Adapting to a changed environment: redeeming the promise of Scottish Labour
“The answer is to rely on youth — not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.” – Robert Kennedy
First, can I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today
It is good to be here, not only because as a former member of Scottish Labour Students I have a great respect and admiration for Scottish Young Labour and Labour students, but because we gather at a time of great challenge for our Party.
And I honestly believe that each of you in this room has a real and significant contribution to make to our fightback.
None of us should ever forget why we joined the Labour Party but you here have made that choice most recently, whether through anger at a system that still denies so many to fulfil their true potential; an equal desire to secure wider justice across the world; or a belief that the democratic politics of the left remains a worthy and worthwhile calling.
I suspect, in this audience, there will be little love lost for the SNP but I would surprised if there are any here who saw that hostility alone as sufficient reason to join the Labour Party. We have our own beliefs and objectives and oppose the SNP only insofar as their existence obstructs these. We should never lose sight of our own wider goals or the Nationalists ultimate irrelevance to that struggle.
So, today, without flattery, but with the imperative of necessity, I commend to you the words of Robert Kennedy:
“the answer is to rely on youth — not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”
Because to appeal for your support, ideas and energy at this time reflects something fundamental about how I believe politics works, and how political parties renew themselves.
And to redeem the promise of Scottish Labour we need the renewal that has, frankly, been too long postponed.
And to chart our way forward we need to be honest with ourselves about those attributes of our party, as well as those external factors, that combined to explain our defeat last May.
Be clear. Our task is not to kick over the traces, pick over the entrails, or debate a better yesterday. It is now to move forward and build a better tomorrow.
And, so in trying to reflect honestly upon that defeat, it seems to me that one of the reasons we ceased to be the repository of enough people’s hopes for a better tomorrow was a coming together of two aspects of our Party’s culture: one British certainly, but regrettably one also wholly Scottish in origin.
The Labour Party I joined back in 1982 revelled in an atmosphere of internal conflict and at times chaos where members could virtually do and say anything while suggesting that their view should be the true view of the Party.
It was stimulating, certainly, and it obliged you to work out what you thought, but it spelled disaster when, at four or five year intervals, it encountered the expectations of the wider electorate choosing a Party of Government.
So at a British level, in the 1990’s, we replaced old Labour’s culture of dissent with New Labour’s culture of discipline.
From 1994 onwards our UK Leadership embraced a centrally driven modernisation that contributed to three election victories. It reflected the yearning of members and supporters who were impatient with repeated electoral failure, and had grown tired of old and sterile debates.
Yet, if we are honest, what was missed in this journey from dissent to discipline was debate.
And over time we have paid a heavy price for a culture that was not open enough to, discourse and discussion.
We solved the old problem of disunity and division, at the cost of contributing to a new problem of trust.
But let us not, for a moment, blame our 2011 defeat on British Labour politics alone, as too many did in the aftermath of our defeat in 2007.
For in our landslide defeat in May the fault lay also here in Scotland itself. There was, as so often, a distinctive Scottish dimension.
Scottish Labour purported to have no requirement to embrace New Labour as we did not need it to defeat the Tories, without recognising that the very reason for that lack of requirement was a new, distinctively Scottish, dimension to our politics which threw up different but equally difficult challenges.
And as I argued last month in the Andrew Williamson Memorial lecture in Stirling:
“This comfort in old orthodoxies contributed to the party’s disorientation and vulnerability when we came under attack from a different direction, and from a more nimble opponent.”
These twin factors – the residue of New Labour’s culture of discipline and the residue of a sense within Scottish Labour that renewal was not necessary for electoral success – over the years helped set us on the path that led to such a seismic defeat in May.
It was a long time in coming, and needs to be understood not simply in relation to the familiar failures of organisation or campaigning, but also in relation to the realm of ideas. And it is about that realm of ideas that I want to direct my remarks today.
Next month, we will elect a new Leader. Their task will be to renew our Party and in that task they will have my full support.
But renewal is a task for more than just the individual at the top. It cannot be achieved by one figure, but needs the contribution of all.
Because as Robin Cook described it in ‘Point of Departure’ “Political parties do not achieve renewal by shuffling staff in their Leaders office, but by changing the culture, priorities and direction of the organisation.”
So in that spirit of shared responsibility, let me take the opportunity of addressing you today to explain some of the steps I think we need to take, as Scottish Labour, to set that new direction.
My starting point is a book I read last month which is not about Scotland, but is about America. Entitled “That Used to Be Us”, written by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum it is primarily about how America has fallen behind the emerging powers of India and China.
And the central argument of the book is that the greatest risk to a country, just like a natural species, is to misread its environment.
The authors argue powerfully that the end of the cold war and the challenges that followed brought on a fundamental change in the global environment to which America failed to fully adapt.
But the other message of the book is that, thankfully nations, like individuals, and unlike species, can understand their circumstances and deliberately make the adjustments necessary to flourish in them.
The book goes on to describe how even formerly great companies can misread the environment they helped to create, and so fail to adapt and fall behind.
Let me read a quote they cite from Samuel Palmisano, the chairman and CEO of IBM, explaining the mistakes that almost brought down the company.
“You spend more time arguing amongst yourselves over a shrinking pie than looking to the future….[and so] you miss the big turn that you have entered, even a turn that your own company invented.
“We missed the Personal Computer. It isn’t like we didn’t have the technology. We invented the PC, but we missed what it really was. At the time, everybody [at IBM] thought it was just kind of a neat little personal productivity tool. But instead it became a new platform. And we missed it.”
It wasn’t until the leadership, first of Louis Gerstner and then of Palmisano, that IBM got back on track by relentlessly scrutinising itself and the world in which it was operating.
I have to tell you, when I read this quote it taught me something about our Party’s recent history. IBM delivered the PC. Scottish Labour delivered Devolution. But just like IBM had in the 1980’s, in the years after 1999 we failed to fully comprehend how devolution altered the environment in which we operated.
And as a result, it was the Scottish National Party that sought to claim ownership of both the rising sense of prosperity that the Labour Government created but also the, pride, and possibility that devolution contributed to Scotland’s own sense of itself over the same period.
So, to now renew ourselves, not only do we have to figure out the steps that we as a Party should take to show that we understand the environment of Scottish politics today, but we must also identify the steps we need to take to adapt to this new environment.
Last month, at Stirling University, I set out my thinking on why we find ourselves where we are today.
Today, I want to share with you my thinking on how we move forward.
The first step I think we need to take, as my remarks in Stirling made clear, is to be understood by the Scottish people as being motivated by the desire to build a better nation. But we also need to define what, in 2011, and the years ahead, we mean by a better nation.
People need to trust that our motivation is not a sense of grievance, or worse, of frustrated entitlement, but an earnest commitment to building and contributing to the Common Weal. The continued belief that there is no dichotomy between the advancement of the individual and the advancement of Society. Indeed, that for us, the true advancement of one can only go hand in hand with the other.
And one of the aspects of Scottish political culture that gets in the way of that message being heard is the sense of antipathy that marks the relationship between the Labour and the SNP.
I understand how deep these feeling run. In my first campaign for elected office, in Perth in 1995, I well remember being spat upon – literally – by nationalist supporters.
And, as a brother, more than as a politician, I will never forget how the nationalists – from researchers, to MSPs and Ministers – treated my sister during her time as Leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament
But I also know that the deep feelings felt between the parties also reflect an underlying electoral truth: That Scottish Labour and the Scottish Nationalists regard each other as a mortal threat – each seeing the other as the only Party in Scotland strong enough to stop the achievement of their party’s goals.
So what is to be done?
Here my thoughts turn to my friend and colleague Philip Gould whose funeral I attended on Tuesday this week.
Philip and I worked together for more than two decades. In 1999 he helped me devise the “Divorce is an Expensive Business” campaign. So he knew about Nationalism.
But Philip was first, and last, a Labour man, who knew what it took for Labour to win.
And before he died, he wrote this:
“If you are blind to the merits of those you oppose or the arguments you disagree with, then you start to die intellectually, and if you are a political party you begin the long – or sometimes not so long – slide to electoral defeat. You only win power if you face up to the reality which has kept you from it, and you only sustain power if you renew. And renewal involves honesty, curiosity and courage.”
Put more bluntly, if the Scottish people believe that we hate the SNP more than we love Scotland we will continue to lose.
For Scottish Labour to win we must be more than the Anti-Nat party: we must be the what we have always been: from Keir Hardie, through the red Clydesiders; Tom Johnston; John Smith and Donald Dewar, the Party of Scottish Home Rule.
And that calling reflects the second aspect of the environment of Scottish politics today to which we must adapt – the role of constitutional change in our politics.
As I argued in Stirling, a strong commitment to home rule within the United Kingdom is part of Scottish Labour’s DNA.
It is a matter of great pride to me that it was our Party that not only participated in the Scottish Constitutional Convention but that legislated to deliver Scotland’s first devolved parliament.
In recent years, through Calman, and now in the Scotland Act we have shown time and again our ability our continued willingness to adapt this devolved model in ways that strengthen our system of governance. But we should never allow any confusion to arise that in this we are fighting a rearguard action. We are fighting for what we believe in across a wider political agenda. For democracy at the appropriate level, whether that be at Holyrood, Westminster or indeed, in an ever more inter-connected Europe, Brussels.
As we all know, last May, the SNP won an outright majority of seats for the first time in Holyrood’s history. They are now pledged to hold a referendum on separation during this parliament.
So how should Scottish Labour adapt to this changed environment?
We do not share the Nationalists vision, but, in the coming referendum, we do not fear the Scottish people’s verdict.
So we should urge the SNP Government to get on with it, and put the fundamental question, plain and simple, to the people of Scotland without delay.
Let me be clear. Devolution and separation are two very different visions for our country. Devolution is not a stop on the railway line to a separate state. It is not a dilution of separation but a different vision for our country, one where partnership with our neighbours is as important as our decision to embrace home rule.
That is why I believe that the two concepts cannot be conflated into one referendum with however many options. A referendum on separation should only have one question.
But, in the run up to that referendum now promised by the Nationalists, assuming they do actually summon up the courage to go ahead, we must do more than oppose separation. We must be true to our own history and advocate devolution.
That does not and need not require simply a defence of the status quo. Indeed, the Scotland Bill now before the Westminster Parliament evidences an open minded approach as to how the architecture of devolution can be improved.
I believe that Alex Salmond will be defeated in his referendum on separation. I believe that once again it will be re-asserted that devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people. But that does not mean that the settlement itself cannot respond to circumstances.
Once again, I stress, devolution and separation are two very different concepts. We must make sure that if we look again at the devolution settlement, it is not a response to the SNP’s separation agenda, but part of a new affirmation of Scottish Labour’s agenda for our nation. Let us defeat separation and re-assert devolution in this way.
So if Scottish Labour must be pro-Scottish and not simply anti-SNP, advocates for devolution not simply defenders of the status quo, what else must we do to adapt to the environment of Scottish politics in the years ahead?
It would be easy, but wrong, to see that environment shaped simply by what is distinctive to Scotland rather than what we share in common with people in many other nations.
Yesterday, I visited a job centre in Renfrewshire where I met some of the 5,000 people in my constituency alone, currently seeking work.
The Scottish unemployment rate is running at nearly eight per cent and is much worse in some areas – in my own community it is nearly thirteen per cent.
And this conference takes place at the end of a week where youth unemployment hit one million across Britain.
Those figures are the result of slow growth in the UK, with only Greece, Portugal and growing more slowly than Britain over the last year.
At the end of the month, the Government will have to make his Autumn Statement to Parliament and try to blame all of this on the eurozone .
We need to be clear; Britain’s economic pain today is the responsibility of George Osborne, not George Papaendreou.
But in that weakened position, because of George Osborne’s misjudgements last year, we are even more exposed to a crisis in our main export markets in the eurozone.
And if this is all to reduce the deficit we saw very concerning Treasury forecasts just last week suggesting that slow growth and higher unemployment could mean over £100 billion more borrowing over this Parliament than the Chancellor planned.
I make these points to emphasise that a central and dominating question of Scottish politics in the years ahead is how can Scotland earn its living and pay its way in the world? Just as it is, not just across Scotland, or even Britain, or even Europe but as it is, and always will be, for working people across the world.
How absurd therefore for the First Minister to suggest, against that background, that elected representatives at Westminster are irrelevant to the concerns of Scotland.
Take these recent events: America’s debt ceiling negotiations and the eurozone crisis. Both are a symptom and a reflection of a global and historic shift in wealth and power from West to East, North to South.
The last 20 years have seen not only the rise of China. They have seen the growth of Brazil, India and South Africa. The world economy is being remade in the Indian-Asian-Pacific region.
So while restoring growth is important, it is only the first step on the longer journey required to establish a sustainable place in a global value chain which has seen 2 billion new workers walk onto the pitch since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
So Scottish Labour in the years ahead needs to set itself the task of once again answering the earning our living question.
As John McTernan put it recently:
“Without Tom Johnston and the hydro-board there would be no renewable energy sector of scale. Remove the development corporations and the SDA and there would be no industrial diversity. Scotland’s strengths in research, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, micro-electronics and computing (until recently), modern manufacturing and finance…”
Scottish Labour, at its best, over many decades, have been critical to Scotland generating its wealth.
The SNP’s formula of cutting corporation tax while trumpeting new reserves of North Sea Oil is not only inadequate to the task – it is an insult to intelligence.
To my mind, that approach would be selling Scotland short.
While the demand has risen in recent years, oil and gas remain volatile commodities vulnerable to price shocks.
And, the idea that Scotland should move from being too at risk from a volatile banking financial services sector to tying our whole economy to the notoriously unstable global energy markets learns none of the lessons of the last few years.
Renewable energy sources are vital for our future and can provide important sources of employment.
But we need a broader base for our future prosperity. We need a wider vision.
But this is only the start of a conversation we need to have: how else does Labour believe Scotland can pay its way and earn its living in the world?
One part of the answer, in my view, is education. Not just the pride we have in our own educational tradition but also the pride we have in those Scots who did and do go forward, in medicine, engineering, and the law, to make a distinctive contribution to the education of the wider world.
To take but one example, the Medical Royal Colleges of Glasgow and Edinburgh provide world recognised qualifications. To take the example of Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physician’s alone; they have more than 10,000 Fellows in 56 different medical specialities and across, wait for it, 91 Countries throughout the world, teaching in George Street in the New Town but also, over the internet, teaching and validating in the furthest corners of the Globe.
That hardly speaks of an institution held back by our constitutional arrangements but rather one which benefits from having ties between universities north and south of the border, and by welcoming students and academics from across Britain, Europe and the rest of the world.
Given the appropriate support, and not constantly sidetracked by a sense of constitutional grievance, Scotland can be the educational powerhouse of Europe.
Indeed, education is the only way that Scotland can compete at the top end of the value chain in so many industries.
Making huge cuts to our support, for example, for our Further Education Colleges means a step towards decline, towards lower living standards and lower value jobs.
So a key challenge for Scottish Labour in the years ahead is to set out other credible, creative and compelling answers as to how Scotland can earn its living and pay its way.
But Scottish Labour needs to offer not simply an economic prescription but also a timeless commitment to a set of ethical principles.
It was one of the founders of the Scottish Labour Party, Keir Hardie himself, who said that the definition of modernisation in which unregulated markets set the price and the conditions of labour, of land, of food and of housing was wrong.
And he spent his entire adult life “arguing and organising for the truth that human beings and nature are not commodities and that democratic politics was the way that we act together to protect our humanity.”
So Scottish Labour’s renewal must reflect not simply a concern with the actions of the state, but the ethics of a common life, in its approach to building a more socially just society even in times of economic hardship.
Those ethics of a common life are more than simply an advocacy of abstract values like freedom and equality.
As one of my colleagues described it recently to a welsh audience:
“Distinctive Labour values are built on relationships, in practices that strengthen an ethical life. Practices like solidarity, where we actively share out fate with other people. Reciprocity, which combines equality and freedom. Mutuality, where we share the benefits and burdens of association.”
It is an inevitable consequence of their political aim – of separate statehood – that the Scottish Nationalists focus on the apparatus of the state.
Our vision is not about empowering the apparatus of the state. It is about empowering people and, in particular, those who have never had power, personal or collective, in their communities.
So Scottish Labour should aim to also engage directly in the life of our communities. We must aim to establish, nurture and sustain the relationships and a common life forged through common action for the common good.
In response to a previous Labour defeat, in very tough economic times in 1931, the great RH Tawney wrote an essay entitled “The Choice Before the Labour Party”. He argued that Labour needed lacked a creed that could unite the party in sustained democratic action. He wrote that our creed should be based “not on transcendental doctrines nor rigid formulae but a common view of the life proper to human beings, and the steps required at any moment more nearly to attain it.”
A life proper to human beings: that should be our compass and our goal as we seek develop policies towards the deep social challenges Scotland faces –from housing, to education, public health, and to law and order.
On any scenario, given the present economic situation, public expenditure will be constrained in the immediate years ahead. It is therefore vital that Scottish Labour looks imaginatively and urgently at what new approaches can advance our vision of a socially just Scotland.
Government action is necessary but alone is not sufficient to build the good society here in Scotland.
We need to reclaim and re-enact our commitments to community, to forge a society in which people hold the market, the state, and each other to account.
To remind people that the greatest hope we have is each other and that this is not incompatible with hope for ourselves and our families.
So Scottish Labour, in the years ahead, must be pro Scottish and not simply anti SNP.
We must be advocates of devolution and not simply the defenders of the status quo.
Clear on how as Scotland we can earn our living, and how in Scotland we can offer a life proper to human beings even in the tough times ahead.
For Labour to renew and win again the right option for us is not to become more like the SNP, it is to become more like ourselves.
Our difficulties are not that we’re failing to keep up with SNP positions, but that in recent years we’ve strayed from our own best positions.
So, my call of our Party is not to disavow our deepest beliefs – but to become a better expression of them.
Proud of our past, but neither living in it, nor expecting to live off it.
Clear on how Scotland can earn its living and how Scotland can offer a life proper to human beings.
Speaking not just of Scotland’s challenges, but also of its opportunities.
Worthy, once more, of the Nation’s trust
That is the way ahead for Scottish Labour.
Douglas Alexander is the Shadow Foreign Secretary and served in the last Labour government as Secretary of State for Scotland, Transport and International Development. Follow Douglas on Twitter at @DAlexanderMP.