Antonio Gramsci, long a hero of the Scottish left, wrote that a crisis exists when “the old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” Scottish Labour is – perhaps to the surprise of some – not a world unto itself, but nevertheless seems to be faced with a similar predicament today.
Dinosaurs, Monsters, Scarecrows
It’s not ridiculous to wonder whether Scottish Labour’s new world will come forth at all. Former Labour finance secretary Andy Kerr described the situation memorably on BBC Crossfire: “If I was a dinosaur I’d be quite offended to be compared to some of these [Scottish Labour] MPs. Dinosaurs left the planet and there was some hope for life afterwards. These people are not going to leave any hope for life in the Scottish Labour Party.”
And it is a time of monsters. In the leering, long-limbed form of Jim Murphy, the spectre of Blairism haunts page after page of speculation about the next Scottish Labour leader. Gordon Brown’s revitalised acolytes worship, seemingly to no avail, at the altar of the Big Beast. Monsters are often evil, or frightening – but not always. To consider the monstrous is, by implication, also to consider what it means to be not-monstrous, to be ordinary; and what is ordinary in Scottish Labour is barely worth considering.
Brown and Murphy are not ordinary, but they remind us of the joke about the scarecrow that won a Nobel prize for being out standing in his field; they are political scarecrows, hollow monsters, frightening off the scavengers without moving a muscle. The ordinary – Sarwar, Dugdale and Marra – have all ruled themselves out. Brown has done the same.
But there is another contender, by no means ordinary, hovering at the edge of the field, with an inkling that the remaining scarecrow may in fact be nothing more than a suit full of straw. The candidacy of Neil Findlay MSP, shadow health secretary and lifelong socialist, would certainly be monstrous. It would also be the best thing to happen to the Scottish Labour Party – perhaps even Scottish politics – in a very long time.
To be monstrous is to be unexpected, to fill the void which emerges between the things we accept or understand as they fragment and separate. The world is full of monsters today partly because it is so full of failed understanding. The vast, apparently cosmic, forces of globalisation and crisis are transforming the world, but our understanding remains almost insurmountably parochial and nationally grounded. People whose lives, lifestyles and livelihoods are under threat are fettered by a disorientating combination of global forces and local ideas, and react in a suitably confused way. We end up with a range of bizarre symptoms which few can properly explain: UKIP, Russell Brand, ISIS, even the Yes campaign, are all vaguely a part of this. Nobody seems to know where it’s all coming from, or what to do about it.
Against this, we tell stories. Real monsters must be sublimated into fictions, lest we lose our minds or at least our hope. The monstrous state of the Labour Party today must not be explained as the inevitable fate of social democracy in global capitalism, for then the remaining options become unpleasant – as Luxemburg put it, socialism or barbarism – and people get their nice houses expropriated. Labour’s decline must instead be slotted into a narrative that preserves an easy way out: The Scottish nationalist story tells us that Labour will either decline, irreversibly, or will be absorbed peaceably into the new order; what is assured is the restoration of craved economic and social security under the civic-national banner, and a new political hegemony with the “Yes Alliance” at its centre. One social democratic star wanes, another rises, and darkness, with all its terrible monsters, never truly falls.
Jim Murphy would fit snugly into this story. He would conclude the right-wing takeover of Scottish Labour, long seen as reluctantly lagging behind London, and condemn them to the final loss of their remaining working class supporters. Murphy’s deposition of Price and Lamont cements his image as the London Labour candidate, reasserting Westminster control in a party threatening to find its own distinct voice. The nationalist stereotypes of Labour would be confirmed, one by one.
The Shock of History
A key and particularly mendacious part of the nationalist fairy tale is that Labour never really wanted powers to lie in Scotland; that they handed limited power over reluctantly in the face of an insurgent SNP, regretted it soon after, and are now paying the price. This is an act of wilful ignorance towards the history of the Scottish labour movement and their turbulent relationship with the Labour Party. A truer, but altogether less optimistic, account of Labour’s decline in Scotland would go like this:
The radical challenge of devolutionary socialism flourished on the trade union left and influenced the Scottish Labour Party during the 1970s, but withered in the face of intransigence from the Labour right in the 1974-79 governments. This was followed by the obliteration of the forces which sustained it in the labour movement’s defeats of the early and mid-1980s. Following the miners’ strike, and the end of a widespread belief in the labour movement that industrial action could successfully challenge government policy, a left-ish civic nationalism became the predominant force in Scottish politics.
Spearheaded by the STUC, Labour was joined by the SNP, the Liberals, the Churches and local government institutions in arguing for a defensive shield for the material interest and allegedly distinctive values of Scottish society. Rather than the “workers’ parliament” the STUC leadership had argued for at the time of the UCS work-in, the devolution that was popularised at this time was defensive and conservative, rather than forward looking and transformative. It has been within the environment shaped by these prerogatives that the SNP have flourished, and Labour have been unable to out-nationalist the nationalists in a contest based on “defending Scotland” and preserving a limited welfare settlement rather than redistributing wealth or power.
Nationalists could claim that this is just another story. And it is, to an extent. Writing or studying history is not in itself a useful form of politics; it changes some minds, but few. Walter Benjamin wrote that “the true picture of the past whizzes by”; that “to articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” For Benjamin, true history was not one long story, through which some grand progressive intention was revealed, but a kind of interruption; history is precisely the real monster which bursts out of the inevitable gap in the conventional, ideological narrative and forces everyone to pause and realign themselves to the world. History seeks revenge against those who try to hide from it.
This, then, should be a central goal of radical politics; not to take the long march through history, building a narrative and movement that gradually imbues the people with left-wing values, but to ride in on the back of a monster with a shock intervention in the accepted order of things, exposing and exploiting the contradictions and inconsistencies of those in power to alter the fundamental coordinates of political possibility.
Why Findlay Should Run
Neil Findlay’s candidacy would be at the very least a form of interruption, if not quite a radical reorientation of politics. It would unsettle established forces and trajectories in his party and in Scottish politics, which are unprepared for someone like him precisely because he is so profoundly unlikely. His election to parliament on the regional list in 2011 was a surprise itself, coming from the SNP’s shock triumph across Edinburgh and Lothians constituency seats; but he has proven himself in parliament, rising quickly to shadow health and wellbeing secretary and holding the SNP to account from a principled left-wing position.
And he can win. As possibly the only Holyrood challenger to Westminster’s Jim Murphy, he would command the support of a significant number of MSPs and some MPs. It’s possible, even probable, that several unions would back him. The left wing of the party membership would do the same. Odds were duly slashed after Brown ruled himself out.
What forces might he unsettle? His candidacy could blow Labour open, with the help of the trade unions, the Red Paper Collective and others, and demonstrate that amidst the cobwebs there still exists a principled, imaginative left in the Labour Party. The “civil war” predicted by the Scottish Daily Mail should be welcomed, not feared. Getting Scottish Labour back on its feet won’t be done without a bit of rough and tumble.
His leadership, if secured, would be hard to fit into the story of Scotland told by the now-established and increasingly hegemonic SNP and many of their “Yes Alliance” sympathisers. Nationalists, facing a rejuvenated challenge from the left, would be unable to realistically condemn Scottish Labour as ‘red Tories’, and would struggle to monopolise centre-left and working class votes. Findlay’s motions on the living wage and blacklisting earlier this year exposed the SNP’s conservatism on crucial issues for the working class, and his recent article for the Morning Star demonstrated a keen awareness of the potential and necessity of socialist, class-oriented politics in a faltering party. The anti-Labour left, who generally accept the nationalist narrative en masse, would find it hard to legitimately portray Labour under Findlay as something to be destroyed; they would have to either consider the party on its real merits or expose their underlying nationalism. Findlay’s leadership will help socialists to clarify certain lines of division.
But most importantly, it’s as a socialist that Findlay can understand the need for Labour to exit the civic nationalist discourse they have been so complicit in creating. He can and must represent that tradition in Labour which has been forced underground: one that does not seek to build an illusory consensus by hiding or suppressing division, but identifies the real conflicts in society, points them out to everyone else, and comes down firmly on the correct side. If Labour’s degeneration into just another extraneous party of the fading middle classes is halted under Findlay’s leadership, the party may even be able to halt the degeneration of Scottish politics into total nationalist hegemony by providing a rallying point for a dissenting, conflict-focused left. Neil Findlay should run for Scottish Labour leader, and – along with the whole Labour Party – the Scottish left should support him.