Johann Lamont on Scottish Labour’s opportunity to wrest back control of the narrative
“I am a socialist,” said Johann Lamont in a recent television debate on the referendum.
It’s a word which has been used increasingly sparingly by Labour politicians over the last few decades. The Scottish Labour leader tells Holyrood it was merely a way of identifying her beliefs, even if there are others in the party who might not describe themselves in that way.
“I was really talking about my own philosophy, but I think what you do get from people across the Labour movement is people talking about their commitment on inequality, social justice, fairness. I think more importantly, it’s about connecting what people think politics is about to people’s real lives, because I think the gap between those is immense now,” she says.
Nevertheless, isn’t it a bold statement in the post-Blair era?
“It can be. But I think sometimes you can judge people by their deeds as well. That’s the bigger test for me.”
Lamont has been described as a ‘conviction politician’, a longstanding campaigner on equality issues.
“I would like to think that anyone who goes into politics is convinced of a set of ideas. But I think it’s also important that we understand that we have to have a politics shaped by what’s happening to the people round about us,” she says.
She warns against “the idea that you decide when you’re 18 what your view of the world is and then it’s untouched, unshaped or unreflective of actually what’s going on in people’s lives”.
In the first Scottish Parliament, Lamont was a feisty backbencher, the first MSP to rebel against the Labour-led administration, over (then) Scottish Socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan’s Bill to abolish warrant sales.
“The test round the Tommy Sheridan Bill was that we believed, regardless of who was promoting it, that this was something that had been argued for a long time, and if you actually looked at what happened, it was particularly women inside the Labour Party that won the argument inside the group, because we were reflecting something that was longstanding. And to give credit to our own leadership, they recognised that and shifted their position,” she remembers.
Things have changed since the 2000 rebellion, she believes: “When I think back on that now, that is like a million years ago. Because the notion that a government backbencher might even say the remotest squeak of a thing that disagreed with the leadership is almost incredible.”
Christine Graham speaking out on corroboration, she says, is a rare exception.
“Of course, as a party leader, I would say a united party and a disciplined party is what you always work for, but to impose a rigid discipline where there doesn’t appear to be a space for people to debate and disagree I think is really unhealthy.”
The debate on corroboration exposed a “my way or the highway” attitude among government ministers, Lamont argues. “I don’t think there’s anybody across the chamber who doesn’t care about victims. The parliament has a very proud record, and indeed, the Labour Party drove a lot of this debate around domestic abuse and understanding the nature of violence against women, understanding what happens in the court system. So for a government minister simply to say ‘you know what, these people don’t care and we do’. I just think it would have been easier to say ‘look, this is a very difficult argument, we have weighed it in the balance and we find the arguments from Rape Crisis, and so on, so strong that we’re going to continue this, but we will work with the parliament to find a solution to this’ – and that didn’t happen. The Scottish Parliament was supposed to be more modern, rather than less modern than Westminster.”
Holyrood remembers many issues where productive work at committee level descended into tribalism in the chamber from all sides.
“I think in the first two parliaments, the focus of government was on the ‘now’. There was a general agreement that we want to do more on health, we want to make the education system better, we want to look after our children, so the argument was then what do you prioritise? But now in government you have folk whose first and primary focus is to make the case for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. So everything is seen through that prism, and therefore, anyone who disagrees with them is defined by that as well. It wasn’t that I took a different view in corroboration; it was that David Cameron was telling me what to do because I’m a unionist,” she says.
Lamont accepts there is some inevitability to the overarching narrative: “There’s a bit of me thinks of course, we have to have this debate, they won the election, they want to have independence, let’s have that argument, but do you think maybe at the same time we could talk about these other things, and not constantly say, ‘I can’t do what you’re asking me to do because independence would be better’?”
We speak on the day leading feminist economist Ailsa McKay passes away. Lamont says she has “huge amounts of respect for her, and for the women round about her. Because in terms of promoting and arguing for women’s issues, you can talk about attitude, about opportunity, about equality, and challenging all these things, but then you began to get people in the Scottish Parliament who not only understood social policy but got that you need to then connect it to economic policy and budget.”
McKay’s work inspired policy interventions around making sure Modern Apprenticeships didn’t disproportionately go to boys. Lamont believes proper equality impact assessments should be made on “some of the big ticket things that government spends money on, or sometimes at local government level.”
Ailsa McKay’s understanding that economics is not about figures might provide some comfort to a Labour Party which has seen Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite, halve its affiliation fees to the party. Labour’s historic links with the trade unions are being reformed by the UK leader Ed Miliband, who admitted last year it was a big risk. Lamont is not convinced it’s a gamble.
“I think it’s something he’s thought through very carefully, and he’s worked closely with the unions on this. What I would say the biggest change, and it is actually quite a challenge for everybody in the party but something we should celebrate, is that we should not simply define our relationship with the unions in terms of money. It is what they bring in terms of their understanding of how the world is lived. So we speak to a shop worker who tells you what the impact of welfare reform is on women, the hours they can work before they can claim, how that’s affected them. USDAW, the shop workers’ union, has been fantastic at raising these issues. We’re getting folk to go to work in a shop where they get abused or put at risk. That is the trade unions at their best, where you see trade unionists who are really committed to that workplace, to skills that will come to the children that they’ve got. So that’s what that relationship is about. It’s about much more than the money. It’s about understanding that trade unionism is about more than terms and conditions.”
Miliband’s reforms are seeing block membership replaced with individual engagement with the party, which may increase activism at a local level, but didn’t the party need Unite’s lost £1.5m to fight general elections?
“Of course you need money to fight elections, but you also need people to believe in what you’re saying, and what you’re saying needs to be rooted in what’s happening to people,” says Lamont.
Keeping strong links with the unions is essential, she says: “I’ve spoken in the past about the way in which care is being delivered in Scotland, how unacceptable it was with 10-15 minute visits. Now I had a sense of that from talking to people coming to my surgeries, and anecdotal amongst your family and so on, but it was when I met a group of care workers organised by the GMB, who were speaking so passionately about how they weren’t able to do their job properly, who felt they were being given a task and [who] go, ‘you don’t look at the person, you do what has to be done.’ That was a very powerful message from a group of women who cared deeply about their jobs. The union was looking to protect them, but they wanted to do more to protect the quality of the service. That is a really precious thing about why it is of critical importance to work with trade unionists.”
It is not only Labour’s relationship with trade unions that is being reformed. Scottish Labour’s spring conference sees the unveiling of the findings of the Devolution Commission, set up by Lamont to look at the party’s relationship with the constitution. Given Lamont told Holyrood shortly after being elected leader “my reading of Scotland is that they don’t like Tories very much and they don’t like independence very much, so that kind of battle represents the challenge for us,” some people might wonder why it has taken Scottish Labour so long.
“I don’t think that’s true, actually. I think we’re at the sharp end of it, the very sharpest end of it now, but I would say all of my political life, I’ve spoken about what my vision for Scotland is, what I believe in and the values I share with other people.”
The constitutional debate, she argues, must be framed around the ability to deliver on key issues. “We now have to say this is what I believe about young people achieving their potential, older people being safe in their homes and having dignity in old age, work paying, and exploitation in the workplace, segregation, all of these things that should be challenged.
“My judgement is that actually, it’s easier and makes more common sense across the whole of the United Kingdom, sharing risk, pulling resources and being able to redistribute wealth out of the richest parts of the country. So the constitutional debate is in that context. Inevitably through the campaigning period up to the decision, understandably, we will be talking both about why we believe Scotland should be strong in the United Kingdom, why it’s a positive choice to work in partnership with your neighbours and friends rather than, frankly, demonise them as people who want to steal the eyes out of your head, and how we build that relationship so that you have the strength of the United Kingdom but you take power to a level where actually, people can properly influence it.”
The emergent narrative, however, has centred on the SNP, in Scotland’s corner, versus the Tories representing England. Labour is conspicuously absent.
Lamont believes it is a dangerous narrative. “One of the things we are confident in is that there is a desire right across the United Kingdom to challenge inequality and tackle disadvantage. There are radical voices right across the United Kingdom, and voices across the United Kingdom who don’t want that. All of my life I have never understood the idea that simply because somebody is Scottish we have a fellow feeling politically. History tells you that that’s not true: the landowner and the landless, the employer and the employee, there has been plenty exploitation of Scottish people by Scottish people.”
Scotland’s current challenges, she argues, are despite the other nations of the Union, not because of them. “Margaret Thatcher was certainly no respecter of national boundaries when she came after the miners in Yorkshire and Fife, the people that suffered in Hillsborough weren’t Scottish, but we stand in solidarity with their experience of the way in which they were so abominably treated and things were covered up. I very strongly believe that when you have the political debate, it has to be about political choice, there’s nothing inevitable about it. You have to win the political argument, and those arguments can be won across the United Kingdom.”
England cannot be written off as a nation of Tories, she says. “Our history tells us that’s not true, and our present tells us that’s not true.”
The polls have shown support for independence has rarely risen above a third, which can be seen as a success for Better Together. But at what cost to Labour? The polls also show support for independence is growing in the country’s most deprived areas, and in voting intentions for Holyrood, Labour is down five points. Lamont points to her own rising approval rating among the party leaders, and to success in by-elections, but for a leader who promised to rebuild trust in the party, the results must be worrying.
“It’s certainly still a work in progress. No one’s ever said everything is perfect. There is an element, of course, with the constitutional debate that increasingly, until we get to September, that will be the focus, and it’s a focus of massive spending by the Scottish Government as well as the Yes campaign in terms of that but we’re out there, both Better Together, and critically, United with Labour, and I’ve asked Anas Sarwar to drive it around Labour’s campaign. They have a very important role at a very local level to speak to people.”
The credibility of the arguments will be central, she says. “People deserve to know. You almost think the SNP would be more credible and believable if they said ‘this is the downside’ or ‘there’s risk here, but we think it’s worth it’. It’s never framed in those terms. So particularly for people who are in the toughest of times, I think they need to be more careful in the way they describe these issues.”
If the message is about deconstructing the SNP’s vision, what about Labour’s own? Stories in the press have painted a picture of the tribes of old vying for influence in the party: the Westminster group, some of whom have openly criticised the Devolution Commission, the MSPs and the city councils. Lamont, understandably, doesn’t accept the characterisation.
It is an “inevitable and natural result” of where the party finds itself, she says, “it is difficult, and people are debating these things at their fireside”. However, the party is united by “a deep commitment to both standing up for Scotland, protecting its interests, and understanding the United Kingdom and the importance of that model of social union, political union and economic union. An ability to redistribute wealth out of the richest part of the country and what we are absolutely focused on amongst all of us is that this is not an internal discussion, this is about the future of our country.”
The debate around devolution, she says, is not just about Scotland: “Welsh devolution is different, Northern Ireland is different again, and how do you decentralise power in England? I’m very keen on decentralisation, and we’ve seen a sucking up of powers from local government. I’m really interested in how you take powers down to local government and beyond that into our communities. People talk about those living in disadvantaged communities; some of the strongest committed people I know are living in these communities. They transformed whole chunks of my constituency. Women, in particular, saying we don’t want to live in housing like this. That needs to be and is what we’re talking about.”
On a national level, however, the UK has seen the biggest deconstruction of the public sector and welfare state since its creation. How can Labour rebuild?
“I think almost nothing is irreparable, but it is very damaging. I think some of the most corrosive things around this debate has been the way in which George Osborne characterised the debate as if it was between workers and shirkers,” says Lamont.
“Welfare is a safety net, but actually, it’s about how you create jobs, and also opportunities. Something like 70 per cent of people with visual impairments are unable to work, but it’s not that 70 per cent of people with visual impairments don’t want to work. There’s a whole potential of folk who could work and would work, and with a bit of support, they would work.
“We know that the best way out of poverty is through work, which is why it’s important to tackle job segregation for women. Women will get increased equality if they’re able to get more represented across the workforce as a whole, if they’re entitled to equal pay. Ed Miliband’s talking about zero-hours contracts, and taking on that kind of attitude. That is also part of this process. For some, there’s almost a council of despair, that the welfare system comes out of a ‘what else can we do?’ The welfare system needs to be there. People need to have dignity in tough times but I think it’s also about saying what can we do, and what would we do?”
So, how likely is it that Miliband will also come out as a socialist?
“I think he already did, actually. But I’ll tell you one thing: Ed Miliband is somebody who is prepared to take on vested interests. He’s a man who’s prepared to take on the energy companies. He’s a man who stood with those who are against zero-hours contracts. He’s a man who has said we want a more progressive taxation system. This is a man who believes passionately and deeply about tackling inequality. The man who sits in Bute House has proven himself to be much more interested in taking the same approach as David Cameron.”