But this coup really is literally ‘headless’. Who, for example, is it that the centrists want to take over? Those calling for Richard Leonard to go in public – an unattractive mixture of ambitious MSPs, political relics from the House of Lords and even an old football commentator clearly nostalgic for the days when people thought what he said, (about football mind you) mattered - none of these can tell you.
The smart money goes on either Anas Sarwar or Jackie Baillie except that last time Anas had a go for Scottish Leader he was destroyed by the Scottish media. They attacked him for sending his kids to private school and exposed inconsistencies in his statements about his financial arrangements. And Jackie Baillie would surely struggle defending her pro-Trident and “Better Together” stance to a Scottish population hostile to both.
This relates to another and more important sense in which this failing coup is ‘headless’. The opposition to Richard assumes Scottish Labour must not only oppose Scottish independence but should oppose even the right of the Scottish Parliament to take the decision as to whether a referendum on independence should be held, and if it does so anyway, Scottish Labour should continue to obstruct that clearly expressed decision by the legitimate voice of the Scottish population.
That hints a deeper denial on the part of the Labour Centrists about the nature of the problem facing Scottish Labour. Despite the lack of PPE in hospitals and care homes, despite the irresponsibly slow start to track and trace and perhaps most of all, despite the distressing care home scandal which contributed significantly to Scotland having the third highest level of excess deaths in Europe, the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon continue to enjoy increasing support in the polls.
The trust placed in the SNP by the Scottish working class is the result of what was a resolution of a class based tension that often destabilises Nationalist parties. Instinctively bourgeois nationalist parties seek to speak for ‘the nation’ by disguising the class based nature of society and very often their own party. For many decades the SNP had been a political irrelevance in Scotland unable to win wider working class support. That changed in the late 1970s. Then, there was an intense conflict between the moderate leadership of the SNP and the younger ‘leftist’ generation. The leftists, organised in the 79 group, argued that ‘the SNP must look towards the urban working classes to establish itself as the radical Scottish alternative to the Labour Party’. It should be noted that was not because the 79 group’s ambition was the achievement of socialism; it was how working class discontent could be recruited to advance nationalism.
Regarded as ultra-leftists by the SNP leadership for tactics such as civil disobedience, in 1982 seven of the group were famously expelled, including Alex Salmond. Most were re-admitted by 1986, but by then it was into a party that now acknowledged the need to address working class concerns if it was to win wider electoral appeal. By adopting a distinctly popular left appeal at a point when Thatcher was wreaking havoc on the Scottish economy and using Scotland as guinea pig for right wing initiatives such as the Poll Tax, the SNP began its journey to political relevance and its current dominance.
Crucially it did this while the Labour Party under Kinnock and then Blair gave them political space to do so, as Labour sought the electoral promised land shaped by triangulation, by ditching clause 4 and the class politics that went with it. While it may have seemed a successful strategy for Labour with Blair winning three elections in a row, it did so at the cost of its working class base which deserted Labour in ever increasing numbers and in Scotland into the welcome arms of an apparently left leaning SNP.
The boot really now is on the other foot. Scottish Labour has to find its way back to political relevance. Ironically the SNP, a bit like Labour in the 1980s, is less interested in addressing the needs of the working class and more interested in presenting a neo-liberal Scotland as fit to join the networks established to ensure the dominance of regional and global capitalism – the EU and NATO.
It is all the more important then that we do not abandon the power of class politics, as the Centrists would want us to do, especially when we are faced with the most profound challenge to the stability of capitalism since the financial crash of 2007.
As the crisis develops and redundancies and unemployment mount, the Scottish Labour Party working with the Trade Union movement must expose that the neo-liberal politics at the heart of the both the Tories and SNP as enshrined in the SNP’s Growth Commission report, are entirely inadequate to deal with the economic cataclysm facing us .
How are we to do this? Let me conclude with Melissa Benn’s description of the style of Keir Hardie’s politics.
“ For Hardie then the key to politics lay in what he often called ‘agitation’: principled, powerful often unruly, popular protest.”
In his own words Hardie wanted to “ stir up divine discontent with wrong”.
I believe that Richard Leonard has been trying hard to expose the class based nature of Scottish society. We need to support that and on the back of it, more of Keir Hardie’s popular protest.