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Why Labour Movement is Crucial for Indy

Rory Hamilton – 28th April 2022

This week we’re at the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Aberdeen, and I’m sure Leo, Craig, and Robin will have plenty to talk about in their articles and upcoming podcasts. The 125th anniversary of the STUC though comes a few days after current Secretary-General Roz Foyer reaffirmed the STUC’s support for a second independence referendum. In an interview with the Daily Record, she said:

“We absolutely support the right to self-determination for the Scottish people. At the end of the day, it should be up to the Scottish Parliament to determine whether there’s an indyref2.”

Aside from comments by Foyer, former General-Secretary Grahame Smith said back in 2020, “[t]he democratic wishes of the people of Scotland need to be acknowledged. The Scottish Labour movement should support indyref2.”

I have long thought that the YES movement needs to be fronted by more than just political parties, and this support for a second referendum is encouraging. The labour movement is, and always has been, a crucial driver of Scotland’s radicalism – the long-heralded “Red Clydesiders”, the Mineworkers’ strikes of the ‘80s, and even more recently RMT and cleansing worker strikes and demonstrations during COP26 and following the P&O scandal. Each of these actions has met resistance but has won a an equal (and often greater) groundswell of public support.

The labour movement should be placed at the heart of the independence debate, for independence should be built by the workers for the workers as much as anyone else. During the Congress this week, it has been wholly inspiring to see a great number of motions put forward that champion Common Weal. By placing workers at the heart of the debate, we are best able to construct these policies that will make a marked difference to the lives of working-class people. A vision for an independent Scotland, built out of policies moulded by the people that they will affect, has the power to create an inspiring and captivating message. 

Given the wide number of people the trade union movement represents, and the diversity that comes within that representation (gone are the days of old white men parading Glasgow in black suits behind the likes of Jimmy Reid and Willie Gallacher) means that independence fronted by workers presents the best possible way of reaching the people we want to win over to independence.

And while the movement seems continually wrought by divisions over the who, what, and when of the referendum, GRA reform, and what appears to be little more than personality clashes, where better to turn to, than an apparently cohesive, energised movement that already has popular appeal, links to the independence movement, and a positive vision for Scotland’s future.

Trade union leaders such as Roz Foyer, Grahame Smith, and Len McCluskey have even recognised the importance of the constitutional question, particularly for the Scottish Labour Party. McCluskey’s inditement was particularly scathing: “I think Scottish Labour are in danger of withering on the vine unless they’re more imaginative [and] embrace a second independence referendum.”

McCluskey even appeared to acknowledge Labour’s constitutional stance as an impediment to its electoral success: “Labour has to do something imaginative and radical, because it’s not like the SNP are being successful in public services or education or health and yet Labour can’t put a glove on them at the moment.”

These trade union leaders are right, especially when somewhere between 30 and 40% of Labour members in Scotland support independence. If Labour really wants to make a dint in the SNP’s opinion poll armour, then embracing a second independence referendum is its strongest move. The Tories have already pinned themselves down as the champions of the Union, the SNP for independence. 

Labour can find a gap in the market by supporting democracy through a referendum and come to a more resolute position on the constitutional question by the time the campaign comes. Better that than choosing to deselect or pressuring younger, capable activists like Hollie Cameron or Debbie Boyd to step down from election candidacies on their constitutional beliefs (not least when Orange Order members seem to make it through the selection sieve).

The crucial mistake that Scottish Labour has made, in contrast to Welsh Labour, is to fully discard Scottish nationalism and embrace an entirely British ideology. In Wales, the Labour Party remains in power after 23 years of devolution. Why has it been so successful? Electoral and rhetorical pragmatism. Think back to Rhodri Morgan’s “Clear Red Water” agenda, which promoted collectivist policies, in contrast to the neoliberal agenda pursued by New Labour in Westminster. The “red” drew distinction between socialism and neoliberalism, and Welshness and Britishness. Likewise Carwyn Jones utilised nationalist rhetoric against a Tory other, “The people of Wales have turned to Labour to defend them from harsh Conservatism … our values are the same values that the people of Wales share” (Jones, 2011; in Moon, 2017: 130).

In an undergraduate university essay I once argued that, “by creating Welshness, Britishness and social democracy as interconnected, Welsh Labour does not need to draw on overt symbols of Britishness because it is reinforced by political ideological values that are simultaneously Welsh”. So why have Labour been so dominant in Wales? Because they have effectively used nationalist rhetoric to co-opt its direct competitor-on-the-left, Plaid Cymru, forcing it onto territory on which it cannot compete: policy.

Even without rhetoric, Welsh Labour is not so behind on the constitution as Scottish Labour. First Minister Mark Drakeford himself suggested the UK needs a radical rethink of its constitutional politics). Scottish Labour’s wobbly anti-independence stance is grounded in the past, and if it wants to win elections it needs to send the message that it is the party of the future, and adopt electoral tactics like in Wales (wheeling out old fogies like Gordon Brown to talk about federalism again won’t improve its chances at the ballot box).

So Welsh Labour has lessons for Scottish Labour, but it also has lessons for the SNP: “a considerable part of Welsh nationalism lies outwith the nationalist movement and instead in the Labour movement”. This movement provides the strength for Labour to maintain its grip on power, and if the SNP or the YES movement are serious about getting “free by ‘23”, then it must embrace the energy, enthusiasm and practical working-class vision offered by Scotland’s workers. 

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