Labour’s defence of the Union makes it look like we have nothing else to say, warns ERIC JOYCE
Scottish Labour needs to stop defending the union. Why? Because it isn’t at risk.
The SNP understands this; that’s why their increasingly transparent objective is a federal UK. Murdo Fraser, the Tory leader-across-the-fields understands too - that’s why he’ll make it their new platform next year. The Lib Dems have been saying it for years. Even (!) academics and journalists get it. And, most important, the Scottish public? Consistent polls show up to 30-ish per cent in support of outright independence (with much of those accepting federalism as an intermediate step), a little less for the status quo and the remainder for a home-rule which buys into the UK for good reasons pertaining to economics, defence, foreign affairs and a few of those big and small institutions it’d be expensive, and pointless, to replicate in Scotland.
So when Scottish Labour bangs incessantly on about the union it makes us look like we’ve nothing else to say; that our self-perception is that of the last redoubt against the savage. It’s ridiculous and we need to move on sharpish. And here are three thoughts to help us on the way.
First, most people in Scotland are aware of the benefits of the UK critical mass, hence the big Labour vote last year. BUT they’re mainly concerned about health, education, their living standards. And they’re quite self-confident and optimistic about Scotland, thank you very much That’s why the SNP’s positive messages, in spite of their previous failure to deliver, kicked our heads in at a Scottish Parliamentary elections voters understood was obviously not about independence.
Second, the SNP is, in offical policy terms if not support, a right-of-centre party. That’s why the Tories can’t get traction in Scotland. The SNP wants to cut taxes, reduce public services, spend more money on the better-off and less on the less-well-off. That’s why they want to reduce corporation tax, maintain a council tax freeze, give the better-off free prescriptions and tuition. So here’s a thought: why doesn’t Labour substitute a set of bold, progressive alternatives for the fear we peddled during the election? Why not ask the best-off to help pay to reduce the cuts to the rest?
Third, we may have been cuffed last month but we are, actually, still here. The Labour group in the UK parliament is huge and, more importantly, while the Labour group at the Scottish parliament is small, if you look at the folk who’ve been elected they’re an impressive and capable bunch. They’ll learn the idiosyncratic ropes quickly and very soon; given the right ideas, freedoms and structures they’ll be ripping into the coming failure of the SNP to deliver again in no time.
So, what next? A Scottish Labour Party leader, to start with? Just a thought, like. A period of anarchy where presently leaderless Scottish MSPs say what they think? A rejection of the presently popular (unquestionably free tuition, council tax freeze) in favour of new ideas which capitalise on the coming public anger about growing waiting lists and shrinking public services? Jesus, I hope so.
All the Scotterati chat right now is about independence. But that’s an irrelevance. Meanwhile, the SNP is intelligently segueing the language of independence into a federalist vision most folk in Scotland agree with. And don’t doubt that the wording of the referendum will reflect that. That’s not because they believe in the vision, but because they know that that’s what Scotland wants. We in Scottish Labour need to push them off that ground; force them to argue for their raison d’etre – outright independence. But, crucially, we need to do that because we believe in federalism. We’re not obsessed with the union nor with independence – we’re obsessed with getting the best deal for people in Scotland. And that’s it.
Finally, this: Scotland isn’t naturally right of centre or left of centre. It’s “where’s-my-personal-and-family-interest-and-good-public-service” centred. When the cuts bite, universalism won’t seem so smart. What will seem, and be, smart is a well-argued critique of the UK’s collective strengths alongside the ability of Scots to look after ourselves. Together. So let’s get cracking.
Eric Joyce is the Labour MP for Falkirk. Follow him on twitter at @ericjoyce.