‘It’s not Left or Right – it’s forward!’

Labour failed on May 5 because we were seen as the party only of those left behind, writes IAN SMART


So, Tom Harris and a few like minded souls set up this website and I essentially force my contributions upon them. The problem then is what to say. That’s not a meaningless observation. The interesting thing in the post election period has been how so many people from diverse lefty corners of the blogosphere have been so quick to come to the same conclusions as to the reasons for our defeat.

Obviously, there are the exceptions, still trotting or blaring out the old mantras that it was because we weren’t left wing enough or right wing enough. Good luck to them. There, however, seems to be a remarkable consensus elsewhere that the true reasons were that we weren’t positive enough, competent enough or Scottish enough.

Hopefully, if LabourHame flourishes, it will be in the development of how these shortcomings might be overcome. So that’s where I’d like to start.

Having been given the opportunity of a wider audience, I don’t intend to use it simply to repeat what I’ve already said on my rather sad and lonely personal blog. Those interested can click on the link. Rather, I’d like to address what we might mean by positive.

As a political project, the Labour Party has been a success. Neil Kinnock probably expressed this best when he asked rhetorically why he was the first Kinnock for a thousand years to go to University but there are any number of other examples: people no longer endure serious illness for want of the resources to seek medical treatment; generally, they no longer live in substandard housing or, indeed, enjoy no career opportunity other than that followed by their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. These are our achievements. But it is neither enough in modern times to expect the electorate to support us for fear that such days will return or indeed expect them to support us out of simple gratitude for battles won long before they were alive. I live in a mining area. There are people here who would never vote anything but Labour, as the party that nationalised the mines. But they are all now over 80. A majority of the electors, even here, have never seen a coal mine other than on the telly, never mind enjoy an appreciation of what nationalisation meant.

The Scottish Labour Party took a particular perverse pride in never being entirely signed up to the new Labour project but in reality we benefited from it. Patently, we got votes in 1997 that we had not secured in 1992, let alone 1983. I’ve never liked Blair but anybody who suggests that the victory (at least in ’97) was “despite him” is, frankly, deranged. We also, however,  benefited at that moment from a peculiarly Scottish phenomenum; that Labour in Scotland had become not just the party of the working class but also, very much, of the educated middle class. Donald Dewar, John Smith, Sam Galbraith, Gordon Brown and any number of others were people who could have been successful, indeed already had been successful, in life without ever having been involved in politics. And who could, in that capacity, have been our colleagues, even our friends. They made it respectable to be a Labour supporter, not incompatible with personal success and, coupling that with their commitment to a Scottish Parliament, allowed Labour to become the national party of Scotland, as it undoubtedly was for the next  ten years.

The problem was that at the same time there was an alternative narrative, and a seductive one, that all of this was because Scotland was a naturally more left wing country than England. It is not.

The demography of Scotland undoubtedly gave it strongholds of organised Labour in greater proportion than those south of the border (although not, it should be noticed, in Wales). And there always was the inheritance of the Scottish enlightenment, indeed of  Scottish Reformation, whereby there was a liberally inclined middle class with a particular commitment to education with whom it was possible for these strongholds to make common cause.

Nonetheless, Scots were always and have always been economically aspirational in their personal lives. Until the mid seventies, at least, achievement of that aspiration, or even the possibility of that achievement, was regarded as incompatible with continued allegiance to the Labour Party. That was behind the first (“It’s Scotland’s Oil”) surge of the SNP, reflected particularly in the strength of that wave in the new towns. Moving out meant moving up. And moving up meant (politically) moving on.

Now, leftist critics will say, the SNP threw this pearl away by voting to bring down the Labour government in 1979, suddenly revealing to these aspirational voters that they had been the victim of a “false consciousness” and returning them “back home”. But that is only half the story. The SNP undoubtedly imploded in 1979 but, while Labour did recover, so, indeed so much more so, did the Scottish Tories. And one suspects the latter did so not just because their supporters realised that the SNP were “serious” about independence (and thus therefore not to be trusted with a tactical, anti-Labour, vote) but also because Thatcherism, in its pre-imperial phase, held a certain attraction for a significant section of the Scottish electorate.

By 1983, things had changed again. In the midst of the disaster of that election, we did, admittedly, do… alright… But, as the slow collapse of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party began,  the big gainers, even in urban Scotland, were not us but rather the SDP/Liberal alliance. Aspirational voters were still, clearly, unwilling to lend us their support, even as they turned away from the deaf ear Thatcher herself had turned to Scotland.

’87 was different. It is not always the economy, stupid. At the high point of Thatcherism, Scotland and England did undoubtedly start to significantly divide in their voting patterns. While at the time many, myself included, attributed this entirely to the National question, with the benefit of hindsight it is clear not just that Labour had benefited from that feature but also that it had positioned itself to do so.

The swing voters of Scotland had not suddenly woken up to their working class heritage. For that moment at least, those of us them who wished to move on personally nonetheless felt they had similarly minded compatriots in the higher ranks of Scottish Labour. Because while we might not, even then, have been prepared to say so expressly, our leadership was visible example of that being the case.

So we won, and won big, and for ten or more years, through the creation of the Scottish Parliament and beyond, continued to do so. But our own false history contained within it the seeds of our own destruction.

One of my oldest political allies is Francis Aloysius McAveety, who lost Shettleston on May 5. Quite literally, a child of the working class east end made good. A guy who rose, thanks to his mother, from a very difficult upbringing to obtain the Highers to go to University; to become a teacher in his own community; to displace an old and tarnished incumbent to become a Glasgow City councillor; to then sweep out a discredited regime to become leader of the council itself. And then to become an MSP.

All the while bringing up a family of his own.

Nonetheless, on 5 May he lost one of our safest seats.

He lost not because of any personal failing but bizarrely because of his own achievements and those of so many of his generation. Because his support for the redevelopment of the east end had made it possible that people who wanted to get on in their own lives, as Frank had in his, could now do so without leaving the east end, living in the new modern, owner occupied, estates. Estates Frank himself had fought to create. Asked to explain his defeat, Frank himself explains that those who live in these estates, people whose personal life path followed a similar path to Frank’s own, didn’t vote for him. Why? Because for all Labour’s own achievements, in our own rhetoric we portrayed ourselves not as the party who had helped them move on but rather the party that was concerned only with those left behind.

Now, our party was set up to help those left behind. But for us to succeed their numbers must inevitably get smaller. That is not a cause for regret – quite the contrary – but it does require us to wake up to the fact that victory at the polls has long since moved on from encompassing the simple ability to sing the old songs to the old audience. All the more so when that song only ever worked  initially when sung in harmony.

Ironically, The SNP are still regarded with some suspicion by the established middle class who have a natural distaste for their more braveheartish features. Thus Labour’s survival in Eastwood. The SNP have however secured a virtual monopoly of aspirational working class and first generation middle class voters. That is not their achievement. To accomplish it they simply had to be “not Labour” while at the same time also being “not the Tories”. On any view, that is our failure.

In developing a positive agenda, how to win back these voters is where we need to start.

So certainly we need to be more competent and more Scottish. But the starting point is to be more positive. It is no accident that so many socialist publications, in so many different languages, bear the common title “Forward!” Let’s get going in that direction.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart

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26 thoughts on “‘It’s not Left or Right – it’s forward!’

  1. There are some incredibly valuable observations here on which to build a new narrative for Scottish Labour. Thanks very much.

    I find the notion that we helped our constituency to move on, and then they left us behind, very compelling. It does give me pause for thought though.

    I used to be involved in gay rights work, an area in which the overriding aim of almost all organisations is to make themselves obsolete – once mainstream equality is achieved there is no longer a need for an equality campaign. (As with lifting people out of poverty, that curve is actually asymptotic, not linear, so it has no real end; but it can certainly reach a completion point of sorts.)

    Inevitably, however, different organisations become concerned also about preserving themselves as entities, rather than just achieving their aims. And the aims which they might share with other entities in the same space get lost in tribalism and competition for funding and support.

    This creates a natural cycle of growth and decline for different “brands” within the same space who actually share the same aims. There is a congruence here with political cycles in which parties’ popularity rises and falls despite their aims remaining consistent.

    Which leads me to a challenging question: if the SNP is currently delivering Labour aims, should we mind that they are branded SNP not Labour? Or should we sit back and smile at the fact that our aims are being met?

    1. To answer your question, Duncan, I think that the SNP are aiming to deliver SOME Labour aims. We need to be prepared to work with them to deliver them, and to push them in the right direction. However we must also be prepared to criticise them when they dont. We also need to make clear when some SNP policies are Labour policies too – too much was said about Laboru “nicking” SNP policies, when I think they mostly come from a shared point of view of the world.

      We however, should never sit back. We must always strive to make our aims a reality. We should create a vision of Scotland around those aims and beliefs and talk about it. I think it will be different to the SNP vision, though not as different as say the Tory vision of Scotland.

      1. The SNP are not only delivering the aims of old Labour values, their anti-nuclear policy will see that Trident is either decommissioned or moved out of Scotland, it’s leaked over 40 times into the surrounding area and cannot even be used in the event of a direct threat as America has to agree before it could deployed, they are also delivering the aims of the people of Scotland that gave them a resounding majority which and the mandate to hold an independence referendum and in the meantime they are pressing Westminster for fiscal powers that will generate new businesses and employment for the whole of Scotland. Can Labour do better?

  2. I agree with your points as they are well made. The Westminster election had a slightly different take on matters with the amount of Labour MPs’ returned there. It appears that the electorate want Labour at Westminster the SNP under Alex Salmond at Holyrood and a mixture of coalitions at Local Authority level across the 32 council areas,except for Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. Clearly Labour appeal to the voters to represent them at Westminster, the focus perhaps should now be to address the Holyrood issue of how to best utilise all of the resources available to ensure that the electorate have a strong alternative to the SNP under Alex Salmond. Next years council elections will be strategically important in the run up to the referendum as they will play a major part in deciding how the voters feel. They will either feel that they have gone too far with the level of support for the SNP at the Holyrood election and go against them or maintain the status quo as there does not appear to be an appetite for independence. But once again your piece is very good well done

  3. If you honestly believe that Labours natural constituency has moved on I suggest you venture beyond your leafy suburbs and visit any of the poorer inner city areas in Scotland or indeed throughout Britain as a whole.

    Following 13 years of Labour rule the gap in wealth between the poorest and richest has widened as has the educational attainment. Families left to a life of benefit dependency under the Tories remained condemned to this under Labour.

    I will gloss over the decision to follow Bush into a neo-con driven war over oil as more than enough has been said about this already.

    I suggest the reason Labour is haemorrhaging votes has more to do with the fact that you moved on from your electorate to woo the right wing media, bankers, etc. Labour abandoned its natural electorate, not the other way around.

    1. Following 13 years of Labour rule the gap in wealth between the poorest and richest has widened as has the educational attainment. Families left to a life of benefit dependency under the Tories remained condemned to this under Labour.

      Deliberately or otherwise, you are conflating two issues to produce a dangerously false conclusion.

      The fact is that hundreds of thousands of people were lifted out of poverty under the last Labour government – across the UK more than a million families with children lifted out of poverty.

      It’s true that at the same time, the wealthiest in our society got more wealthy. But that doesn’t not reduce for a second the fact that these families are no longer living in poverty.

      Therefore many of those families left to a life of benefit dependency by the Tories were in fact helped out of that dependency by Labour – not least by working family tax credits, the new deal and the minimum wage.

      Arguing that because the rich got richer poverty wasn’t reduced is baseless, illogical and untrue.

      1. Firstly, I did not say that absolute poverty wasn’t reduced, however poverty as we judge it in our society is relative and the gap between the rich and the poor widened considerably during 13 years under a Labour govt.

        If you want to recapture the support of the electorate the Labour party has to take a long hard look at itself and be brutally honest about where it failed the people who entrusted the party with their votes, self congratulatory fluff about how a great job you did won’t help your recovery

        1. Relative poverty was reduced. That was my point. The gap between rich and poor widened but the number of people living in relative poverty was significantly reduced. That’s not self-congratulatory fluff, it’s a fact.

          I’m all for brutal honesty, I’m not not keen on brutal dishonesty. Labour policies like tax credits and the minimum wage really did transform many lives, and it’s worth recognising that.

          1. Using the 60% the national median poverty level, policies like tax credits did reduce the number of children in poverty however the number of working age adults in poverty went up under Labour.

          2. So you whittle down your claim until you can grasp a twig of truth. Even here you are on a shaky limb. The number of working age adults in poverty went down between 1997 and 2006. Some of the ground was then lost in the last few years when the country suffered economic downturn.

            I find this sort of hair-splitting criticism unhelpful. The fact is that the Blair/Brown government achieved the largest redistribution of wealth from rich to poor the UK has seen since WW2, and that had a marked positive effect across Scotland. More could be done.

            It’s worth noting that in the last 4 years under the SNP, poverty in Scotland has increased. And before you blame the block grant for that, it increased above inflation for each of those 4 years.

            I’d rather be defending the party that tried to tackle poverty than the party that never cared.

      2. My son was on the New Deal, it was meant to offer him training and work experience. The reality was he ended up working 30hrs a week in the British Heart Foundation charity shop that he had already been a volunteer in for 6mths prior to being moved off JSA. It’s a scam to hide the true unemployment figures and at the end of it they are still unemployed and back on JSA.

          1. I agree I only have my son’s and several of his local peers’ experiences on New Deal but that is exactly how it’s panning out in Angus. There are no jobs for them to get we have businesses closing down or cutting staff and there’s nothing to take their places. On top of that there aren’t enough places at local colleges and a whole new batch of 16-18 year olds just left school with nothing to go to. Exactly the same as it was back in 1983 when I left school. The only real chance we have of breaking this cycle before another generation suffers is for Scotland to leave the Union. All my life it’s been Labour/Tory governments and nothing ever changes.

  4. In what way has my statement been disproved or whittled down, I said “Following 13 years of Labour rule the gap in wealth between the poorest and richest has widened as has the educational attainment. Families left to a life of benefit dependency under the Tories remained condemned to this under Labour.”

    You say correctly that poverty among families with children has gone down but overall poverty amongst working age adults has gone up, the fact that other parties haven’t done any better is an irrelevance.

    A socialist party, who had as one of it’s founding principles equality of opportunity for all, allowed the rich to prosper at the expense of the poor.

    1. You claim that families were left condemned to benefit dependency under Labour. Labour actually made the biggest redistribution of wealth since WW2 from rich to poor. You keep pointing at the fact that the rich got richer and ignoring the fact that the poor got richer too.

      On top of which, saying “overall poverty amongst working age adults has gone up” is in many ways a falsehood. In the first 2 UK Labour terms it dropped dramatically. Can’t you at least acknowledge that?

  5. In reply to: Duncan Hothersall says:
    June 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    It breaks the cycle because there will not be enough Tory voters in Scotland after independence for it to ever begin again. Whether Labour survives as it is now is also open to debate unless they change their stance on independence publicly and endorse it by backing the referendum instead of seeming to align themselves with the Tories.

    1. Surely there are plenty of free marketeers in the ranks of the SNP? If Scotland does become independent, the SNP will break down into its constituent groups, and there’s nothing assured about the scale or type of those groups.

      I would like to see Labour back the referendum, avoid being painted as the party of unionism, and place their trust in the people to decide our constitutional future, as I’ve said elsewhere. But the idea that Labour should endorse independence is not very convincing. It is a poor fit for Labour values of co-operation, internationalism and, indeed, socialism.

  6. I’m not sure where you get the idea that there are many in the SNP who hold right-wing views? The SNP is centre-left aligned and hold democracy as paramount so the voices of the people they represent are heard and acknowledged in government.

    You say you’d like to see Labour back the referendum and yet claim the idea of Labour endorsing independence goes against Labour values. Isn’t that a rather contradictory view? I’m genuinely confused by your reply.

    1. The SNP has cut council budgets for the last four years; centralised control of a range of functions and removed economic accountability from local authorities; championed cuts in taxes for big businesses; and defended the rights of developers over those of local residents. These are right-wing policies, and it’s about time you admitted it.

      Within the SNP’s umbrella there are many shades of opinion, because the thing that really unites you is independence – everything else is up for grabs to try to secure election.

      Not sure why you’re confused by my statement about the referendum. I want to see the people given their chance to choose their constitutional future. I do not think that independence would be the right choice.

      1. So you’re really saying that we should be stuck with the Labour/Tory Westminster merry-go-round and not stand up as an independent country and choose our own path? No thanks, I’ll take my chances of breaking the cycle that’s ruined the UK economy. Scots people deserve better than being seen as an appendage to England.

  7. In purely financial terms the lot of the poor improved during the 1st 2 terms, but be honest do you believe that Labour during 13 years in power did all they could to restore hope & opportunity to the generations of families thrown on the scrapheap by Thatcher.

    Once Scotland gains it’s independance, I agree the SNP will crumble or split into several smaller/ weaker parties, that is why it is so vital that the Labour party makes the most of this period of enforced reflection & moves away from the New Labour/ Neo Tory party it has become & returns to the socialist principles of the party it used to be.

  8. The real issue here in my view is that people living in poverty are disproportionately more likely a) to not be on the electoral register and b) if they are on the register to not vote.

    Both Labour and the SNP therefore tend to give those people less attention than we give to people who do vote. It is not intentional but if we are honest we are less likely to canvass them and more likely just to leaflet them. It’s a vicious circle whch leads to those people becoming even more disengaged with the political process and even more left behind. This is an extremely unhealthy situation.

    I don’t see an easy way to get round this in the context of the normal political process because that is largely determined by the electoral cycle and if you want to win a seat obviously you are going to target the voters who can help you win.So to quite a large extent we chase after the same groups of voters – the aspirational people who actually vote.

    Naturally as an SNP activist I am rather pleased that we won that particular contest but underlying that I do think there is a serious problem which both of our parties needs to address. We should not accept a situation where anybody is left behind and whole swathes of the community become disengaged from the democratic process. We need to think a bit harder about how we can expand the political process to tackle that.

    1. Indeed. There were about 400,000 people who didnt vote this May, but who DID vote 12 months ago in the UK General Election. We must try to reverse that trend, and all parties need to show the public that Holyrood really does matter to peoples lives.

  9. it’s all very well SAYING that he lot of the poor improved under Labour (in fact Brown, Blair, Balls amd others were always talking about tax credits for the not-so-badly-off-as-all-that) but the poorest people actually got a good bit poorer – as they did under the WIlson/Callaghan government by the way. Is it any wonder that the poorest tend not to vote? Who the “””” are they going to vote for?
    And are MPs out of touch on poverty? You bet. I heard Milliband talking about keeping ‘universal’ child beneft for rich people like himself (and all other MPs of course), but when I emailed him pointing out that child benefit is effectively denied to the very poorest parents in the land he did n’t even bother to reply.
    If you have a family income of 40,000 PA you don’t really need child benefit, but if you are on 100 per week you most surely do.

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