What Future for Scottish Labour, the Union and Britain?
Writer and commentator Gerry Hassan provides an interesting analysis on the future of Scottish politics.
Scottish politics are now in a fast changing environment where many of the old assumptions are falling: the election of an SNP majority government, the emphatic rejection of Labour, and the coming of the 2014 independence referendum.
Once upon a time politics north of the border were very different: with Labour returning a seemingly impregnable Westminster bloc, and the entire political culture shaped by social democratic and centre-left values, which played an important ballast in British Labour and British politics (supposedly counteracting the inherent Conservative nature of England).
More profoundly than this there was something distinctive which informed and shaped Scottish politics for most of its post-war era. This was a Labour vision of Scotland which many of us grew up with, knew its positive aspects, and which made us feel ennobled and liberated. That vision lifted hundreds of thousands of Scots out of poverty, widened opportunities and brightened countless lives via education, health, housing and numerous other public services.
This Labour vision of Scotland was one of modernity, progress and the future; this world was characterised by building motorways, tower blocks and New Towns such as Cumbernauld or Glenrothes with their tidiness and order and the ideal of ‘planned freedom’, with its connotations of good authority.
How this high-falutin’ vision came about involved some more messy, basic politics, and an idea of ‘Labour Scotland’ which through council housing, trade unions and local government, gave the party a ballast and anchor and allowed it to speak for a majority of Scots. In each of these three pillars of Scottish Labour’s house until the early 1980s, the party articulated and represented a majority of Scots. These gave it a power and reach which was more impressive than its share of the vote, where it never managed to win a majority.
That Labour vision and the notion of ‘Labour Scotland’ are gone. Labour has long ago stopped being the party of the future north or south of the border, whereas each of its three pillars is now reduced to minority status. This has huge consequences for the Scottish party which it has barely begun to recognise, and which will require a very different politics from those it used in the past.
This is an argument articulated with the publication of ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, written by myself and Eric Shaw of Stirling University. A product of extensive interviews with party politicians, officials and trade unionists, it analyses the story of the past 33 years from the 1979 referendum and arrival of Thatcher, to the SNP’s majority government and Johann Lamont’s election as Labour leader.
What does it tell us about Scottish Labour, its state and potential future? One fundamental is that Scottish Labour was never as powerful and omnipotent as first impressions and the rhetoric of ‘the machine’ gave. The idea of ‘Labour Scotland’ gave the party itself and its opponents the illusion that it carried all before it. But in actual fact the party even at the peak of its support in the 1960s was always rather small and reliant on institutional Scotland for its control.
The party abandoned devolution in its Attlee-Gaitskell centralisation era when faith with the British state’s ability to redistribute and provide the goodies was at an all-time high. When it came back to it, first in the 1970s, it did out of the expediency of thwarting the SNP’s electoral threat; and even when it embraced a Scottish Parliament more convincingly in the 1980s, it was motivated out of stopping Thatcherism at the border.
Labour never asked what it wanted a Scottish Parliament to do, and it never paused and reflected on what the implications of such a body would be on the party’s dominance. If it had it would have realised that the self-preservation Labour society would begin to be challenged, come under scrutiny and eventually unravel.
The party was hobbled by its lack of autonomy and its lack of a leadership cadre or culture post-devolution. Leaders came and went while a whole generation of thirtysomething Cabinet ministers under Dewar and McLeish bit the dust or retired prematurely. This was about the party’s inability to break with the legacy of old Labour while not wanting to champion New Labour values.
The issue of New Labour was a complex one in Scotland; we forget that in 1997 and 1999, pre-Iraq Blair was hugely popular with Scottish voters. The whole New Labour project with its brashness, shininess and PR sensibilities annoyed part of Scottish Labour who felt they didn’t need to be taught how to win elections.
They were against New Labour, but what were they for? The party was never just old Labour but it found itself trapped in a defensive mindset and with little to say about the wider crisis of social democracy which New Labour itself was a response to.
Scottish Labour avoided the New Labour car crash but ended up in a rather similar state: confused, deflated, diminished and angry at what events did to it. The party still speaks and represents a part of Scotland but if it is to win, define our politics and shape the future, it will have to fundamentally alter course.
Firstly, it is going to have to publicly reflect on the character and mistakes of Labour one party rule. This could be a powerful admission; if senior Labour people actually recanted and apologised and said, ‘look we got that wrong, don’t go down the same route with Alex Salmond and the SNP’. In fact it has to say the first half of that unconditionally, before it can ever hope to be heard on the second.
Secondly, Labour has to stop appearing as if it is obsessed with the constitutional question and the Scottish Nationalists; that is allowing your opponents to define how you see the world.
Instead, Labour should speak for the Scotland which is struggling to be heard in the current debate, namely, addressing the economy and social justice. Developing ideas which break with the New Labour waffle of ‘the knowledge economy’, speak for ‘Breadline Scotland’ and ‘the struggling middle’, combining traditional Labour values in a relevant setting.
At the moment, Labour hasn’t said anything of interest or originality since Wendy Alexander’s infamous ‘Bring it on’ remarks, and if it to change and get people to see it has changed, it has to get them to take notice.
In today’s politically detached and cynical world that is a huge challenge for Scottish Labour: Johann Lamont, Douglas Alexander, and a whole raft of Labour figures.
They need to stand up, be bold, brave and humble, and say: we got it wrong, we took you the Scottish people for granted, we practiced a politics of patronage and power, where that became important rather than people, and we have learned from it and will change our ways.
A party which learned from its twin defeats of 2007 and 2011 would say something along those lines. To become the party of the future, of change, and of daring politics, you have to want it and be prepared to take risks. It has to have a voice and give a voice to communities up and down this land.
‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ isn’t an attempt to write off Labour or damn; it is written as a detailed analysis and critique, and partly as a wake up call not just to Labour but wider Scottish politics. A Labour Party sleepwalking to slow decline and atrophying north of the border is a distinct possibility, clinging to the old comfort zones and battle hymns, of railing against the Tory led UK Government, while being driven by a near-pathological obsession with doing down Alex Salmond and his ‘separatist’ SNP.
Labour have lost two elections north of the border, and so far show little sign of having the hunger and self-awareness to realise the crisis it is in: of the breakdown of its old systems of dominance, of its appeal and raison d’être, and of how it understands and competes in modern party politics. Scottish Labour was once the party of the future, but that mantle has now fallen to the SNP and the wider notion of Scottish self-government which no one party owns or can claim to completely speak for.
The challenge for Labour is to begin speaking of a progressive future, one which is at home with the vision and impetus of Scottish self-government, an increasingly distinct Scottish voice and a very different union, one which challenges and takes on the conservatism and entrenched interests of the British state and establishment. And that then begs the question: who if anyone post-New Labour can speak for a different pan-British agenda which talks about inequality, social justice and ‘Breadline Britain’?
Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, published by Edinburgh University Press, £19.99
This article first appeared on the Compass blog, where comments should be written. Celyn would appreciate if comments from our readers were also copied here. Thanks.