Does Scottish Labour Really Want to Change?
Sunday Mail, November 2nd 2014
What is the point of Scottish Labour? Apart from providing good copy, entertainment and stories of endless political infighting and gossip.
This is the question Labour’s three declared candidates need to answer: Jim Murphy, MP, and Sarah Boyack and Neil Findlay, both MSPs. And after the resignation of Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar as leader and deputy, the party now faces the challenge of electing an entire new leadership team.
Will the party wake up and smell the scent of decay which surrounds it? It has thrown away two Scottish Parliament election campaigns, fought an inept referendum which it nearly lost, and now finds itself in two polls for next year’s Westminster contest facing the prospect of a near total wipeout.
So far the parameters of this debate have been predictable. Scottish Labour, it is claimed, has to be more distinct and autonomous. Some claim it has to outflank the Nats from the left, for others not cede the centre ground. This is what passes for analysis in Scottish politics and it can be distilled into three different takes of what’s wrong in Labour and what to do.
There is the approach which lays all that is wrong at the door of Blairism and New Labour. It claims that what Labour needs is ‘clear red water’ between it and the SNP.
Secondly, some vocal Scottish Labour MPs, ‘dinosaurs’ to some, believe Labour supped with the Nationalist dragon in the 1980s and 1990s and has paid the price subsequently.
Finally, there is the Westminster Labour leadership’s take on Scotland. This can be summarised as a holding operation, doing nothing to get in the way of Scotland delivering 40 plus seats to the House of Commons and election of a Labour Government.
None of these explanations are adequate. The first two come from or reinforce left and right simplistic caricatures which don’t correspond with how most voters now see the world.
The British Labour leadership line has proven equally unsatisfactory. Scottish Labour has been left to its own devices, not fully autonomous, but semi-detached, until problems arise.
Yet, Scottish Labour’s current sad state long predates recent troubles. It can be found in what the party became at the peak of its influence in the 1960s and 1970s, namely, the establishment party.
This affected everything it did, from how it ran councils, made political decisions locally and nationally, and the reasons people joined and were active in the party. Scottish Labour became driven by internal dynamics, such as keeping various groups and factions onboard, but suspicious of outsiders and non-Labour Scotland.
This sapped its political energy, instincts and purpose, and led to its slow decline, as people became increasingly disillusioned with a politics of Labour knows best and small-minded petty bureaucracy. In many respects, Labour was a victim of its own successes, as people rehoused from Glasgow or Dundee slums into new housing, wanted to buy their own home and have more choices in their lives.
Significant sections of the Scottish party yearn after the certainties of a left-wing socialist message. They believe that Jim Murphy is ‘toxic’ because he is or was a ‘Blairite’ and supported the Iraq war. This is a politics of defining today’s challenges by yesterday’s battles and terminology, and could if they succeeded trap Labour as a prisoner of its own past.
Scottish Labour has to escape such thinking and labels. ‘Blairite’ and ‘Brownite’ are hardly meaningful terms in the politics of 21st century post-referendum Scotland.
The future agenda of the party comes from a realisation that it cannot and should not try and out nat the Nationalists, or endlessly bang on about devolution and constitutional change.
Instead, Scottish Labour should embrace a terrain neither to the left or the right of the SNP, but one populist and outward looking. It should talk about social justice, poverty and the hopes, worries and concerns of aspirational Scotland.
That is traditional or classic Labour and people want to hear the party talk convincingly on these areas. But it would also be helpful if Labour left its own comfort zones and addressed public spending choices, public sector change and innovation, and even the economy and wealth creation.
These are issues Labour hasn’t addressed for a generation. Any Scottish Labour leader championing such issues will be met with the charge of ‘Blairism’. Scottish Labour has to embrace some of the elements of Blairism without that ism: a sort of Big Tent Labour which challenges the SNP’s own inclusive politics.
The challenge will be whether the Labour tribe has the hunger and intelligence to realise it has to change its ways. Doing so will require abandoning some of the ways it has done politics and sees the world. This will necessitate greater autonomy, even quasi-independence, but more importantly, standing for a distinct Scottish vision and speaking up for the constituency which wants to hear a non-SNP message.
The leadership contest is Jim Murphy’s to lose. The question is does Labour want to be led, change and lead Scotland.