Labour’s current plan will lead them towards irrelevance and decline, write Bob Thomson and Stephen Smellie.
Keir Starmer’s march towards 10 Downing Street, according to recent opinion polls, seems to be going to plan. That is, if the plan was not to upset business leaders by rolling back on workers’ rights, not to upset financial markets by pledging any more for benefits, public services and a Green Economy, and not to upset people attracted by the Tories’ pledge to stop immigration and Stop the Boats. They are sticking to the plan to use the pre-election, don’t-rock-the-boat-for-party-unity-ticket to attack the left, ensure ‘safe’ parliamentary candidates are selected, and concentrate power in the hands of the Leader and associates. The plan is going well to remove working-class MPs with a trade union background and replace them with career politicians.
Labour should be fighting to win, not for its own sake, but to implement change for the benefit of the majority of the population, the working class. That would require significant structural changes to where power lies in the UK, as well as significant spending on public services and a green economy, funded through taxing the better off, the profits of big companies, and the wealth of the rich.
During his leadership election Starmer promised to deliver that kind of change. Now he has ditched all those policy pledges. Effectively he is saying that he will run capitalism more efficiently than the Tories. His strategy is to do nothing that could upset the press, and to wait for the Tories to implode and become unpopular. The Tories have been keen to assist in that strategy, and Labour currently has a healthy lead in UK-wide opinion polls. We will come to Scotland later.
There are risks in such a strategy. The Tories can’t be relied upon to keep making a mess. They could do something popular. Inflation is falling and Sunak will hope that he will get the credit, restoring his ratings. Neither can the press barons be relied on to give Labour a helping hand. They could easily turn against Starmer and use a range of scare stories to harm Labour, as happened to Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband during their general election campaigns.
Getting people to vote Labour usually means more than just getting them not to vote Tory. Voters who voted Tory in the past but think that Labour will do nothing for them might just stay at home. What are they being promised if they are a family with more than two kids? No change on the two-child rule. If they are waiting on a hospital procedure? No additional funding until the economy improves. If they work in the gig economy? No new workers’ rights. Nor is Labour offering anything to younger voters, who are less motivated to vote and turning increasingly to single-issue causes and organisations.
Labour relies on members enthusiastically delivering leaflets and knocking doors to overcome the Daily Mail-driven barrage of lies and pro-Tory messaging. Many of these members have not been allowed to select the candidates they wanted, and in some cases have had popular sitting MPs and councillors barred from running for Labour. They have seen the popular, radical policies agreed year-after-year at conferences being ditched. Will they be enthused to get onto the streets to knock doors?
If Starmer gets into Downing Street, he will be tied down by his own promises – to the market, to business, to the press – not to do anything that will cost any more money. Is getting him elected really worth getting up in the morning?
While the first job of Labour is to win, the second is to win for a purpose. A Labour government should empower working people, in their workplace, communities and in the marketplace. It should also try to stop the Tories getting elected next time. That means more worker and trade union rights, improved health and safety legislation, and greater environmental and consumer rights. Rather than rowing back on promises to invest in a green economy, Labour should be campaigning to explain why it is needed. And since all the good of a government can be undone when the Tories win again, Labour needs to commit to proportional representation (PR), as agreed at Labour’s conference. Analysis of general election results for the last fifty years show that under PR, the Tories would not have had a majority government to ignore the wishes and interests of large numbers of voters.
In Scotland, Anas Sarwar is not playing to a Tory-voting electorate. He is competing with the SNP who remain committed to the kind of social-democratic policies in Scotland that Starmer finds too radical for the southern or northern English electorates. He has disagreed with some of Starmer’s policies, pledging to urge a Starmer government to abolish the two-child rule. But Sarwar’s strategy, similar to Starmer’s, has been to wait for the SNP to implode, and they, similar to the Tories, have been willing to oblige. And yet Scottish Labour is still behind a weakened SNP in the polls. This is not a reliable strategy. Humza Yousaf will no doubt think of something popular. He will continue to highlight the disastrous consequences of Tory policies, which might give his party a boost in the polls.
In response, Scottish Labour needs a clear set of radical policies for achieving a Just Transition and green economy, investing in health and care and public services generally, and devolving powers including employment law. Gordon Brown promised more powers in the ‘Vow’ made during the 2014 Independence Referendum, when the establishment panicked that they could lose the vote. As Roz Foyer, General Secretary, STUC pointed out recently, promised reforms on workers’ rights are not enough and they don’t stop the Tories reversing them in future. Scottish Labour should also demand PR at Westminster in order to break the cycle of Tory Governments imposing policies that were never supported in Scotland. They should be insisting that a Labour Government would entrench the powers of the Scottish Parliament on devolved matters so that Westminster cannot block them as has happened too often recently. On constitutional reform and decentralisation of decision-making from Westminster, it needs to offer more than promises of reviews. Currently Labour is offering no change in the constitutional relationship between the UK and Scotland. This is a gift to the SNP.
Voters need hope, and a party they can trust. Talk of a new party is fanciful: the general election will be next year, and the recent history of new parties is one of feuds and sectarianism. The PR system in the devolved nations makes things different, but at a UK level, left parties face the overwhelming hurdle of the first-past-the-post electoral system. A political party needs vision and passion, and Labour must find it or face irrelevance and decline.
Bob Thomson is a board member of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and a former Chair of the Scottish Labour Party. Stephen Smellie is a UNISON NEC member and co-convenor of the Climate Justice Coalition Trade Union Caucus.