Labour in Scotland is still gripped by the past

Written by Henry McLeish on 19 May 2017 in Comment

Labour has failed to adapt to the new realities of a more confident and questioning Scotland and a declining and disunited kingdom

On 12 June 1987 I was one of a new group of 50 Scottish Labour MPs standing on the steps of Labour HQ at Keir Hardie House in Glasgow and described as the ‘Fighting 50’.

We were conscious of the support of 1.3m Labour voters and their hopes and aspirations, and also of the fact that the SNP had three seats and 416,000 votes.

Life has moved on, but Labour in Scotland is still gripped by the past and unable to fully understand the crisis engulfing the party.

It has failed to adapt to the new realities of a more confident and questioning Scotland and a declining and disunited kingdom.

Scotland has found its identity, but not so the Labour Party.

The post-devolution era has turned into a nightmare and the party is fighting for its survival.

More in sorrow and bewilderment than in anger and resentment, people want to vote Labour, but they no longer know who or what it stands for.

Labour must make amends for letting down so many loyal supporters and help voters find a way back.

For Labour, this election has one overarching priority: to rebuild credibility, respect, and relevance.

Squeezed between the SNP and nationalism and the Tories and Unionism, it must escape the mythical centre ground of politics, the suffocating and dated agenda of Westminster and develop a narrative for the new Scotland.

During the campaign, Labour must reflect on then redefine the landscape left by a series of political earthquakes created by the SNP, populists, and a drift to the right.

In 1931, a Labour government, overwhelmed by financial crisis, suffered a political disintegration from which it took many years to recover.

In R H Tawney’s celebrated article of 1932, ‘The Choice Before the Labour Party’, he felt the party’s fundamental problem was its ‘lack of a creed’.

He defined this as: “A common conception of the ends of political action, and of a means of achieving them, based on a common view of the life proper to human beings, and of the steps required at any moment more nearly to attain it.”

This, he added, required a firm intellectual and moral foundation, without which the party would lose its way.

This lack of a ‘creed’ is fundamental to Scottish Labour’s current difficulties. It has lost its way.

Talking about ‘our values’ in a vacuous way just underlines the emptiness and dearth of ideas generally in Scottish politics, and especially within the Labour Party.

It will only flourish when it offers something that people can believe in.

Ideas do matter. They provide the basis of a political narrative and a public philosophy. Ideas explain how the world is and how it might be changed.

They define ends and identify means. Ideas are the basis for rebuilding trust, capturing the imagination of people, especially the young, and winning the hearts and minds of electors. 

So, what would this look like? It would be a party that supports ‘real’ federalism and four-nation politics. It would campaign for access to the single market and a customs union as minimum requirements in any Brexit deal.

It would argue that the UK’s constitutional union is not fit for purpose and needs a radical overhaul: a slavish embrace of old unreformed unionism doesn’t make sense.

And it would be more intense and innovative about tackling inequality and the 80/20 divide in Scotland, embrace the ideals of equal worth, the common good and taming the market.

It would recognise the models of the Nordic countries and other western democracies, regardless of our destination as a nation, and outline a new vision for social, health, education, and public services.

This party would stop rejecting another independence referendum. It is going to happen, sometime.

There is no point arguing against democracy. There could be a second question next time, on federalism.

Labour must abandon its entitlement hangover, stop using the ‘tartan tory’ line of a bygone age and drop the tribal hatred of the SNP (of course it works both ways).

This kind of political exchange does not resonate with a public weary of the old politics and desperate for positive politics and progressive policies.

Being a patriot is modern, attractive, and less divisive than nationalism.

Whether you are Scottish, British or European, people can also be patriots of humanity: Labour must start to use this language against the SNP and the Tories. Identity is OK.

A written constitution for Britain and Scotland is long overdue. Acknowledging the fact that Westminster may be uninterested, Labour in Scotland should proceed on its own.

Labour needs to talk more about the economy and progressive taxation. Regardless of Scotland’s constitutional destination, a sound economy is vital to every aspect of life.

Human rights, employee rights and the role of trade unions are as important today as they were in 1900.

Breaking free from the past, retaining timeless principles and history that fired Labour in 1900 and establishing, unlike other parties in Scotland, a serious and sustainable assault on inequality is the way forward: this is what will determine credibility, relevance and respect. 

It is only a start but it must begin now. 700,000 people voted Labour in 2015, they deserve reassurance.


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