It can be said that the modern era of the Labour Party began when Tony Blair, in his first speech as party leader in 1994 said, “It is time that we had a clear, up-to-date statement of the objects and objectives of our Party.”
Some six months on, a statement more in tune with our times replaced Clause IV of the party founding constitution, preserved intact and unchanged for some 80 years. That statement was clear, concise and unambiguous. It said who we were and what we stood for. Importantly, the statement was in a language and a vocabulary that could be understood by a generation coming to maturity in the closing years of the 20th century.
The significance of this ‘moment’ cannot be underestimated. It showed that the party was prepared to engage afresh in a conversation with a new generation to whom the concept of ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ was utterly meaningless, outdated, irrelevant and arcane. And this was done without in any sense betraying or selling short the history or achievements of our party.
This cultural, ideological and organisational revolution passed by the Scottish Labour Party. Collectively we stayed cocooned in a comfortable past, oblivious to the fact that everything was in a state of flux, including Scotland. We thought that the citadel of Labour was secure and impregnable and that we had the magic formula to secure success and go on as we were. Our people loved us, so why change?
This political, ideological and intellectual failure to modernise and adapt lies at the heart of our collapse. For years we have taken large parts of our support for granted and assumed that they would dance to the old tunes the instant they were played. Apart from being agin’ Maggie Thatcher, the bloody Tories and lining up the SNP along with them we had very little to say that really engaged and captured the imagination of post-devolution Scotland. To quote an old saw from Tawney, also penned in defeat, we knew everything about the state of the roads but had no idea where we were on the map.
In May 2011 something very significant happened in Scotland. We were beaten in every possible way – organisationally, in the media, core message, presentation, manifesto, literature, coherence, consistency. You name it, we got it wrong.
The SNP did better than us in every department. No question about it. Excuses or pleas of mitigation will not do. It wasn’t perfidious Liberals, it wasn’t the media, it wasn’t the leader and it wasn’t the list vote. The roots of our defeat go deeper than that. This surely is the starting point if we are to recover and get on terms with our Nationalist opponents. The question is how to use the experience of defeat to improve in each and every aspect that modern campaigning requires.
At the centre of it all there is surely a political and ideological vacuum. It is a vacuum on the left – where the heart of Scottish politics lies – and that vacuum is being filled by the politics of identity and the right which have, for the moment, out foxed, out fought and trumped the politics of Scottish Labour.
Karl Rove, a master political strategist who won the US Presidency for George W. Bush said this: “Our success springs from our ideas…we are a party of ideas – and ideas have consequences… for decades, Democrats were setting the agenda, the pace of change, and the visionary goals. Republicans were simply reacting to them. But times change – and this President and today’s Republican Party are shaping history, not trying to stop it. Together we are articulating a compelling vision of a better world.”
Note the last line and learn the lessons. Barack Obama did: he won and progressive opinion around the world cheered! We can win too by articulating a compelling, inclusive and positive vision of a better Scotland and a better way forward than Nationalists can possibly offer.
This is why we need a ‘Clause IV moment’. We should spell out a new definition of what it means to be a democratic socialist in 21st century, post-devolution Scotland. Such a statement must be tough, robust and based on the unshakeable conviction that the politics of egalitarianism, solidarity and fraternity are universal and transcend the politics of identity, boundaries, borders and nationalism. Difficult yes, but not impossible.
When we have a new leader, whoever she or he is, we will need this statement as a firm foundation on which to re-build our party, galvanise our membership and rally all of those Scots hostile to the meaningless fragmentation, disruption and disunity on offer by Alex Salmond and his party.
No-one knows how long Noel Foy worked as an organiser for the Scottish Labour Party, but rumours abound that his relationship with Keir Hardie was tense. He’s now retired, lives in Haddington and is still fighting the good fight.