Sketch: Political science at the Scottish Labour conference

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 31 March 2016 in Comment

The Scottish Labour conference and other mysteries of the cosmos

The Scottish Labour conference was held in Glasgow Science Centre, which meant, one way or another, you were bound to learn something.

Upstairs, delegates could learn everything humanity knows about the cosmos. Downstairs, they could learn everything Scottish Labour knows about winning back power. It was hard to say which was more mysterious.

The main event took place in the IMAX cinema. The audience was funnelled into a sharp, plunging wedge of a room, with a small, cramped platform towards the bottom providing seating for speakers. Apart from the total absence of daylight, there was something of the Coliseum about the place.


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The slogan at the front said ‘Real change now’. And it was brave of Labour to confront those demanding fake change at some point in the future, even if the slogan did make the party sound like a stern,   sceptical vending machine.

Things kicked off with a motivational speech from general secretary Brian Roy aimed at energising the party faithful.

“We’re Labour, we don’t play by the political rules, we write them. We’d never seen socialists elected until 1900, when Labour rewrote the rules. We’d never seen a Labour Government until 1924, when Labour rewrote the rules.

“We had never seen the establishment of a National Health Service until 1945, when Labour rewrote the rules. And we had never seen three consecutive Labour majority governments until 2005, when, again, Labour rewrote the rules. This year, we can rewrite the rules again.”

It was tempting to wonder if Labour should spend less time writing rules and more time winning elections. And, more importantly, does the party stick to these rules after writing them? Or is it so rebellious it breaks the rules, even as it creates them? Some in the party would surely be happier if, after Labour rewrote the rules about Labour getting elected, the party had just stuck by them, rather than breaking them and ending up out of power for ten years.

After that things became a bit of a blur. Argyll and Bute candidate Mick Rice took to the stage to reveal he was ‘Super Labour Man’. The character seemed a somewhat ineffectual super hero.

STUC vice-president Helen Connor argued “austerity is not an inevitability”, before slamming the Trade Union Bill. “I am only going to deal with this briefly, because I know your time is short,” she told Scottish Labour. Which seemed a bit cutting, frankly.

After that, candidate Hugh Gaffney claimed that “Labour believes in democracy. The SNP believes in dictatorship,” before embarking on what appeared to be a short poem, called ‘It wisnae me, the SNP’.

That lasted quite a long time. Probably the best rhyme was ‘Labour has vision and ideas, SNP has had nine years’.

It was quite a treat. The crowd had come to learn about Labour, and possibly also science, but had received some free art. It was certainly the best political poetry on show that day.

Still, we had no clear answer about how the party would go about winning back power, beyond the fact it would apparently involve half-rhyming beat poetry. But if anyone had been wondering whether their time would have been better spent learning about the solar system upstairs, or indeed throwing themselves in the Clyde, the deputy leader soon put doubt to rest.

Taking to the stage, Alex Rowley spoke in a monotone, without a change in speed or intonation at any point. He put on a video, aimed at explaining Scottish Labour’s sophisticated new campaigning technique, and how social media could be used to swing the debate. The video broke. “Where’s Super Labour Man when you need him?” someone muttered.

By this point, the hall had been heating up for hours. It was uncomfortably warm. Conference needed a boost. That was left to leader Kezia Dugdale.

She started off by running through the changes experienced by Scottish politics over the past few years, before questioning what the SNP has actually achieved in its time in government. “What good is strength if you don’t use it to protect those without power, without opportunity, without wealth?” she asked.

“I am a socialist,” she announced, in much the same tone someone would take to reveal a history of burglaries, before demanding the SNP uses the powers it has now to tackle poverty.

She said: “The Tories and the SNP criticise me for saying we have to do things differently, they always say it’s all too difficult, it’s too expensive, it can’t be done.

“They criticise me for being young,” she added. “Well, I can’t change that!”

This is classic political spin. Of course Dugdale could stop being so young. She could age over time. That’s what most people do, why won’t Dugdale?

But age or not, her speech was solid. The crowd, apparently convinced the stars are finally aligning for Scottish Labour, really seemed to love it. For anyone else, there was always the planetarium.

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