Labour in Scotland and in the UK, have nothing to fear from the SNP, nor the Scottish electors if they build on their leader, Johann Lamont’s confident conference embrace of a more progressive party, reconnect with the Scottish people, stand up for Scotland and make a commitment to more powers for the Scottish Parliament to both strengthen the UK and Scotland’s place within the Union.
Johann Lamont should be boosted by three self-evident truths. First, the overwhelming majority of Scots want to stay in the Union. Second, there remains a huge potential vote for Labour in Scotland. People voted SNP, not because of the SNP’s embrace of independence and populism but because they no longer knew what Labour stood for and were fed up being taken for granted by a party that no longer seemed relevant to their needs and aspirations. Third, Scots want a progressive left-of-centre party which builds its politics and its core beliefs around fairness, justice, competence, virtues, values and vision.
Tackling inequality, addressing material poverty and creating social mobility have largely disappeared from the political agenda, but these issues matter, particularly when just 50 per cent of electors vote and where there is widespread disenchantment with our politics and our democracy.
On the constitutional front, we are addressing the issue of what ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’ might be. Labour is at an early point in re-engaging with the whole devolution process but there is some evidence to suggest that public opinion is well ahead of where they are.
Opinion polls show the considerable interest in more powers for the Scottish Parliament and the idea of a second question. The political landscape of Scotland has undergone seismic change in the last 13 years. This has to be understood if Labour is to regain credibility and be trusted.
Labour is right to say no to independence and avoid being linked to any specific set of proposals for more powers, so the idea of ‘devodiversity’, thought up by Lesley Riddoch, seems more than a helpful phrase.
Establishing Labour’s Commission should not be used to close down new thinking and debate within the Labour Party or in Scotland generally, nor an opportunity for the wider Scottish party and trade union movement to be sidelined until the commission completes its work. A commission is part of the debate, not the debate.
Labour has allowed the SNP to dominate and monopolise the constitutional debate.
Winning back this ground will require stamina, sustainability and the ability to resist the temptation to become negative or personal.
There are also significant problems to be tackled at Westminster where the political culture and mind-set still see the debate as a particularly Scottish issue. This is not the case.
A transformation is required at the very heart of the Union which makes more sense of Scotland’s ambitions but in turn seeks to discuss England, the West Lothian Question, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and a rebalancing of the Union in ways that shed its tired and dated appearance and make it more fit for purpose in the modern era.
In this context, a more powerful devolution settlement for Scotland would strengthen the Union, not weaken it, and inspire more ambitious change at Westminster. The UK is out of step with Scotland, not the other way around!
Westminster is obsessed with centralised power, preoccupied with exceptionalism, constrained by sovereignty and remains insensitive and ambivalent towards devolution.
There is an attitude problem at Westminster which, if left unchecked, could threaten the very Union it seeks to defend and promote (David Cameron’s horse-riding got more coverage than the future of Scotland in the Union!) Convincing the people of Scotland that we are serious about more powers – reserved, fiscal and economic – requires Labour to prove that their new approach is not about political expediency, necessity, nor a grudging acceptance requiring the party to do something in the aftermath of the SNP advance. The Labour Party must embrace the spirit of modern constitutional change, and reclaim its soul.
It can only win public support for constitutional change if it actually believes in what it is saying and doing. The narrative is clear. Independence IS the SNP. It is the basis of their DNA. The SNP know that in the next three years they cannot win a majority vote for independence in a referendum. This is an opportunity for the Labour leadership to strike at the heart of SNP thinking.
Labour has to make a clear distinction between what Labour is for and what it is against: there are real philosophical, constitutional and political differences at the heart of Scottish politics.
The future governance and politics of Scotland is not SNP property. Labour needs to be bold, confident, unhesitatant in fully embracing radical change and shaping a new vision for Scotland which runs with the grain of Scottish thinking.
After all, Labour delivered the manifesto commitment in 1997, the Scotland Act in 1998, and a new political settlement and Parliament in 1999. The spirit and sentiment of Keir Hardie and the Home Rulers lives on.