Henry McLeish: A new relationship between Scottish and UK Labour is required
Reinventing the Labour Party in Scotland requires radical reform and a debate on how change can be achieved. The party structure in Scotland and its relationship with UK Labour has to be an important part of this. Labour needs to be the voice of Scotland and at the same time, allow the Scottish party to make a bigger contribution to the idea of four-nation politics, so essential if the Union is to survive and have any future.
Scottish Labour aspires to be a modern social democratic and progressive centre-left party. To achieve this, a new and distinct identity is required which may be described as either ‘full autonomy’ or ‘independence’. I would also add the ability to be responsible for purpose, direction and political outcomes. A new relationship between Scottish Labour and UK Labour is also required. This could take the form of a federal structure, which is long overdue.
The UK’s changing constitutional politics has overtaken the ability of the political structures to either influence them or cope with the consequences. Some limited progress has been made but we need to go much further. Labour in Scotland needs political freedom.
The accumulated weaknesses and errors of the Union-Westminster and UK political parties are partly to blame for the seismic shifts in Scottish politics in recent years. So changes in our relationship have to be part of Labour’s reinvention. There is a tendency in politics for people to listen but not hear – I have been guilty of that myself!
The idea of an independent Labour Party in Scotland is about strengthening the party in the UK and making it more relevant and credible to the different nations and electorates it seeks to serve.
The unique post-devolution world of Scotland demands radical change in which the purpose, direction and meaning of Labour’s offering reconnects with Scots and provides an alternative narrative to the SNP, which talks about patriotism not nationalism, progressiveness not populism and interdependence not independence.
An independent or fully autonomous party in Scotland would have distinct benefits. First, it would allow Labour to be recognised as the voice of Scotland and help to make clear, psychologically and politically, that the made-in-Scotland label is authentic.
Second, it would acknowledge the changing political fortunes in England as UK Labour needs to appeal to a very different audience where policies and priorities will have to be more bespoke: different politics require different solutions. Reinforcing this message, Jon Cruddas, former Labour policy chief, speaking at an IPPR meeting, has talked about setting up an English wing of the party as part of a new federalised UK structure.
Third, it will help strengthen the case for the Union as the Labour Party accepts four-nation politics, understands the case for more political diversity and sees Scotland as a vibrant and dynamic political place with its own political identity and purpose.
The idea of an independent LP is about handling our politics better and has nothing to do with separation. Scottish Labour would continue to be part of the Labour family, have a different but fraternal relationship with UK Labour and still send Labour MPs to Westminster. But London has to change its outdated approach to multi-national and multi-party politics. Labour in the referendum looked like it was backing Britain against Scotland.
Campaigns with Westminster Tories make no sense. Labour looked like it was backing Tory austerity against the overwhelming views of Scots in the General Election. Labour won the referendum battle but seems to be losing the constitutional war, and Scotland as well.
We need to learn from other countries such as Germany, Canada and Spain where political parties have adjusted more positively to sub-national government, the process of constitutional change and to the need for party structures to reflect modernity, nationality and identity.
For example, in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union operate very successfully in the most prosperous state in Germany; they are distinctive and autonomous within German politics but contribute at federal level to the Christian Democratic Union in its attempts to form a government. There are of course tensions but it works. What is required is a new relationship between the UK party and the emerging political structures in Scotland, Wales and possibly England. Four-nation politics is the new reality of life in the UK.
Let’s remember the contribution of our greatest founding father, Keir Hardie, as we approach his centenary celebrations in September. He was the inspiration behind setting up the Scottish Labour Party in 1888, the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 (which then became the Labour Party in 1906). He was also instrumental in ensuring the passing of the famous and historic resolution at the TUC in 1899 which committed the trades unions to establishing, for the first time, parliamentary representation for working people at Westminster.
Scotland and Keir Hardie led Britain to a new political future. We now have another great and historic opportunity to change UK and Scottish politics and transform party structures. This would be a good year to start.