How Scottish Labour can build its own identity
The party north of the border needs to assert its independence from London and acquire some big names to join the fight, says ANDREW McFADYEN
Donald Dewar’s reply to the Queen at the opening of the Scottish Parliament was one of the great Scottish political speeches. His words captured the optimism of all of us who had campaigned for devolution. He said: “There is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future.” Even at his gloomiest, Dewar probably never imagined that in just over a decade the SNP would form a majority government and his own Glasgow Anniesland constituency would be among those that fell to the Nationalists.
In May’s Scottish election, Iain Gray led his party to its lowest share of the vote since 1923. The scale of the defeat shocked everyone involved. The question now is what can Scottish Labour do to recover? Ed Miliband has asked the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, to lead a “root and branch” review into what went wrong and how it can be fixed. He is astute enough to know that without radical change the party will be out of office for many more years to come.
Scottish Labour needs to assert its independence. Alex Salmond is a much tougher opponent than anyone the party has faced in the past because he shares the same social democratic values and people know that nobody in London, or anywhere else, tells him what to do.
The first challenge for whoever replaces Iain Gray when he stands down in the autumn is to be seen as their own man or woman. The best way of signalling this to the electorate is for Scottish Labour to become a free-standing party that belongs to its members and supporters. It would mean that officials from Walworth Road, in London, no longer have a say on the appointment of staff and the party has complete control over its own agenda. Although this may seem like a novel arrangement, it happened before when the old Independent Labour Party maintained its own structures and programme, but its MPs took the Labour whip in the House of Commons.
Another reason Labour lost votes in May’s election is that many people believe the party sends its best talent to Westminster and those at Holyrood are second-raters. This wasn’t true when Dewar was first minister. He had more authority than anyone else in Scottish politics and led a group of MSPs that included experienced operators, such as Sam Galbraith, and talented newcomers like Susan Deacon and Wendy Alexander. All of them have moved on. Nobody in the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament today carries the same weight as big-hitters at Westminster like Douglas Alexander or Jim Murphy.
The solution is that the best of the new generation, like Anas Sarwar and Greg McClymont, should be encouraged to switch to Holyrood.
Headhunting the brightest talent from Westminster, and elsewhere, would show that Labour is taking devolution seriously. It would also make sense for the party to move its headquarters away from John Smith House, in Glasgow, to a new base in Scotland’s capital. Edinburgh is now the centre of Scotland’s political life and that is where party staff should be based.
The new leader’s biggest task will be to set out a credible vision for turning Scotland into a better country. Scottish Labour has a rich radical heritage, but what does the party of Jimmy Maxton, John P Mackintosh and Bill Speirs stand for today? One of the biggest problems is that since devolution the parliamentary group has increasingly defined itself in opposition to the SNP and lost the ability to articulate its own values.
When, for example, did Scottish Labour become a Unionist party? This is not a description that Keir Hardie would have recognised. He was a socialist who believed that working people needed representation in parliament and a founding member of the Scottish Home Rule Association. If Scottish Labour is to move forward it needs to be imaginative about pushing the boundaries of devolution and show that it is possible within the current constitutional settlement to implement meaningful and progressive reforms.
Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol is a good example. We have the eighth highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world and one of the fastest growing rates of liver disease. 1,500 people die every year because of problem drinking. The SNP’s plans for minimum unit pricing have attracted powerful support from the health lobby, but one of the problems with the policy is that it would result in a multi-million-pound windfall for the big supermarkets. Alex Salmond is demanding control over Alcohol Duty to help him claw back the extra cash to spend on public services.
In fact, the Scottish Government doesn’t have to wait for more powers from Westminster. They are failing to act and pursuing a needless row with the Treasury when the money could be raised now. The Alcohol Act passed by the last Scottish Parliament included provision for a Social Responsibility Levy. If the levy was imposed on all alcohol sales at a rate of, say, 3p per unit it would put approximately 27p on a bottle of wine and raise £150 million each year for local councils.
Scottish Labour should be arguing for the Social Responsibility Levy to be used to ensure that drink is sold at a socially responsible price and the proceeds used to prevent cuts in vital services like education and health.
Scots have now voted in two successive elections to reject the culture and values of the Conservative-led Government at Westminster. Scottish Labour needs to show that it is willing to use its mandate to work with the SNP and the Greens to create jobs and protect our public services.
The biggest issue of the SNP’s second term in office will be the independence referendum.
Scottish Labour needs to accept that Alex Salmond’s majority in the Scottish Parliament gives him a mandate for a referendum and it will almost certainly now go ahead. The way that the party fights the campaign will be important for its reputation.
Most Scots don’t want separation, but neither do they wish to hear that we, unlike all other peoples in the world, are not capable of running our own affairs. The process of becoming an independent state might be disruptive, but it is self-evident that Scotland would govern itself as well as any other small European country.
The case for remaining part of the UK should be built on the positive benefits that Scotland and England both gain from sharing risk and supporting each other as part of a bigger Union, not negative scaremongering. The challenge laid down by Donald Dewar in his speech at the Scottish Parliament’s opening ceremony was for Scottish Labour’s MSPs to be “a voice for the future”. It is optimism that wins modern elections.
Andrew McFadyen is a former senior media adviser to the Scottish Labour Party. He is writing a PhD thesis on the creation of the Scottish Parliament. This article was first published in The Scotsman.