Henry McLeish: Labour has to win back the right to be heard
Looking ahead, Scottish Labour has to be bold. There is no alternative and certainly nothing to lose. The Holyrood elections in 2016 are now only six months away. Party members, supporters and electors can be forgiven for being anxious about the outcome. Robert Burns captured such a mood in his poem ‘To a Mouse’:
“Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!”
Labour conference was a declaration of intent. What is required now is a clear statement of principles, purpose, practical aims and progressive policies. A powerful mood has engulfed Scottish politics requiring an inspiring response from Scottish Labour.
Confronting nationalism with more nationalism is not Labour’s agenda. This is not why Scots have fallen out of love with Labour. Post-referendum, there is no real evidence to suggest that independence has become more popular or immediately achievable. The SNP has become a remarkable lightning rod for every grudge and grievance, a one-stop party political shop and more importantly, a ‘Voice of Scotland’. However, they are not miracle workers. This is a remarkably unstable period of political turbulence and electoral volatility. Labour in Scotland cannot allow this to become the new normal.
The onward march of the Tory party in England provides a frightening reminder of the real enemy, the behaviour of the ultras or the dark side of conservatism, which remains the most potent threat to Scotland and its membership of the Union.
Only 400 days from the political big bang of the 2014 referendum, it seems like a lifetime. The immediate beneficiaries have been the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England, but this need not be so long term. In Scotland, a bitterly divided 50-50 nation still remains unclear about its political and constitutional future. The perfect storm may be still swirling around but surprisingly, a perfect opportunity is staring Labour in the face.
A new mood has engulfed Scotland and Labour still has an enormous part to play. Our history since 1900 is impressive and our contribution to the lives of people has been immense; this is not a time for the fainthearted or further recriminations about what has gone so spectacularly wrong.
The party must reinvent itself and regain its rightful role in shaping Scotland’s future and that of our nation in the UK and Europe by tackling growing inequality and setting out a radical, credible and relevant set of progressive policies to both enthuse the nation and improve the lives of all. Labour has drifted from the consciousness of many Scots. Two questions have to be answered: ‘what does the party stand for?’ and ‘what does the party mean for me and my country?’ Labour has to win the right to be heard.
From Keir Hardie’s vision of home rule to the Scotland Act 1998, Labour should feel good about its achievements. It has a continuing place in the history of a nation that seeks a new constitutional settlement amidst the turmoil of political change throughout Europe.
There has to be a much sharper and sustainable critique of the SNP, where events, issues, managing expectations, a weakening policy base, party tensions between Westminster and Holyrood and a complacency and centralism borne of time in office are attracting public and press attention.
Who speaks for Scotland is the key to winning back the trust and support of Scots. This means Labour leading the debate, not about independence but about the future of Scotland. Localism not centralism, patriotism not nationalism, progressiveness not populism, interdependence not independence are the political battle lines.
Labour needs to tell a new, visionary story about Scotland, in or out of the Union, by being credible, relevant, radical and bold. Driving a new constitutional settlement within the UK, building coalitions with Wales and England and bringing four-nation politics alive is a radical agenda. This is the unifying task for Scottish Labour, setting sights higher and contesting the take-over of Scottish politics by the SNP, not by vitriol, hate or resentment, but by a new and inspired narrative for Scotland which rebuilds trust and credibility and takes people - all the generations, aspirations and all walks of life - with the party.
The struggle between English and Scottish nationalism has to refocus on the needs of people and their communities and find a serious and credible alternative to independence. Being an autonomous or independent party, a sister party within a federal UK Labour Party, will help. The Scottish people need Labour to be an independent voice, not a voice for independence.
Today’s Scotland is an intense political place where there is everything to play for. While the SNP is the obvious and immediate beneficiary of the referendum and the aftermath of the fallout of the political big bang, this need not be the new normal or the stable state of Scottish politics.
The troubled political spirit remains restless and unsure. This column may seem excessively optimistic and hopelessly naïve, but there is no other option for Scottish Labour other than starting to believe!
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