Change. Every election this word gets rolled out as the central theme of almost every parties’ manifesto. It is clear that as long as there is poverty, inequality, and injustice in society, the majority of the electorate will favour those who offer the most substantive change. The kind of change that needs to be brought about, however, is the point of discord.
It would be facile to suggest that the SNP see the solution to all Scotland’s problem as putting up a border at Berwick. Even as a staunch Labour supporter I know this is not the case. I would go as far as to say I’m getting a bit fed up that this is constantly suggested. Whether we are willing to accept it or not, the SNP have done some good things for Scotland, the Scottish people have recognised that and it’s time to ditch the embattled rhetoric and move towards more constructive debate about the future of this country. Equally, I am wary of policy being formulated without broad support and populism reigning over sensibility.
When I say this, I don’t mean a debate about its constitutional future. I think it’s a sad fact of this session of the Scottish Parliament that it is being dominated by the constitutional question. People in this country are suffering from more immediate problems and it’s not because of the Act of Union or the threat of independence. There are real issues that affect the Scottish peoples’ everyday lives that need to be addressed. Hounding Alex Salmond about the date of the referendum at First Minister’s Questions is no panacea.
Indeed, The Electoral Reform Society last month called for change to the electoral system in a bid to steer Scottish politics away from its current state. The concentration of our primary decision making process around only two parties so antipathetic toward one another is not good for democracy and should be subject to re-evaluation.
That being said, when it comes to the independence issue Scottish Labour’s biggest problem is that the SNP make them look like advocates of the status quo. Given that life is extremely problematic for a lot of people at the moment, this is increasingly difficult to defend. There have been a lot of comments on Labour Hame about Labour in fact being a right of centre party. Personally, I don’t believe that this is true at all. I certainly would not have joined the party if that were the case. However, when it comes to the constitutional question and the very rhetoric the Party uses on this issue, the SNP have been very clever in portraying themselves as the agents of change, while making Labour look as though they are conservative rather than progressive.
So, how can Labour win when people want change? Richard MacKinnon alluded to this in his post last month. There is a lot of time between now and when we assume the proposed referendum will be. Instead of pushing the SNP on the details of their plans, Labour should be doing more to present how it wants to change this country by offering an alternative to both the current system and outright independence. Whether that means ‘Devo-max’ or not, there is great deal to be addressed before any referendum, no matter how it is worded, and it’s time for Labour to realise this and move forward accordingly.
The kind of change the party presents needs to be meaningful. I think the biggest mistake the party made going into the last Scottish Parliament election was on the kind of change we presented. The last minute u-turn on the council tax freeze and tuition fees made the party look weak, confused, and almost like a poor version of the SNP. It struck me as sadly ironic that the party spent almost 4 years lambasting the SNP in parliament only to adopt SNP-lite policies in the sprint. Whatever we offer must be substantive, different, radical, and in touch with the realities it is supposed to alter. That is how you capture the minds of a public disillusioned with the political process.
Earlier this week, it was announced that unemployment in Scotland is up again. What we need to hear from Scottish Labour is more about its plan for jobs, more on how we stimulate the economy, and less about the threat of independence. Scotland wants to know what the Scottish Parliament can do to ease the cost of living, lift people out of fuel poverty, deliver meaningful employment, and create a more equal society. Tomorrow we find out who will be the next leader of the party. If they can answer these questions in the meantime, fighting an independence referendum, whenever it may be, might not turn out to be as hard as it is feared.
Peter McFarlane is a Labour party activist and works in media research and analysis in Edinburgh.