Why I don’t expect to be inspired by Scottish Labour

JEFF BRESLIN should be a stereotypical Labour tribalist. So why isn’t he?


When it comes to theoretical affiliation with the Labour party, I can really be as misty-eyed, traditional and as downright cheesy as I wish to be. I grew up in an industrial, ship-building, iron founding town in the west of Scotland, I’m Roman Catholic which, without wishing to attract a five-year jail term for sectarianism, is apparently a historically Labour religion, my immediate and extended family typically voted Labour, I vividly remember leaving school to ‘Vote Labour’ stickers being pressed onto my blazer in the Thatcher years, I believe wholeheartedly in universal provision of housing, health and benefits for those of us who are struggling and I’m enjoying the fruits of a United Kingdom, temporarily working in London for a Scottish bank saved by the UK government’s largesse.

If you were updating your voter ID records you’d probably put ‘Certain to vote Labour’ against my name and move on. And yet, in the various elections that I have participated in from 1999 onwards, I have voted SNP, Socialist, Lib Dem (forgive me) and Green. I am a fair-weather lefty but the winds of change have not blown me into the red corner yet. So, I suppose, I am part of Labour’s problem and potentially part of its solution.

So why haven’t I voted Labour before? The simple answer is that they have never truly inspired me, either through policy or personality. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments: Ed Miliband’s sparkling conference speech when Environment Secretary, Alastair Darling’s reasoned solution for controlled deficit-reduction during the 2010 election campaign, Hugh Henry’s refusal to kow-tow to the civil service, Robin Cook’s unrivalled oratory when speaking out against the Iraq war in his resignation speech and Malcolm Chisholm’s principled refusal to vote against minimum pricing for alcohol. Such moments have been few and far between sadly. Jed Bartlet, CJ Cregg and Toby Ziegler may be fictitious characters but as a West Wing fan they are the benchmark as far as I am concerned. Labour politicians need to start opening their mouths and lift buildings off the ground, not send punters to sleep or reaching for the remote.

This only concerns delivery of course and policy is, or at least should be, more important. Recent policies to embrace PFI, to support nuclear power, to vote down minimum pricing and to stick with the Council Tax have been diametrically opposite to the future Scotland and better nation that I wish to live in. That’s not partisan positioning, it’s just a straightforward assessment of my personal views and an inability to square them with what Scottish Labour is currently offering.

You can start to see why that voter ID mentioned earlier is not so appropriate.

Anther reason for why I have hitherto never scored an X in Labour’s box is how I perceive the party. I view much of Labour in a kind of dusty grey, a faded relic of a movement that was once a good idea but, although should remain so and is as important as ever, has lost its purpose, vision and clarity. When leader after leader talks of the building of the NHS, of creating the welfare state, of Keir Hardie, of Tom Johnson and of the ragged trousered philanthropist, they might as well be talking about the Aztec period or the Stone age. Even the Blair era is ancient history as the years zip by and only forward-facing solutions need be brought to the lectern. Labour’s past is a millstone around its neck when there is no captivating future to set it against. By contrast, the relatively youthful opposition parties feel modern and solutions-focussed which is comparatively much more appealing. Pie in the sky? Who cares, give me something to believe in.

The greatest hits of the past decade also apply; I did feel embarrassed to be British when we attacked Iraq, I struggle to defend first past the post and the House of Lords, I was ashamed of the (ongoing) expenses scandal, I am agog that the UK inequality gap continues to widen and there is no getting away from a disappointment that Labour, a party that I like to trust if not necessarily vote for, has been either directly or indirectly responsible for these stains on our nation through what it has or has not done in its record 13 years in power.

Even at a personal level, fairly or unfairly, I have a stigma attached to many Labour personalities. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are many hip and groovy individuals in the party but I’m afraid most are viewed as more Bob Crow than Eddie Izzard, despite recent star-studded attempts to suggest otherwise. The problem is that, in order to be real, change has to be bottom up rather than top down so flying Britain’s favour transvestite comedian into a campaign from down south, in order to inject some life into a stillborn campaign, just looks forced and fake.

These are fundamental issues that only the Labour party can address but there are some quick wins; chiefly, don’t always be seen to be saying No.

Through agreeing with the opposition more I would ironically be more likely to vote for Labour. In the last Holyrood parliamentary term, the group voted against more apprenticeships, voted against free tuition and voted against a freeze in council tax only to be in favour of these policies come election time. The impression that I was left with was that Labour was chasing the tabloid-reading demographic that conflated strong opposition with ‘just say no’. I will always struggle to get on board with such a cynical approach to politics that is seemingly devoid of principle. So it is little wonder that the Scottish Greens have won me around in the lifetime of the past parliamentary term; they agreed with the government when there was overlap and they made their principled points known when there was a fundamental difference in opinion.

So, what do I want from the party that I’ll vote for at the next election, be it Holyrood, Westminster or European? Demonstrable, detailed moves to reduce inequality in this nation (which can only realistically be applied through tax rises); a revolution in the food that Scots eat (preferably starting with free school meals coupled with education of what ‘good food’ is); a steadfast rejection of GM, nuclear power and nuclear weapons; reasoned, logical arguments against rival parties proposals and, above all else, a bit of inspiration.

To me, Ed Miliband is a good guy. He seems to genuinely enjoy paying his taxes, he seems to genuinely get on with even the party activists on the lowest rung and, despite a few wobbles (the shabby calls for Ken Clarke’s resignation for example), he is generally inching Labour down the right path. Will I vote for him over Caroline Lucas? Can I envisage a Jackie Baillie or Ken Macintosh, through leading Labour, inspiring me more than Patrick Harvie and Alex Salmond have?

I don’t see it. Scottish Labour has a mountain to climb I’m afraid and, as things stand, they honestly needn’t even bother knocking my door.

Jeff Breslin is a co-editor of the Better Nation blog and a London-based accountant working in corporate finance. Stumbling into the blogging world in the run up to the Holyrood election in 2007 with the somewhat partisan SNP Tactical Voting, Jeff has since taken a reasonably objective, often numbers-based approach to Scottish politics on blogs and Twitter. He is also a non-active member of the Islington Green Party.

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22 thoughts on “Why I don’t expect to be inspired by Scottish Labour

  1. Opposition to GM crops and nuclear power (weapons is different) should never be ‘Labour’ things so with these priorities, which aren’t priorities for most, it seems you have your party sorted. Stick with the Greens…

    1. Fair enough, I’m of course not saying that Labour should bend principles in order to win votes and if nuclear power could be shown to be affordable with the inevitable public subsidies and clean up costs then I could be convinced.

      However, every £1 that goes into nuclear is a £1 that doesn’t go into the more urgent renewables drive and that’s my view for now.

      It’s interesting that you’ve fixed on the one priority that happens to be non-Labour and ruled me out (GM is hardly a deal-breaker on its own). No one party ticks all the boxes for any one person after all and, given my penchant for tactical voting, I can always be swayed (and may well be) to go for a party more likely to win a seat than go Green.

      That said, I probably will “stick with the Greens” as their national voteshare does not reflect their true popularity and that appeals to my sense of fairness. If only there was AV available for my second vote and I could get my first cross against that red rose…..

    2. Are “Labour things” not whatever is for the good and benefit of the people? Including standing against the manipulation of the food industry by huge corporations bent on forcing their will through, bypassing democratic balances by endless lobbying of politicians and orchestration of the scientific community worldwide? As for nuclear power; just possibly the safety of the community should be a Labour thing. Perhaps if the party held dear some of the “Labour things” that previous generations of true Labour people held as driving forces things would be oh so different for the Labour party. Care for people and community was a Labour thing.

  2. Indeed ALW, supportive of Ed Milliband, anti GM foods and against nuclear power. Please stick to the greens. Many thanks.

  3. I find the lack of appetite to compete for votes surprising, particularly when one is decidedly non-Tory and the environment is patently such an enormous issue, but each to their own.

    Are Labour members who voted for Ed as leader closet Greens and unwanted too?

  4. Forgive my astonishment but I am aghast at the statement “opposition to nuclear power should never be Labour”. Since when? How many members of and voters for The Labour Party are against both nuclear power and weapons? Are you telling me that, as an opponent of nuclear power, I can never vote Labour? Seriously? The problem that The Labour Party has, at the moment, is an inability to treat an article such as the one above with maturity.
    In Scotland, it is incompatible to vote Labour and support Independence and yet Labour Party policy until 1948 was for Scottish Independence. Is it now, also, incompatible to vote Labour if one is opposed to nuclear power?
    I am, genuinely, shocked.

    1. Thanks David, and I agree. To continue a theme of the post, I found the comments ‘uninspiring’.

      Slicing out supposed single-issue voters who nonetheless hold Labour values won’t leave Labour with very much to work with. Big-tent politics and all that…

    2. I am not for one second saying you can’t or shouldn’t vote Labour if you oppose Nuclear Power or GM crops, but these are not the issues that the Labour party has to rethink its position on in order to reach out. The Labour Party’s failure to tackle economic inequality and it’s love affair with PFI, as you also share a concern about, are far more important issues and boil down to New Labour – and the elite it left at the top of the Party in Scotland as elsewhere – confusing economic competence and good business relations with a full blown neo-liberal, market driven obsession. Moderatation in the right direction soon turned into a great lurch in the wrong direction.

      Environmental issues should of course be central to Labour’s renewal but blanket refusal of nuclear power should not be ruled out until other low carbon energy supplies can efficiently meet energy demands.

      1. *should not be considered (rather than ruled out, I’m sure you get what I am saying though)

  5. Once again two responses to Jeff’s article clearly show why Labour will never climb the mountain. A party ashamed of its past has no future.

  6. I wanted to say the whole ethos of Labour is urban. I went through the whole of this site and found nothing of interest to me as a rural person, nothing about the rural economy and nothing about the future. Started wrong, looks like staying wrong as far as anything rural goes.

    1. Hi Michael,

      While I agree that Scottish Politics in general has an urban-focus, just out of interest, what specifically are you hoping Labour would say on ‘rural issues’? What is the big issue(s) that needs to be focussed on and discussed?

      As an Edinburgher and now an adopted Londoner, I couldn’t speculate myself!

      1. Just finding out we exist would be a start. The lack of a mention of the upcoming CAP reform package. The cataclysmic rural demographic problem and its particular impact on the age structure of farming. The total focus on those who visit the countryside rather than live in it. A lot more besides too. Sorry to be slow in replying but I work as an advisor outside the UK now part time to survive on our unsubsidised farm and the place has little or no internet access.

  7. I am like Jeff I guess. West of Scotland working. Class Catholic, Labour through and though. However they never appealed to me. No radical ideas. No view of lifting people up. All to do with providing lobby fodde and an unshakeable hegemony in machine politics.

    Where did Home Rule go! Tje desire to be without nuclear weapons? Providing decent housing?why has it become all about places in ALEOs and knee-jerk opposition to any idea not of the body, as witnessed by the reaction to Jeff.

  8. Jeff, you make some fair points in your contribution above.

    We didn’t set out a credible vision at the last campaign and some of our message has become a bit ‘old hat’.

    The introduction of the minimum wage is now taken for granted as is the devolved parliament, investments in health, education and attempts to reduce inequality.

    The Gini coefficient (measures inequality of distribution of income/wealth) slowed dramatically under Labour but enough wasn’t done in my opinion. Tony Blair (&Gordon Brown to a lesser extent) failed to use the whopping majority to effect real systematic change.

    However, resting on the past is part of the problem and doesn’t portray us as a vibrant forward looking party. In that respect Independence is an easy sell.

    It is aspirational (for some) and in broad brush (no details or rigorous analysis) easy to explain. Labour, in the last campaign, found it hard to coherently formulate a message of what we stand for. In the end, a battery of why not to vote for SNP/Tories was not going to cut it.

    Similarly, Iain Gray, got involved in a punch and judy type fight with the media savvy Alex Salmond and got soundly beaten. He would have done better over the last year to pin Alex Salmond on detail which is where he is weakest.

    issue chasing was a big problem for me during the last campaign and left us looking like we were a confused mass (or mess).

    Labour got much wrong in 13 years and much right (just like most governments I expect) but we seemed embarassed by the good and ashamed of the bad.

    We now have an opportunity to look hard at what is important to us and reflect on areas that we went wrong on. Only after a good hard look in the mirror can we look out again and get our message out to those who would support us in the future.

    One thing is for certain, getting thumped in an election is a clue that all is, most definately, not well.

    We should Aspire, Inspire and bloody well perspire to garner support the next time we ask the electorate to vote for us.

    1. Thanks Altany, really great points in there. I genuinely didn’t know that under Labour the Gini coefficient had slowed considerably, I was only aware of the fact that the inequality gap had grown, which sounds unnecessarily more negative than the point that you raise. So that is just one example of an achievement that Labour has failed to message convincingly and a way in which I, and no doubt others, see the party in a better light.

      “aspire, inspire and bloody well perspire”. Good choice of words, and good luck!

  9. Feels like you’re just chasing readers by referencing TV drama’s and name checking celebs. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading the opinions of floating voters, particularly the ones who use words like ‘lefty’. It’s just that I’m a fair weather blog reader, and the wind is blowing me away from clicking on the link to Better Nation. Maybe you could get some proper writers in to try and inspire the readers? But that would feel a bit forced and artificial, so for me right now, a Better Nation would be one without you blogging in it.

  10. Hi Jeff,

    In response to “Ian” above, I am sure that you know that he is in a tiny minority (probably of 1) with his comment on your blogging at “Better Nation” 🙂

    1. Thanks JPJ2. Water off a duck’s back though. There are dissenting comments that I happily argue back on and then there are some that don’t even merit a reply.

      This one’s the latter.

  11. That’s not trying very hard to convince me to read your blog: yet you want us activists to convince you to vote a particular way. You get what you give.

  12. Labour lost the last election for a number of reasons.

    Firstly the SNP’s team of MP’s is clearly better. How many average folk could honestly name the duputy leader of Labour? And judging by her comments about ASDAgate, it might be better if she stays away from the camera. So it was all about Iain Grey against the best politician Scotland has ever produced. Of course behind Alex there is a decent team, nicola might well be a nippy sweetie but she is decent, swinney was a horrible leader but he has done well as finance minister. Labour should have been targeting McCaskill, if I’m honest I fancied Euan Aitken to win his seat(he is a good guy BTW and should be higher up the ranks within labour)

    AS for the future LAbour must not try and pretend that Scotland will be worse of as a normal country. These lies really don’t wash anymore, they need to argue about the values of the union rather than scaremongering.

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