Dundee probably hasn’t seen the like since the independence referendum. The university’s main lecture hall was full to the point that the organisers had to open a large over-spill room to cope with everyone. According to one report, 700 people had come along for the evening, myself included – typical of what has been happening around the UK.
We were here for the second leg of Labour frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn’s four-city tour of Scotland, a place where he has much work to do if he wins the leadership election – and where Scottish Labour is about to announce its own new leader in a contest that has had much less attention than this one.
So what did he say about Scotland? Very little, as it happens, besides a few throwaway remarks about Red Clydeside and Keir Hardie. We heard much about the principles that would define his leadership however: protecting the NHS and reversing internal marketisation; promoting human rights; abolishing Trident; encouraging compassion towards migrants and the poor; creating an economy which worked for the poorest; abolishing tuition fees; and fighting the welfare reform bill.
It was all met with enthusiasm and applause from this Dundee audience, in the city which last year voted the most emphatic Yes of all in the referendum. But the Scottish question loomed large and unanswered during Corbyn’s speech. He also failed to account for the fact that many of the policy areas he referenced are devolved. In the case of tuition fees and the NHS, Scottish policy is fairly close to his own position already.
Scotland only came to the fore when it came time for questions, starting with a Yes voter saying that independence was the only viable option for many on the left. In an advance interview with the Dundee Courier, Corbyn had said he didn’t think a second referendum was a very credible idea, since it was supposed to have been once in a lifetime.
At the event Corbyn conceded that the Scottish people may well vote for a second ballot, saying that any further decisions on this would be taken by the Scottish and UK parliaments. But he added that Labour was ultimately motivated by class and solidarity, that poverty did not consider national boundaries and that social justice had to be promoted everywhere in the UK.
He posed a question that those in favour of independence ought to consider. Pointing out that Scotland had crucial policy powers that should be used to combat the Conservative policy agenda, he asked whether these should be addressed in solidarity with the rest of the UK. Was it worth staying in a UK that was becoming the kind of country that many Yes campaigners wanted of Scotland, or was independence something that ought to be achieved regardless?
It did seem as if Corbyn understood that some of the motivations behind much of the Scottish left had been about rejecting the British state in favour of an independent Scottish one – and this was evidenced by the rejection of Scottish Labour in favour of the SNP at the general election. Clearly if he wins he will have a difficult task in persuading this group that their objectives can be achieved as part of the UK. On the other hand, his contention that he is the contender best placed to persuade them may well be right.
Conventional to the last
Corbyn received rapturous applause when he described the House of Lords as an anachronism during a question about the British constitution. This led him to another interesting suggestion relevant to Scotland. In opposition, he wants Labour to hold a constitutional convention to address Scotland, among various other matters: the quality of UK democracy, devolution to the English regions, what to do about Wales and Northern Ireland, and the prospects for a written constitution.
While eye-catching, this raises as many questions as it answers. How would this process be conducted? Who would be involved? What would the remit be? Given that this constitutional convention would address territorial and procedural issues, could it deal with such a large workload in a meaningful way? It looked like a way for Corbyn to buy himself time, although he is committed to a more “bottom-up” form of political engagement and a convention would certainly make this a distinct possibility.
The inescapable conclusion is that constitutional questions are not at the forefront of his agenda. And we need a clearer idea of how Corbyn’s commitment to solidarity would be reconciled with questions of territorial distinctiveness and further devolution to Scotland – not to say growing public support for some form of English devolution. Historically Labour has seen the British state as a mechanism for promoting equality and common social entitlements. The very notion of further devolution of tax and welfare powers risks undermining the party’s understanding of the social union.
Even Jim Murphy realised this by backtracking on Labour’s proposals for very limited further devolution that were published before the independence referendum. Before standing down in the wake of the general election rout, he was advocating the so-called “vow plus”, including greater control over welfare and unemployment. It will be interesting to see which tack the next Scottish Labour leader takes when they are elected on August 15.
In the meantime, Corbyn leaves Scotland with some thinking to do. If he can properly articulate what solidarity means in the UK today and in future, it may well be part of the answer to Labour’s electoral woes in Scotland.