Time for the Tartan Book?
As the end of the Review approaches, we need to move from a period of crisis response to thinking long and hard about what Scottish Labour stands for and what policies we will present to the Scottish people in 2016, says DAN HEAP
Labour’s defeat in the Westminster election last year has given rise to a veritable cottage industry of different strands of thought within the party publishing sets of essays laying out their own diagnoses of what went wrong for us and how we can win power again. Maurice Glasman and friends hosted a series of seminars at the LSE earlier this year, culminating in their The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox; last week Blairites called for Labour to rediscover its ‘non statist tradition’ in The Purple Book and in Liverpool this Sunday, the Labour Left think tank will launch The Red Book, a set of arguments for ‘ethical socialism’.
Whilst these rival camps have been involved in some rather petty little exchanges, it is nevertheless an exciting period in which to be a Labour member: we have the time to go right back to thinking again about first principles – what we see as our core mission as a movement – and then build back up to a intellectually and philosophically coherent set of proposals. All of the different approaches now being touted as Labour’s route back to power are not just tinkering with individual policies, but thinking long and hard about how our society, economy and indeed the world are changing and how we as a party should respond.
In the past months, Scottish Labour has demonstrated the same capacity for sober, meaningful reflection on our past mistakes, the Review and the many well-argued posts here on LabourHame being prime examples of that. We are not yet, however, at the same stage as the UK party: we’ve discussed and then made various structural changes to the way we operate and debated the merits of individual policies, but I’m not yet aware of anyone or any group of people that are sitting down to do this type of deep thinking about the nature of Scotland and its society, people and economy in the second decade of the 21st century and how we would seek to govern them.
This is, of course, natural at this stage: we are still a full year behind the UK party in terms of responding to our defeat and we have yet to conclude our Review process. But soon – once we have voted whether to adopt the Review’s recommendations at our special conference at the end of October and once the contest for the new leadership position is underway – we need to move to this next stage. We have a full five years before the next Holyrood election – ample time to engage in debate up and down the party about the kind of Scotland we want to see and how we will deliver it – and we must use them well.
The Review thus far and the positive response to its first set of proposals announced last week show clearly that wide consultation across our movement and thorough debate between its members held in an open, earnest atmosphere produces good policy. As such, this should be our model for policymaking throughout the five years in opposition and not just a good habit engendered by the shock our defeat that wanes over time.
There is much that the Review – yet to reveal its proposed changes to the way we make policy – can do to encourage this spirit of debate within our party. Firstly, members should be able to participate in meaningful policy debates in the same way they did during the Review process. We all enjoy the policy discussions we have in our CLP and branch meetings, but there needs to be a way of making them feed into the pool of evidence we use when deciding on our policy positions. They cannot simply be a hobby we indulge in of an evening, with minutes being made but never considered thereafter. Shadow Cabinet and Holyrood Committee members should visit CLP meetings to get an understanding for how members feel about the key issues on which we need to develop stances.
We also need to get much better at using the specialist knowledge that our membership has in abundance. Right across Scotland’s universities, hospitals, businesses, schools and elsewhere there are Labour members with many years of valuable experience and it is to the party’s detriment that we don’t have a formal way of drawing on that experience, making it a core part of our policymaking process. I know a whole number of people working in Scottish universities doing research into issues of interest to us as a party and who would be more than happy spend their spare time sharing their knowledge with our policymakers, but it is very rare they are asked. Like Glasman’s LSE meetings, I’d like to see Shadow Cabinet members chairing seminars on their areas of responsibility and inviting to them those with professional knowledge and experience. Some of the policies we ran on in May were not, as Aidan Skinner pointed out on LabourHame last month, rooted sufficiently in evidence and consequently were discredited by those in the know during the campaign. If we involve them in our policymaking next time around, we are much more likely to produce manifesto pledges which will stand up to scrutiny.
None of this will be easy but we do nevertheless have some things going for us. Our radically changed group of MSPs means that while we have lost many experienced old hands we have gained an equal number of new people eager to bring fresh ideas to the table. We have the luxury of opposition – a full five years free from the day-to-day challenges of government which so often sap governing parties’ energy: five years in which to engage in the same productive deep thought and debate we are seeing within the UK party at the moment.
If we go about policymaking in this way – if we listen to what different people across the party with different perspectives have to say, if we spend time examining what works rather than what will grab us some headlines, if we draw on the rich seams of experience that we have access to and if we create the space for different ideas and approaches to improving life for our people to compete – then we will go into the 2016 election with a manifesto that not only will be more likely to win us power but that will allow us to change Scotland radically for the better when it does so.