The Scots may have voted ‘No’ but the real loser is Labour in Scotland.
With the last few days of the referendum debates came an awareness that Scotland is awash with social and political enthusiasm, inclusion, participation, in pubs and clubs, community centres and front rooms, in literally hundreds of emergent groupings – Women for, Asians for, Labour for, allsorts for Independence.
As important, probably more so, Scottish cultural life is in bloom. You can’t miss it when you are there: comedy, film, music, literature, theatre, festivals; even the Commonwealth Games set Glasgow alight. In contrast to the prevailing misery and despair in our communities, battered with cuts, abuses, apparent isolation, absence of leadership, the Scots are getting on with it, doing their thing, making the best of life, fighting back. Do not underestimate this. The author, literary figure, Yes campaigner, and self-proclaimed lesbian, Val McDermid, has her name emblazoned across the front of the football strips of Raith Rovers, the Scottish Championship team, this year playing Glasgow Rangers and both Edinburgh sides. If that doesn’t convince you that something rich is going on in Scotland, nothing will.
If you didn’t get it, it is because you didn’t feel it, you haven’t smelt the coffee! Down south, our sensors pick up the rancid odour from London, perhaps tempered by a sniff of fresh air from Syriza, the Indignacios, the Occupy movement, Left Unity or the People’s Assembly. None of this compares with what has happened in Scotland -under the radar, serviced in no small part by social media.
South of the border, the consensus was that we are internationalists, against nationalism and independence, for a united working class against the Tory offensive, although it is fair to say left leaning commentators began to peel off in significant numbers – John Harris, Billy Bragg, Russell Brand, Suzanne Moore, even Owen Jones all but converts from his hitherto ‘principled’ stance.
There is little point in running through the arguments again. Most formed their opinions after a long debate, impossible to miss north of the border, even if much ignored until the last minute, south.
A 45% vote for independence, with no blood on the streets, no riots or strikes, just popular engagement, is a truly extraordinary political event. The impact on Scottish politics, and very nearly on British politics over the past two years has been immense so, here, we will consider three aspects.
- Labour in Scotland, and probably in Britain as a whole, is in very serious trouble.
- ‘Tribalism’, a term reserved exclusively, it seems, not for our relations with the Tories, but for ‘the nationalists’, has allowed us to completely lose the plot. Get over it! Concentrate on the real enemy. The Yes campaign, like it or not, was based on a programme the broad left supports.
- The media’s, Westminster’s and particularly Labour’s inability to even recognise what was happening in Scotland, let alone consider how it might apply in the rest of Britain, is our best indicator yet that the British political system is at a very low ebb. Something has to change. How to do it is another matter; a question more easily answered in Scotland. Listen to the people, not the Westminster bubble and its media.
Yes! Labour is in Trouble
Members are asking, ‘Why still be in the Labour Party?’. In Scotland there are mass defections. Here in Wales the answer is probably
- There is nowhere else to go. Plaid at best has got a socialist current within but that would be even more of a struggle with its mishmash of politics than is Labour, where at least you know where you stand. Their leader, Leanne Wood, still one of the best, is clearly torn by disparate pressures on her;
- There are local reasons for being in Labour and perhaps many feel that the essential principles of Labour, at the roots of the Party, are still achievable; and
- Welsh Labour Grassroots is probably the most organised and coherent left current in Wales, still a tiny force.
In Wales, there is little alternative and perhaps still some hopes for ‘clear red water’; although less and less so it seems. All this may be in Wales. Now apply to Scotland.
There are certainly other places to go. The Yes campaign was a broad front with the SNP, Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party at its core and with former Labour MP Dennis Canavan as its chair. The SNP itself is no longer the bourgeois nationalist party we identified as being to the right of Plaid, even 10 years ago. For reasons we will no doubt discuss, the SNP is now in the mould of a social democratic party, a left social democratic party. The Scottish Greens have leapt to prominence with an excellent rounded programme fronted by their MSP Patrick Harvie, who, like Caroline Lucas in Westminster, has proved to be considerably better with socialist aspirations than most Labour MPs. Then there is the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) that, with the Reid Foundation’s ‘Common Weal’, brought together virtually the whole of the Scottish left from anarchists and the SWP through to Labour for Independence, and now surely bound to establish a united green/left party to succeed and embrace the Scottish Socialists, strangled in infancy. The RIC mobilised an impressive campaign, reaching into increasingly disenfranchised estates, bringing in unregistered, disaffected Labour voters, a whole new layer of young activists, and many not so young, for door to door canvassing and public meetings to fantastic effect. They helped raise the voter turnout to over 84% and engaged with the new layer of young voters. Their first conference two years ago assembled over 800 delegates, last year over 1200. This year, over 7000 have indicated they are going! Sheridan, with his Solidarity grouping, by the way, is now urging an independence vote for the SNP at the next election. There are clearly places for socialists to go.
Policy wise, Labour has lost its core electorate. The Yes vote took the industrial heartlands from Glasgow to Dundee. All 8 Glasgow constituencies voted Yes, to the tune of 53.5% to 46.5%. The politicos left in their droves; the Scottish working class has long since seen through Labour. The traditional party of the workers’ movement was further undermined , tragically, by fronting a campaign, a ‘popular front’, with the utterly discredited Tories and Liberals before a Scottish electorate that has ditched them for over 40 years now.
The No vote was clearly founded on that older, conservative 30% or so that will never vote Labour. One analysis claims that the 16-54 year olds voted YES 54%, NO 46%; aged 55+, YES 34%, NO 66%. (See Murray.) Any suggestion that the No campaign might in some way be deemed progressive is further evidence that Labour is deluding itself. Or us. Better Together campaigned with a neo-liberal economic attack on all fronts, led by Alistair Darling, arch neo-liberal, with CV to prove it, then by belated appearances from Gordon Brown, whose appeal is, at best, seriously tarnished in the public eye other than with die-hard Labour supporters.
BT wound up its campaign by falling over themselves with offers of devo-max, having refused it two years earlier in anticipation of a rout. The campaign and all its publicity was entirely neo-liberal. Even George Galloway, wheeled out to face 7000 Scottish school students at the BBC event in Glasgow’s Hydro as Labour, incredibly, appeared to bottle out; even Galloway drew on the neo liberal claptrap. That was all they had: the currency, pensions, the NHS, oil, even the utterly disingenuous attack on the SNP’s Corporation Tax, were all rooted in a neo-liberal financial back-cloth. Ed Miliband took the same approach at Labour’s September conference, promising a £2.5bn pledge for the NHS, only to be rebuffed by Tory claims that they have increased spending by more than that. Labour started their conference week by promising to cut Child Benefit and ended it by offering uncritical support for more middle east war.
The neo-liberal austerity debate cannot be won against the Tories’ well-honed propaganda machine. It is their game. It may well win the election for them, like scare-mongering and fear probably won them the referendum. The propaganda was fronted for them by Labour. The Scottish working class rejected these politics decades ago and are sick of Labour regurgitating it.
Labour had nothing to say about austerity, only pious words about ‘our NHS’, ‘our welfare state’, ‘we are the party for change’ as if the Blair years never happened. The attack was on the nationalists, nary a word about the common enemy, the Tories and their financial mentors.
The successes of the Yes campaign
The SNP took on the mantle of social democracy. A while ago, they were ‘bourgeois nationalists’, then centrists, wavering left and right, populists, nourished by the abject betrayals of Labour in Scotland and Britain, betrayals spotted early by the Scots, thanks to the Poll Tax campaign. They turned to alternatives – the Scottish Socialists with 6 MSPs before Sheridan and now The Greens, whose role in Yes Scotland, along with the SNP and SSP, has been exemplary. This social movement has had a huge impact on the SNP, now overwhelmingly social democratic in nature and probably more so with its more than doubling in membership in the weeks since the poll. So how did they respond to neo-liberal charges?
I refer you to Alex Salmond’s Arbroath speech 18th August 2014, which takes a wee while to get going but is well worth a listen (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jAWgC6qgXs). Salmond nails the NHS line. An SNP proposal to a constitutional convention in Scotland will be a clause for ‘A public free health service at the point of need’, ‘A right to a National Health Service will be enshrined in the constitution of Scotland’. That’s convincing. Discussing the role of Scotland in the world, Salmond argues for the removal of Trident as a fundamental policy of an independent Scotland. He then presents as sophisticated a line on pro-immigration as you are likely to hear from a mainstream politician. Their first focus for the anti-nuclear money is child-care and social care. This is not the left, this is ‘the nationalists’; better than anything ever heard from Labour. Had Labour taken such stances since the Tories came to power, would the Yes campaign have had the traction it did?
They grapple with the economy but, truth be known, there is much flexibility in economics. What people want to hear is the answer to ‘where do you propose to go with our lives?’. Labour offers a continuation of Tory austerity for the foreseeable future. The Scots are on to them and their future, our future is in jeopardy.
In the course of the referendum campaign, Scots have considered, imagined both individually and in their collectives, a democratic government, a constitution, a set of values based, not least on their experience of Holyrood and decades of Westminster policies and governments they never voted for. That imagination, that culture, is not a million miles away from ours in Wales, once separated from Westminster by ‘clear red water’. In Scotland, imagination converted into an anti-austerity, anti-Tory enthusiasm that not even Plaid, being as tribal as Welsh Labour is, has sought to achieve. The Scottish Yes vote was overwhelmingly anti-austerity and a serious challenge to the ‘Wastemonster’ ways. They may have lost the battle but the war is being won. For a start, about one-third of Labour voters voted Yes. (See Welsh.) These are reasons why Scotland became ready for an independence vote (and why Wales isn’t ready).
Labour’s late entry into the campaign, via Gordon Brown, a hero only to die-hard Labour members, cited our national pride, appealing to history, Labour’s and Scotland’s great role in it – history, empire, sacrifice, the welfare state, the NHS. But just ask Scottish former shipworkers, miners, car-workers. British interest, pride, commitment has long since evaporated. Jobs and a good living in industry, shipbuilding, manufacturing, coal, steel, the industrial revolution, imperialism and the empire, from which we all once benefited, albeit at the expense of others, have all been lost or sacrificed. We don’t even build houses any more. The Welfare State, Pensions, Mail, Telephones, Water and the NHS s are sold, often at knock down prices, to global capitalism. British workers no longer have any practical or emotional ties to our social and economic foundations, many of which Scots gave to the world. What commitment do the Scots, indeed any workers, have to the British state any more?
A Democratic Upheaval and a Danger of Backlash
Without the significant devo-max concessions promised by the Westminster parties, it is inconceivable that independence will go away. Breaking of promises, failure to deliver anything or, worse, more budget cuts and other retribution, will ensure that independence is back on the agenda in very short shrift. Just one day after the referendum, the Tories lurched to the right with a focus on England’s needs, on their right wing, on the West Lothian question, on a democratic structure that can only further marginalise Scotland and Wales.
Coupled with this is seeming delight in offering more powers to Scotland, Wales and the regions. Let them be responsible for ‘fully devolved powers’ over the crumbs the Bullingdon Boys deign to leave on our tables. Then we can be blamed for cuts, as was the charge laid on the SNP over the NHS, the same tactic as they seek to discredit our efforts in Wales. The real threat to we Celts is that the Westminster bubble does go right, and given Labour’s stances this is not an unrealistic possibility – another Tory government, perhaps with Ukip support, a vote to leave the EU and ditch the EU Convention on Human Rights. Where will that leave the Scots? And us?
The first signs of the very serious dangers of the English nationalist/ Ukip right wing trajectory were evident on the streets of Scotland’s two great cities on the last few referendum days. The No vote unleashed The Orange order, always a right wing force disguised with anti-catholic, anti-Irish rhetoric. For the first time in my experience, they took to the streets and revealed their truly fascist style, taking public space, burning the Saltire, attacking Yes voters, immigrants and women. A Yes vote would have stifled them; the No vote, coupled with Ukip and the English trend positively encouraged them.
Where do we go from here?
The spotlight is now on Labour, already being drawn into the Tory regional game and happy to commit to Tory austerity plans, when what is needed is a language of change, something different, a break from the political decadence of Westminster, increasingly mimicking the shameless, gun-toting, fundamentalist, undemocratic, exclusive, segregationist catastrophe that is US politics and media. Scots were seeking change – austerity, Trident, social care, childcare, NHS, democracy. These are the themes to be convincing about. Their instincts and mine are that nothing is going to change. If it doesn’t, Labour is finished in Scotland. The SNP offered change, much of it taken from Labour’s bottom drawer, yet Labour continues to be tribal against ‘the nationalists’, preferring uncritical deals with the Tories, LibDems and their neo-liberal economics. Recognition of this single fact is a first necessary step to Labour’s unlikely salvation.
Labour has been unable to handle the role of the ‘nationalists’ in Scotland or Wales. What chance have the English got? Paradoxically, in the present climate, a Yes vote was the best opportunity socialist voters in Scotland had of ever achieving a Labour Government they could believe in. These same voters now have the prospect of a Tory Ukip government seeking exit from Europe.
What have we learned? What should we be campaigning on? How’s this?
- A clear stance, with our allies, against Tory austerity, for alternatives.
- Stand up for our NHS, for National Insurance, for Social Security and a rights based welfare culture.
- Challenge the war-mongering culture, not least the ease with which vast funding is found for wars.
- Build Homes
- Promote a programme of child-care, social care and pensions.
- Make Wales a beacon of sustainability, a green investment bank, green energy and re-usables industries
- Rail and other public transport back into coordinated public ownership
- Instead of faffing about local government reorganisation and who goes where, first consider, with the people of Wales, the question, “How do we best deliver these policies?”
- Build, certainly with young people, our communications networks and social media.
The great success of the SNP is that they recognised the occasion for this great political cauldron, greater than they dreamed of. We hopefully now will engage with our true allies throughout Wales and beyond against austerity, and wars and … well, let us discuss that with others. The difficulty is to recognise the occasion here in Wales, the event round which such unity can be formed. In the meantime, it will do no harm to promote an inclusive discussion on what sort of policies, a manifesto we aspire to in Wales.
Another Scotland, Another Wales, Another Britain, is Possible.
Gordon Gibson, September 2014
Here, a few references; the first two are bursting with lively debate.
Radical Independence Conference: http://radicalindependence.org/
Bella Caledonia: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/
Brett, Miriam. National Collective. Oh Scottish Labour What Have You Done? http://nationalcollective.com/2014/09/25/oh-scottish-labour-what-have-you-done/
Davies, Nick & Williams, Darren (2009). Clear Red Water: Welsh Devolution and Socialist Politics. Francis Boutle Publisher
Harris, John: Scotland has shown how the left can finally find its purpose http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/25/scotland-politics-left-purpose-snp-green-working-class-women
Jones, Owen. Whatever Scotland decides, the old order is dead and buried: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/07/scotland-decides-union-tories
Murray, Andy. FIFTY-FIVE per cent afflicted by Stockholm Syndrome. http://nicodemusscotticus.wordpress.com/
Welsh , Irvine. This glorious failure could yet be Scotland’s finest hour.