How we can build the New Jerusalem

JOHN O’DONNELL warns that a left turn will lead only to more defeats for Scottish Labour


”Welcome to politics, son,” said an eminent and well-respected regional councillor when a young, new and bounding-with-energy 23-year-old attended his first Annual General Meeting of the Constituency Labour Party. What I had just experienced was a Machiavellian-like coup d’etat that removed the sitting constituency secretary and put in place the one that would steer the constituency’s re-selection of its sitting Member of Parliament. As he turned to walk away, I grabbed his arm and said: ”No! This isn’t politics. This is what we’ve made politics!” And I walked away.

I hope throughout this contribution to look at our party, both in Scotland and UK-wide, to look at the past while focusing on the future. My reason for beginning with a story is fundamental to where I think Labour is today; a belief that ‘we’ make politics and the electorate simply did not understand us, but if they did they would have certainly voted for us, therefore, it’s not our fault but theirs. For me, the belief that politics revolves around us could not be further from the truth. Unless we accept that we have moulded our party and our politics into an irrelevance in people’s lives then I believe that we will continue to experience election defeats in a way that we thought we had left behind on 2nd May 1997.

It is not my intention to go into specific policy areas, though there may be the occasional reference here and there. My reason for this is that without root and branch reform of the party, we will be planting policy seeds on land that the public has quite clearly rejected and not to acknowledge this would be a big mistake. Many of my colleagues have adopted a direct approach to policy areas. My different emphasis is designed not to impugn their contribution but rather is a different interpretation of the reasons we lost and what we need to do to begin to put things right. I do not believe the public turned against us simply because the clock ran out but because they did not, and still do not, trust us. We have a party structure whereby we rarely trust each other so why on earth should the public trust us? It doesn’t matter whether the policy is right or not; if you are not trusted or if you lack credibility, decency and integrity then why on earth should the public trust you?

The one thing I hear again and again from natural labour supporters who voted for the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections is that they felt the incumbent government was trustworthy, credible, decent and had integrity in as far as they were prepared to act in a fair and responsible way without taking the public for granted. In furtherance of this point we regularly read, see and hear stories of elected representatives who brief against other representatives. People try to undermine others, yet they continue to hold high office still. But surely this is politics isn’t it? No! It’s what we have made politics and for me the public is sick and tired of this nonsense. A recent example was the allegation that senior members of the 2005-2010 Westminster administration were collectively plotting to remove former Prime Minister Blair. Why should the public trust us when we don’t trust each other? In reality we have councillors selected not for what they know but for who they know. We have Members of Parliament selected not for what they know but for who they know. We have Members of the Scottish Parliament selected not for what they know but for who they know. So we end up (though not entirely) with a dearth of talent that the party has little faith in, less the public should consider voting for them.

We need a restructuring of the party from the bottom up and one that genuinely reflects the modern world in which we live. I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers but what I do know is that doing nothing is not and never can be an option. In business, the expression “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” never occurs or that business would quickly become so antiquated that it would become an irrelevance. So why, as our country changes, develops and adjusts, should our party and the policies we promote not do the same? Between 1994 and 1997 at Westminster, and between 1999 and 2005 in the Scottish Parliament, we had the courage to change and to be radical. Towards the end of our time in government, firstly in 2007 in Scotland then in 2010 at Westminster, we lost that willingness to be creative, radical and to think outside traditional left-wing politics, and we paid the price for that. A modern political party needs to continue to change, develop and adjust in relation to the climate in which it operates. Failure to do so should end in the political receivers being brought in and perhaps that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Between 1994 and 1997 we had a leader at Westminster who had the passion, vision and determination to change our party. Time didn’t run out on the Conservative Party but they drifted further from the centre ground and ventured so far right that they became an irrelevance in British politics and continued to be so for the next 13 years. Our vision to change was a vision from the centre, not from the far left. The country did not ask us to go far left and would not have tolerated it. I believe firmly that they will not tolerate us doing so this time. Politics is no longer about left and right but is suspended in a modern, three-dimensional prism that transcends old beliefs and applies them to a modern setting. When Keir Hardie created our party, he welcomed anyone to it, rich or poor, as long as they shared the same values that we had. We should continue to welcome people of diverse backgrounds as the party that represents the consensus of Scottish and British life. We cannot do that from the left, however. We must do this by naturally occupying the centre ground of politics. Keir Hardie had specific ideas about what he wanted to see in a ‘New Jerusalem’. These revolved around four key area:

1)         Devolution for Scotland

2)        A national minimum wage

3)        Abolition of the House of Lords, and

4)        Prohibition of alcohol

Though the 1997-2010 government, a New Labour government, was not able to achieve all of them, it achieved 1), 2) and half of 3), with the biggest and most significant reform of the House of Lords in its history, and from a government that many people said was right wing. In actual fact it achieved more of what Keir Hardie wanted than any other Labour government. Alas, prohibition of alcohol was never going to make it to the statute book, no matter what the feeling of parliament was.

Between 2005 and 2010, in Scotland, we also began to lose our heart, our bottle and our soul. We panicked that New Labour in Scotland wasn’t working, creating a political vacuum that took us neither left nor right, but in fact all over the place. We were caught between being distinctly Scottish, distinctly British, or indeed a combination of the two. The result is that we began to lose our Scottish identity, our British identity and ended up in an election display in 2011 where the electorate had no idea who we were, where we were going and whether we could be trusted again. For me, and for us to be relevant again, we need to become radical once more, but radical from the centre not from the left. And if the left has a problem with that then they need to face up to why we lost and will continue to lose. If people aspire to be more affluent, independent, more in control of their lives and the money they earn, more demanding of the schools, hospitals and transport infrastructure that their families want to use, then our whole being, energy, enthusiasm and essence should be to achieve that for them. We should not be telling people what is good for them and not be telling them that big is best.

For me, a basic tenet of a modern socialist society, and something that must be at the heart of any labour administration, in Scotland or at Westminster, is the belief that government can be a force for good. But what it should not mean is that government has to do everything for the people. If government can use private enterprise to achieve economies of scale, reduce the affordable cost to the taxpayer (not remove the cost) and get value for money in the provision of high quality public services then why not? Of course it might mean paying more, but that’s what private enterprise is in business for. However, if my nephews are being taught in modern schools with first class facilities without significantly eating into the capital budget each year then why not? Now, I understand that there will be people in the party who will be horrified at the idea of the continuation or expansion of the Public-Private Partnership, horrified that the principles of sacred-cow-socialism, which many members would rather we returned to, was being threatened. The reality, however, is that the general public do not care one iota about pure socialism, principled socialism or modern socialism. They want the best schools, the best hospitals, the best football pitches, the best roads, the best transport infrastructure, and the best of all that they can have. And they want it without a massive hike in the public purse, without having to pay massive taxes here and now. If we can achieve this by using private enterprise then why not? Surely outcomes are more important to people these days than simply process. We need to forget the arguments about us becoming ‘more’ socialist, whatever that really means in a modern context, and become what the country wants: practical Labour for a modern age.

We lost our way in Scotland from 2005 onwards and gradually became so out of touch that by 2011 we paid the ultimate price. We argued about going further left or right or into the middle. Modern party political organisation and positioning is in a three dimensional prism where we need to consider left, right, up, down, back, forward and a multitude of other positions to finally arrive at the point where modern Scotland is a country that is more outward-looking, aspirational, educated, prosperous and aware of the need to hold political parties to account, the latter of which has found us wanting. The Labour Party elected in 1997 was ambitious, impatient, hungry, determined, economically liberal, socially diverse and willing to think beyond normal left-wing politics. If we are ever to be given the opportunity to serve in government again there are some fundamentals for me:

1)             No return to Old Labour. No going left, left, left.

2)             Be radical from the centre, constantly finding ways to renew ourselves and the country.

3)             Encapsulate into Labour thinking the idea that ‘big’ is not always ‘best’.

4)             Demand much more from our elected representatives.

5)             Reduce the size of the public purse, using capital and revenue spending to inspire people to provide for their own future.

6)             Do not abandon the principles of New labour. Find a way to make Tony Blair’s into a modern dream, desire, determination and drive so it can show people how Labour can make a difference to their lives in Scotland.

7)             And finally, we need to build trust among ourselves, if we want the public to trust us.

Politics may be the art of the possible, but in life at least give the impossible a go. Why not? If we do then the public might once again put their faith and trust in a Labour government, in Scotland and at Westminster, believing that we have their future at heart and we genuinely understand what is important to them and their families.

John O’Donnell is a member of Glasgow South CLP. He Tweets as @f00tballreferee.

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23 thoughts on “How we can build the New Jerusalem

      1. JERUSALEM

        And did those feet in ancient time
        Walk upon England’s mountains green
        And was the holy Lamb of God
        On England’s pleasant pastures seen

        And did the Countenance Divine
        Shine forth upon our clouded hills
        And was Jerusalem builded here
        Among these dark Satanic Mills

        Bring me my Bow of burning gold
        Bring me my Arrows of desire
        Bring me my Spear! O clouds unfold!
        Bring me my Chariot of fire

        I will not cease from Mental Fight,
        Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
        Till we have built Jerusalem
        In England’s green and pleasant land.

        Pray tell, what is this ‘New Jerusalem’ you speak of?

        1. Fantastic song! And proudly sung by Red Clydesider MPs and their supporters at Glasgow rallys in the 1920s. What’s your point, caller?

        2. Mac, it was the vision that Keir Hardie had when he founded the Labour Party and I took my lead from him.

          1. You are conflating Hardie’s heart-felt christian-socialist beliefs with New Labour.

            Hardie would have had nothing to do with New Labour’s rejection of socialism and social-democracy.

            Hardie would have certainly been repulsed by Tony Blair’s vanity and faux christianity.

            New Labour has gone, it should not return and it certainly should not be remembered in the same as Keir Hardie is.

  1. I agree we can’t cleave to the old shibboleths of the Left which don’t work in order to regain power. In particular, authoritarian and centralising instincts should be avoided at all costs.

    However, that authoritarianism was a key aspect of New Labour – in particular the gross abuse of civil liberties – and we also need to abandon the shibboleths of the Right in the party if they don’t work.

    PPP didn’t eat into the capital budget at the time because it was an accounting dodge, one which the NAO is cracking down on and pulling them onto the public books.

    The state can’t run everything, and shouldn’t try – but neither can markets because many things are not amenable to free market competition.

    Yes, we need to be pragmatic socialists but that’s not the same thing as accepting that New Labour had all the answers in either principle or practice as you seem to be suggesting.

  2. Did you have a word limit you were struggling to reach here John you seem to repeat yourself a bit, as for your points about radical thinking I’d have to agree when a party displays this it often adds to it sense on Dynamism that often really appeals to voters, all 3 of Thatcher, Blair and Salmond can be said to have benefited from this to a certain degree. The move to the centre seems however a catch 22 on the one hand the Lib Dem voters are ditching their party in droves and drift to the right may leave the Labour party in position where it can easily claim to be the natural home of the liberal refugees. Also moving to the right ties in with another point you make a bout outcome being more important than end result, doesn’t matter what you do to the party to the election its the winning of the election that counts. This were the problems begin though, you made the point yourself about trustworthiness and credibility people need to believe that you believe in what you’re saying, this comes through delivering a measurable improvement to people lives which is not something that’s easy to do while in oppositions that said will you be able to carry everyone with if you move to the right?

    Another point I fully agree with you on is the need for you to chose a path and get everyone to sick with like you said if you can’t trust and play nice with one another why should the public vote for you? The problems with a rightward movement are obvious. First what is this new Scottish party to called, newest Labour? You’ve gone down that route before and while it work at a UK level where your opponents were right wing Tories but it was never embraced the same in Scotland was it? The other problem Labour has faced which you identified is losing Labour voter’s to the SNP do you seriously think move to the right will stem this?

  3. Your are so right; it’s not the failure to artuclate the message, it’s a failure to develop a message that is attractive to those beyond the party. There is also a tendency to fight the wrong abttles and for the wrong reasons…nobody wanted AV, but once they udnerstand how dishonest FPTP is, almost everyone aprt from cameron and John Reid wants democratic reform. as things look at the moment, FPTP may no longer be an advantage to Labour, but to the gnats. If they get hte same vote share at the next GE as they did in May then an awful lot of Labour MPs are going to be ‘spending more time with their families’, as will Glib-Dumb MPs.
    You may have noticed that the gnats are not so vocal about proportional representation as they used to be; possibly becuase they have won under a system that was specifically desigend to ensure that they could not win.
    The civil liberty issue is more important than the party hierarchy realises – or perhaps than they’d like to admit. Labour – like the tories – is seen as a party that likes to tell you what to do, not a party that respects the freedom of the individual.

    1. Small correction. The PR system for Holyrood was indeed designed to stop one party from gaining a majority in a unicameral parliament. But the party to be blocked was the Labour party, not the SNP. There was no consideration given to an SNP majority. It was Labour the system was meant to hold in check. Let’s not rewrite history.

  4. Radical message? None has shown up far so can I suggest “right to buy” for tenant farmers. If you do not know what I am on about shame on you, look it up in the letters page of “The Scottish Farmer” magazine. The perfect opportunity to be radical and new in the rural areas.

  5. “You may have noticed that the gnats are not so vocal about proportional representation as they used to be; possibly becuase they have won under a system that was specifically desigend to ensure that they could not win.”

    That is absolute nonsense. And it doesn’t even make sense since the Scottish Parliament is elected by proportional representation.

    1. Yes and no, Indy. Just over half (57%) of Holyrood is elected by first-past-the-post.

      1. Surely the point is that the system as a whole is proportional? D’Hondt means that bigger parties to be a bit over represented and smaller under represented but it’s still a proportional system.

        Picking out the FPTP seats and saying it’s “semi-proportional” is accurate in one respect – we do still get the worst sort of street fighting politics as a result. :/

      2. But the system as a whole is a form of proportional representation.

        For the avoidance of doubt nobody in the SNP supports first past the post.

        Can you find a single person who has said the SNP should support first past the post voting?

        You can’t so the comment is just plain wrong.

        1. “For the avoidance of doubt nobody in the SNP supports first past the post.”

          That is a scary sentence. No-one? In the whole party? Discipline is that tight? I doubt if there is another party anywhere in the democratic world who could state such a thing. Remind me: was it the Labour Party who used to be accused by the SNP of being control freaks?

          Incidentally, can certainly name some SNP MPs who support FPTP for Westminster. Does that count?

          1. Do you really think that no other party in the democratic world could say that none of their members support first past the post instead of PR? OK, in that case perhaps you could name some? Who are the advocates of first past the post in Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Germany, Greece, Spain, Italy etc?

            PS: If you can name some SNP MPs who support first past the post rather than PR you should certainly do so. (But it doesn’t count if they just say yeah whatever to make you go away).

  6. John – I could not disagree more with the general argument you put forward. Labour can only win again from the left. The SNP stole a lot of our clothes and were more intelligent than us with their campaigning. I cannot see how more of the new Labour medicine is what is needed in Scotland. Further adherence to discredited neo liberalism would lead to further disaster.

    1. Neil, the SNP didn’t win because they went further left than we did. They won because they were practical, credible and were willing to think outside traditional SNP areas. As for going further left, we had parties of the far left between 1999-2007 after which the public said in huge numbers ‘no thanks’. Old left policies of ‘big is best’ got us into a fine mess. We need to get out of people’s lives as soon as possible, reduce the size of the state and invest in the private sector more. People will vote for practical politics that make a difference not dogmatic politics that are an irrelevance

  7. I hope Labour will move toward the centre as John recommends, as that in itself would be a big move to the left from their current positions on most issues. I would definitely have no problem with a centrist Labour party in Scotland – that, in fact, would be Old Labour – though could still no longer vote for them for other reasons.

    “Now, I understand that there will be people in the party who will be horrified at the idea of the continuation or expansion of the Public-Private Partnership”

    It’s not just people in the Party you must worry about on that front, but people in the country as a whole. Most people in Scotland may not care an iota about pure socialism, as such, but they do know when they are being duped and ripped off by “preferred bidders” with undue political influence. They care very much about that. Everyone should.

  8. Interesting article with some good points but centre ground can sometimes mean aiming for everyone, if Labour dont take a stand for the benefit of people rather than corporate largesse most scots will see through this. If Labour wants to behave like tories then go ahead but I see losses in the future both at local and national level in scotland. For example helping to privatise the NHS in England will provide a massive warning signal for all in scotland no matter how you dress up the message. Check our Andy Burnham offering to support commissioning process.

    #The one thing I hear again and again from natural labour supporters who voted for the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections is that they felt the incumbent government was trustworthy, credible, decent and had integrity in as far as they were prepared to act in a fair and responsible way without taking the public for granted#

    Labour need policies in scotland to develop a consistent brand but its hard when based in London and the UK party line must be followed. Perhaps new labour is a marketing creation for the new labour right wing.

  9. What does it really mean to the general public when we say we are a centre right , or left of centre or centre party , most people really do not care nor understand, they are only interested in policies which affect the way they live and what we can do for them

    One of the Labour Party’s biggest problem is they do not listen , particularly on one of the biggest problems facing Scottish Society today HOMELESSNESS and the lack of affordable housing.

    I have a very simplistic view of life , build a house , safe environment to stay in , provide jobs, good education, community facilities, not a lot to ask is it.

    However it is how we achieve these and how people perceive us as a party in the next ten years, yes 10 years because I believe it will take this time at least to re-establish ourselves as an electable alternative to the SNP

    Labour have only themselves to blame for where we are today, and in some small way I have to take responsibility for that , there have been times when I should have said NO instead I said nothing as it may seem I was rocking the boat, I did say NO once and was duly rebuked for having an opinion. A sad reflection of OLD LABOUR.

    1. Robert, you make excellent points and I totally agree with you. Rather than engaging in a process where the outcome may be unknown but could be exciting and new, we often adopt a polarized and out of date position then find even worse ways to justify it. The sooner we commit old labour to the earth the better for our party.

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