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Scottish Labour Party Conference

Scottish Labour Party Conference

By Tom Harris, Senior Counsel

I am not in Perth. I just wanted to be up front about that right at the start. So, to reiterate: I am geographically challenged vis-à-vis Perth.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have missed Scottish Labour conference. It is always terrific fun (no, seriously) and full of good people who care deeply about their communities and their country. But the last time I attended – in Edinburgh in 2015 – was a depressing affair indeed. Yes, we all put on our brave faces for the media and for each other, but we all knew, not very deep down at all, that the End was Nigh, at least for the party’s MPs.

And I feel for the comrades now gathering at Dewar’s Rink this weekend. The party’s activist base depends more on our elected councillors than on either our MPs (or MP) or our MSPs, simply because there are more of them and they are the backbone of most of our constituency parties, with an unrivalled hotline to the hearts of our communities. And they are facing a very difficult polling day this May. I know how they feel.

But unlike other commentators’ pieces I have read from time to time about the plight of Scottish Labour, I want to offer a glimmer of hope, a suggestion that our electoral predicament, after being kicked around the park by the SNP for the last decade, might yet be remedied.

First of all, we need to be honest about that predicament. Scottish Labour finds itself close to irrelevance, but it shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame for that. The fact is that in a continuing debate about independence v Unionism, Scottish Labour falls between two stools, reluctant to call itself Unionist, yet fiercely opposing independence. And for all Kezia Dugdale’s brave and articulate championing of federalism as the solution to Labour’s and the country’s ills, no one is listening.

They are listening to the Scottish Conservatives and to the SNP, both of whom have unashamedly un-nuanced and easily understandable views and convictions about what is best for Scotland. Scottish Labour is the eunuch at this particular orgy.

But if speculation about (yet) another referendum proves accurate, help may be at hand. And its source is ironic indeed.

Whatever your view on the likelihood or otherwise of another referendum so soon after the last independence referendum, everyone can agree on at least one thing: it will be the last. Whatever the result, Scotland will revert to being – or at least will start heading in the general direction of becoming – a normal polity once more. Whether as an independent country or as part of the UK, the debate about independence will be behind us for good.

Without the ability to talk up the prospect of independence, the SNP have very little to offer, nothing to inspire their members, nothing to say about the challenges facing Scotland. Without the possibility of agitating for separation, what is the SNP for?

And there, right there, lies Scottish Labour’s opportunity. When you can no longer use independence as a diversionary tactic, a political displacement strategy, you have no option but to talk, and to talk seriously, about real issues, like health and transport and schools and taxation and the environment and all the other things that have taken a back seat to our country’s recent obsession with flags and currency.

With the right judgment and strategy, that is an environment that Scottish Labour could – and bloody well should be able to – exploit to its heart’s content.

We don’t have a horse in the race when the only question is yes or no to independence. One way or another, the race is about to be transformed.

Sadly, it will be too late to save the seats of some of our incredibly hard working councillors who have served their communities for years. That is Scotland in 2017. Scotland in 2020 could look a whole lot different.