Search in Wikipedia for “political compass” and you will find the following: “The political compass is a multi-axis political model, used by the website of the same name, to label or organise political thought on two dimensions… [It] uses responses to a set of 61 propositions to rate political ideology on two axes: Economic (Left–Right) and Social (Authoritarian–Libertarian).”
These two axes are not the only ones which might be used to classify political parties. One could attempt to rate parties on the basis of their honesty. In government, do they implement their pre-election pledges, or at least attempt to do so? Do they act on behalf of the electorate as a whole, as they would claim, or for a small part of it? Can their policies be influenced by MP’s own financial interests or by money, whether as political donations, lucrative directorships and consultancies, or outright bribes?
As a second axis for a graph, one could use Idealism–Opportunism. I will discuss this by describing the hypothetical end members of this scale; any real party will show some mixture of idealism and opportunism.
An entirely idealistic party would have a definite vision of the society it wished to create, and all its policies would be geared towards achieving that society. If those policies were not popular with the electorate, it would not abandon them, but would seek to persuade voters of their merits. An idealistic party might be good or bad, depending on its goals; the Nazis had their ideals but, tragically, those ideals were evil.
An idealistic party, like a religion, can inspire zeal and even fanaticism amongst its followers. While this may be a source of strength for a party, it can also prove a fatal weakness, for with fanaticism can come an obsession with details of the doctrine, and an uncompromising conviction that there is only one true path from which no deviation is acceptable. This is probably why Wikipedia lists six current UK political parties with the word “Communist” as part of their title; what might have been one minor party is fragmented into complete insignificance.
A purely opportunistic party would have only one ideal, namely that it should form the government whenever possible, so that its leading MPs might have the chance to enjoy the prestige, perks and privileges (legitimate or otherwise) of ministerial office. Its policies would be chosen entirely on the basis of their likely popularity with the electorate. Blatantly obvious opportunism is unlikely to appeal to voters, or to inspire ordinary party members to go out and campaign for the party; it would have to be disguised (perhaps as populism), and hence an opportunistic party would also be a significantly dishonest one.
In opposition, an opportunistic party may well decide that their failure to win the most recent election proves that the winning party had the most attractive policies. (This, however, ignores the possibility that other policies, not espoused by any major party, might have been more attractive to the electorate as a whole, including those who were not persuaded to vote by what was on offer.) They will then be tempted to adopt policies as close as possible to those of the government. If they do so, they cannot mount any effective opposition to the government’s policies without being seen to be hypocritical; all they can do is indulge in empty rhetoric and argue over minor details. Voters will assume that a party which has been an ineffective, lacklustre opposition is unlikely to provide a competent government.
It is tempting to say that Labour is an opportunistic party, but that would be too simplistic. New Labour is certainly much more opportunistic than idealistic, but Corbyn’s election shows that the Labour party contains another strand, which I will call Real Labour. Real Labour largely retains the ideals of the original Labour party, of Keir Hardie and Clement Attlee. In any case, what does one mean by the Labour party? On the one hand, there are what I think of as the apparatchiks, the MEPs, MPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors and paid officials; on the other, there are all the ordinary party members and supporters. Amongst the apparatchiks, New Labour has been dominant since Blair became the party’s leader more than twenty years ago, but the scale of Corbyn’s victory shows substantial support for Real Labour amongst its ordinary members and supporters.
If Corbyn retains control of the Labour party, it is likely that there will be a substantial shift, not just to the left but also towards a less opportunistic choice of policies. However, New Labour has embraced neo-liberalism, and poses no threat to the interests of the Establishment and the mega-rich; the inequality between rich and poor increased as rapidly under Blair as under Thatcher and Cameron. Real Labour could be very different, and so the Establishment, with its control of the media, will do its utmost to discredit Corbyn and his supporters, while disgruntled Blairites will seek to undermine him at every opportunity. The fight for the soul of the Labour party is far from over. It is likely that, regardless of the eventual outcome, the Labour party will be so divided for the next few years that it will continue to have little prospect of winning in 2020 or even in 2025.
One question is how Corbyn’s win will affect the SNP and the prospect of Scottish independence. Of course, any move back to its roots, and to its principles, by Labour will tempt some of those who have changed their allegiance from Labour to the SNP to switch back, but my guess is that that this will not make a significant difference, partly because Corbyn will be felt to be less relevant to Scottish Labour than to Labour in England and Wales, and partly because of the likely internal divisions within Labour.
If the Blairites succeed in replacing Corbyn, or manage to thoroughly divide the Labour party (no doubt blaming Corbyn for the consequences of their own disloyalty), then some Scottish voters who still believe that Labour will return to power and save Britain from its current drift towards a corporate fascist police state will give up that hope and start supporting independence. The other extreme is that Corbyn transforms Labour, persuades many of those who did not vote in May that Labour is worth voting for, and the UK becomes a more tolerable country to live in under a future Real Labour government. If that happens, the case for independence will be weakened. The worst outcome would be one in the middle, where Corbyn is successful enough to let people hope for a Labour victory in 2020, but not enough to achieve one.
Should those of us who support independence therefore hope that Corbyn and Real Labour do not win? I would say no for three reasons. The first is that it would be selfish; there are millions of people in England who do not support the Tories and do not deserve to suffer the consequences of Tory (or even New Labour) government. The second reason is that I suspect that the prospects of actually achieving independence, once there is a clear majority in favour of it, may be better with a Real Labour government at Westminster.
What I believe is as follows. Cameron only signed the Edinburgh Agreement because he was certain that Scotland would vote to stay in the Union, and that this would badly damage the SNP and rule out Scottish independence for decades – after all, it took 18 years for Scotland to get a second referendum on devolution, even though a majority voted for devolution in the first one. It is very unlikely that Cameron or any other Tory Prime Minister will sign any similar agreement, knowing that this time a Yes vote is probable – if it is not probable, the Scottish Government is unlikely to want a referendum. Either the Scottish Government will be prevented from holding a new referendum, or Westminster will not recognise a Yes vote as valid. The only way we will get a negotiated independence deal from a Tory government is if support for independence reaches such a level that they they feel that they have no choice, because the alternative will be a Unilateral Declaration of Independence which will have the backing of a majority of the people in Scotland. A UDI would be a scary prospect for many people, and support for one, as a last resort, is only likely to go above 50% if there is truly massive support for independence, and a great deal of anger directed at Westminster.
My guess is that, since Labour can no longer rely on Scotland returning mostly Labour MPs, a Real Labour government would be easier to deal with. Real Labour would not renew Trident, and would not have the same need to keep hold of Faslane. Real Labour is less likely to look back on the British Empire with nostalgia, and to treat Scotland as the last remnant of that Empire, as England’s last colony.
The third reason to hope for a revival of Real Labour south of the border is that, should Scotland become independent, England would be a better neighbour under Real Labour than under any neo-liberal regime. It will be easier for the Scottish Government to implement socially just policies if England is doing something similar. For example, if the top rate of income tax and benefits were both significantly higher in Scotland than in England, there might be an exodus of rich people from Scotland (for tax purposes at any rate) and an influx of unemployed and disabled people.
I am glad that Jeremy Corbyn is the new Labour leader; I see it as an encouraging sign that the neo-liberal tide might perhaps be about to ebb. What it will mean for Scotland, and the cause of Scottish independence, I do not know, but I am cautiously optimistic that it might open up new opportunities, especially if the Tories start quarrelling amongst themselves over EU membership.