Scottish Labour delegates gathered for their spring conference in Perth over the weekend in less than auspicious circumstances, trailing both the SNP and Conservatives in the opinion polls ahead of the local government elections in May. Events elsewhere also overshadowed the conference, with many again questioning the leadership of UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn following the party’s disastrous showing at the Copeland by-election.
Under the theme of ‘Together We’re Stronger’, Scottish Labour Leader Kezia Dugdale attempted to regain the political initiative on the constitution by using conference to commit her party to a federalised Britain, while also reaffirming her support for the Union. But will federalism be enough to revive Labour’s fortunes north of the border?
A Constitutional Third Way
The notion of a ‘Third Way’ in British politics was associated with the centrist political positions of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1990s which sought to go beyond policy solutions offered by the Old Left and New Right. Kezia Dugdale now intends to tread a new third way between political extremes – but this time on the constitution.
Activists backed Dugdale’s plans to establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to assess the creation of a federal power plan for the UK. Alongside former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and party representatives from England and Wales, she would set out in the coming months how they would take this forward.
Embracing federalism is an obvious attempt to steer a third way between the “status quo” unionism espoused by the Scottish Conservatives and “damaging plans” for separation offered by the SNP – an approach which could appeal both to unionists and ‘soft’ independence supporters alike. At a fringe event, Dugdale suggested that federalism could even be included as an option in any future independence referendum (although she reiterated that she did not support one being called).
At the Scottish Parliamentary Election last year, Scottish Labour had attempted to move on from constitutional debates, instead emphasising social justice with their plans to increase income tax. However, as one delegate reminded conference, Scotland had not moved on from the outcome of the independence referendum.
That was evident in the results at the 2016 Holyrood elections and was also brought into sharp focus with the political fallout in Scotland from the UK’s decision to vote to leave the EU.
Federalism: right or ropey?
Within a few hours of Kezia Dugdale’s speech, a former Labour Minister described the plans for federalism as “pretty ropey”. Brian Wilson told a Fabian Society fringe event that it was difficult to see how the idea could work in practice and that there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for federalism in England.
The following day, Jeremy Corbyn omitted reference to federalism in his keynote address, but endorsed the notion of a People’s Constitutional Convention. This underlines the problem faced by Kezia Dugdale: the man who will ultimately be responsible for implementing her flagship policy can’t bring himself to utter the words ‘federalism’. Earlier this year, Corbyn also contradicted Dugdale’s call for a new Act of Union.
These difficulties aside, it is abundantly clear that Scottish Labour need a distinct approach on the constitution but deciding on the exact model of federalism, and how it will operate on a UK-wide basis, will be an arduous task.
From West Lothian to Schleswig-Holstein
When engaging in constitutional debates in Scotland, we are more used to referencing the West Lothian Question than the Schleswig-Holstein Question but the words attributed to Lord Palmerston on the latter have particular resonance:
“Only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”
The same could be said of how federalism could operate in the UK. Therein lies the challenge for Scottish Labour.