Redemption song

Vince Mills sees no easy route to change in a Scottish Labour Party with a complacent leadership
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our mind (Redemption Song, Bob Marley)

The editor was interested in exploring the notion of redemption in this issue. For many in the Scottish Labour Party, the suggestion that they have sinned and that they require to be saved will be meaningless, especially those in and around the leadership at Scottish and UK level. Even the Left of the Party does not appear to have a united position or clear vision about the Labour Party’s (or indeed its own) direction, although it is in their ranks that you will find the voices of contemporary John the Baptists pointing out the domestic failures to attack inequality and the international catastrophe of imperial interventions, not to mention sustained support for financial capital and its freedom to wreak havoc on the economy. The dominant ideological group in Scottish Labour stretches from unreconstructed Blairites (see for example John McTernan’s recent defence of competition in the Scottish NHS in the Scotsman) to the moderate Social Democrats of the Compass group, with followers of Gordon Brown ideologically closer to the former. Brown after all, was the brains behind the New Labour project. Make of that what you want given its abject failure in addressing the fault lines of inequality in British and Scottish society. Although limited in its impact, the analysis offered by Compass is that more social democracy, translated as social as opposed to private provision, is electorally attractive as well as in tune with the always vague, Labour values. Here is Compass’s Willie Sullivan commenting on the SNP’s rise before its reversal at Glerothes: “The SNPs rise was not primarily a cry for ‘freedom’ by the Scottish electorate. It was a vote of disillusionment and disappointment with Labour and a vote for social democracy as Salmond managed to position the SNP to the left of Scottish Labour.”

This mainstream section is in no mood to repent. Afterall,whathavetheytoberepentantabout? They have just given their archenemies the Tories the drubbing of their lives. No doubt the Compass left would argue that this is because we never gave political space to full-blown Blairite neo-liberalism while the Blairites would argue that had we done so we would only have strengthened our electoral hold. While the Tories took 40 per cent of the vote in England and 26 per cent in Wales they only managed 17 per cent in Scotland (winning them only one seat). It was only in Northern Ireland they failed to register at all and it would be fair to say that Northern Ireland hardly poses a fair comparison. So Scottish Labour, simply by being Scottish Labour it seems, was most effective in routing the Tories in the UK. This paid off handsomely in seats. Labour have 41 as opposed to the Liberals 11 and the SNP’s six. And that last figure also helps explain the Scottish Labour mainstream’s confidence that they are in no need of salvation. The SNP, as Willie Sullivan noted, posturing left during the election, had precisely the same problem as the independence-supporting SSP and TUSC, coupled with a less than competent performance in office in the Scottish Parliament. Their Free School Meals, Scottish Futures Trust, Local Income Tax, and Smaller Class Sizes policies had variously been scaled down, back-burnered or simply ditched. But more than anything, the threat that a vote for the SNP (or anything to their left) might help the Tories, not only meant they made no gains, seats like Glasgow East went back to Labour. Their failure to get a referendum bill through, before the end of parliament is only the last and arguably least problematic in a line of failures.

In light of this, Scottish Labour can look forward to the elections in May with some confidence. They have to some extent already set out their stall. They will defend front line services against the Con Dem cuts and continue with populist anti-crime policies on knife crime, for example. But there is no soul searching. There is no evidence that they feel the need to explore whether and how they can transform British and Scottish society. It may well transpire that such complacency will damage Labour profoundly in the longer run. I will consider that later, but first let us look at the Labour Left where we might expect energy and ideas for Labour’s redemption to be flowing. You might expect it. But you will not find it.

Let us start with a simple but hopefully revelatory distinction. There has always been two Labour Party lefts. On the one hand there is the Left that is comprised by those whose primary commitment has been to the Labour Party and who are members the way some folk are members of their local church. Nevertheless they support left wing polices and left wing candidates and without them the Labour Left would have no ballast at all. They would not for a moment consider leaving the Labour Party and more to the point they would not assess whether Labour is the best instrument for the kind of society they seek. Their political purpose is defined by their membership of Labour. The other Labour left is actually a Left that is inside Labour. I am not suggesting that they are entryists, though some may have begun life in the Labour Party that way. Individually or collectively they joined Labour because they thought it the most likely route to a socialist transformation of our society, or at the very least, the best way to move Scottish and British society in that direction. At every juncture and in recent history, at least since Kinnock began the reclamation of the Party for the right (although you might just as easily have started with the ILP’s 1932 defection) this section of the Labour left has questioned the nature and purpose of the Labour Party and whether strategically they ought to be part of it. Since the 1990s their ranks have been depleted by the New Labour Party’s lurch to economic liberalisation and imperial conquest. And their options outside the Party simultaneously reduced by the abject failure of every attempt to build a left electoral alternative to Labour. This second group is predominantly Marxist in orientation and it leans heavily on the classic Leninist analysis that the British Labour Party is in some ways unique, primarily because it provides a platform for affiliated unions as well as individual socialists and therefore as long as Communists and socialists can argue freely within it against its leadership and their policies, the Labour Party is the pivotal place for a revolutionaries to be. Or as Lenin put it: “While remaining in the ranks of the Labour Party the British Socialist Party enjoys sufficient liberty to write that such and such leaders of the Labour Party are traitors, champions of the interests of the bourgeoisie and their agents in the Labour movement; this is absolutely true. When communists enjoy such a liberty, then, taking into account the experience of revolution in all countries … it is their duty to affiliate to the Labour Party.”

Although the Communist Party has never been allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party the central argument that the Labour Party provides a vantage point to make the case for socialism and to at least nudge society to the left has remained a canon for the Socialist Left in the Labour Party. Usually both of these Labour Lefts rub along well together. They have tended to support the same candidates, campaigns and left organisations. Now, however, the prolonged crisis of socialism in and outside of the Labour Party is taking its toll. The differences are probably more visible in England where the left is bigger. Essentially those who believe that the Labour Party has to remain the central focus of activity are arguing that the Left’s energies should be directed at democratising the party and winning more left candidates and more influence on the central decision-making bodies of the Party like the National Policy Forum (NPF) and National Executive Committee. For example, they would argue that the Left should use the review of Labour Party structure due to begin in October of this year to argue for the restoration of motions, restate the sovereignty of Conference on policy and the right to amend NPF documents. They would also want the party structures of the Labour Party to reflect a strong trade union influence and they would want a commitment from the Labour Party leadership to defend Union political funds if they are subjected to attack by the Con-Dem alliance. Not surprisingly they would also want the 12.5 per cent threshold required for MPs to be eligible to stand as candidates for the Labour Leadership to be reduced to 5 per cent as well as giving Constituency Labour Parties and trade unions a role in the initial nomination process. So far, so unremarkable you might think, and no doubt anyone on the Left in the Labour Party will support such an agenda. The question is, given that the party has shifted right, even if such an agenda was achievable (it will be countered by a position championed in a Fabian booklet by Horton and Katwala that we should instead adopt an Obamesque networking model) would such democratisation lead to the adoption of a left programme? It is somewhat ironic that Labour’s most left wing leader in recent times, Michael Foot, was elected by MPs only, in a much les democratic system than Labour has now.

For the Marxist orientated Left the problem is less to do with Party structures than the success the right has had in displacing left social democratic and socialist ideas with a ‘common sense’ view of the need for a smaller state, a reduced public sector, the importance of markets and the need for choice through competition. The strength in depth of this view can be seen in the absence of any serious strategy emerging to fight the cuts. There has been no talk of refusing to make these cuts by Scottish Labour Party public representatives at any level, for example by refusing to set budgets, or mass resignation, both tactics seriously explored and sometimes implemented by Labour Councils in Scotland in the 1980s fight against Thatcherism. Consequently the assumption that the Left in the Labour Party need only rehearse the old arguments that make the party democratic and you will make it socialist, misunderstands the changes that have been wrought in the Labour Party at the Left’s expense. Some of us have therefore reached the conclusion that at the very least the Left needs to spend as much time campaigning in the communities of resistance that will spring up in defence of jobs and services as we do in inner party machinations. Indeed the emergence of a new movement born in the battles against cuts may wish to fashion quite a different relationship to the traditional voice of Labour in Scotland. This will not be a lonely struggle. The STUC is committed to mounting a united struggle against the cuts culminating in a massive event in October.

If there is a widespread national anger at the injustices of the cuts, then the current Scottish Labour Party position as articulated by Iain Gray will not do. He promises to protect frontline services in our schools, hospitals and police. Does that mean it’s tough luck for Social Workers, Lecturers and Civil Servants? And given that it is accepted that ring fencing of some services is a sure fire way of intensifying cuts elsewhere, how will councils, for example, be able to provide the infrastructure necessary to keep frontline services running?

We have been here before. In 1987 there was a massive swing to Labour from the Tories and Alliance in Scotland. However in 1988 a Scottish Labour Party Special Conference, held in March in Glasgow, refused to back non-payment of the Poll Tax, in effect ending Labour resistance to it. (It wasn’t long till Brian Wilson, initially in support of non payment, was telling folk to pay up). In November 1988, Labour lost a by-election in Govan, a very safe Labour seat, to the SNP’s Jim Sillars who was championing Scotland against the Tories in general and the Poll Tax in particular. It may be that Labour in Scotland can redeem itself by seriously building for a nationwide campaign of resistance against the assault on the public sector, but with a small and divided left and a complacent leadership which itself bridges moderate social democracy to hard line neo-liberalism, the people of Scotland are best advised to fashion their own defences.