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.