Some honesty from Labour about the challenges it faces would not go amiss, says ERIC JOYCE
I re-read this honest and perceptive 1993 piece by Tom Harris today. It describes where the Labour party was 20 years ago, and what profound cultural issues had yet to be tackled in order to end the Tories’ lengthy dominance of UK politics.
Tom was writing before devolution had killed nationalism stone-dead, of course. A similar piece from a Scottish perspective today would need to take account of the alarmingly different priorities of the Labour Party and those of the Scottish ‘brand’, the Scottish Labour Party. I’m writing today at one reluctant remove from the party; that’s a shame, but my shackle-free outsider’s status helps me to see the nature of today’s party in sharp relief, both in Scotland and the UK. Mine isn’t a perspective I’d necessarily wish upon Labour members, but here are three thoughts that some might find worthy of reflection.
First, Tom’s piece alludes to a time when many Labour activists were still making the best the enemy of the good. Happily, we know now that period immediately presaged the rejection of the “How can we get elected? Well, I wouldn’t start from here” mentality. Thanks to Blair, Brown, Mandleson, Reid and others, from 1994 Labour embraced fully the need to understand the aspirations and values of regular folk and to start the electoral journey from there. The consequence of that epochal shift was Labour’s most successful period in history.
Yet it’s fairly clear a significant minority of influential ‘mediators’ (if you will) within Labour today view those 13 years in government as an aberration that wasn’t worth the cost of putting collective, natural-born, ‘Old Labour’ instincts into abeyance. Instead, such folk would prefer to regard that period as one of terrible alienation from a ‘real’ Labour worldview – the ‘real’ worldview that the voters consistently rejected, the worldview that saw Labour lose every single non-Blair-led election for 40 years. Ed Miliband is keenly aware of the dangers of such self-obsession, of course, and will do his damnedest not to allow allow such a mindset to wreck Labour’s chances of victory in 2015.
But it will be a tough struggle. Apparently easy calls, like accepting the enormous public popularity of a benefits cap while seeking to make such a system fairer and more finely-tuned, are greeted with horror in some quarters. In truth, most Labour supporters see the common sense of benefit caps, and agree with the underlying values implied by them. In this way, Ed and his team know that the closer to actual Labour supporters they get, the more they understand what must be done to bring former supporters Labour’s way again. Closed selection primaries (starting with Falkirk?) might aid that process.
The policies likely to extend from such innovations, such as helping people into employment through tackling the true causes of ‘underclass’ behaviours, will help to put Labour in government, and then change lives for the better. Regaling people with how marvellous it was in the olden days to send young men down coalmines, then on to premature death through lung disease? Not so much.
Second, and relatedly, the Falkirk fiasco has brought one unwelcome but undeniable truth to the fore. This is that fear stalks many of Labour’s elected representatives. Unite’s shocking and disastrous “you’re with us or you’re dun in” approach to selections and re-selections, its disregard for the views of both ‘ordinary’ members and those of the voting public, should have been condemned from the rafters by politicians who understand how entirely repulsive all of that is.
Instead, only half a dozen politicians, at the very top of the UK Labour, have had the courage to make clear the damage Unite’s leadership is inflicting upon the party. Not a single MSP has raised a peep; they’ve been bystanders. Most MPs have been just as taciturn. Where, exactly, is the beef?
The sound of silence has not been, I think, because MPs and MSPs are afraid of being condemned for being anti-union, since it’s obvious to all that the issue is with Unite specifically and not the union movement per se. Instead, it is because too many politicians of all parties left risk behind long ago, or never viewed it as part of their personal political landscape at all. Many members of the Falkirk public may have been less than chuffed by my drinking and nutting exploits last year, yet most people understand and forgive human failings. But that’s all as nothing compared to the horror of ‘ordinary’ Falkirk voters as the literally exclusive nature of Unite’s effort has been slowly unveiled. Last week, Unite-in-denial threatened a strike in Scotland’s only refinery over the issue. Electorally smart? Catastrophic, more like. But who’s supporting Ed Miliband in saying so?
Finally, while I’m pacing around the junction of Labour in the UK and Labour in Scotland, a word on Scottish Labour.
It’s clear that Scottish Labour’s contemporaneous thoughts are directed primarily at the Scottish elections in 2016, and not at the general election in 2015. I think that’s a mistake by the Labour Party proper, but there it is. Accepting that that is indeed the way it is, it’s very hard to see what the plan is. Is there one? The inevitable ‘No’ vote at next year’s referendum will not be a Labour victory – it’ll be a sort-of victory for everyone but the SNP. After that, the third or more of voters who vote Yes will vote overwhelmingly for the SNP in 2016, along with many who vote ‘No’ but who view the SNP as the more effective managers of devolution. What exactly is Scottish Labour doing to win over the overwhelming majority of the ‘No’ voters it desperately needs?
The two most senior members of Labour in the Scottish Parliament are unchanged from the terrible nadir of 2011. Ken McIntosh, who lost the Labour-in-Holyrood leadership contest but who seemed genuinely keen to move Scottish Labour onto winning ground by exposing SNP incoherence and by developing new ideas, is not just unlistened-to but actually sacked, to all appearances for the appalling crime of being a Blairite. And while there’s undoubtedly some decent Labour talent in Holyrood, it’s being kept hidden in an old cupboard somewhere along with the manky mops and broken kettles. Instead of new ideas about how to reflect public imperatives – improving services and putting choice and personal control into the hands of the users instead of the same old suspects – Scottish Labour continues to project the same protectionist imperatives, borne of the same personalities which saw it humiliatingly crushed at the last election. “It went disastrously,” seems to be the motto. “Why change?”
Meanwhile, the SNP leadership is competent and effective; it knows how to combine right-of-centre measures such as reducing corporation tax with a faux left-of-centre gloss. First Minister Alex Salmond has enormous personal public appeal, much of it cross-party, in the manner of Mayor Boris Johnson in London. Interestingly, while the SNP uses reserved issues as a ‘cri de coeur,’ they give a lot of thought to how to improve the public services that are actually within its devolved purview. This is, I think, because the primary objective of the SNP is to win the next Scottish election, not independence.
So if Alex Salmond is kind of Peron-cheeky at a presentational level, it’s no good bleating about it. It works for him with Scots, and he runs an administration composed of grown-ups (misconceived ideology and opportunistic policies notwithstanding). Meanwhile, Scottish Labour’s leadership looks more like the clumsiest approximation of Michael Foot (without the brains), with communications skills courtesy of Charles Saatchi in divorce mode.
Like most Labour folk across the UK, most members, supporters and possible voters in Scotland will respond positively to the same modernising, publicly-responsive instincts Labour showed when actually in power. It follows that they will respond negatively to not just fossilization and atrophy but an apparent longing for the good old days of being out in the wilderness.
It’s not complicated, is it?
Eric Joyce is the independent MP for Falkirk. Follow him on twitter at @ericjoyce.