingoistic when it does. But there are other identities more fundamental that we can authentically speak to and more fundamental values that we can embody.

I have managed to almost finish this article without mentioning coronavirus. Without doubt, it will dominate politics for the rest of the parliamentary term and possibly beyond. 

One thing that is clear is that isolationist tendencies in recent years have blunted our response and worsened the global outbreak. The constitutional and political withdrawal prescribed by both the SNP and Conservatives looks awkward. Mr. Johnson’s rejection of European ventilator procurement looks silly and churlish and Nicola Sturgeon’s identikit response shows the need for UK coordination (even in devolved areas such as health) in times of crisis.

Internationalism, solidarity and hope can be our counter to the isolationist withdrawal expressed by our opponents. Keir Starmer has shown some early signs that he understands the need to articulate a different approach promoting Europhiles and embracing devolution all round as a policy approach. But all too often Labour lapses into lasting policy prescriptions.

In an age of identities we must speak this language. If there is a swing against isolationism and exceptionalism, we will only take advantage of it if we have articulated and embodied an alternative. And if we get this vision and narrative right, we may find it works not just against the nationalists in the guise of the Tories but also the Scottish Nationalists we have for so long failed to engage effectively north of the border, too.

3 Comments

  1. mary glen on April 9, 2020 at 8:47 am

    Excellent analysis of the political situation, particularly in Scotland. Let’s hope Keir will listen to people like yourself and Ian Murray to help re engage with the people in Scotland. A first test of success will be whether or not the people in Scotland actually listen to Labour again.

  2. David Beere on April 9, 2020 at 10:10 am

    Very thoughtful and greatly appreciated. From an Old Labour Left Croslandite!

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