Lessons Scottish Labour must learn from the SNP – and fast
Kevin McKenna, The Guardian
Before a proper redemption of the Labour party in Scotland can occur, there must be an acknowledgment from within its ranks of past sins. The evisceration of this party that grew arrogantly to treat Scotland as its own fiefdom was so utter and complete on 7 May that, in Westminster last week, it was being described as an extinction event. I don’t think it is; well, not yet anyway.
First, it must move away from the empty and squalid anti-SNP rhetoric of some of its elder statesmen, who now resemble old Japanese soldiers in the thickets of an island in the Pacific fighting a war that was lost a long time ago. Whatever is prescribed by people such as Brian Wilson and lordships and barons such as Foulkes, McConnell, Robertson and Reid should be quietly ignored. For various reasons, these men carry a great deal of responsibility for Scottish Labour’s presence in the intensive care unit. And whatever blueprint for the party’s reform that Jim Murphy, the outgoing leader, produces next month should be politely received and then placed in the file marked “chocolate teapot”.
Wandering around the great halls and the bars and tea-rooms of Westminster last week was to witness the coronation of the SNP as the natural party of government in Scotland and the one that former Labour people now trust to represent their aspirations and best interests. Among a little knot of happy SNP members was Chris Stephens, one of the Glasgow Seven and now accorded hero status for overthrowing Ian Davidson, reviled king of the Nat-bashers. Of the SNP’s 56 MPs, not a single one went to Oxford or Cambridge, while the four declared candidates for the leadership of the Labour party all did. The SNP looks like a party that has had to work hard for its gains while Labour was tripping itself up on ermine and baubles.
Stephens is the embodiment of the SNP surge. For nigh on 20 years, he has held the nationalist standard in the threshing rooms and bars of the STUC all over the city. Polite, popular, hard working and with an easy-going manner, he has worked the brethren assiduously for 20 years as an activist in Unison. Over a two-year period, he increased trade union membership in his workplace and is also a veteran of battles on equal pay, the living wage, workplace pensions and rights for the disabled. Stephens realised a long time ago that winning the hearts and minds of trade unionists at a time when the Labour party was scorning them would eventually pay electoral dividends.
The contrast between this approach and that favoured by Jim Murphy and his fellow New Labour sentinels is stark indeed. When Murphy knew the game was up for his leadership of Scottish Labour, his bizarre and injudicious outburst against Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, was indicative of a party that has lost its way and has begun tilting blindly at the wrong enemies. Anyone who was properly in touch with what was happening in Scotland these last few years would have observed some subtle signs that a transfer of loyalties was taking place. Neither Murphy, his team of advisers nor their entire cast at Holyrood were aware of what was occurring at street level in Glasgow; that Labour members of trade unions were being evangelised by Chris Stephens and others during what amounted to a three-year gospel revival of old values.
After Labour’s Scottish executive has dutifully read Murphy’s well-intentioned blueprint, they need to listen up and get real. For Labour ever to stage any semblance of a recovery in Scotland, the following need to happen:
■ Don’t forsake the trade unions; work with them. The unions are the soul of the Labour movement and without whom there would simply be no Labour party. When Len McCluskey or STUC general secretary, Grahame Smith, speak, pull up a chair and listen. These men have the wisdom of ages of Labour struggles against low pay, workplace intimidation and the evils of Thatcherism. The working people of this country are about to suffer years of cuts to their jobs, benefits and services to pay for the mismanagement of the nation’s finances by the ruling elite. Labour and the unions need to be in this together.
■ Immediately begin the task of de-coupling from the UK Labour party. When a UK Labour leader states live on television, as Ed Miliband did, that he would rather inflict upon the people five years of a rightwing, cuts-driven Tory administration rather than do any deals with another left-of-centre party, you know the time has come to let them go. The contenders for hapless Ed’s position are all cut from the same cloth so there has never been a better time for a Scottish Democratic Labour party.
■ Impose an immediate ban on any Labour member becoming a member of the House of Lords. Don’t they know how absurd and unedifying it is to see places such as Cardowan, Cumnock and Port Ellen associated with a bastion of unearned privilege and wealth through the political avarice of a few old grandees?
■ Begin a conversation about an independent Scotland. The levels of inequality in the British state are now the worst in Europe, according to a recent Oxfam report, and English and Welsh voters have now just voted to maintain them. Labour and its values are dead in England but may still be revived in an independent Scotland.
■ Think the unthinkable in the provision of our essential services and start to research the concept of educational enterprise zones built around the clusters of our most deprived communities. Flood these areas with the best headteachers and salaries to match and give tax breaks to companies that move into these areas and form bridges into employment with local pupils. Any key to long-term growth and sustainability in the Scottish economy must be able to unlock the gifts and earning potential of those who live in our most neglected neighbourhoods.
There is nothing that cannot be done where there is a will and a vision – and that includes the redemption of the Labour party in Scotland.