So it wasn’t a tsunami, earthquake, tidal wave or landslide – it was all of them and as many other cataclysmic metaphors as you want to throw in. Scottish Labour was obliterated at the polls with majorities in the 10’s and 20’s of thousands wiped out at a stroke with only Ian Murray left clinging on. (A Hearts supporter and Scottish Labour MP – you can’t say that guy isn’t up for a challenge, and well done to him on both campaigns.)
So are we now entering a new period where politics is not based on a comparing policy positions or manifestos but on a national mood, where like “New Labour” in 1997 it just becomes “the thing to do”? In workplaces, amongst the creative community, the voluntary sector, in polite circles and pubs and bars it has become cool to support the SNP. A bit like Chelsea FC – hardly anyone supported them when they were rubbish but now they are winning everyone’s a fan.
And over the last few years a new adjective, whose definition appears to be “negative, old style, distant politics”, came into our lexicon: “Westminster” – no longer just a place! At every turn this was skilfully used to exemplify everything that people dislike about the UK political system. This feeling grew and grew and, despite some major and positive developments under the Blair/Brown governments – big reductions in poverty, the national minimum wage, tax credits etc. – it was the Iraq war and later the expenses scandal that were the heavy straws that broke the camel’s back resulting in mass public opposition and disenchantment, membership resignations and a huge breach of trust with the electorate.
Despite Labour delivering the new Scottish parliament, the fixing of candidate selections left a largely unknown and comparatively inexperienced group in government. Donald Dewar’s death, the McLeish shambles and McConnell period compounded our problems. We were seen us dull and lacking in ambition, always appearing to look over our shoulder for someone else’s permission and afraid to take too many bold policy positions (the smoking ban one of the very obvious exceptions). This culminated in Labour being out of office since 2007.
At the same time the SNP became (along with Sinn Fein) the cleverest electoral force in the country with high quality strategists, policy advisers and media operators and in Alex Salmond they had one of the sharpest political minds around. The fact that it won a single seat majority in 2007 followed by an outright majority in 2011 was truly remarkable and brought the inevitable referendum in 2014.
It is my view that the decision (by whom I still don’t know) to establish the “Better Together” campaign in 2011 was one of the biggest political misjudgements in Labour’s 100 year history. That decision was taken with no reference to party members, MPs, MSPs, trade unions or indeed anyone that I know. It was a disastrous call! We had spent the previous 30 years successfully demonising the Tories as the enemy of the Scottish people, particularly the Scottish industrial working class and yet now the party of the workers was going to campaign alongside our traditional enemy.
Ironically the Yes camp including Trotskyists and venture capitalists, climate change deniers and greens and tax justice campaigner and tax avoiders did not see any contradictions within its ranks nor did it attract similar charges of betrayal or collaboration. The Labour broad left and many in the trade unions protested at Labour’s “Better Together” alliance and refused to get involved, eventually supporting the belated “United with Labour” campaign when it was launched, while others organised around “The Red Paper collective.”
Saying we were “Better Together” meant bugger all to someone who was unemployed or in a low paid, zero hours contract. It meant nothing to communities hurting from the impact of austerity imposed upon them by the very Tories Labour campaigned alongside, and it meant nothing to young people who wanted a message of hope for the future. The campaign should have been based on the principle of radical federalism and solidarity: the need for Labour to improve the lives of working people across the UK where the interests of a worker in Livingston is the same as a worker in Liverpool and the need for a strong, united Labour movement to challenge the excesses of capitalism, austerity and inequality.
We should also have reminded people that it’s the Labour Party and the wider movement that has always been at the forefront of delivering the greatest change and social progress in our history – the NHS, the welfare state, Health and Safety legislation, equality legislation, the minimum wage, social housing, education and the Scottish Parliament. But that case was never properly made, as “Better Together” offered a negative narrative rather than one of hope and social progress. This was a huge and fundamental mistake and contributed to the inevitable result that was to follow.
Nevertheless, we have entered an astonishing period where, despite Labour being out of power in Scotland for 8 years and for five years at Westminster, we are still somehow blamed for every problem that affects our country (a situation that is even more baffling in areas where Labour does not run the local council either). And during that period we have witnessed:
- Our NHS teetering on the brink – its budgets cut more than in Tory England, waiting times increasing, social care in crisis and increasing numbers of GP surgeries closed to new patients.
- Council services being decimated with an 8 year council tax freeze costing 70,000 jobs destroying our public services – a policy that benefits the wealthy most and punishes the poor who rely on those services. Where was/is the Labour campaign to defend local government jobs and services?
- Our colleges have lost 130,000 places largely for working class students.
- The implementation of the new school curriculum has been a predictable mess.
- Our police services are in turmoil with stations closing, staff made redundant and stop and search on an industrial scale whilst the police are routinely armed.
- The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was passed without a single government backbencher voting against – easily the worst piece of legislation of the devolution era.
- The franchise of our railways flogged of to the Dutch, the Northern Ferries and sleeper services to SERCO with Cal Mac next for privatisation.
- Plans to abolish corroboration, a pillar of our justice system, proposed then abandoned following an outcry.
- A fracking moratorium announced for 2 years to get us past the UK and Scottish election but which will inevitably be followed by drilling across the central belt led by the union busters at INEOS.
- Poverty and health and wealth inequality increasing as the middle class benefit most from free prescriptions, free university tuition, bus travel etc. whilst schools in the poorest areas lose classroom assistants, community health provision is in crisis and public transport fares rise. Incidentally, I fully support universal provision such as free prescriptions, school meals, bus passes etc. but without progressive taxation to pay for them they just become a middle class subsidy.
In the Scottish Parliament we saw the Scottish Government voting down Labour proposals to extend the living wage, end zero hours contracts, limit private sector rent increases etc. – all Labour proposals – all voted down by the SNP
But none of this matters in our post rational world.
Nor it appears do the commitments in the manifesto of the parties. If we are to believe what is promoted by the SNP and the media then the Scottish people wanted an alternative to austerity and a leftish policy agenda.
If that is the case then the Labour manifesto was much more to the left than the SNP on almost every issue. Labour promised:
- More cash for the NHS,
- A future fund for young people,
- 1000 extra nurses,
- more Progressive taxation,
- policies to end the need for food banks,
- a youth jobs guarantee,
- an end to zero hours contracts,
- an increased minimum wage and an extension of the Living wage and
- Investment to end food banks.
Add to this the assessment by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the SNP’s budget proposals would mean longer austerity rather than an end to it, and the disaster that full fiscal autonomy will bring (£7.6 billion of further cuts) and Labour should have been sweeping up votes and seats.
But none of this mattered – people had switched off and refused to listen to anything Labour said. We could have offered a free million pound note to everyone who voted Labour and still this would have been rejected. This is not the fault of the electorate, we can’t blame the SNP – it’s our fault, Labour’s fault. The people lacked faith in our sincerity.
So the £7.6 billion question is where does Labour go from here?
Well of course that is the question that every Labour member, every trade union affiliate, every MSP, MEP and Ian Murray will have to address in the coming weeks. It is not a time for people to stay quiet; it is not a time for centralised solutions and for a management or top down fix. If you suffer a trauma or bereavement it is best that the whole family talks about it and learns from that grievous event and ultimately strives to make things better within the family. But for the Labour family time is short – the Scottish Parliament elections are a year away and I know we all want to play a full part in rebuilding the party and movement we love. It is our movement and our values that have driven the campaigns for and delivered the greatest social change for working people in our history. We can do so again BUT this requires a full, free, open and democratic debate about how we go forward.
So here are a few thoughts on the way forward:-
- We should look at creating an autonomous or federal structure within the Labour party giving the Scottish party the ability to develop its own policies, select candidates etc.
- Re-democratise our party giving members back power to develop policy and end the top down fixes we have witnessed over the last few decades. Let’s not fear democratic debate, let’s embrace it.
- Do not measure everything we do against what the SNP do but develop a policy agenda that is clearly steeped in Labour’s traditions and values
- Take a clear anti austerity stance – promoting fairness, equality and a broad range of progressive policies
- Concentrate on what matters most to people – a secure job, fair pay, a roof over their head, the NHS, education and dignity in old age.
- At the earliest opportunity debate Trident and accept the party’s decision – if it is different from the UK party – so be it.
- Oppose TTIP – it is a huge threat to our public services and our democracy
- Launch a campaign to defend public services especially local government which is being decimated, working with our councillors who are one of our greatest assets and are in the front line.
- Re- build our relationship with the trade unions – many trade unionists want a successful and effective Labour party, promoting an agenda that supports working people and their families.
- Re- establish Political education within the party to stimulate debate and ideas and involve our members in policy development not just administration
- Re-build and reinvigorate local parties with co-ordinated activity and campaigns in each constituency
- Have a complete overhaul of our campaigning strategy – move away from seeing a door knocking league table as evidence of a good or bad campaigning.
- Use the talents and resources that are in our communities and embrace the people that are willing to help us. Who are the experts, the academics, the industry specialists, the community activists, the strategists, the teachers, lawyers, doctors, the workers, journalists, IT experts, the young people, people from the BME and LGBT community who will assist us if only they are asked?
There is much more to be said and done but this is a crucial time for Labour – let us start the debate about how we bring about change but let us never lose sight of our timeless values of solidarity, community, cooperation, fairness, equality and justice. It is these values that make us all socialists.