Post rational politics or shifting plates?

Neil Findlay MSPNeil Findlay, Labour MSP for the Lothians, says this is not a time for people to stay quiet.


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.

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23 thoughts on “Post rational politics or shifting plates?

  1. Lots of ideas, but all ignoring the obvious.
    The only strategy that gives Scottish Labour any hope, is to back a form of fiscal autonomy. It is supported by a majority of Scots, and given the SNP now have a block vote of 45%, opposing anything less will only lead to another huge defeat.
    You may disagree with the concept, but the result of 2016 will be no different to that of 2015 without a shift in this area.
    It i the only possible way of winning back Labour minded voters who have departed to the SNP.

  2. The SNP started a movement during the referendum and labour need to start one of our own which needs to gather pace over this year to help elect msps. We also need to start recruiting members this is a must as we need ad many labour people making a noise as much as the nats.

    1. I agree with what your saying george but has to be a genuine movement and not only to follow the snp, like if snp are doing it labour do it, tit for tat. People will see that as labour just following the snp. labour are better than that and can step up deliver a strong party

    2. George, surely the problem with your argument is that any Labour “movement” will still leave Scotland ruled by Tories it did not elect, unless Labour is prepared to embrace some sort of policy which leaves Scotland in control of its economy. In his article Neil cherry-picks some Labour successes but omits small things like crashing the UK economy in 2008 (oops!) and backing Tory austerity and nuclear weapons policy as it does today. If he really believes that the SNP’s success is because they’ve made themselves cool like Chelsea then he really is out of touch with his voters. In fact, they made big advances amongst Scotland’s poor because they believe what Labour used to believe. Instead, Labour has positioned itself well to the right of where it used to be. As Mandelson says, its not nearly far enough to the right but its too far for its former Labour voters in Scotland who see the constitutional question as the key to future progress. Labour’s stubborn refusal to address that issue is at the heart of its present malaise.

      1. Dear me, what codswallop. The global banking crisis crashed the global economy in 2008, Labour did not. And the SNP has failed to redistribute a single penny to the poorest in the 8 years it has been in control of Scotland’s £30 billion budget covering local government, housing, health, justice, education and economic growth.

        The SNP has won people over by demanding economic powers but they have hardly whispered about actually *using* them to redistribute wealth.

        1. And the problem with that argument, Duncan, is that you are saying to people who want some feeling of control, of influence over their own lives – those bad people want powers for Scotland, but don’t know what to do with powers – so lets let London and the Tories keep ’em instead!!

          That is simply madness.

          Any theoretical abstraction of your British based socialism that ends with the reality of you arguing for powers over Scotland to stay with Tory London is political cyanide to you.

          But you are too married to anti-nationalism to see it. Rather a thousand Tory government than Scottish indy/devo-max, eh?

          Your obviously bloody answer is – those bad people want powers, but don’t know what to do with powers – so this is what WE WILL DO WITH THEM!!”

      2. Spot on ,Stewart, regarding Neil’s comment about being an SNP voter is all about being “cool”. he has mentioned a multitude of things that Labour want to change and has lambasted the SNP for helping Scots, with free tuition,free prescriptions, an 8 year freeze on council tax etc etc. firstly, I have worked all my life, and after a serious brain op, determined to get off benefits and back working, I find myself self employed having to do something after our pit shut, but still bloody toiling some months to pay my council tax. I can assure him I am not “middle class” and live in a council style up/doon hoose.I do small removals and see people that canny even afford a cairpit in the hall! and an auld wummin that’s been in a council house for 28 years, family left and she’s had to move from Drylaw to Westerhailes because of the bedroom tax!. the SNP are the one’s that have helped people with that, and they stopped the Skye bridge charge, to locals going to the mainland for work, along with countless other things. Neil also continues the Party Line, with 1000 nurses, policies to end foodbanks ,etc etc, all stuff churned out by Murphy ,and lots of it shot down by Balls and Ummuna, so,Is Neil Findlay going to get to grips with your party’s real situation in Scotland. you need to get involved with real people. Wm Young, ex mineworker and trade unionist, ex Labour voter and former Craigmillar YES campaigner. now SNP.

        1. Labour and the Lib Dems ended the Skye Bridge tolls before the SNP were even in government. Labour pressured the SNP for a year on the bedroom tax – I know because I was on stalls week after week across south Edinburgh – before they finally agreed to act. Just a couple of corrections to your hymn to the SNP.

    3. bit late for planning a recruitment programme. the Genie is oot the bottle, and you and the S.Labour party stood with the Tories, walked with the Tories and sided with them in the lobbies on Austerity.

  3. Personally i actually think how do you know a worker from livingston and liverpool have the same needs? I stay in livingston and our area has totally different needs to our neighbouring areas, so I would argue that statement. People are individuals and need to be asked what there views are and what change they want in everything and put it in categorys and work thru them. Rome not built in a day. Realise that the place you need to start are communitys! All communitys have different needs so when local councillors or council cut things they should be looking at what the community want and need and only way to do this is asking the community face to face involvement being there only then will see the party moving forward. Good talking the talk on twitter, facebook etc but get up get out and motivate the communitys to vote labour by interacting.

  4. And omg enough with all the leaflets lol one is enough throughout the general election I got to the point annoyed me. It looks dull and boring, something fun and visually eye catching, politics doesn’t have to be boring. Also if people for the party just go about areas a few months before election they should feel the party are there all the time and not just for a vote that they care 365 days a year maybe xmas off lol

    1. The leaflets weren’t even particularly well done. One I received from Tom Clarke for example had two obvious flaws:
      * Most of the promises it made covered devolved issues, and there was therefore zero chance of Tom Clarke being able to even attempt to deliver them if elected to the UK Parliament
      * It didn’t actually ask me to vote Labour. I mean you can debate what policies etc. a candidate should campaign on but surely ‘Vote Labour’ is a fairly obligatory inclusion in a Labour leaflet?

      1. The main leaflet I got from the SNP was about the NHS, which is entirely devolved. Did you criticise that too?

        1. Yes all leaflets were not well done, I was confused what are they about what am I voting for lol too many leaflets not needed

  5. Lots in this article that I agree with. How about also trying to reach out to lifelong Labour voters like myself who have never joined the party and trying to persuade us to rally and join the party. (Which I’m going to do now anyway) lol.

  6. So Neil, when do you challenge Jim to do the above? Don’t stay quiet, get up and into his face. Use a small step ladder if you have to. And don’t take no for an answer – he’s awfully good at No.

    We need some yes – some positive dynamism and I see that above – as well as some smart suggestions to get the party going again.

  7. Neil, why did it take you till now to speak out?
    You must have know what was coming at the general election.
    If the YES voters voted as one for the SNP then Labour was gone even in the safest seats.
    Is the membership really up for a separate Scottish Labour Party, somehow i doubt it.
    Hate to say it but sadly Labour in Scotland is in serious danger of going the same way as the Scottish Tories.
    They wouldn’t listen regarding the constitutional question and have ended a fringe party in
    Scotland since 1997.
    The fact that Scottish Labour has lost half a million votes between the 1997 and the 2015 election tells us something was seriously seriously wrong within the party.
    Btw, it looks as though the Scottish Labour Party has been completely set up by the Tories with the Better Together trick.
    Scottish Labour do all the work and the Tories walked away with the big prize.

  8. “Labour promised:
    an end to zero hours contracts”

    No they didn’t. Never. They promised an end to “exploitative” zero hours contracts. Even the Scottish Labour leader was forced to concede this in an interview towards the end of the campaign. I agree with every single one of your ideas for moving forward but I, like many many other people, see a line like that and instantly lose trust. It’s not good enough.

    1. Interesting comment. You’re absolutely right, of course – Labour’s policy was carefully defined so as to allow those who wanted to choose zero-hours contracts to still be able to, but to ensure that nobody could be exploited by them. To me that’s a positive.

      But I find this interesting for another reason. I lost count of the number of times, in online comments, hustings etc., that SNP candidates claimed that it was SNP policy to abolish 0-hour contracts. Of course that wasn’t even close to being true. The SNP’s manifesto commitment was to consult on them, that’s all.

      So what’s fascinating is the different levels of honesty/accuracy to which each party was, and continues to be, held. It’s striking.

  9. This is more or less what I posted on Neil’s Facebook page yesterday:

    An interesting read, thanks for posting it.

    I voted for you in the leadership election but, frankly, I don’t think there’s much you or anyone else could have done to change last Thursday’s outcome. Maybe a seat here and there, but by and large what happened would have happened regardless and a big part of that, as you correctly identify, was Labour’s participation in Better Together. I’m one of those who refused to have anything to do with it. Political suicide in 21st Century Scotland.

    We can add to that the tacit admission by some in the Party that the Tories aren’t actually that bad – at least 2 of our local authorities are run by Labour/Conservative coalitions. Labour should *never* cosy up to the Conservatives, especially in Scotland. A distance must be maintained.

    It might also be worth looking at the experiences of those who work for Labour led or controlled councils. That’s a lot of potential voters. It’s all very well to call INEOS union busters, but is the Party clear that these employees are always treated fairly by Council managers in the name of their political masters? Are the rights of workers and unions respected? If they aren’t, there’s only one place blame will stop.

    Worse, though, was the sense of entitlement that seemed to emanate from some in the upper echelons of Scottish Labour. To have Jim Murphy talking about working people while expecting the tax payer to pony up for his TV licence, or to find that he puts 75p travelling expenses through the books was an irony too far. That sense of entitlement can still be seen in the pronouncements of a few of our defeated MPs.

    Jim Murphy also represents a class of career politician which is still rare in the Scottish Labour Party, but they still none the less seem to gravitate to the top. Have the current Leader and Deputy Leader ever actually lived and worked outside that environment? I think not. They are almost as alien to most Scottish voters as Boris Johnson.

    Centrally approved candidates and single sex lists? That worked out well! The Party shouldn’t be gender balanced, it should be gender blind. Talent should be the only qualification for progression and it should be up to the local CLPs to be the judges of that, with guidance but not interference from above. That would be a start in re-engaging and empowering the grass roots and lessens the prospects of another embarrassment like Eric Joyce.

    By the way, as a working teacher I quite like CfE. It has a lot of potential and will bed in.

    FirstGroup? Gimme a break! If you’re going to complain about the Scotrail franchise going to the Dutch, try getting on a bus in Falkirk and seeing what First seem to regard as acceptable for their customers. Minimum possible service standards with the maximum pricing they can get away with seems to be the First business model – or would you have preferred ScotRail to go to Brian Souter?

    Good luck for the future.

  10. This is better than anything we have heard from Labour for a good while, but still far off the mark. I could make various points, but I will pick only this one: the suggestion that opting for independence or for the SNP is “post-rational.” Coming from the party (branch office of) still led by a man who has “deranged” printed in block letters on his forehead, that is steep. Murphy alone was rational reason enough not to vote Labour.

    As an EU citizen living in Scotland, I have no emotional attachments to concepts of Britishness or the traditional Labour/SNP antipathy. I voted YES based on a rational assessment of the UK as a defective democracy that is not only ridiculously organised, but also poorly run and inescapably dominated by voters in England. I also believe in every country’s right to political self-determination. I considered it a great opportunity to build a better, more modern, more progressive country. There is nothing irrational about that.

    Incidentally, I find the rhetoric of “solidarity not only with the poor child in Livingstone, but also the poor child in Liverpool” insulting to people’s intelligence. What about the poor children in all the other countries of the world? Poverty is terrible wherever it occurs, but why should that mean that we ought not to try and make things better in the small part of the world over which we have influence? And why should borders stop us from showing solidarity? Alliterations are no substitute for logical coherence.

    I sent you a very long e-mail a couple of days ago with an analysis that I have read and heard in many variations from lots of people over the last week. It would appear that the overwhelming majority of people who did not vote Labour – and they are the ones you would need to convince – see the situation in much the same way that I do. Ignoring this would be, ahem, post-rational.

  11. When I was in the Labour Party it was the party of the Working Class. Neil is now looking after the workers, same as Miliband and Cameron. What about the lame the ill and the unemployed? Red Tories right enough

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