If this is where we are, then this is where we must fight
“Those who know how to win are much more numerous than those who know how to make proper use of their victories.”
I am regularly reminded of when I get things wrong. It is one of the many kind services my Twitter feed provides for me, alongside frequent unsolicited advice on facial expressions.
In summer 2014 I predicted a post-No bounce for Labour, after our activists had done the lion’s share of canvassing work. I based this on the assumption that once the independence referendum was finished, after three years of examination of every argument, the whole of Scottish politics would be keen to get back to what our everyday politics should be about – using the powers of government to improve lives.
But Scottish politics has not moved on. It has polarised almost entirely along referendum lines. Positions have not relaxed, they have entrenched.
Jim Murphy has spent his first few months as leader putting forward a raft of progressive policies which could deliver real change for folk the length and breadth of Scotland. Kezia Dugdale has exposed SNP failings from NHS funding to teacher numbers to policing incompetence.
The centre of gravity of Scottish politics is unmoved. The only question is about powers – where they lie, how we can get more. The – far more significant – conversation about what we actually want to do with those powers, and how we hold their exercising to account, has found no resonance.
The SNP exists to fight for independence, so it can be no shock that they persist in prioritising the question of powers over everything else. The Tories are the archetypal unionists, so they are happy to maintain the fight. Labour’s referendum stance, by contrast, was always pragmatic – based on what was in the best interests of the most people – and as I wrote in my first ever Labour Hame article, unionism is not a Labour value.
In fairness the Greens and the Liberal Democrats were also pragmatic backers of the referendum sides they took, but they too are victims of this polarising post-September politics. The Greens are being (unfairly, in my view) left out of debates with many on the Yes side quietly pleased at the marginalisation. And the Lib Dems are retreating into Scotland Office arguments from last year.
We are all stuck in September, and the only people it helps is the SNP.
It certainly doesn’t help the people of Scotland, who are being exhorted to vote for MPs who will “stand up for Scotland” – as if decision-making at Westminster was based on geographic blocs. It isn’t. It’s based on MPs from across the UK coming together to form a government for the whole UK.
But if this is where we are, then this is where we must fight.
Scottish Labour should continue to champion progressive policies, and to hold the SNP to account for their failures in government. But we must also be the party that stands as a bulwark against the splitting up of the UK, and also against the neverendum which is now being threatened.
No voters are not the only ones who don’t want to see a rerun. There are plenty of folk who voted Yes who also see the folly of an endless focus on the constitution.
Scottish Labour needs to be the voice of those who want the locations of government to remain as they are but the actions of government to radically change. We need to be proud of the role we played in preserving the solidarity of the United Kingdom, and reaffirm that stance.
As the recent GERS figures have shown, Scotland’s relationship with the UK is not one of subsidy but of shared risk and shared reward. In bumper years for Scotland, we help contribute to the pooled resources which maintain our NHS, our education system and our welfare state. In tougher years, like the last few, the rest of the UK makes its contribution to ensure Scots do not lose out.
Retaining that system of sharing is critical to the welfare of everyone in the UK. Throwing it away with demands for fiscal autonomy means threatening the wellbeing of millions of our most vulnerable. Labour cannot let that happen.
If the SNP is determined to make this election about where powers lie, then let us be abundantly clear:
- Labour will not do any deals with a party whose policy is to break up the UK.
- Labour will stand up for the democratic vote of the majority last September, and not allow it to be traduced.
We must keep trying to move the political debate on to what we do with powers not where they lie. But when we are setting out Labour’s radical plans, we need to be very clear on one point.
Labour’s positive, progressive, anti-austerity programme for the whole of the UK cannot be delivered on an SNP vote. It can only be delivered if Scots vote Labour.