Mike Cowley

Scottish Labour: Hopeful prospects for 2016

Mike Cowley

Mike Cowley, Edinburgh North and Leith CLP and editor of The Citizen, is optimistic about the year ahead.

RECOGNISING THE TERRAIN UPON WHICH SCOTTISH LABOUR is obliged to wage electoral and political battle risks an implied concession to the myth of Scottish exceptionalism. But the continued dominance of constitutional politics as the cornerstone of public discourse remains an obstinate fact of Scottish political life. The SNP has sustained its hegemonic role as the official voice of this on-going national discussion, but while we face circumstances not of our choosing, the environment the Labour Party finds itself in presents our Leader Kezia Dugdale with the incentive to reverse years of ideological and organisational decline.


The SNP presently find themselves in the delicate position of being establishment politicians. They are likely to secure a third term at Holyrood in May, and dominate the Scottish benches at Westminster. Consequently, their strategic positioning as outsiders will become increasingly difficult to maintain. As problems mount – the closing of the Forth Bridge due to maintenance cuts, growing income inequalities and stubborn poverty data, privatisation, escalating waiting lists in the NHS and looming industrial action across the devolved Further Education sector – blaming Scotland’s ills on a conveniently geographically specific ‘Westminster elite’ will become increasingly less plausible.


If Scottish Labour is to win back its reputation as a vehicle for radical politics, it must translate the positive policy decisions of last year’s Scottish Conference into language which addresses the atomised lives of an electorate whose concerns transcend the boundaries of the nation state. On everything from the Living Wage to TTIP, we have for some time been significantly to the SNP’s left on policy matters. We should continue to develop a rhetoric and vision which exposes the timid and mean-spirited parochialism of the nationalists. Both north and south of the border, the Labour Party must speak to a fragmented working class, the ‘precariat’ middle class and a youth whose futures recede further into the distance with every Tory policy announcement.


As labour saving devices proliferate and the digital economy grows apace, Marxists such as David Harvey are beginning to think aloud about the implications of a relative decline in exclusively workplace-based exploitation, and to how capital may choose in future to manage permanently redundant or under-employed labour. Meanwhile, agency work, self-employment, part-time and zero-hour contracts threaten to turn the UK into a Sports Direct theme park. If we are to seize the initiative, socialist agitation must be recalibrated so it speaks afresh to the lived experiences of the majority.


Should we call the SNP’s bluff and support it in policy areas that reflect traditional Labour Party concerns (though despite the claims of the nationalists, redistribution has been notable only by its absence)? Neil Findlay MSP and others have pioneered co-operation in the Scottish Parliament around issues such as the Trade Union Bill. Might this serve to decommission a tactical weapon of the SNP which has allowed them to paint Scottish Labour as ‘Red Tories?’ In addition, Scottish Labour could make great inroads into the unjustified reputation of the SNP as defenders of the poor by exposing case studies in class inequality which so disfigure the Scottish landscape. Land ownership and housing may be particularly resonant issues here.

Finance Minister John Swinney is also vulnerable. In mimicking George Osborne’s cuts to corporation tax as well as the devolving of austerity programmes to cash-strapped local authorities, we have in our sights an open goal of Tory-lite politics masquerading as social democratic enlightenment.


A restless SNP membership for whom all issues are refracted through the prism of independence – rather than the global distribution of wealth and power – may become increasingly exasperated at Nicola Sturgeon’s reluctance to initiate a fresh constitutional debate leading to a referendum. The Labour benches may soon be swelled by additions from the Campaign for Socialism (CfS) left, as internal Party List balloting begins. Momentum Scotland is in an embryonic but ambitious phase, and the CfS has been instrumental in establishing a division of political labour within which both our organisations can flourish. Irrespective of this May’s results, there are viable grounds for optimism in the new year.

Co-convenor Edinburgh CFS/Momentum, and Edinburgh North and Leith CLP executive