Former MP for Edinburgh East Sheila Gilmore says we must learn the lessons from allowing our opposition to write our history, and scotch the myths being circulated about Scottish Labour before they are ingrained.
Labour is still suffering from the successful myth making of the Tories in 2010, repeatedly talking about the ‘Labour recession’. We failed to challenge this early and effectively and it was still coming back to bite us big time during the 2015 general election. We did try; certainly in debate after debate we repeated that it was a banking crisis, a world-wide crisis. But that didn’t penetrate far enough.
Maybe we didn’t have the Tories’ capacity for endless repetition. Sometimes we laughed at the ingenious way Tory speakers would squeeze these phrases into whatever else they had to say. But it worked! Even now our leadership candidates feel obliged to tackle this issue, because we have failed to put it behind us. This leaves the Tories framing the debate, and potential leaders conceding some of the ground.
We are confronted with our own myths here in Scotland and if we don’t start countering them we can’t move forward.
- Myth 1 – Labour doesn’t have separate Scottish policies because we are controlled from London.
- Myth 2 – Labour didn’t know what to do with the Scottish Parliament.
- Myth 3 – Labour MPs took their constituents for granted.
The first regular assertion is that there isn’t really a ‘Scottish Labour’ and that we are completely under the thumb of ‘London’.
But if that were the case how was it that in the first 8 years of the Scottish Parliament, Labour (in coalition with the LibDems) pursued so many policies that were different from those of the Labour Government in England? Take free personal care. This was hugely controversial following the Sutherland Report. Blair’s government decided not to implement free personal care. In Scotland we took the opposite decision. On the funding of the higher education Labour in Scotland abolished up front tuition fees, introducing the graduate endowment, while in England Labour not only retained these fees but increased them. For schools and the NHS too a very different path was followed in Scotland.
Some of those arguing for a completely separate Scottish Party appear to be conceding to this myth. We don’t need a separate party to have separate policies on devolved issues. The 2012 Scotland Act powers enable us to propose different tax policies for the 2016 election, with more in the future when the new Scotland bill comes into effect.
That leaves the argument that Scottish Labour needs to be able to declare different positions on issues that are not devolved, because that will show we are able to speak up for Scotland. But let’s not exaggerate the impact of this. Think about what will be said the first time Scottish Conference comes out against Trident renewal and the UK conference does not. Our Scottish MP can oppose Trident renewal (actually as an individual he is already pledged to do that) and indeed many English and Welsh Labour MPs will vote against in 2016. (In March 2007 , the last major Trident vote, 93 Labour MPs voted against renewal.) Do party members really think in such a situation, if the government still secures its majority, we will get any great credit for our ‘separate’ party and its separate policy?
Concentrating on this issue also leads to us thinking that if we change the organisation that will solve our problems. After 2011 we changed the way we organised from the geography of Westminster constituencies to the geography of Holyrood constituencies, on the argument that this would demonstrate our ‘Scottish’ credentials. Did anyone know or notice? All reorganisations are inward looking and cost us time and energy.
The second myth is that Labour may have created the Scottish Parliament but then did not know what to do with it, and that it was only the election of an SNP government that got things going. This is a particular favourite of external commentators such as Iain MacWhirter and Gerry Hassan, and is rapidly becoming an accepted fact.
As well as the implementation of our policies on social care, on higher education funding ,on schools, on the NHS, and on concessionary travel, Labour’s legislation included:
- A comprehensive Housing Act in 2001 which brought tenancy rights of council and housing associations tenants into a single form of tenancy, strengthening tenant rights and substantially reducing right to buy discounts.
- Homelessness legislation regarded by many as being the best in Europe (although neither Labour nor the SNP has translated rights to housing into there being enough actual homes).
- Long overdue reforms of the feudal system, and of the law of the tenement.
- The smoking ban.
- The Land Reform Act.
- The Antisocial Behaviour Act.
- Registration of landlords.
- Additional support for learning.
- The Adults with Incapacity Act.
- Protection for vulnerable witnesses.
While we cannot dwell in the past, neither we should we let our opponents trash our record. We need to be confident in our record, while quickly developing some key proposals for 2016 which will show voters that Labour in the Scottish Parliament would make a practical difference to their lives.
Myth 3 is the assertion that ‘Labour MPs took their constituents for granted.’ Other Labour elected representatives shouldn’t feel ‘but we are different’. If this myth is allowed to become uncontested truth it will soon be used to tar MSPs and councillors with the same brush. Now every party has a range of elected representatives and some will always be more hardworking than others. But in recent years most MPs have more contact with constituents (in person, by phone and through email) than ever before.
Most of our elected representatives are heavily involved in local groups and campaigns, and raise the real experiences of constituents in criticising government, in both parliaments. This isn’t to be complacent or not to ask for the highest standards of work and effort from our representatives in their constituencies. If individuals are not reaching these standards they should not be reselected. But here again we have to be careful not to let our opponents write our history.
Resting on our history is far from being enough , but let’s not lose it either, as we move on to lay out our stall for next year’s election. We created the Scottish Parliament and ensured it gained more powers so that we can continue to make a real difference to people’s lives.