Peter Russell writes to Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard offering his support and setting out a proposed strategy to create a Scottish Labour Party that will be relevant and influential in the decades to come.
You will recall that I wrote to you back when Kez resigned from the leadership and that I urged you to stand as her potential replacement. You may also have seen my letter in the Herald shortly after, in which I hoped that you might become the Scottish Alan Johnson, just as Anas Sarwar might have become Scotland’s Sadiq Khan. That Scottish Labour is now in a very different place is clearer than ever since the European Elections; however, I believe that it would be as unfair to place all the blame at your door as it would have been to blame Anas if he had won the leadership.
The reasons for our crushing defeat in that campaign are numerous. Some of them are structural and some of them are tactical. There are of course others who will be able to see more clearly than I can what brought about such a catastrophe, and I will limit my own comments to saying we have no-one to blame but ourselves. A party which represents the message “for the many not the few” in the context of its position as the party of devolution or “the best of both worlds” must have some kind of genius for suicide if it fails to get that message across.
What I wish to concentrate on is how we move forward, or how Scottish Labour can be a worthwhile project again: one which has real relevance to the people of Scotland.
Before setting that out in more detail, I would establish that the siren song of supporting independence is just that. If you want a (grim) laugh, it is worth contemplating where we would be if the New Nats who joined the SNP in the wake of the 2014 referendum had had the gumption to join Scottish Labour in their tens of thousands instead: we would have been an independence party. However, they were too stupid to do so, and we can judge what happens to SNP-lite by the fate of the Scottish Greens in the Euro Elections. In country after country across Europe, Green parties hoovered up votes from Social Democrat parties, but not in Scotland, where the evidence was that if people wanted to vote for nationalists, they would go to the organ-grinder not the monkey. There is no future for Scottish Labour in being a fading shadow of the SNP.
At the same time, it would be highly dangerous to hang on to the idea of Scottish Labour as the natural home of Scottish voters, or as the cultural party of Scotland. That was for many years an illusion created by the FPTP system, and we have to admit to our position: we are no longer a credible party of government at Holyrood. It is more likely that any future chance that we have of influence would be, for example, as a junior partner in a multi-party minority government or as a minor player delivering confidence and supply to such a government.
As a result, we need to look at what roles we will be able to play, and how we can achieve a position of influence. In a conventional strategy-building way, we can look at these in terms of the old acronym VSOP – Vision, Strategy and Operational Programmes.
Our Vision is unproblematic, as it is established and clear, as stated above: “for the many not the few” “in the best of both worlds”.
As far as Strategy to support this Vision are concerned, Labour needs to be bold and honest. This means seeing that if we are not going to be influential as we once were in terms of votes and Holyrood and Westminster seats, we need to exercise influence in terms of ideas and policies.
Observers of the current SNP administration can see that they are in truth totally hopeless in a whole range of devolved areas: education, economic development and employment, transport and infrastructure, energy and resources are all being neglected in favour of their independence obsession. The country’s policy community is crying out for new ideas and a new practical radicalism that would make Scotland again the envy of the world in some of these areas.
So our Operational Programmes should be a new approach from Labour, that would see us making common cause with other parties and bodies within and outwith Holyrood.
For example, on transport we could combine with the Green Party and local councils as well as trade unions to create a plan for sustainable urban and rural public transport. We could work with the same parties on green energy plans for Scotland. Likewise, we could combine with the Tory Party and business organisations and trade unions to seek to build a business environment that works both for employers and employees. ‘Big tent’ partnership working of this kind could also play an invaluable role in post-CFP fisheries and post-CAP farming policy.
Such collaboration would also be a return to the non-adversarial politics envisaged by Donald Dewar and the architects of Holyrood.
It is also vital that we combine with the Liberal Democrats and COSLA to create a double-devolution plan that returns power to local voters, if only because the Scottish Government cannot deliver all of its current responsibilities, let alone more after Brexit. So a transfer of powers onward to local councils and regional consortia makes complete sense in terms of accountability and practicality.
At the same time, such a development would help us, as Scottish Labour, to play to our biggest electoral strength; we must be clear that we are still a major force in local government.
For too long, Scottish Labour councils have been regarded as either a nursery for up and coming MSPs or as a dumping ground for those on a downward path. Our councillors are now our most important resource in delivering services for the many not the few. We should be celebrating their work and encouraging more activists to take on the unique role of citizen-politician that being a councillor offers.
Never again should local councillors be the poor relation amongst our elected members. Scottish Labour can and must be the party of Scottish local government: its leading light and its leading advocate. We must also dump the idea that Scottish Government knows better than local councillors when it comes to local agreements and coalitions.
In the short term, we also need to look at how we are represented at Holyrood, if our aim of being the party of influence through ideas is to be achieved.
We need to take a good hard look at those we send there and whether they can do that job. We can all see that some of our best MSPs in the past were experts in the own field before their election: Sam Galbraith springs to mind, as does Dr Richard Simpson. Both of these are sadly gone – one deceased and the other retired – but since then do we have one single eminent scientist, one single prominent academic? Or even one single trade union General Secretary or Poverty NGO Chief Executive? Who are our outstanding engineers, doctors, farmers, musicians, and authors?
In another world, we would have Professor Adam Tomkins, hooked in during his trajectory from the Scottish Socialist Party to the Tories, as our spokesperson on the constitution; and Professor Angus Armstrong (rejected by a selection meeting) as our spokesperson on economics. There must be others out there would do a better job than the current crop, and who would have the authority to command respect beyond our party and beyond Holyrood for the policies they head up. However, to recruit them to Scottish Labour and to Holyrood, we must be clear that their contribution will be taken seriously and that we will support them to the full in the debating chamber and in our policies.
Our next MSP intake must be built on the confidence that we have experts put into the Parliament by the party through its regional lists – which will include these expert voices, and also those who have shown political expertise (such as Anas Sarwar and Jackie Bailie) and campaigning expertise (such as Monica Lennon) We already have someone who actually ran a business (Daniel Johnson) – but we need more from the worlds of manufacturing and high technology.
The prize on offer is for you to lead a group of experts in a Parliament of Nobodies (just look at the Scottish Government benches.) And if CLPs wish to get mediocrities elected, they can be free to select them as candidates and campaign to get them elected if they can.
Richard, you are well-known for your knowledge and appreciation of the achievements of Keir Hardie a century and more ago. So you will know that he set the UK’s progressive politics on a different path when he saw that the old Liberal agenda of the mercantile class was not serving the working man and woman.
It is amply clear now that Scottish Labour’s agenda is increasingly irrelevant and needs a radical overhaul, possibly as great as that delivered by Hardie. You have the opportunity to start that process.
I hope that you can succeed in doing so, and indeed completing it. I also hope that you take this letter in the spirit that it is intended – as a proposed strategy to create a Scottish Labour Party that will be relevant and influential in the decades to come.
Yours in comradeship,