Labour is not a unionist party

scott arthurScott Arthur is an activist in South Edinburgh. He insists that the defining argument of Scottish politics is not over the constitution, but over social justice.


Scottish voters are not thick. They recognise that the SNP want independence more than anything else. Scottish Labour must be careful not to allow itself to be portrayed as a party which puts “The Union” before all else. Within this context, Kezia Dugdale is correct to say that Labour should focus on its values if it is to recover in Scotland. Others, including Daniel Johnson, Peter Russell and Mark Davidson, have made similar points. Indeed, even Gerry Hassan’s recent overview of the political landscape in Scotland suggested that Scots want the political class to deliver on these values.

The first aim of the SNP, as outlined in its constitution, is “Independence for Scotland”. Secondary to this is “the furtherance of all Scottish interests”. There is nothing about ensuring “wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few” or being certain “high-quality public services are either owned by the public or accountable to them”. These are Labour’s values. Its constitution also ensures Labour will deliver “people from the tyranny of poverty, prejudice and the abuse of power”.

This is non-trivial. Labour exists to deliver social justice. To tackle poverty. To redistribute wealth and opportunity. It does not exist to oppose the Tories, to hold the SNP to account or to ensure Scotland remains in the UK. These activities should only be important when they enable Labour to help deliver social justice.

One of the SNP’s great successes over the past year has been its ability to label Scottish Labour as a “unionist party”. It uses this term in a divisive and negative way. In their eyes, Scots must be nationalists or unionists. We must be for Scotland or against it.

As Gerry Hassan has outlined, the debate is centred around the question:

“whose side are you on, and who do you trust to look after Scotland? Other questions about democracy, the environment, sustainable economic growth, and how we run public services are lost in this divide, as is any space for radical progressive politics.”

Labour must change Scotland’s political narrative by sticking to its values. It must promote itself as the party of social justice. The party which fights inequality and defends public services. Sure it wants Scotland to stay in the UK, but this is because remaining in the UK, even when we have a Tory government, is the best way to deliver social justice in the long-term. Staying in the UK is not the objective. It is, quite frankly, a means to an end. In this context, Scottish Labour is not a unionist party.

The arguments for Scotland staying in the UK are legion. They range from a shared history to a common culture and a collective love of a good curry. These arguments of the heart, and many others like them, have great resonance for many Scots. However, Scottish Labour’s argument must be about standing in solidarity with the rest of the UK. It must be about pooling and sharing resources – an easy argument when Scotland’s per capita deficit exceeds that of the rest of the UK.

In the run-up to the independence referendum the SNP had no interest in discussing the utility of the Scotland Act (2012) powers. Today they have even less interest in discussing how the Smith Commission tax and borrowing powers can be used to mitigate the impact of a Tory government in Westminster. The SNP narrative is one of more powers – incremental steps towards independence. Indeed, even David Mundell recently said that the SNP use demands for more powers as a “smoke-screen to hide the fact” that they do not use the ones Holyrood already holds.

Within this context, Scottish Labour’s narrative must be of how Holyrood’s powers can be used to deliver social justice. Sun Tzu said two thousand years ago in his seminal “The Art of War” that being able to choose the battlefield was key to victory. Social justice, not the constitution, must be Labour’s battlefield. Scottish Labour must dominate it.

Social justice must be Labour’s argument. Social justice first and second. Let the SNP obsess about the constitution. Their obsession should not matter to Labour unless it helps deliver social justice.

In opposition in Holyrood, Labour’s job will be to hold the SNP to account. It will be to ensure wealth and opportunity is redistributed in Scotland. This will not be a battle of left versus right or working class versus middle class, but about convincing everyone in Scotland that social justice is in their interest.

In the run-up the Holyrood 2016 election, Labour must outline how it will use the Smith Commission powers to tackle inequality and protect public services. If there are gaps in these powers, Labour must work with others to ensure this is remedied.

Holding the SNP to account must also mean working in solidarity with them in Westminster and Holyrood where their aims coincide with Labour values. As Labour did in Holyrood last week, it must offer progressive ideas to solve persistent problems such as the attainment gap. In Westminster, it can seek support from the SNP to oppose the repeal of the Hunting Act, to protect the Human Rights Act and to oppose welfare cuts – votes where some Tory dissent can be expected.

With some hard work, Scots will see that voting is not about unionism versus nationalism. They will see that every Scottish Labour elected member wants to be a stronger voice for social justice in their constituency and in Scotland. They will see that they have a choice between the ideology of nationalism, the Tory small-state philosophy and Scottish Labour’s promise of a fairer Scotland. I know what I’d vote for.

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34 thoughts on “Labour is not a unionist party

  1. I’m sorry Scott, but this is a tautology from beginning to end. As an OAP and former life-time Labour voter (but sadly no longer) of I believe more years standing than yourself, then I’m rather saddened and astonished at this argument. “Remaining in the UK, even when we have a Tory government, is the best way to deliver social justice in the long-term”. Let me ask you Scott, will Labour be closer to delivering social justice in 2020 ? Or will it – in fact – be catching up on 5 years of Tory abomination and with the distinct possibility of even more years to come ?

    1. Pete, you are indeed showing your age. 😉

      We now have a devolved parliament in Scotland with powers to improve the lives of Scots; not least via education. Smith will take that further. So even with a Tory PM, there is lots we can do. Be positive!

      1. OK Scott, if the SNP don’t do the job at Holyrood, then give me a reason to give my vote back to Labour next year. Although I’m on a pension I do agree with increased taxation to fund equality measures. Would Labour have the guts to increase taxation in Scotland to fund their future promises and by how much ? Will they go into next years elections with a commitment to increase taxation in order to make good their promises ? If yes, then I’m on board. If not, then you and current Scottish Labour are just bumping their gums I’m afraid.

        1. Labour went into the last election with a promise to increase Taxation.

          Plus, Jackie Bailie tried to have the Scottish Parliament commit to a 50% Tax Rate to finance the means to rectify the problems with Scottish schools. The SNP voted against the measure. That was on 20 May 2015.

          Pete I am nowhere near your seniority, but I simply do not understand your argument for Separation. I am a constitutional lawyer who has worked in countries that have undergone constitutional upheaval, redrafting, democratisation, etc. The cost of that process, not just financial but the time taken up by the process, the lack of investment due to the uncertainty, etc., would be far more than Labour at a UK level unpicking 5 more years of a Tory Govt favouring the rich.

          Labour had clear funding plans. It agreed to the OBR Report on how to minimise affecting services whilst tackling the budget (falsely insulted by the SNP as having signed up to £30billion of austerity cuts, but I see today Sturgeon is now a fan of Labour’s approach to the OBR Report!!!), it intended to increase taxation for the very rich, highly banker bonuses, and mansion residing people, whilst introducing a 10p Tax rate, increasing the minimum wage and promoting a Living Wage.

          What didn’t you like about those policies?

  2. Scott, I dont think you get the scale of the situation.
    Labour doesn’t have a leader. Ken McIntosh MSP has offered to put his name forward but finds that his supporters are being bullied. Why? By who? Labour has non elected thugs hiding in corners waiting to intimidate elected MSPs. You have to ask yourself, for whose benefit?
    You talk about where Labour should ‘position’ itself. Scott there are more pressing issues. Labour in Scotland has ended up being run by unelected factions of well paid ‘officials’. It is being destroyed from within while well meaning members like yourself and others that contribute to LH wring their hands over ‘policy’.
    Up until this weekend I thought the situation could be recovered. I am as naïve as you. Its too late.
    There is a position in Scotland for a radical independent voice. Independent of a London head office and the trade unions but those, who ever they are, in charge of Labour have no vision. They are only interested in themselves, their salaries and the title deeds of social clubs’.
    By the way Scott, supporters of the union are unionists. “Unionist ” is the adjective of the noun ‘union’.

    1. Richard, you paint a dark picture. I have met dozens of Labour members – from Ed Miliband to local councillors and new members (like me). I have met the party staff too. None were “only interested in themselves”. Sorry!

      1. Fair enough Scott, ignore the warnings of a Ken McIntosh. Convince yourself that black is white and that a party that campaigned along side the Tory’s for a NO vote is not actual a unionist party. Ignore Johan Lamont’s Branch Office description of Scottish Labour. Keep on listening and reconnecting. But remember Scotland is not that stupid.

        1. Richard I voted No. I am not a Unionist. I don’t get a thrill from seeing pictures of soldiers, from Union flags (nor Saltires either, I’m afraid the whole flag waving thing doesn’t interest me outside of a sporting arena).

          I just recognise that the UK is a massive Brand that Scotland benefits enormously from and I am not going to walk away from it because I fear that it is too difficult to make my voice heard. I have faith that I can be heard. I have faith that access to the UK’s place in the world is available to all her residents.

          The Constitutional issue really needs to be put to rest now. Bad politicians blame the system. Good politicians improve lives regardless of the system. They find a way to achieve. I’m committed to helping Scottish Labour be the good politicians who succeed.

          1. Helen, there is nothing wrong with unionism or nationalism. They are only names. Some people try and equate nationalism with fascism, which is unfair, arguably a lazy kind of debating technique, more name calling than reasonable argument. Also the term ‘unionism’ has become a term of derision. It appears that No voters don’t like the tag. Scott Arthur is one. He reckons that Labour aren’t a ‘unionist’ party? Although I personally cant understand this (see previous post in reply to Scott’s article). Jim Murphy doesn’t like being associated with the term either. But as I have to keep reminding Labour supporters, Jim Murphy and his party were at the vanguard of the No campaign.
            Why should unionism be a derogatory description of a persons beliefs? I don’t think it is derogatory to call someone a unionist, because they support the UK. You voted No. That’s fine. You believe that Scotland’s future is better in the union with rUK. You are therefore a unionist. It also makes you a nationalist; a British nationalist. Be proud of your beliefs.
            I am a Scottish nationalist, born in England of an English father and Scottish mother. I love my English roots and am proud of them. I live in Scotland, my children are Scottish, and voted YES. I am a Scottish nationalist but I am also a unionists. I am a proud European unionist.
            Please don’t get hung up on names they are not that important.
            With regard to putting the constitution to rest, I am afraid I cant give you much comfort there. 56 out of Scotland’s 59 MPs are nationalists. One is a Tory. The Tories have an overall majority at Westminster. You can see the problem with this one.

          2. Hi Richard. The only way I can answer your post is to reply to mine, so I hope my words appear under your words LOL
            I disagree that nationalism and unionism are just words. They have specific political ideological meanings. To be a Unionist, I would have an investment in the structure of the UK, its existing state, its existing institutions etc.
            To be a Nationalist, I would need to have a clear territorial area and a definition of the people inside that space whom I promoted the interests of, and this would be done to the exclusion, potential detriment, but certainly with a disregard for other territories or peoples.
            You say No voters don’t like the term Unionist. I don’t relate to it, that is a different thing. It is not how I think of myself. I do not stop my concern at the UK Border. I link with and work with people all round the world, of various races and religions. I have dual nationality, so I have multiple “homes”. I am flexible as to how we structure the State and what it’s geographical dimensions must be (including protectorates etc etc etc, I’m happy to let places go if it is what they want). I just think it is utterly pointless, wasteful and illogical to separate Scotland from rUK. So I am against Separatism.
            If you ask most Labour members you will find a similar confusion as to why others are trying to impose a terminology on us that does not fit.
            You see the difference played out all the time in Labour. We are often linked with International organisations linking across class, worker status or equality issues (and with other countries). Scottish Nationalists reach out to other nationalist organisations. We work to organise workers and those harmed by inequality and structural problems to come together and find strength in their numbers to fight common causes. We don’t create artificial bonds along purely nationalists lines to give the impression that somehow it is possible to work in the interests of every member of a country!
            As for the Constitutional issues, I simply expressed an opinion on the basis that this is my area of work and research and I know that the aspirations ordinary people have in the UK will NEVER be resolved by tinkering with a few constitutional legislative lines, or separating the UK and the Scottish Parliament. It simply isn’t where the problem lies no matter how many times the SNP claim that it is.

  3. You are not the first “young turk” to come on LH with well intentioned but parroting rhetoric.Break away as a cadre, keeping your socialist principles, and affiliate with a social democratic organization not shackled to a failed and corrupt “old guard” centred in London. Labour Lords ffs?

  4. As low paid worker living in a Glasgow housing scheme could somebody on here explain what they mean by the term “social justice”.
    As someone who doesn’t get help with housing benefit or council tax maybe i should just be happy with my lot in life.
    I await the day Labour return so i can pay more in council tax and get back to paying for prescriptions.
    And oh. a few pennies more on my minimum wage.
    God bless you Gov.

    ps, when i read some of these blogs i can understand how thousands of voters in working class areas just walked away.
    It makes you wonder what was the real Labour vote was after you take out the tactical voting by ultra unionists.
    Possibly about 400,000 in the whole of Scotland.

    1. Hi Graham, thanks for the comment.

      Don’t want to speak for anyone else, but when I use the term “social justice” I tend to mean things like an NHS free at the point of need for everyone; a national minimum wage to prevent employers exploiting workers or pitting migrants against others by undercutting pay; the creation of council housing, like the scheme in which you live – and the writing off of Glasgow’s housing debt enabling the GHA to be created to transform social housing in Glasgow; a state-planned economy which brought IBM to Greenock in 1951, kick-starting Silicon Glen, and the subsequent creation of the SDA which created hundreds of thousands of jobs across Glasgow and Scotland; the Equal Pay Act and other anti-discrimination legislation; and an over-arching ethos behind every single one of these things – all of them delivered by a Labour government – which places people above flags, workers above bosses, and solidarity above difference.

      That’s what you get from Labour. Not “standing up for Scotland”. Standing up for people.

      1. Social justice is all very fair and well, it’s a noble cause and much more important than matters of the constitution.

        But as a famous writer once wrote “Words are wind”.

        It was Labour who created this unequal society we live in. Labour who wish to cut corporation tax, purge immigrants, presided over the biggest financial collapse in history, started privatization of the NHS, started workfare, deregulated the banks, set the lowest bar for minimum wage, went to war in Iraq….. The list goes on & on, sure the Conservatives made it much worse but we in Labour laid the foundation, they are just finishing the job.

        Labour should be at home on the left. The proper left, not this 2nd rate left wing Blair double speak. The SNP are no better but they have a formidable machine and have beaten labour at their own PR game, it’s now time for labour to up their game or be consigned to the dustbins of history.

        1. Lee I’m sorry but you have got to be joking! Check any study of inequality indicators. You will see that Labour reversed Thatcher’s chasm between the haves and the have nots. It is just a simple fact.

          Quite what Labour in the UK were supposed to do about dodgy US loans is beyond me. I really scratch my head at this constant criticism. Did you miss the protests in other countries? Did you miss the banks failing in other countries? Did you miss the people losing their money in other countries?

          I agree with you that the SNP have a far better PR and political strategy unit. I suggested recently that Scottish Labour have a new management strategy mantra before making any decision or utterance: “What would the SNP Strategist do?” I don’t mean it in jest, I mean it seriously. But therein I have a far bigger worry than blaming Gordon Brown for US Sub-prime loan collapses. I am deeply concerned that this great political awakening that the SNP keep telling me is happening is based on a few slogans and an unhealthy investment in the person of Nicola Sturgeon!

    2. Social justice, is the equal and fair distribution of social values such as freedom, income and wealth, and the opportunity to take part in society. Meaning poorer don’t get poorer and have the same chances in life which they should rightly have

  5. Scott Arthur should try rewriting his piece without mentioning the SNP, which even he must appreciate is merely a means to a short-term end. Direct it at the Scottish people who think about politics. Maybe mention your support of Trident, the House of Lords, packed with former Labour grandees, and austerity. Oh and the mansion tax which all your candidates for the leadership now agree is a step to far against our masters.

    1. Alan,
      For the record: I don’t support Trident, Labour does not support Tory Austerity and we had a plan to reform the HoL.

      1. You may not support Trident. your party does, and it’s your party seeking the votes. Duncan tries to pull this nonses with PR as well. I, and most others now, couldn’t give tuppence for YOUR views .They mean nothing. It’s the party’s policy, and the party policy is pro-Trident.

        Labour tried to sell Austerity -lite as a policy. People saw through it – not the courage to embrace austerity, nor the bravery to fight it.

        You’ve had a House of Lords plan for 100 years. Under Atlee, Blair you had HUGE majorities to push it through. And did?

        Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero.

        People don’t accept the Lords promises anymore, or the idea that its ok to be pro trident, because a few ‘good eggs’ are against it personally – what a ludicrous argument, really.

        England has elected Tory leaders every election since 79 – even when the tory was leading labour. It’s WHAT THEY ARE. And it’s fine, they are entitled to the government, and the system, of their preference.

        As are Scots.

  6. I’m not here to intrude on private grief, but to offer something to think about.

    Look if you can at some footage of the election count in Aberdeen. SNP activists in jeans, t-shirts and open-necked shirts. Most of us looking as if we had just come from a day on the doorstep, which we had.

    Then look at the Labour activists, suited and booted, with hair done and red ties.

    Think about your electorate and who you appeal to and who you want to appeal to. The same story has played for a while, but this time the dam broke.

    I’ll also give you another thought, think about the comments of Andy Kerr reported in the Scotsman:- “But my worry is that Jim’s a product of the system who saw Scotland through the prism of their deep hatred for the SNP.”

    You are better placed than me to know if that is true, but I can tell you that it isn’t reciprocated. Labour are a roadblock to us achieving a better country, but they aren’t the enemy. The enemy are those who have imposed the bedroom tax, who are looking at another £8 billion of cuts from welfare and who are pulling up the drawbridge to people in need from other countries.

    So given that, do you think Ed Milliband’s comment, that he would rather see a Tory government than work with the SNP, helped or hindered your cause?

    1. Thing is we were out all in jeans and flat shoes. But for some inexplicable reason the men all had smart suits in the rooms to change into once the Polls closed! This isn’t a stick to beat Labour with. I think it is just seen by Labour activists as being a way to show that they take the situation seriously. Sadly, as with so much Labour does, it has been possible to misconstrue the intention.
      As for who are the “real” enemies, I’d have more sympathy for your argument if I hadn’t witnessed the constant harassment of Labour in the Commons. In all seriousness you must see that the more Cameron sees the SNP trying to unsettle and distract opposition parties, the happier he’ll be.

      1. Indeed Helen. I was out door-knocking all day on polling day, and then at 8.30 I went home, changed into my suit, and caught the bus to the count. Dressing up smartly shows respect for the democratic process. Using that respect to attack Labour is just pathetic.

  7. “The arguments for Scotland staying in the UK are legion. They range from a shared history to a common culture and a collective love of a good curry.”

    Wow, this is just beyond ridiculous. We have only 300 years of “shared history” and a hell of a lot more as an independent nation. You know, my wife is Japanese and she loves a good curry too, maybe Scotland should apply to join Japan??

    I won’t even bother with the nonsense about social justice. If you actually want to go down that road you will need to cut yourself off from London HQ as those policies won’t win votes down south.

  8. Thanks Duncan.
    Do you think maybe Labour could call for a living wage at the 2016 Scottish Election.
    £10 an hour to start with and an annual increase of say a pound for the next three or four years.
    Could we also have an end to the section nonsense for the unemployed and the hounding of the sick and disabled.
    Re-nationalization of public transport wouldn’t go amiss either.
    When Frank and i were children it was called socialism.
    I don’t care what label you use in the 21st century.
    Get it done.

  9. It is surely time we began puting that common, over-used phrase Labour values in quotes because it has come to mean whatever its user wants it to mean. Equality, justice, peaceful co-existence, internationalism, socialism, social democracy…..all have been trotted-out recently by various writers as being central to that party’s core philosophy but specific policy suggestions have been hard to find. Scott’s naming all these writers who agree with Kezia on getting back to these values doesn’t really take us much further forward.
    The next three paragraphs attacking the SNP is much more like it! “Wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few” or being certain “high-quality public services are either owned by the public or accountable to them” is what is not in the SNP’s constitution so that proves…….?
    Labour is a UK political party and it exists in that environment. As the more populous south of England has swung to the right Labour has moved to the right to compensate. That is the reason it has supported bloody, illegal foreign invasions, Trident and austerity and has packed its benches on the House of Lords with its unelectable politicians. It has no interest in re-nationalisation and making a fuss about welfare and investment cuts because such things will turn-off the voters it needs to win back. This is why it will elect a right-wing leader to replace Milliband and why its “recovery strategy” will be driven by Peter Mandleson and his cronies.
    Scotland, meanwhile, sees no such drift to the right amongst its population. Its people now see Labour as Tory-lite and that it will never win a UK election without moving further away from its former Scottish roots. This is, therefore, not a presentational issue but a fundamentally constitutional one. How does Labour truly represent the Scottish working-classes and still win general elections in the South of England? This paragraph above is astonishingly myopic and illustrates Scottish Labour’s problem: “Labour must change Scotland’s political narrative by sticking to its values. It must promote itself as the party of social justice. The party which fights inequality and defends public services. Sure it wants Scotland to stay in the UK, but this is because remaining in the UK, even when we have a Tory government, is the best way to deliver social justice in the long-term. Staying in the UK is not the objective. It is, quite frankly, a means to an end. In this context, Scottish Labour is not a unionist party.”
    But most of my Labour friends, even those who stuck with them earlier this month, no longer accept that “remaining in the UK, even when we have a Tory government, is the best way to deliver social justice in the long-term”.
    Scottish Labour’s problem IS its unionism. We can argue till the cows come home about whether the SNP is a true social democratic party or whether there is such a thing as “Labour values” but Scotland’s people will no longer tolerate right-wing governments into the foreseeable future and its working classes, at least, no longer fear breaking the union.
    I look forward to enjoying many good curries with my English friends in future but I also look forward to my children and grandchildren not having their lives run by the Conservative Governments my English friends elect. Scott and his fellow non-unionists might consider this an unhealthy constitutional obsession but I consider it a worthy, modest and achievable ambition.

    1. Stewart,
      You are missing my point. Within the UK, even with a Tory Gov, the benefits of polling and sharing resources are significant in Scotland. Add to that the Smith Commission powers, and we have the power to change lives for the better.

      Your point appears to be that England and Scotland are different, and that Labour is lurching to the right. Let’s look at the facts:
      1. Labour’s manifesto was the most left leaning since 1992.
      2. Salmond / Sturgeon lead the most popular Holyrood government ever. Their most popular policies benefit the rich at the expense of the poor – council tax freeze and higher education funding.


      1. You cherry-pick my points, Scott. My main ones are that voting Labour has got us mostly Tory governments throughout my lifetime and that Labour will continue its historic drift to the right to try to beat the Tories.
        Most Labour “strategists” I know accept that the SNP outflanked Labour on the left. Its campaign was run on a) more powers to Scotland from Tory Westminster b) End to Austerity c) No Trident replacement all of which positioned it to the left of Labour.
        “Within the UK, even with a Tory Gov, the benefits of polling and sharing resources are significant in Scotland.” Are you serious? The UK’s “resources” are mostly borrowed. Its government debt is pushing over £1.5 trillion. That amounts to over £25,000 for every man, woman and child in the country! That is what Austerity is all about. Sorry Scott, but when I read and hear influential Labour activists coming out with that sort of thing I wonder how Scottish Labour can ever recover.

  10. Do you think in 30 or 40 years time members of the Labour Party will look back and talk of Jim Murphy and co.
    “Remember back in 2015 when that Murphy fella took over the leadership for 5 months and nearly wiped out the entire parliamentary party”.

    1. Yup! Although with hindsight we might also have a deeper understanding of other factors and even some machinations LOL!!!

  11. I’m not trying to be funny, but has endless rounds of talking about the nature of the Labour Party and the constitutional order of the UK replaced Saturday football for Scottish men? Like seriously, look at the articles that get all the hits (particularly from non-Labour members).

    Is going round in endless circles on this issue a helpful, worthwhile endeavour?

    Personally I think that less talking about the intangible and more doing the practical is what is needed.

  12. Since when did working class men and women not discuss politics.
    Is it only elected Labour officials that can mention the Labour Party.
    I can remember the 1960/1970s and my elders talking of the sell out in 1931.
    Ramsey McDonald and joining up with the Tories in the National Government etc.
    The real question for Scottish Labour is, how did so misread its own voters.
    Do you think North of England Labour MPs will misjudge their own voters if the said voters start to move towards the EU exit door.
    Not bleeding likely.
    Northern Labour MPs will cover their tracks pronto.
    They’ll be all singing all dancing Red UKIP in a heartbeat if that what it takes.
    There will be no completely unknown students coming along to take
    their seats over a constitutional issue.

    Be very grateful working people are still talking about the Labour Party.
    The day they stop talking about it, there won’t be a Labour Party.

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