JOHN O’DONNELL warns that a left turn will lead only to more defeats for Scottish Labour


”Welcome to politics, son,” said an eminent and well-respected regional councillor when a young, new and bounding-with-energy 23-year-old attended his first Annual General Meeting of the Constituency Labour Party. What I had just experienced was a Machiavellian-like coup d’etat that removed the sitting constituency secretary and put in place the one that would steer the constituency’s re-selection of its sitting Member of Parliament. As he turned to walk away, I grabbed his arm and said: ”No! This isn’t politics. This is what we’ve made politics!” And I walked away.

I hope throughout this contribution to look at our party, both in Scotland and UK-wide, to look at the past while focusing on the future. My reason for beginning with a story is fundamental to where I think Labour is today; a belief that ‘we’ make politics and the electorate simply did not understand us, but if they did they would have certainly voted for us, therefore, it’s not our fault but theirs. For me, the belief that politics revolves around us could not be further from the truth. Unless we accept that we have moulded our party and our politics into an irrelevance in people’s lives then I believe that we will continue to experience election defeats in a way that we thought we had left behind on 2nd May 1997.

It is not my intention to go into specific policy areas, though there may be the occasional reference here and there. My reason for this is that without root and branch reform of the party, we will be planting policy seeds on land that the public has quite clearly rejected and not to acknowledge this would be a big mistake. Many of my colleagues have adopted a direct approach to policy areas. My different emphasis is designed not to impugn their contribution but rather is a different interpretation of the reasons we lost and what we need to do to begin to put things right. I do not believe the public turned against us simply because the clock ran out but because they did not, and still do not, trust us. We have a party structure whereby we rarely trust each other so why on earth should the public trust us? It doesn’t matter whether the policy is right or not; if you are not trusted or if you lack credibility, decency and integrity then why on earth should the public trust you?

The one thing I hear again and again from natural labour supporters who voted for the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections is that they felt the incumbent government was trustworthy, credible, decent and had integrity in as far as they were prepared to act in a fair and responsible way without taking the public for granted. In furtherance of this point we regularly read, see and hear stories of elected representatives who brief against other representatives. People try to undermine others, yet they continue to hold high office still. But surely this is politics isn’t it? No! It’s what we have made politics and for me the public is sick and tired of this nonsense. A recent example was the allegation that senior members of the 2005-2010 Westminster administration were collectively plotting to remove former Prime Minister Blair. Why should the public trust us when we don’t trust each other? In reality we have councillors selected not for what they know but for who they know. We have Members of Parliament selected not for what they know but for who they know. We have Members of the Scottish Parliament selected not for what they know but for who they know. So we end up (though not entirely) with a dearth of talent that the party has little faith in, less the public should consider voting for them.

We need a restructuring of the party from the bottom up and one that genuinely reflects the modern world in which we live. I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers but what I do know is that doing nothing is not and never can be an option. In business, the expression “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” never occurs or that business would quickly become so antiquated that it would become an irrelevance. So why, as our country changes, develops and adjusts, should our party and the policies we promote not do the same? Between 1994 and 1997 at Westminster, and between 1999 and 2005 in the Scottish Parliament, we had the courage to change and to be radical. Towards the end of our time in government, firstly in 2007 in Scotland then in 2010 at Westminster, we lost that willingness to be creative, radical and to think outside traditional left-wing politics, and we paid the price for that. A modern political party needs to continue to change, develop and adjust in relation to the climate in which it operates. Failure to do so should end in the political receivers being brought in and perhaps that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Between 1994 and 1997 we had a leader at Westminster who had the passion, vision and determination to change our party. Time didn’t run out on the Conservative Party but they drifted further from the centre ground and ventured so far right that they became an irrelevance in British politics and continued to be so for the next 13 years. Our vision to change was a vision from the centre, not from the far left. The country did not ask us to go far left and would not have tolerated it. I believe firmly that they will not tolerate us doing so this time. Politics is no longer about left and right but is suspended in a modern, three-dimensional prism that transcends old beliefs and applies them to a modern setting. When Keir Hardie created our party, he welcomed anyone to it, rich or poor, as long as they shared the same values that we had. We should continue to welcome people of diverse backgrounds as the party that represents the consensus of Scottish and British life. We cannot do that from the left, however. We must do this by naturally occupying the centre ground of politics. Keir Hardie had specific ideas about what he wanted to see in a ‘New Jerusalem’. These revolved around four key area:

1)         Devolution for Scotland

2)        A national minimum wage

3)        Abolition of the House of Lords, and

4)        Prohibition of alcohol

Though the 1997-2010 government, a New Labour government, was not able to achieve all of them, it achieved 1), 2) and half of 3), with the biggest and most significant reform of the House of Lords in its history, and from a government that many people said was right wing. In actual fact it achieved more of what Keir Hardie wanted than any other Labour government. Alas, prohibition of alcohol was never going to make it to the statute book, no matter what the feeling of parliament was.

Between 2005 and 2010, in Scotland, we also began to lose our heart, our bottle and our soul. We panicked that New Labour in Scotland wasn’t working, creating a political vacuum that took us neither left nor right, but in fact all over the place. We were caught between being distinctly Scottish, distinctly British, or indeed a combination of the two. The result is that we began to lose our Scottish identity, our British identity and ended up in an election display in 2011 where the electorate had no idea who we were, where we were going and whether we could be trusted again. For me, and for us to be relevant again, we need to become radical once more, but radical from the centre not from the left. And if the left has a problem with that then they need to face up to why we lost and will continue to lose. If people aspire to be more affluent, independent, more in control of their lives and the money they earn, more demanding of the schools, hospitals and transport infrastructure that their families want to use, then our whole being, energy, enthusiasm and essence should be to achieve that for them. We should not be telling people what is good for them and not be telling them that big is best.

For me, a basic tenet of a modern socialist society, and something that must be at the heart of any labour administration, in Scotland or at Westminster, is the belief that government can be a force for good. But what it should not mean is that government has to do everything for the people. If government can use private enterprise to achieve economies of scale, reduce the affordable cost to the taxpayer (not remove the cost) and get value for money in the provision of high quality public services then why not? Of course it might mean paying more, but that’s what private enterprise is in business for. However, if my nephews are being taught in modern schools with first class facilities without significantly eating into the capital budget each year then why not? Now, I understand that there will be people in the party who will be horrified at the idea of the continuation or expansion of the Public-Private Partnership, horrified that the principles of sacred-cow-socialism, which many members would rather we returned to, was being threatened. The reality, however, is that the general public do not care one iota about pure socialism, principled socialism or modern socialism. They want the best schools, the best hospitals, the best football pitches, the best roads, the best transport infrastructure, and the best of all that they can have. And they want it without a massive hike in the public purse, without having to pay massive taxes here and now. If we can achieve this by using private enterprise then why not? Surely outcomes are more important to people these days than simply process. We need to forget the arguments about us becoming ‘more’ socialist, whatever that really means in a modern context, and become what the country wants: practical Labour for a modern age.

We lost our way in Scotland from 2005 onwards and gradually became so out of touch that by 2011 we paid the ultimate price. We argued about going further left or right or into the middle. Modern party political organisation and positioning is in a three dimensional prism where we need to consider left, right, up, down, back, forward and a multitude of other positions to finally arrive at the point where modern Scotland is a country that is more outward-looking, aspirational, educated, prosperous and aware of the need to hold political parties to account, the latter of which has found us wanting. The Labour Party elected in 1997 was ambitious, impatient, hungry, determined, economically liberal, socially diverse and willing to think beyond normal left-wing politics. If we are ever to be given the opportunity to serve in government again there are some fundamentals for me:

1)             No return to Old Labour. No going left, left, left.

2)             Be radical from the centre, constantly finding ways to renew ourselves and the country.

3)             Encapsulate into Labour thinking the idea that ‘big’ is not always ‘best’.

4)             Demand much more from our elected representatives.

5)             Reduce the size of the public purse, using capital and revenue spending to inspire people to provide for their own future.

6)             Do not abandon the principles of New labour. Find a way to make Tony Blair’s into a modern dream, desire, determination and drive so it can show people how Labour can make a difference to their lives in Scotland.

7)             And finally, we need to build trust among ourselves, if we want the public to trust us.

Politics may be the art of the possible, but in life at least give the impossible a go. Why not? If we do then the public might once again put their faith and trust in a Labour government, in Scotland and at Westminster, believing that we have their future at heart and we genuinely understand what is important to them and their families.

John O’Donnell is a member of Glasgow South CLP. He Tweets as @f00tballreferee.