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.