Six problems, no solutions

Bob Thomson explains why Labour is still losing

I made a couple of visits recently which brought home the problems for Scottish Labour. Last December I was in the Palace of Westminster for first time in three years. It reminded me exactly why I have stayed away and reinforced my intention not to go back any time soon. Westminster is an unreal world which is out of touch with reality (the expenses debacle shows just how badly). It contrasts starkly with the accessibility of Holyrood. In London, even soft left Scottish Labour MPs are in complete denial over loss of power in Scotland and seem to think the best solution is to be more vicious against the SNP than they are against the Tories. Probably because they know that in Scotland there is an alternative to voting Tory.

Then I was at the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Dundee in March. There were few MPs (perhaps not so surprising) but there were also few MSPs and indeed few ordinary party members present. If it hadn’t been for trade union delegates the conference could have been held in a side hall. In debate after debate I was struck by the hypocrisy of front bench speakers attacking the SNP for not implementing policies Labour failed to implement over eight years in power such as teacher and police numbers and student debt. And since the party isn’t exactly bursting with front-bench talent they don’t even do it well. There was no serious analysis of why Labour lost the Scottish Parliament election and why we were failing to make an impact in opposition. Most trade unions act and think as Labour loyalists when in fact they were being New Labour apologists. On PFI/PPP the platform, except the trade unionist Chairman, continued to support this disastrous policy while rubbishing the SNP’s only slightly better Scottish Futures Trust alternative. The three UK Cabinet Ministers who spoke did not address the Scottish dimension or provide any Scottish solutions.

We lost because of the neo liberal economic and war policies of UK Labour government. Scottish Labour failed – unlike the Welsh Labour Party – to put ‘clear red water’ between them and New Labour. The people who inhabit the Labour Party bureaucracy either don’t know about devolution or more probably arrogantly ignore it. I am constantly getting emails about policy initiatives which only apply in England but fail to say this. When I point this out, I receive no reply.So much has been said and written on this subject that it is not worth running over it all in depth. So let me simply give you what I see as the six big problems Labour faces in Scotland if it is going to do anything to make the country fairer and more left-wing:

  • There are no leaders. Scottish Labour in Parliament is filled with competent people and padded out with some incompetent people. But any really good people have either been forced out (by Rosemary McKenna’s hit squad before the 1999 election) or have just walked away. Realistically, there isn’t a single serious leadership candidate from either the left, centre or right of the party who it is possible to imagine actually making an impact on Scotland. Only followers are left.
  • There is no party. The membership has at least halved in recent years. Labour used to be a grassroots organisation but now party meetings – on the occasions where they are quorate – are filled with only those who have party jobs and those who want party jobs. There are no activists and there are almost no enthusiasts. It is an organisation without a party and nothing good can come from that.
  • There is no independence. In my view Labour has actually been saved in Scotland by being forced to go into coalition with the Lib Dems. In my view, if they had been able to, they would have been even more cautious and New Labour. If you look at how Labour in Scotland talks about things it mainly seems to be about how little they could get away with doing before anyone would start to complain. And while I was no fan of Wendy Alexander, at least her high opinion of herself made her more likely to do something different and independent. Iain Gray has lived off Westminster patronage since he lost his seat in 2003 and the signs are he is paying it back with New Labour nonentities like Rhona Brankin and Richard Baker trotting out a London-friendly line wherever they go.
  • It has no friends. The unions ought to have been helping Labour to realise its situation and find a way out of the hole. They haven’t. In fact, the main thing the unions have done is to cover the party’s backs while it just kept on digging. And in ten years Labour has had almost nothing to do with all the other political movements in Scotland (such as the anti-war movement) and so have just been written off by most. The Party has no friends to have a quiet word in its ear.
  • There are no big ideas. All Labour in Scotland talks about is the same set of non-policies that get trotted out in London. There is nothing new or different about what they are saying. You can probably guess a Scottish Labour speech before you hear it – for any half-good idea there will be five times as much effort spent attacking other people’s ideas. Labour needs to have some kind of purpose if it wants to achieve anything. Getting power back is not itself a purpose.
  • It doesn’t know how bad things are. Perhaps the biggest problem the party has is that it doesn’t even seem to realise how bad things have got. Scottish Labour MPs seem almost to be in an alternative universe in which they didn’t lose in 2007. Glenrothes sorted that out so now its back to getting MSPs to do what London tells them and things will be fine. But they won’t. MSPs, meanwhile, are only a bit better. They think they are working as an effective opposition and, in any case, surely everyone hates Salmond so just keeping up the attacks will do the trick. They keep believing they can win by throwing mud at others, but they don’t know it isn’t working and they won’t admit they are a poor opposition for it.

Scottish Labour’s structure and bureaucracy requires real devolution from London. It is ridiculous that Ian Gray is Leader of Labour MSPs not Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. And at least I got a vote in his leadership election which I didn’t get for Gordon Brown; indeed we have not had a say in our UK Leader since 1994. More importantly Scottish Labour must fairly quickly devise a new, radical policy agenda. Real powers for the Scottish Parliament such as tax raising and borrowing, re-nationalising Scotrail, encourage co-operatives and community enterprises, more social housing, regenerate rural areas, act against poverty, promote income fairness and last but not least oppose Trident renewal. Only then will Scottish Labour revitalise/regain members and reconnect with Scottish voters.