Alan Convery asks, with diminished representation in Scotland, should the Scottish Labour Party consider separating entirely from the UK Labour Party?
In common with the Conservatives, the Scottish Labour Party now knows what it feels like to have severely diminished representation in Scotland. This has led some in the party to consider whether to separate entirely from the UK Labour Party. The Scottish Conservatives also had a similar debate during their last leadership election in 2011. Are there any lessons for Scottish Labour?
Labour is grappling with the same problems as most statewide parties in the world: how to be credible at a national and a sub-state level. The challenge is to be seen to put Scotland first as well as maintaining a commitment to the Union. One of the most common strategies is to keep the party together but devolve more power to its regional branches. This plan does not appear to have worked very well in the Labour case. Johann Lamont complained that the central party treated Scotland like a ‘branch office’ and did not give her sufficient autonomy over policy.
What ought the Labour Party to consider? Firstly, on the practical side, a big focus of the debate in the Scottish Conservative Party in 2011 was the issue of finance. The party still received a subsidy from the UK Conservatives and a common question during the hustings concerned money. Scottish Labour appears to be in the same position, so it would need to consider how it would fund itself in an independent form. Would the party need less money or would the radical change in structure bring about an increase in membership or party donors? Of course, if you conclude that ultimately you have nothing to lose (as some in the Scottish Conservatives did), then this question does no matter so much.
Secondly, there are often trade-offs between autonomy and influence at the centre. Some Scottish Conservatives were concerned about the diminution of their influence in the British party. Had they separated, they would probably have given up their right to elect the UK party leader, for instance, and would have been unlikely to have a formal role in British party policy-making. However, with so few votes and MPs, a plausible argument could be made that they were not giving up anything at all. The Labour Party’s position may be different and it needs to consider how far it values any input it has into how the UK party operates. Do the more formalised structures of the UK Labour Party give it a voice that is worth holding on to?
Finally, there is the question of impact. Academics who study political parties are fascinated by changes in party structures; the Scottish Conservatives worried they would still just be known to the public as the bloody Tories. Labour need to ask what advantages beyond party autonomy would be gained by separation. In what ways could they use this change in order to increase the party’s support? If the problem is one of image, then it might help. If the problem is one of personnel or policy ideas, then changing the party structure might simply serve as a satisfying distraction for party elites.
In short, like the Conservatives, Labour needs to consider separation as a means to an end. Becoming a new and separate party is a bold plan, but it does not on its own provide the answers to the hard questions.