Paul Cruikshank sets out two central challenges Scottish Labour needs to face up to.
This weekend, Johann Lamont announced she will be standing down as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. Before I say anything else, as a member I want the thank Johann for everything she did while leading the party. She held the party together after what was a (well-deserved) routing in 2011 and then led the party through the 2012 local election, holding Glasgow, and then (since everyone seems to have forgotten) WON a referendum on Scottish Independence. There were moments I cringed, and moments when speeches could have been better phrased. Yet, week after week, she consistently held her own against Alex Salmond at FMQs.
For what you did, I thank you.
But looking to the future, there are two major challenge Scottish Labour faces. The first is that is can not longer be afraid to be Scottish Labour. The second is that it must be allowed to be Scottish Labour.
It seems to me that recently, at both UK and Scottish levels, the Labour Party has been afraid to shout about what we stand for as a party, and instead watered it down to what we think people want to hear. At a UK level, our recent attempts to “tackle immigration” are a great example of this. A Labour government shouldn’t seek to tackle immigration, it should welcome the social, economic and poltical advantages immigration brings.
But we don’t because we are concerned about those who have “concerns about immigration”. These people fall into 2 categories.
The first are people who are genuinely concerned about the strain additional demand will place on out schools, hospitals and infrastructure. The Labour answer to these concerns is to say we will invest more in public services, and show how immigration is still a net positive to the country. The second are people who’s problem is with immigrants. We can’t help them, but still act as if we can see their point … I have to admit I can’t. We have to be brave and honest enough to say so.
The same issue exists in Scotland too. Whoever is elected leader in December cannot be afraid to challenge the assumptions we have allowed the SNP to establish. We are right to oppose unfunded universal free prescriptions. Prescriptions for those most in need (the poorest, the oldest, the youngest, the chronically ill, the disabled, the unemployed) were free before the SNP decided to make them free for the middle class and the rich. But we forget to say that’s because it costs the NHS c.£60million a year that could be spent on medical treatments and staff. Without that last bit we sound like cost-cutters and not a party that wants proper funding of public services.
And to do this, Scottish Labour must be given room to be SCOTTISH Labour. We may have won the IndyRef, but Scottish politics has changed forever. For the next leader to address this dynamic, they need to be able to make decisions (1) for the whole party in Scotland – I’m looking at you MPs; and (2) without the fear of a UK Labour veto.
I don’t think this means we need an “Independent Labour Party”, but we do need to mimic the current state of devolution within it. Policy making is near-enough separate, but leadership are still a matter of the UK party. That’s why the Scottish General Secretary can be sacked without the Scottish Leader being told: the UK level still controls structures. This clearly can’t go on.
In that brief time Wendy Alexander was leader, she famously challenged Alex Salmond to “bring it on” and hold the referendum before 2011. Slowly but surely, this stance drifted backwards, and I would not be surprised if it was a UK ‘suggestion’ to drift. If rumours about Bedroom-Tax related orders are true, it only confirms that we need to be trusted to make the right call for Scotland, even if it makes the UK-Wide party a bit more uncomfortable. Part of this, of course, is that the leader of Scottish Labour has to be – in practice and not just name – the leader of the WHOLE of Scottish Labour (again, looking at you MPs).
Lamont’s leadership of Scottish Labour was successful one. In a time where we didn’t have a constitutional argument in the way, I am sure that would have been electorally successful too. But alas, circumstances, and it seems ‘comrades’, conspired against a woman who is committed to improving the lives of the people she represents. I hope our next leader, whoever it is, is just as committed to the people, and much more ready to shout from the rooftops and soapboxes that we are Scottish Labour.