UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Is The Labour Party In Scotland Worth Saving? UNISONActive debate

UNISONActive has previously analysed the elections results in Scotland pointing out that the electors voted against the cuts by supporting the party making them, the SNP, and fell for “The SNP’s unashamedly populist fib that we can have public services without paying any taxes (latterly borrowed by Labour)”.

But seeing the SNP as the most effective bulwark against the Tories and their cuts speaks volumes about the appeal of the Labour Party in Scotland.The SNP have consistently played the Tory card in Scotland, of blaming the last Labour Government for the financial collapse.

Have the words “The bankers are to blame” ever passed the lips of Alex Salmond, an ex Royal Bank of Scotland economist? The wider political and economic context in which the last Labour government had to act as a result of the failure of the financial markets has consistently been ignored by them as it does not suit the Nationalist narrative, in a situation where the Labour Party is their main rival. Labour nationally under Miliband however has tied itself in the knot of “Fewer cuts, slower” and the Scottish Party is allied with that. It is difficult to argue that you are the anti cuts party starting from that platform.

But worse, the Scottish Labour Party felt that it had to match the SNP promises on the freeze of council tax, thus ensuring that local government has little in the way of manoeuvre in its own fundraising powers, and ensuring that the squeeze in local services that will see services jobs and pay continually contract continues.
In its programme it tended to simply mirror the policies of its rival, i.e. the National Care Service, thus ensuring that it was difficult to distinguish between the two major parties. What was distinctive about the Labour Party in Scotland?

After a month’s campaigning, a month of leaflets, newspaper and TV coverage to the average voter there was nothing stirring in the Party’s message. If there was real meat in the details then they simply failed to get those details across.

The Labour campaign was abysmal in all its aspects, never as we say up here, setting the heather on fire. It failed in setting the agenda on its own programme, was continually portrayed as negative by its opponents and failed in any effort to rebut those charges. Imagination was in very short supply.

But this is not about one appalling campaign. The Labour Party in Scotland is living on a sense of entitlement based on past achievement. It was the party of opposition to Thatcher, and thrived in that challenge, Scottish local government being notable in its opposition to her policies. It was converted to the cause of the Scottish Parliament and in government it delivered. What has it done since then?

There is a simple answer. It has withered on the vine, succumbed to the Blairisation of the Party and now exists as a shadow of its former self, failing in its mission of a party of social justice. It has become a party of managerialism, not of leadership.

It has no real record of innovation in Scottish government, instead tinkering with the minutiae, or trying to imitate the excesses that passed for policy by its Westminster counterparts. It’s record in local government surpasses even that .In those councils like Glasgow where the Labour Party is in control, services have been removed from local democratic control in a such a wholesale manner that Nicholas Ridley himself must on look on and applaud.

At a local level in many parts of Scotland it has simply ceased to exist, except as a vehicle for the council or government ambitions of individuals seeking power without any commitment to socialist values. What price a Labour Party candidate who sends his children into private education?

That might be acceptable in the metropolitan Labour Party. It is not acceptable and should not be acceptable, in Scotland. Or how about the creation of dynasties where seats stay in the family? From the selections for the first Parliament, any candidates with an opinion to the left or an independent thought has been unacceptable- with few exceptions like Richard Leonard who fought in Ayrshire.

What in a sense is worse is that there has been little sign of rebellion in the Party ranks at this imposition from the centre.

Now the Party that lost the election will hold its own post mortem on itself, (led by arch Blairite Jim Murphy), an interesting concept. Like those in the Labour Party nationally who believe that at the last General Election, the party was right but the electorate got it wrong (supporters usually of the losing Miliband) will those who created the monster that is the Scottish Labour Party be able to really diagnose the cancer at its heart?

I write as one who joined the Labour Party at 16 till I was expelled- supporting a party that had instigated an illegal war was not a step I was prepared to take. I truly believe that the centre of gravity in Scottish politics lies naturally to the Left. However the Labour Party in Scotland in common with its British counterpart has fallen for the myth of appealing to the “centre”, the squeezed middle in current parlance.

Like its national counterpart, it ignores its roots as the party of the working class. In Scotland as turnout figures demonstrate, it ignores them at its peril. Some in the party hierarchy may wish to point to the failure of the left wing fringes to break though and dismiss the idea of reconnecting with their communities.

Perhaps the average Scottish punter however deserves credit for seeing through the Trotskyist nonsense of the politics of the ultra left for the impossibilist rantings they represent. That is not to say that they would not be engaged by a political programme that addressed their key concerns- employment, decent housing, reasonable local services. That those can be the demands in the 21st century shows how much the Labour Party just has to do, partly because of its past failures.

If the Labour Party historically can been said to be “a crusade or it is nothing” then the Scottish Labour Party is currently nothing, but a badly run, badly managed marketing campaign, without even a catchy slogan that you can hate but can’t help singing.

As our previous article noted “Leading politicians were happy to back the STUC ‘There is a Better Way’ campaign without actually believing there was a better way.” Shouldn’t the Labour Party be playing more than lip service to the industrial wing of the movement? Or is that making an assumption about there being “a movement” at all? There needs to be a debate about the role of the unions within the party that ignores those for whom we are simply a source of cash, like an embarrassing old cash-rich uncle whose advice can be ignored.

If there is to be a resurrection of the party in Scotland, it will be because there is no practical alternative at the current time. So can I ask UNISON Labour party members some questions I’d like you to answer?

1. Are you happy to see the hierarchy of the Scottish Labour Party investigate itself? - bearing in mind that insider investigations have a bad, bad track record (ref any time the polis investigate themselves) How can the process be opened up?

2. Is there the will to return the party to being a vibrant core of local communities, rather than totally detached from them?

3. Will power be returned to the members, as opposed to the party hierarchy to have a real democracy in policy making and the selection of candidates?

I would like to return to the situation where a vote for the Labour Party is an automatic choice. Unless the Party changes fundamentally however it will remain out of touch and irrelevant. That would be a tragedy for Scotland.

Jane Carolan