What Next for (Scottish) Labour?

A book is published this year, entitled What Next for Labour. The blurb for it states “Now is the time for a real debate about the future of the Labour party and its decisive role in British politics. Labour needs to restore trust and build confidence between politicians and the people, and reconnect with voters. The way to achieve this is to provide an objective critique of Labour’s record and discuss what the future is for the Labour Party, which will lay the path for a new type of politics.

The book is not unique. Last year John Denham published Labour’s New Thinking, in which he could claim: “Since becoming Labour leader Ed Miliband has successfully opened several new national political debates, from the ‘squeezed middle’ to ‘responsible capitalism’ and concern about diminishing opportunities for the rising generation.”

Brave words all. And, although the second half of the former is largely about internal organisation and action, its first half also attempts to break fresh ground in policy, an area in which Labour has been sadly passive for some time. But what of Scotland? What of the ‘Labour Heartland’ that once guaranteed five in seven MPs sent to Westminster sporting a red rosette?

Superficially, the signs are good. Soon after becoming Labour leader in Scotland (but before May’s council elections) Johann Lamont was asserting “We knew when we lost the Scottish Parliament elections in 2011 that people wanted us to change. That’s why in the past year, we’ve seen real change in our party that’s helped us get closer to people and communities across the country.”

In parallel with that, the Scottish Fabians were relaunched in February as an integral part of the Fabian Society (which operates as a Labour think-tank). At their inaugural conference on May 12th, attended by over 100 people, Ms Lamont gave the keynote speech, declaring “I welcome the contribution of the Scottish Fabians to our political discourse. The wider the debate, the wider the engagement, the more chance we have of arriving on solutions we so dearly need to our politics.”

So, no hint of London’s policy tanks being parked on SLab’s crabgrass-infested manifesto lawn then? Certainly there has been no blowback. That was reinforced by Shadow Scottish Minister Margaret Curran MP hosting the first Scottish Fabian ideas workshop in Edinburgh’s City Art Gallery on July 18th, posing fundamental questions like:

  • How do we bring Government closer to people across the country?
  • How do we engage the people of Scotland in the debate on our future?
  • What can we learn from other countries about decentralisation and empowerment?

Laudable objectives that auger well, especially as the select few who showed included activists like Duncan Hothersall & Steven Johnson, policy wonks like Kenneth Fleming, EUSA President Matt McPherson and non-numpty MSPs like Sarah Boyack and Kezia Dugdale. But what did this actually produce? Apparently recycled flat assertions from Ms Curran, such as:

“Devolution and separation are two very different paths with two very different destinations” or;

“We must not let the referendum overshadow the real issues facing the people of Scotland”

Oh, aye—heard this lot before. But perhaps Ms Curran had yet to enter into the spirit of new thinking abroad in Scottish Labour? What cue did the new leadership give to this and other such groundbreaking events? Ms Lamont’s address to the Scottish Fabians in the aftermath of May’s elections included:

“The commentators predicted another Labour meltdown…Instead, we achieved fantastic results all over the country. Overall majorities in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire. Labour control across the country, here in Edinburgh, in Aberdeen, Fife, Stirling, West and East Lothian, Dumfries and Galloway, and many others. And gains in places we didn’t expect, in the Western Isles, in Aberdeenshire and in Moray.”

Not only has the humble pie diet been set aside, but we are drifting back into reeking of triumphalism, such as lulled Ms Lamont and her boss-at-the-time Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale into comfortable delusion after the 2005 UK General Election made them look pretty secure in their day jobs. Successive voting landslides in 2007 and 2011 taught ‘em different.

Is Scottish Labour really that thrawn? Can they really believe that a straw or two in the wind is all it takes to restore doughty intransigence and justify shelving pious statements about ‘need to reform’? Because today’s Hootsmon ought to give Mmes Curran and Lamont pause for thought before they hunker back down in ideological fortifications.

The Bad News—percentage of people who think Labour is:

  • Trustworthy = 8%
  • Forward-looking = 9%
  • Have plenty of ideas = 8%
  • Competent = 10%

The Worse News—percentage of people who think Labour is:

  • Untrustworthy = 25%
  • Boring = 26%
  • Incompetent = 29%
  • Out of touch = 35%

The Worst News of All—the poll was conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Fabian Society, so this is far more likely to be the unvarnished truth than had it been come from one of Labour’s opponents. Most revealing are the top two reasons given why many respondents voted Labour at UK level but SNP at Scottish level:

  • SNP has performed well in government in Scotland = 43%
  • SNP has better policies for Scotland than Labour = 40%

This last especially ought to give SLab—and Ms Lamont in particular—food for thought. Her speeches have been peppered with ritual Labour boilerplate (“by having faith in our traditional values”…”common values we share of fairness, equality and social justice”…”we debate about how we can improve people’s lives, not where to build borders”…”yahdah-yahdah-yahdah“) but not once—in the half-year hiatus of the leadership contest or the half-year hiatus since—has anything that ordinary mortals could confuse with a groundbreaking new idea passed her lips.

It is, of course, not all her fault. There are 37 MSPs, 40 MPs, 394 councillors all their staffs and many thousand members, not counting unions. What are they doing to help? It’s not that hard. If they spent less time trying to diss their enemies and more puzzling what Labour if FOR (besides looking after their own), they might come up with some. From a genuine desire for Labour to quit whining and become a proper opposition so that they have some chance of ever seeing power again, allow me to set the ball rolling:

  1. For eight years Labour sat on their hands and completed squat in transport systems. The SNP took over railways from the UK, opened Airdrie/Bathgate and Alloa lines, opened Lawrencekirk station, finished the M74 and rescued Edinburgh’s tram mess. What if SLab went further than re-regulating buses and introduced real city transport authorities that integrated all modes so that they worked seamlessly, as in Europe?
  2. RBS is being targeted by the Treasury for a complete takeover so the Government can finally pry open their over-tight fists in business lending. But that’s only one bank. What if SLab argued for the Bank of England to charge all banks for cash deposits so that it became worth every bank’s while to lend their cash and not just sit on it?
  3. If they are as keen on job provision, (especially for youngsters, as they keep saying they are), where are their ideas for providing real jobs and not just recycling bodies off the buroo so that it LOOKS like they have gainful employment. What if SLab realised that the biggest undeveloped business opportunity in Scotland is inshore fishing? What if they dynamited Crown Estates and Scottish Enterprise out of their criminal torpor so Scotland becomes a world-famous tourist destination for seafood (and not just an exporter to Spain/France/Italy where our seafood is consumed at ten times wholesale prices paid to our fishermen)?

That’s a start. With 500 elected representatives, at least as many salaried staff, ten times that in members and the supportive presence of English colleagues and the whole Fabian Society, surely SLab can come up with something else worthy of the name “new policy”. Or is “Out of touch, incompetent and boring” to become their recurring headline?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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