Melanie Ward’s recent article outlining her views on the next steps for Scottish Labour struck me as a fine example of how to conduct the inevitable debate about the party’s direction. Despite a disappointing result at the General Election, her analysis was imbued with no rancour for party colleagues or the SNP.
This spirit of respectful but honest reflection should animate future interventions both in Scotland and in the rest of the UK. Here are a couple of my own observations on some issues that require serious consideration.
Scottish Labour needs to scrutinise its attitude towards the SNP. The SNP is characterised by a deep antipathy towards Labour but too often the serve is returned with enthusiasm. Too many initiatives and interventions are framed with reference to the nationalists.
This is understandable as they are now the most significant electoral force in Scottish politics, while Labour and the SNP have been competing over the same ground for decades, both geographically and ideologically. But by continually talking about your opponents you are allowing them to set the agenda. A best, you are giving the impression they are setting the agenda. It’s also hopelessly, transparently tribal and negative.
No one needs a political party that exists merely to oppose another political party or ideology. For growing numbers of people in Scotland, it seems like Scottish Labour is on this slippery slope. Without a distinctive vision and programme linked to clearly articulated values, no political party will be taken seriously by its rivals or the electorate. It needs to be able to present policies that can stand on their own merit, they shouldn’t need to be propped up by a criticism of the SNP or any other party for that matter.
Labour also needs to recalibrate its language and tone when discussing the SNP. It seems to have been decided that part of the response to the SNP challenge was to be a barely suppressed hysteria. This lends itself, all too often, to exaggeration and wilful misrepresentation. Trying to scare voters into opposing the SNP on dubious grounds is a grim tactic that has failed to achieve anything except the erosion of Scottish Labour’s integrity. It might be fairly suggested this is the stuff of politics and is hardly unique to one party. But the prevailing mood in Scotland, whether fair or not, currently holds the SNP to different standards than the other parties. This means Labour and the SNP can do similar things but they will be received differently by the public.
It also needs to be remembered that when we talk about a political party we also, indirectly, say something about those who support it, have supported it in the past or are tempted to do so in the future. The Labour movement was once a cause. How has it been forgotten that support for a political campaign or party can be a deeply personal act? The next time we are tempted to disparage the SNP or imply that it is an imposter on ground reserved solely for Labour, we should stop to consider what this says to the people who are favourable to it at the moment but who might one day be persuaded to change their mind.
Ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections next year, there will come a time when the SNP will need to be held to account for its record in government. But a rebalancing needs to take place before that. Labour needs to prove to doubtful observers that it has a clear idea of what it stands for beyond not being the SNP. If this groundwork is not undertaken, even justified criticism will sound like a variation on a tired theme. Labour’s objective should be to present itself as an alternative, not an opposition.
The second area that requires some hard thinking is the party’s position on devolution. First, Labour needs to abandon its proprietary attitude towards the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. While a UK Labour Government facilitated its establishment in a technical, legislative sense, the conditions for this were created by people from all parties and none. The Scottish Constitutional Convention involved collaboration between political parties and civic bodies, while it was the votes of the people of Scotland in the 1997 that provided the definitive sanction.
Whether intentional or not, every time Labour talks about creating or delivering the Scottish Parliament it needlessly implies its role was of unique importance. Voters are invited to infer that this should be rewarded. Labour should be proud of the role it played but being able to introduce the necessary legislation for the creation of the parliament should be consider an honour, not an act entailing eternal deference.
Second, Labour, perhaps like other parties supportive of devolution but not independence, have arguably been damaged by the handling of further devolution since 1999. Each time a new package of powers is agreed, there will be those asking why they weren’t delivered last time round. This is exacerbated by the SNP’s tendency to claim any outcome is short of what was initially promised. Unionist parties are cast in the role of a grudging parent increasing their child’s pocket money but not by enough to satisfy expectations.
Perhaps the party has been hamstrung to a certain extent by the remark, often mistakenly attributed to Donald Dewar, that devolution is a process, not an event. Well, this is true. But devolution cannot be an endless process, at some stage it has to become independence. This point doesn’t seem to be raised very often but there are only so many powers that can possibly be devolved before Scotland becomes independent. That is, there has to be a line in the sand somewhere and Labour needs to work out where this line is. What powers need to be reserved to ensure the political, economic and social functioning of the UK state consistent with Labour values? If it helps, rather than thinking of the powers that should be reserved at a UK-level, we might start to think in terms of a Scottish Parliament with a full spectrum of powers which then agrees to pool certain responsibilities at a UK level. However it is arrived at and whatever form it might take, momentum suggests the final redoubt of devolution needs to be found, detailed and adhered to.
A final note on party structure. I would be inclined to agree with Richard Baker that creating a separate Scottish Labour Party is a superficial response to deep-seated problems. If the issue is policy disagreements, these should be debated with colleagues from across the UK. This is a period of constitutional flux which has partly been influenced by the decline of UK institutions, industries and experiences of work. The symbolic value of a political party than can hope to achieve a measure of support, at the very least, across Great Britain shouldn’t be underestimated.