Kenneth Fleming is a Labour Party member who read past a recent headline and found an understanding of aspiration and solidarity that Scottish Labour must capture in order to succeed.
The latest stooshie to have kicked off in the Scottish twittersphere comes from a CommonSpace article covering some recent remarks by Scottish Labour leadership contender Kezia Dugdale, with the headline: “Scottish Labour has been too concerned with vulnerable people.”
When I read that I got a bit concerned. My concerns were assuaged by that often helpful trick of actually reading the article, and not just the headline. Here are some of the comments in full:
“Too often in the recent past it has looked like we are only on the side of one group of people – the most vulnerable in society.”
“Labour will always stand up for the weak and voiceless, but we also need to represent the vast majority who aren’t struggling but just want to do better for themselves.”
“In the recent past we haven’t looked like a party on the side of those who want to get on in life. Under my leadership we will celebrate success – for individuals, families and communities all across this great nation of ours.”
Reading that, I’m not sure where they got the “too” bit from in the headline. The observation was not saying that the party was wrong in caring about the vulnerable, or indeed how it much cared, but rather in suggesting that this was the only segment of society that it cared about. This has been a wider problem for the party across the UK. It is not necessarily that we’ve campaigned on the wrong issues, but that this activity has been too narrow in its focus and appeal.
I’m also not sure how any could take the impression that Labour is seeking to abandon or distance itself from the most vulnerable when Kez says:
“Labour will always stand up for the weak and voiceless.”
She also said:
“Our core vote isn’t big enough to win elections anymore, if it ever was.”
It always strikes me as manifestly clear, that a party that is being trounced in elections cannot evidently rely on its core vote. Parties need wide coalitions of support to win. No one understands that better than the SNP. The SNP effectively engage with the public, private and third sectors. They have appealed to voters across Scotland’s geographic, cultural and social boundaries. There is no betrayal of progressive politics in doing so, and I admire much of how they have done this.
Twitter spats are twitter spats. We will always contort a set of statements to suit our own underlying agenda, after viewing them through the lens of our inherent biases. There we are. More broadly, there is something important to be explored here, because it taps into a much wider and deeper question for Scottish Labour. That existential enquiry that comes with the type of soul searching that defeated parties have to engage in, and which Scottish Labour has had to consider far too often in recent years.
Who does Scottish Labour stand for?
The danger with pondering this question is that it easily slips into asserting who we are not for. Yes, Scottish Labour should be for working people. Labour was established as a workers’ party and it must always be a workers’ party. It should be for people who are enduring the moral outrage of in-work poverty. And I can understand why individuals, who are struggling in difficult jobs in order to barely make ends meet, are often the most resentful of perceived abuses of the welfare system. I can understand that Labour’s association as the party of welfare is politically toxic. But I also understand, that low wages aren’t caused by abuses in the welfare state. Structural imbalances in the economy have resulted in wages falling as a percentage of GDP for decades. Nor is it a problem restricted to the UK economy.
Equally, there is nothing socially just about communities where joblessness can be measured in generations and not just years. I would like to see those people in work, and not because of the need to cut the deficit, and not to satisfy a sense of resentment. It is because even if people have given up on themselves, a decent society should never give up on them. It is because people can live healthier and more rewarding lives when they have a job where they are treated and rewarded fairly. We can fight for the living wage and better conditions, and we can fight for compassionate and practical welfare reform. They are not mutually exclusive; in fact they are inextricably linked. A modern workers’ party should fight for those in work, those who want to work, and those who can work.
I can understand why we’ve struggled with some middle class voters. The voters Kez describes as:
“the vast majority who aren’t struggling but just want to do better for themselves.”
They are voters who are not on zero-hour contracts, and whose income won’t be improved by a living wage. They are voters who didn’t think Labour’s last manifesto had something for them, and who bristle when helpful SNP benefits are described as ‘middle class bribes’. Many people on middle incomes have been left wondering how they will ever pull together a deposit, or with mortgages they are struggling to afford, or supporting multiple children in further study. These are challenges of a fundamentally different kind than the most vulnerable in society, I recognise that, but they are real concerns nevertheless.
Aspiration can be sneered at and dismissed, but really it is the most natural and decent of human impulses, to provide the best possible life we can for the people we care about. Celebrating success isn’t really about lionising a company’s annual results, it is about understanding what a parent feels when they see their child graduate from university. Labour in both Scotland and the UK haven’t done enough to show that we understand this type of success, or that we have the practical ideas on how to make it just that little bit easier to achieve.
So who is Scottish Labour for? I think we should be for any person who will stand with us, who believes that the common good is based on shared prosperity, and that collective action is required to achieve it.
With our economy, and most importantly our society, buffeted by perpetual change, it is not always clear what solidarity should mean in practice. But it means the same as it always has in principle. The important thing is not a person’s profession, or what their background is; what matters is that if they will stand with you, you should stand with them. So, I’ll stand with the small business owner who provides high wages and fair conditions. I’ll stand with the public sector manager who is innovative and creative. I’ll stand with a shop worker who is rightfully demanding the living wage. I’ll stand with wealth creators, whether it is the innovator of a new product, or the manufacturing worker who makes it a reality.
It is not about chopping up society into blocks of voters, and building the narrowest possible plausible coalition from the pieces. It is not about playing off different types of people who deserve a better deal against each other, or dismissing anyone as the ‘wrong type of voter’.
Scottish Labour should be for everyone who wants to build a fairer society, for the betterment of us all. I’d like to think Kezia Dugdale might agree. After all, regardless of any headline you might have read about her, she has been saying pretty much this throughout the leadership campaign.