The Strange Death of Labour in Scotland

by Shaun Morris

Scottish Labour membership is a closely guarded secret. The last time the party published official figures they reported around 12,000 members. That was long before the independence referendum that proved to be a political disaster for Scottish Labour.

The surge in SNP popularity at the expense of Labour is well known. It’s not difficult to imagine being in the shoes of Scottish Labour and wanting to keep membership figures private in the face of the SNP’s over 100,000 members.

There has been growth in the Scottish Labour membership in the past six months, however. The leadership election for the UK Labour Party was one of the most exciting political events since the referendum. The nomination of Jeremy Corbyn was a surprise to many and became hope (or despair, if you’re a right-winger) as he steadily crept up in the polls. Hundreds of thousands directly participated in the elections – signing up as supporters, going to packed meetings, sharing on social media – while millions watched the unlikely Islington North MP talk about a new kind of politics and an end to the legacy of Tony Blair.

With the victory of Corbyn many of his supporters joined Labour to take part in his political project. The membership organisation ‘Momentum’ was established to help these overwhelmingly young, new activists integrate into Labour. The Corbyn Revolution has stemmed Labour’s slow bleeding of members and boosted the party ranks to around 400,000.

Though Kezia Dugdale is keen to boast of the 18,824 members Scottish Labour now holds, an investigation by the Financial Times puts this in perspective. Since May 2015 Scottish Labour has gained 4000 members. Not a figure to shake a stick at, but it is dwarfed by the 40,000 new members in London alone. As the FT writes, there are ten times the numbers of Labour members in London than in Scotland. Now a Labour member is four times more likely to be a Londoner than be a Scot.

These figures show that while the Labour Party is not completely dead in Scotland, “Corbynmania” has not infected the Scottish population. Though Corbyn represents a huge upset in the cosy Labour establishment in England and Wales, Scottish Labour has not changed as much. Compared to the UK Labour leadership election, the Scottish Labour leadership was a non-event. The top candidates had no political differences between them and so were left to boast about their “experience” like they were in a job interview.

In Scotland, it is still the SNP who the majority of the working class is looking to. Though the test of events may prove otherwise, working class people trust the SNP to fight for their interests far more than they trust Scottish Labour. The masses can move quickly if they want to, but they see no reason to abandon the SNP to join Scottish Labour. The feeling of betrayal when Labour aligned with the Tories on a platform of union-jack-waving British nationalism is still fresh in their minds. While people are generally positive about Corbyn and Corbyn’s Labour, it is largely viewed as an English development. The membership statistics and the low polling figures for Scottish Labour confirm this.

It is extremely doubtful that Scottish Labour is going to pull something out of its hat to capitalise on Corbyn’s success. Even the right-wing hasn’t got much up its sleeve: Dugdale attacked Corbyn with the rest of the Labour right during his campaign, but immediately declared her loyalty to him when he won. A true careerist if ever there was one.

For better or for worse, Scottish Labour isn’t going anywhere fast. The momentum for progressive politics in Scotland is still with those who stood opposed to the Labour leaders on the question of Scottish independence. The International Marxist Tendency will be with those people, spreading the ideas of Marxism and advocating for the socialist transformation of society.

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