Tommy Sheppard: Why Corbyn won't stop the SNP

Posted On: 
14th October 2015

As the Labour leader backtracks furiously to keep his party united south of the Border, the SNP will continue leading the charge against the Tory Government, writes Tommy Sheppard 

Good luck to Jeremy Corbyn. The people of England deserve an anti-austerity alternative to the Tories. For too long a neo-liberal norm has dominated that country’s political class, obliging the rest of the UK to follow. If Corbyn’s Labour Party can break that cosy consensus and be a voice for the unheard then few here will stand in their way.

But things are different in Scotland. Whereas in England there is a huge gap in the political market with no main party at the last election taking an anti-austerity, anti-nuclear, pro-welfare stance, that ground is occupied north of the Border.

Labour’s problem in Scotland is not just that it has become a hollow vestige of the party created by Keir Hardie, but that is has been replaced. There is a left of centre mass party in Scotland that champions ordinary people above the interests of global capital. It’s the SNP.

As James McEnaney puts it so sweetly writing in Commonspace: “Scotland didn’t leave home, Labour, we changed the locks while you were out.” This is why the surge in Labour membership never happened in Scotland. Those tens of thousands of people who might have joined had already been part of a much bigger surge ten months earlier.

During his leadership campaign I watched Corbyn on his trips to Scotland. It’s fair to say he didn’t look at ease. In part his pedigree is London-centric and the Metropolitan left have rarely felt the need to get involved in debates about the constitution. So he has a lot of catching up to do.

But a bigger problem is where and from whom Corbyn is getting advice on matters Scottish. I assume that he is taking briefings from what remains of the Labour left in Scotland. And therein lies the problem. Most of what was once the Labour left have now gone from the party, many to build the new SNP. Few who believed in a Scottish dimension to politics have stayed. Those that remain are a parcel of rogues indeed, by definition set fair against any notion of proper devolution of power. They range from right-wingers who believe in the Union in principle to unreconstructed leftists for whom any discussion on constitutional reform is a diversion from the class struggle.

If Corbyn’s Labour takes its line from those who are left behind in the Scottish branch he makes a fatal mistake. These are the people who have taken Labour to where it is today. He might do better talking to the people who have left Labour in their droves over the last generation.

A new centre left consensus has grown in Scotland over the last 20 years. That view sees constitutional change and social democratic reform as two sides of the same coin; each both the consequence of and rationale for the other. People like me now have a very firm view that the type of structural social and economic change we want is more likely to come about if we are a small country where a majority want that change than if we are part of a larger country where most do not. So our fight for self-government is not just about having the trappings of a sovereign nation, but the powers to change lives.

I anticipate that the new new Labour party will attack the SNP rather than the Tories as we go towards the Holyrood elections, claiming our record in government betrays our social democratic credentials. They will have difficulty making that stick. Actually, the SNP’s record in government is pretty impressive, and people can increasingly see the differences in health and education services north and south of the border. Of course we would like to do more but the dogs in the street know we don’t set the amount of the Scottish budget and if Labour attempt to blame the SNP for cuts imposed by Westminster it won’t wash.

Regrettably though, it looks like truth will be the first casualty. Corbyn and McDonnell have both made a series of untrue statements about the SNP in recent weeks saying variously that we have privatised Scotrail and Calmac, voted against the living wage or cut local government funding. It’s easy to check whether these things are true. They aren’t. So much for “straight talking honest politics”. If Labour stick with this failed agenda of SNP bashing and lies they’ll be going nowhere fast in Scotland.

But perhaps the greatest problem for Labour is that already they are backtracking furiously, trying to keep a united party in England. For reasons best known to themselves the new Labour leadership say they now agree with the overall financial framework set by George Osborne. The SNP do not. We shall once again vote against the Tories fiscal limits, arguing for more time to eradicate the deficit so that public spending cuts can be eased.

And the position on Trident is truly bizarre. The Labour conference voted to commit £100bn to replace Trident on the same day that their leader opposed it. I hope Jeremy Corbyn will vote with the SNP against the renewal of Trident – he has before – but the fact that in doing so he will deny his own party means we are unlikely to win.

We may make common cause with the Labour leader on resisting Tory welfare cuts, or trade union reforms, or wars, but in most cases it will be the SNP leading the charge as Labour’s backbenches abstain.

At the end of the day it boils down to whether you believe the people of Scotland should have the right to control the resources of their own country – or whether their ambition should be forever compromised by the wishes of their larger neighbour.   

Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East. He was a member of the Labour Party from 1979 to 2003