A new party is born! This weekend in Perth the left wing Scottish Labour Party emerged as the latest socialist grouping to join the fray. Although small, it says it is based on traditional old Labour values associated with Keir Hardie. It is led by an energetic younger female, Kezia Dugdale, and wants to position itself to the left of the SNP. Professor John Curtice said Labour’s immediate problem was that it was joining an already crowded part of the political spectrum, competing for votes from Greens, RISE and assorted others. ‘The success of the Nationalists is founded on a broad appeal which first took Tory votes, then Liberals and finally breaking through in Labour heartlands to become a genuinely national party. It’s unlikely that another left-leaning grouping will threaten the SNP hegemony.’ Ms Dugdale is 34.
That’s probably what would appear in the Daily Waffle if the weekend’s events were the arrival of a new, rather than a reheated, party. The reason there is so much in-depth coverage of the ‘Scottish Labour’ conference is convention and formality. Like observing the rituals at a funeral, there is an acknowledged process to go through – graveside solemnity, desultory singing, sorrowful head-shaking and some earth-scattering – before heading for the pub.
And, of course, there are strong personal relationships at play too, just as there are at the cemetery. A large section of our upstanding media owe allegiance and sometimes careers, to the deceased who played a crucial role in the lives of many. ‘Aye. He’ll be missed.’
So what did Labour’s sparse event achieve? The Trident vote proved the leadership was serious about opening up to ideas and debate to allow the membership not just a say but a veto on major policy. On an issue like nuclear weapons, this is Bennite madness to Blairites and so must be welcomed as a dramatic and cathartic cartwheel of democracy by the membership. It’s dangerous, too but then so is bacon. Labour has re-joined the Scottish progressive consensus. How easy was that! In less time than it takes to launch a sea-to-air thermonuclear ballistic missile, Labour were back in the fold, hugged by the arms of socialists, nationalists and trade unionists (the boilermakers were banging their head against the wall at the time.) They closed off the exposed flank relentlessly damaged by jibes about loving nuclear weapons and taking bread from the mouths of bairns etc. That’s the real achievement. This is the actual outflanking manoeuvre as the vote doesn’t move them to the left of the Nats at all. Instead it shuts down an attack line. Happily, it also points a guided missile at the considerable target of Jackie Baillie whose desperate claims that jobs are more important than nukes is now in tatters. That Kezia herself is a known nuclear warrior will now be quietly jettisoned along with other unwanted ballast. This is a politician who had acquired views like accessories when being mainstream illuminated the lights along the Labour career path. Pro-Trident renewal? Oh, that’s so yesterday…
Bidding to outdo the Nats with a promise to restore tax credits in full and nip some more income tax from high earners is good politics – if you think it will win votes. On paper, which is where this policy will stay until it’s ditched before the next General Election, this is positive stuff, framing Labour as left wing (again), on the side of the workers and the claimants and no longer ashamed to whistle the Bandeira Rossa in the bath.
Dugdale needed to make a policy mark, something defining, and this is it. It is designed to winkle out the soppy Nats who joined up in exasperation and maybe some Labour waverers toying with defection in frustration. That’s not a bad thing. If the SNP isn’t radical enough for you, find a home that is. There is room in Scottish politics for all and there is something vaguely unhealthy about one party dominating, as we learned under Labour’s own gentle ministrations for decades.
So far, so good. There is a new narrative and it will invigorate the debate (stifle those yawns.)
But…how does Scotland’s position on Trident work with London’s? Personally, I have no difficulty with one geographic entity taking a distinctly differently view and campaigning for it to become wider party policy. That’s the essence of devolution. But the other aspect is that London always wins. That’s also the essence of devolution. For years I went to conference when Labour really was the party of power and truly seemed to represent Scotland. Delegates regularly voted against nuclear weapons – the leadership shrugged it’s M and S suited shoulders and headed for the Daily Record editor’s hospitality room knowing the vote meant nothing except the Left striking a pose.
Labour got away with this dubiety before the rise of the Nats focussed minds on what powers Scotland actually had and asked what was the point of 50 Labour MPs if they didn’t represent voters’ views. In today’s SNP-led Scotland the issue of powers and governance is a perennial that is applied to everything. Where once Kezia’s Socialist Disarmers could bluff it, intense scrutiny today means they no longer can. Voters now ask what is the point of a different Scottish view within Labour when they are subservient to London, unilateralist Jeremy notwithstanding. It is this powerlessness that voters came to realise was the epitome of Labour. Westminster simply didn’t listen nor didn’t care what they said. Blair ignored their entreaties, bulldozed their values. Without a rising UK Labour move against Trident replacement, Kezia is again left looking impotent, pointing voters in one direction – the total autonomy of operation that independence brings either for country or party or both. This is the right decision for Labour but it eventually runs them into the brick wall of reality – they remain a branch office.
Should the SNP match the offer to restore benefit cuts? No.
This is a classic opportunistic sleight of hand manufactured in the risk-free comfort zone of opposition. They can say anything and never have to implement it. To copy them not only indicates they were right all along and you were wrong, in practical terms it’s like chasing fairies at the bottom of the garden…they’re always just out of sight. At this stage restoration is a slogan since it’s difficult to see where the powers are to ‘restore’ cuts. Who would identify the claimants and amounts and who would actually pay them? If it is, as looks likely, a job for a UK agency like HMRC or DWP, that will come at a considerable cost, never mind complexity. Whitehall isn’t keen on doing Scotland’s work for us.
Where does the money come from? Which budget is stripped to buy off Tory policy? Why should Scotland’s fixed budget be spent ameliorating the depredations of London government? They would of course prefer Scotland just to put up taxes. Why would that be, you may ask? This is the consequence of Union. In the next seven months this declaration can be ruthlessly interrogated against the background of curtailed tax and spend powers allied to the imperative of removing a Tory government. You can also link this plan with the suggested 50p tax rate for higher earners although there is no clarity on correlation between the two.
Where these three initiatives – Trident, restoration and 50p rate – do combine is to present Kezia’s party as a more left-leaning one than the SNP, albeit on a pick and mix policy basis. It is a start. But the SNP should respond with questions not compliance. What Kezia may have achieved is to paint the SNP successfully as a social democratic government, not a socialist one. As if there was ever any doubt. This hare has been running since the indyref, set free by the media and pursued as a means of attack (all else having failed).
Go back to the top of this piece where it recalls the SNP’s track record. When Labour conferences were real news, the Nationalists only successes were in Tory areas. If I remember, about the only Labour scalp claimed was when the late Allan McCartney unseated Henry McCubbin in the Euro elections. Every other head-to head contest went Labour’s way. There was no way through. The electoral bulwark on which the SNP surge was built came from Perthshire, the Mearns, Aberdeenshire and other rural and semi rural former Tory enclaves. These successes were consolidated over the years partly because there was no real Labour presence there. Those voters stayed loyal to a party that seemed to embody Scottish virtues of personal independence and gently progressive ideas (not difficult in backward-leaning Britain). The SNP backed workers but were not affiliated to unions. They backed business because it was good for Scotland. They transcended the traditional tribalism. They outflanked the Liberals by favouring electoral reform and independence rather than federalism.
Labour’s historic surrender of their own electoral base allowed the Nationalist trickle to become a flood in working class areas but they only said what Labour themselves should have been saying if they hadn’t in thrall to London.
The SNP have performed Blair’s trick of extending their appeal from right to left and from coast to coast. They have encapsulated a set of values that appeal across a broad swathe of Scotland and, however left-facing Nicola is, everyone believes they will put Scotland first – a claim no party with a leader in London can make. They are a’body’s SNP.
That’s why Kezia is heading into the rush hour traffic by entering the left-wing fast lane. There is minimal potential there to peel away enough votes and while the upper tax rate won’t hurt many, it will send a signal to middle earners that their hard-earned pay cheques may be next. That’s where the votes are – engaged, working, aspiring voters who want to see a path to wealth and security but don’t want others left behind. That’s a huge constituency in Scotland from skilled working class through career professionals to high flyers. In England they move between Labour and the Tories. Here they sit comfortably with the SNP, so long as independence is stalled. They do want to support the less well off but will balk at a policy programme framed around those at the bottom. The trick is to marry both interests together. The bedrock of SNP support won’t thank them if they start following a Labour agenda designed to win back a sectional interest in order to regain credibility.
Beyond all of the above is the biggest problem of all. Does anybody care? The Labour brand, like the Tories before it, has become toxic – something flaky and untrustworthy that many feel disgusted they were once part of. The reformed do not easily return. The professional sheen has rubbed off Labour. Denied resources, expertise and talent, its image is worn and scratchy. Kezia will take years to gain the experience that will earn her the right to be heard on equal terms. No leader can survive being casually patronised and dismissed. Yet where is the deputy? Behind-the-scenes work is fine but a novice leader needs public support. It would bolster her position if Alex Rowley were glimpsed occasionally on our screens saluting metaphorically to the new commander. Or is a low profile the best option ahead of a drubbing? That would be very Gordon Brown.
I wish Labour well in their fight for the slender socialist vote, although my own Left party of choice would be the Greens. Meanwhile, like the overwhelming majority of Scottish voters, I will stand with the SNP as the national party of our country.by