How Scottish Labour can build its own identity

The party north of the border needs to assert its independence from London and acquire some big names to join the fight, says ANDREW McFADYEN

Donald Dewar’s reply to the Queen at the opening of the Scottish Parliament was one of the great Scottish political speeches. His words captured the optimism of all of us who had campaigned for devolution. He said: “There is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future.” Even at his gloomiest, Dewar probably never imagined that in just over a decade the SNP would form a majority government and his own Glasgow Anniesland constituency would be among those that fell to the Nationalists.

In May’s Scottish election, Iain Gray led his party to its lowest share of the vote since 1923. The scale of the defeat shocked everyone involved. The question now is what can Scottish Labour do to recover? Ed Miliband has asked the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, to lead a “root and branch” review into what went wrong and how it can be fixed. He is astute enough to know that without radical change the party will be out of office for many more years to come.

Scottish Labour needs to assert its independence. Alex Salmond is a much tougher opponent than anyone the party has faced in the past because he shares the same social democratic values and people know that nobody in London, or anywhere else, tells him what to do.

The first challenge for whoever replaces Iain Gray when he stands down in the autumn is to be seen as their own man or woman. The best way of signalling this to the electorate is for Scottish Labour to become a free-standing party that belongs to its members and supporters. It would mean that officials from Walworth Road, in London, no longer have a say on the appointment of staff and the party has complete control over its own agenda. Although this may seem like a novel arrangement, it happened before when the old Independent Labour Party maintained its own structures and programme, but its MPs took the Labour whip in the House of Commons.

Another reason Labour lost votes in May’s election is that many people believe the party sends its best talent to Westminster and those at Holyrood are second-raters. This wasn’t true when Dewar was first minister. He had more authority than anyone else in Scottish politics and led a group of MSPs that included experienced operators, such as Sam Galbraith, and talented newcomers like Susan Deacon and Wendy Alexander. All of them have moved on. Nobody in the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament today carries the same weight as big-hitters at Westminster like Douglas Alexander or Jim Murphy.

The solution is that the best of the new generation, like Anas Sarwar and Greg McClymont, should be encouraged to switch to Holyrood.

Headhunting the brightest talent from Westminster, and elsewhere, would show that Labour is taking devolution seriously. It would also make sense for the party to move its headquarters away from John Smith House, in Glasgow, to a new base in Scotland’s capital. Edinburgh is now the centre of Scotland’s political life and that is where party staff should be based.

The new leader’s biggest task will be to set out a credible vision for turning Scotland into a better country. Scottish Labour has a rich radical heritage, but what does the party of Jimmy Maxton, John P Mackintosh and Bill Speirs stand for today? One of the biggest problems is that since devolution the parliamentary group has increasingly defined itself in opposition to the SNP and lost the ability to articulate its own values.

When, for example, did Scottish Labour become a Unionist party? This is not a description that Keir Hardie would have recognised. He was a socialist who believed that working people needed representation in parliament and a founding member of the Scottish Home Rule Association. If Scottish Labour is to move forward it needs to be imaginative about pushing the boundaries of devolution and show that it is possible within the current constitutional settlement to implement meaningful and progressive reforms.

Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol is a good example. We have the eighth highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world and one of the fastest growing rates of liver disease. 1,500 people die every year because of problem drinking. The SNP’s plans for minimum unit pricing have attracted powerful support from the health lobby, but one of the problems with the policy is that it would result in a multi-million-pound windfall for the big supermarkets. Alex Salmond is demanding control over Alcohol Duty to help him claw back the extra cash to spend on public services.

In fact, the Scottish Government doesn’t have to wait for more powers from Westminster. They are failing to act and pursuing a needless row with the Treasury when the money could be raised now. The Alcohol Act passed by the last Scottish Parliament included provision for a Social Responsibility Levy. If the levy was imposed on all alcohol sales at a rate of, say, 3p per unit it would put approximately 27p on a bottle of wine and raise £150 million each year for local councils.

Scottish Labour should be arguing for the Social Responsibility Levy to be used to ensure that drink is sold at a socially responsible price and the proceeds used to prevent cuts in vital services like education and health.

Scots have now voted in two successive elections to reject the culture and values of the Conservative-led Government at Westminster. Scottish Labour needs to show that it is willing to use its mandate to work with the SNP and the Greens to create jobs and protect our public services.

The biggest issue of the SNP’s second term in office will be the independence referendum.

Scottish Labour needs to accept that Alex Salmond’s majority in the Scottish Parliament gives him a mandate for a referendum and it will almost certainly now go ahead. The way that the party fights the campaign will be important for its reputation.

Most Scots don’t want separation, but neither do they wish to hear that we, unlike all other peoples in the world, are not capable of running our own affairs. The process of becoming an independent state might be disruptive, but it is self-evident that Scotland would govern itself as well as any other small European country.
The case for remaining part of the UK should be built on the positive benefits that Scotland and England both gain from sharing risk and supporting each other as part of a bigger Union, not negative scaremongering. The challenge laid down by Donald Dewar in his speech at the Scottish Parliament’s opening ceremony was for Scottish Labour’s MSPs to be “a voice for the future”. It is optimism that wins modern elections.

Andrew McFadyen is a former senior media adviser to the Scottish Labour Party. He is writing a PhD thesis on the creation of the Scottish Parliament. This article was first published in The Scotsman.

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13 thoughts on “How Scottish Labour can build its own identity

  1. Would Alastair Darling consider the role of Leader? I think he has played a quiet, effective role on the backbenches at Westminster. He has the experience that is needed to face the challenges for the Scottish economy; has a strong legal background and is head and shoukders above any current Scottish based politician – of any party. I believe he could take Donald Dewar’s mantle and lead the Scottish party back to power. Can he be persuaded?

  2. ‘Social Responsibility Levy’ stop speaking clap trap jargon would be a good start then maybe the ordinary person might understand what your on about.
    Aside from the fact there will be ways to get cheap booze and the more the snp Tax the more inventive and effective will be the response to supply the consumer and the Tax will be avoided as well.

  3. Alright Niko. In simple English, if the Scottish Government want to put up tax on booze they can do it now. And personally, I think they should. I’d happily pay more for my carry out if I knew the money was going to fund more teachers and police on the beat. You can’t stop people loading up their cars at Carlisle, but with the price of petrol these days you’d need to buy a lot of beer to justify the drive down from Glasgow, let alone Dundee or Aberdeen.

    1. The ‘booze’ won’t cost anymore for you but it will mean there is a minimum amount to be paid and that will hopefully discourage teenage alcohol abuse.

      It’s just a matter of time till Labour in Scotland decide to adopt this SNP policy too.

  4. The Social Responibility Levy is a rise in the price of all alcohol. It’s not every effective. You see significant swapping from more expensive brands to less expensive brands (people buy less Macallan, more Bells) and not much shift in overall consumption.

    Minimum pricing, OTOH, does have a significant effect on the overall amount consumed. Because it only raises the price of the very cheapest drinks and there’s no substitution effect.

    I do, however, agree whole heartedly that Scottish Labour is not a unionist party. Moving to a relationship with the UK party along the lines that the Co-operative party has might work, with candidates standing as “Scottish Labour”, people holding dual-membership (or triple membership with the Co-op) and the Scottish Labour Party proposing policy for the UK manifesto on both reserved and devolved matters.

    I think there’s a real need for us to push a devo-max settlement which has many of the benefits of independence where it makes sense on things like taxation, welfare and drug policy but without having the costs of independence like renegotiating our EU membership or setting up new embassies.

  5. Alcohol already carries significant duty in it’s cost. Of course the duty is not used, at least not in sufficient amounts, to address alcohol abuse. No need for further taxes. No need to take even more money from the pockets of the electorate.

    If Labour in Scotland want to demonstrate they are fit for government they need to provide benefit and value to the electorate. Bringing tainted Scottish/Westminster MPs up will not help the cause. It will re-enforce the electorates view that labour in Scotland are limited and don’t have any strategies which will change things.

    Don’t look back look forward.

  6. Let me respond to a couple of points.

    The main focus of this article is that Scottish Labour needs to assert its own identity. By this I mean that the party should be defined by its own values, which are progressive and social democratic, rather than its opposition to the SNP. Nobody I know joined the Labour Party to defend the Union.

    I also believe that whoever replaces Iain Gray will have more credibility if they are the leader of a free-standing Scottish Labour Party, rather than simply the leader of the Labour Group in Holyrood.

    But in response to Petem – Scottish Westminster MPs are just as much part of the Scottish Labour Party as Holyrood MSPs. Part of the job that needs to be done is to bring the party back together. In principle, I wouldn’t have a problem if the new leader was an MP, provided it was clear that they would stand for Holyrood next time.

    On alcohol, the fact is that increasing prices through taxation is an obvious way to raise money to protect public services. If the Labour Party believes that the coalition government, and the SNP, are cutting ‘too far and too fast’ it should be prepared to offer an alternative.

  7. As an aside Labour HQ in London hasn’t resided at Walworth Road since before the ’97 election. A minor, pedantic point but using a pre ’97 name for national headquarters doesn’t suggest that their infuence on the Scottish party is all pervasive.

  8. Great review! You actually covered some curious things in your post. I came across it by using Google and I’ve got to admit that I already subscribed to the RSS feed, will be following you on my iphone 🙂

  9. Interesting article. I completely agree that the Scottish Labour Party should be a devolved one – let’s hope we can have that discussion in the coming months. However I’m not so sure about the “all the talent going to Westminster” myth – I think it’s a bigger PLP so the less talented are able to stand back. For example, Jackie Baillie MSP is a great politician, and there’s also Hugh Henry MSP who won ‘Politician of the Year’ as a backbencher. There are also rising stars in the SPLP as well as the PLP.

    1. Let me clarify this point. I agree with John Park’s article above that the new intake at Holyrood includes some real talent, like Jenny Marra and Graham Pearson. Similarly, we all know that not every MP is a star, but in a bigger group they get less scrutiny. However, if you read the article again you will see that what I actually talk about is the perception of the electorate. If some of our best MPs – and I include Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander in this – were to stand for the Scottish Parliament it would send an important signal that Labour takes devolution seriously. My own view is that Labour can beat the SNP at the next election, but to do so the party has to make it clear that it recognises Holyrood is now the centre of Scotland’s political life.

  10. Labourhack’s point isn’t pedantic when he points out that it’s long time since Labour HQ was in Walworth Road . The author falls into the chip on the shoulder trap many members in Scotland do by blaming “Walworth Road/Millbank/Victoria Street/the Kremlin” but failing to actually provide any evidence. We need to face up to the fact that this election defeat was very much made in Scotland. We wrote the manifesto, we chose our leader etc. It is therefore in our hands to sort it out.

    1. Nowhere in the article do I blame Labour HQ in London for last May’s defeat. I agree that it was very much a ‘made in Scotland’ disaster – although part of the reason for it is that Iain Gray wasn’t seen as his own man. What I do believe is that for Labour to beat the SNP in Holyrood elections the party needs a stronger Scottish identity and a positive vision of how to make Scotland a better country. A strong Scottish Labour Party is ultimately in the interests of Ed Miliband and the UK Labour Party as well.

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