Changing Course or Deckchairs?

It seems that my ex-opponent is as good as his word. Within 24 hours of standing tight-lipped across from me as the ERO confirmed his 151 majority and having heard the scale of the SNP victory elsewhere, he declared:

“There are many hard lessons we must take forward from this election, not least my own responsibility and role as the Scottish Labour Leader. After consulting with colleagues I have decided to stay on until the autumn as we conduct a fundamental and radical reappraisal of the structure and direction of Scottish Labour.”

This weekend saw the first step. Labour’s “biggest shake-up in 90 years” considers radical proposals for constitution and leader. These are to be debated at UK party conference in September. Then, at a special Scottish Labour Party conference on 29 October, the leadership process will begin. Highlights of the proposals are:

  • devolution for the party “on Scottish matters”
  • all party members (not just MSPs) eligible to stand as leader
  • leader to be for the whole Scottish Party, not just MSP group
  • redrawing CLP boundaries on Holyrood, not Westminster constituencies

Labour’s performance over the summer has not been impressive. Given the scale of their gubbing, their diminished ranks and loss of access to advice from Holyrood mandarins after 2007, this may be understandable. Iain Gray’s performance on his feet has actually got better. But the substance of Labour opposition, as when his response to Salmond failed to posit any alternative, or when Patricia Ferguson accused Fiona Hyslop of a ‘blunder’ in the EU debate is still substandard. 

But—so far—I congratulate them; no ancient organisation changes itself easily and one in the public spotlight is especially hard to shift off-course. It was not with malice that I suggested as much in April’s article in Newsnet Scotland. And, for all the sincerity about reform from Gray, Murphy, et al, what chance do they have of succeeding?

Ninety years ago, the party sang The Red Flag with authority, speaking up for the industrial workers of Britain against exploitation. They expanded into the party of aspiration for workers and protectors of the weak. Even under Wilson or Callaghan, this heritage was plain and worn on its sleeve. Unfortunately, Britain de-industrialised and, pre-Blair, Thatcher lured many aspirationals into the Tory camp.

After decades of class warfare in Scotland and entrenched municipalism in its cities and across its own ex-industrial belt, Scottish Labour lost sight of what it was for and exerted all its energy defending what it had. If Labour had a heyday in Scotland, it was embodied in Strathclyde Region. Although SRC begat SPT, the water referendum and anti-Thatcher actions, it also invented glacial self-interest common to Labour councils across Scotland. Three decades later, what structure props up Scottish Labour now?

  • CLPs now virtually non-existent outside of cities & ex-industrial areas
  • membership halved to 15,000 since the run-up to 1997 peak of 30,000
  • councillor numbers have halved from over 600 to barely 300
  • only 3 councils (out of 32) are under Labour’s full control now
  • any reputation for competence damaged by Holyrood performances
While the last of these five points has encouraged a drift of voters to other parties, it is the other four that are hampering Labour’s effectiveness in any fight-back. “For too long Labour has undervalued the vital work that councillors do in the party and in their local communities.” (David Martin MEP in Scotland on Sunday).And here’s the rub: the whole shebang was driven by local clubs (Labour or Miners’) and a career path from member to activist to councillor to convener to MP/MSP/MEP. In my own East Lothian, three of four Labour Clubs have closed and the couple of Miners’ Clubs still on their feet are wobbly. But they and the councillors were contact points that kept party and people in touch.

But post-Blair activists are now close to extinct. Members in the clubs like the criac and the cheap beer; they don’t even mind getting herded into vans to stuff leaflets through doors. But the clubs’ days of fervent debate and dedicated work are history. With STV in councils and Salmond’s Holyrood sweep, the career path has also been scuppered. And compensating effort that could once be called in from parliamentarian staffs has now been more than halved.

So the real question for Labour’s apparent good intentions is: Is it all too late? Apart from the high heid yins and the largely apolitical social membership, just who is there left to have their debate, let alone man the fight-back? Or is the whole process flawed and, in Brian Donohoe MP’s dismissive words “crass stupidity”?

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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