Scottish Labour Party conference on 25-26 February unanimously passed policy in favour of “a progressive federal structure for the UK” and the convening of a “People’s Constitutional Convention” by the Labour Party at UK level in order to “deliberate on these issues”.
The conference also agreed to launch a campaign against a second referendum on Scottish independence. What was meant by “a progressive federal structure” or “People’s Constitutional Convention” was not spelled out. And the campaign against a second referendum is an online petition rather than a “proper” campaign. Even so these policies mark out a distinct Labour position, in opposition to the Tories (status quo) and the SNP (independence at quite literally any price).
Since the 2014 referendum Scottish politics has polarised around national-identity politics, with Labour losing opponents of independence to the Tories and supporters of independence to the SNP. Scottish Labour is currently on 14% in opinion polls (far lower than support for Labour in national polls, but neither the Labour right nor the media argue for its leader Kezia Dugdale to go.) The adoption of those policies may win back support, but a focus on constitutional issues may backfire when the party’s revival depends very much on putting social and economic issues back at the political centre stage.
Those motions which made it onto the floor of the conference (many were ruled out) tended to be worthy but bland, except for motions on local government submitted by Unison and the GMB, unanimously adopted by the conference. These called on Labour-controlled councils to cease to be “the administrators of austerity”and to “meaningfully resist austerity” in alliance with community groups and trade unions. Even the Brexit debate failed to stir conference into life — partly because it was a succession of set-piece speeches, partly because a robustly anti-Brexit motion was kept off the agenda.
The Executive Committee had drawn up a series of “Challenge” papers on different policy areas. None made any mention of existing policy (e.g. against Trident renewal, against the Tories’ anti-union laws): it was as if policies had to be devised from scratch. And the supposed mechanism for drawing up policy — the Scottish Policy Forum — does not even exist at the moment.
Momentum had no presence at the conference at all. Campaign for Socialism members leafletted for two fringe meetings and a social event — and helped out in distributing the Morning Star to conference attendees. The low-key nature of the conference was a reflection of the party’s current weakness. In 2015, the number of Labour MPs in Scotland collapsed from 41 to one. In 2016, the number of Labour MSPs slumped from 38 to 24, leaving Labour behind the Tories. Despite the SNP’s abysmal record at Holyrood Labour councillors could meet a similar fate in May’s local elections.
The Labour left in Scotland badly needs to take the lead in rebuilding CLPs as campaigning organisations and ensuring implementation of the Unison and GMB motions passed by conference.