Despite Scottish Labour being in a seriously tough place in the polls it has been heartening for many members to see our campaigning spirit undimmed in recent months, and after a strong campaign pointing out Scottish National party failures on the National Health Service we have been breaking through more recently on their poor record in education, highlighted just this week by the PISA scores showing a worrying drop in educational attainment over the decade of SNP rule. Labour’s health and education teams in Holyrood are putting up a good fight, and members are out and about and getting a fair reception on the doors. After the independence referendum and the Brexit vote, real politics is slowly coming back.
So I can understand the concern from some quarters to see Kezia Dugdale dive back into the icy waters of the constitution today, with a bold speech at the IPPR in London calling for a UK-wide constitutional convention to deliver a federal United Kingdom.
There are few votes to be won from taking the middle ground in an area of Scottish politics which is so tremendously polarised. The SNP stand for independence above all else, and the Tories stand for the union above all else. Labour finds itself unionist out of a desire to preserve solidarity and prevent harm, but that leaves its case lacking in the passion the others can bring. We are pragmatic unionists, concerned for the wellbeing of working people and concluding from the available evidence that staying part of the UK serves them better. Nobody puts that on a banner.
Nonetheless Kezia is right. We must break out of the polarised politics in which our constitution is mired, and we won’t do that by abstaining from the debate. We need, and she has now provided, a position which attempts to break the deadlock, which seeks compromise and argues for solidarity above division.
In broad brushstrokes, Dugdale is proposing a UK-wide constitutional convention in the wake of the Brexit vote to reconstruct the country in a way which better recognises our new reality. Her suggestion is that the outcome could be a form of federalism, in which the constituent parts of the UK have clear roles.
But significantly she is explicitly – and this has been too rare among political leaders – asking us to acknowledge that the situation we face is complex, and that simple answers like a second Scottish independence referendum are not solutions. She is calling for a constitutional convention – a coming together of all strands of opinion, political and civic – to find a compromise which delivers the best we can for the people we seek to serve.
Compromise. That’s a word we haven’t heard much of in 2016. It is, I think, the only way out from where we are.
Initial reaction to the speech demonstrates what tough ground this is to plough. The SNP member of the Scottish parliament Linda Fabiani wittily remarked that ‘Billions of years from now I half expect Labour politicians to be staring into a dying sun calling for a constitutional convention’. This scorn for the concept of compromise from the party which has seen independence as the answer to every problem facing Scotland for the past 80 years is hardly a surprise. But it serves to remind us that the SNP boycotted the Scottish Constitutional Convention of the 1980s – the one which actually created the Scottish Parliament.
And the Scottish Tories merely seem to have taken this as another opportunity to pretend Labour isn’t really unionist, as if any sniff of finding common ground to get us out of our impasse is really the opening of the door to independence. So far so predictable.
It is true that we cannot allow our politics to be dominated by the constitution for ever. But I think Kezia has made the right call in setting out this rational, compromise plan to show that Labour will continue to stand for a United Kingdom built on solidarity and compromise, and will continue to reject nationalism whether it be of the Scottish or British varieties.
We must continue to hold the SNP government to account for its actions in government, for the resulting outcomes for our pupils and patients, and for their choice to impose Tory cuts rather than use the powers of devolution to reverse them. But we need also to shine a light through the constitutional mess that the independence referendum and Brexit has left us in. Kezia today has shown us what a Labour solution could look like. I hope her vision is endorsed across our movement.
Duncan Hothersall is a Scottish Labour acivist and editor of Labour Hame. He tweets at @dhothersall
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