Ewan, you are a rank and file activist in Scotland. How is labour going now, after the second victory for Corbyn?
The political situation in Scotland is distinct from that across the rest of the UK. Scottish Labour is now a third party, behind both the dominant SNP and now the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament. This was the outcome of the election result in May, and it will likely be repeated at local elections next year. Labour nationally has experience a huge surge in membership, to well over 500,000. The official membership number in Scotland isn’t public, but less than 15,000 members voted in the most recent leadership contest. Although Corbyn won the most constituency party nomination in Scotland the gap was significantly smaller than across the UK. The Scottish leadership is quite consciously setting itself against Corbyn. The Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, publicly backed Owen Smith and more generally the party machinery in Scotland is hostile to Corbyn and intently presents itself as ‘moderate’. Across the UK the situation is different with a bigger, livelier, party.
Is the party still divided at the lowest level?
The overwhelming majority of party members voted Corbyn. Compared to the party under Blair it’s quite clear that the consensus within the party is pro-wealth redistribution and for a government which will intervene in the economy and legislate in favour of workers’ interests. Owen Smith seemed to send most of the leadership contest proclaiming how much he agreed with Corbyn and how good his socialist credentials were. This was calculated as the best way to win. Similarly, in Scotland, actual policy where it is enunciated is of a similar, but relatively incoherent, bent. But it’s quite clear there are divides which are in some way almost as much about political culture and ideology as policy. The traditional structures, and practices of deference towards elected officials and party grandees is to some extent being challenged by the incoming flux of new and old members. The prevailing emerging outlook of the Corbyn support is broadly democratic and suspicious of what went before in the party. This contributed towards the decisions to suspend party meetings during the leadership contest. But the potential of the leftward movement in Labour still has a long way to go in being harnessed. Momentum, the organised left, has over 20,000 members, but its structure and practices are still being defined. There’s an argument within it over how Labour focused it should be, and its modes of working. There are differences between experienced activists who want a delegate-based democracy and a current enthused by the ideas of “modern social movements” that seem somewhat suspect in their operation’s attitude towards conventional labour movement views of democracy.
Is there a ban on local branches to meet?
Not anymore. Constituency and other Labour Party meetings were banned over the course of the leadership contest except to make nominations for the leadership. This was an unprecedented democracy and essentially entailed the centralised closing down of democratic discussion and political activity. The decision was justified by the National Executive Committee (at that time it had a right wing majority, this recently changed), on hysterical groundings about episodes of “abuse”, and stereotypes of aggressive Corbyn supporter etc. There are some cases of parties that have been put into special measures, effectively closed down. This includes the Brighton and Hove constituency party where a right-wing local leadership is effectively acting alongside the party officials, who are overwhelmingly hostile to the leadership, to prevent the left-wing majority from asserting itself.
Sometimes we hear that people say that the Corbyn supporters are manipulated by trotskyite elements?
It’s become a stock item of media hysteria to claim that Corbyn’s support base has been infiltrated by ‘Trotskyist’ or ‘far left’ groupings. In reality these groups are tiny, ineffective, and off putting to most new young Labour members in particular. The Alliance for Workers Liberty and to a lesser extent the IMT are active in Labour but these groups are tiny and are not growing out of Labour Party activity. The groundswell that ‘Corbynism’ is based on is in large part an expression specifically of the absence of viable far left organisation in Britain. Small centralised groups based on set ‘lines’ which sell hackneyed newspapers and are beholden to a chief theorist are exceedingly unattractive to newly politicised people attracted to Corbyn and a leftwards moving Labour. Democracy is a prime concern and generally these people are enthusiastic and eager to discuss. Demagoguery comes across as off putting and Trotskyists of this variety look like they’re from another planet compared to most Corbyn supporters. Momentum’s politics aren’t clearly defined yet but it seems very unlikely that the sort of varieties of Trotskyism that had some success in the 1970s and 1980s will have very much role in shaping it.
Since Brexit is under way, will Scotland ask a new referendum for its own independence? What is your position at this level?
Scottish politics feels a bit like it has atrophied along constitutional alignments whilst the future is continually deferred. The SNP and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in particular are quite content to opt for a sabre rattling strategy when it comes to another referendum. Continually agitating around it whilst not necessarily holding one. At the recent SNP conference Sturgeon announced the Scottish Government was going to propose legislation to allow it to call a future referendum. However, Sturgeon is relatively cautious and there is an argument going on within the SNP over whether to have a referendum before or after the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021. Brexit, although against the wishes of the Scottish electorate, also poses a huge problem for predominant visions of Scottish independence. A ‘hard’ Brexit, which looks increasingly likely, leaves the idea of a Scotland open to the rest of the UK and the EU in trouble. It holds out the possibility that an independent Scotland would have a hard border with the rest of the UK. A vote making a choice between the UK or the EU is a hard sell which tests concrete economic and social connections, as well as popularly felt affinities.
I maintain that Labour needs to come out for a federal UK and a substantial constitutional reform including getting rid of the House of Lords. Historically Scotland has been something of an aberration within Labour’s broadly unitary outlook. Devolution was accepted as much as embraced, and at UK level often seen as a necessary concession to Scotland. The EU referendum and recent general elections have revealed intensifying political divides across English regions that relate to long-term socio-economic disparities in the context of an increasingly centralised UK. A programme for seriously redistributing wealth and power attached to a major constitutional overhaul would give more clout and weight to Corbyn’s claim to represent a sea change
Is Labour ready for new general elections? What platform/proposals is your party defending?
Labour isn’t ready for an election, and this is becoming increasingly worrying given that there could be a general election next year depending on how Brexit plays out. At the moment, over a year later, it is a significant concern that we don’t have a stronger and more clarified programme. Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell are broadly putting forward a programme based around combatting social and economic inequality and increasing democratic control over the economy. This includes developing a National Investment Bank being established to provide long-term patient investment, increasing the tax take paid by the richest and seriously opposing tax evasion, and increasing the minimum wage to make it a ‘living wage’. There are proposals to move towards public ownership of energy and rail, to scrap anti-trade union legislation and to encourage public sector house building. Further more detailed proposals are needed. There are issues that are major shibboleth within the party such as the stance on renewing Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons system. Until these are clarified Labour looks divided and without a clear direction. Clear slogans continually putting forward the basic line that Labour is for full employment, better conditions at work and economic democracy are required.