‘It’s not Left or Right – it’s forward!’
Labour failed on May 5 because we were seen as the party only of those left behind, writes IAN SMART
So, Tom Harris and a few like minded souls set up this website and I essentially force my contributions upon them. The problem then is what to say. That’s not a meaningless observation. The interesting thing in the post election period has been how so many people from diverse lefty corners of the blogosphere have been so quick to come to the same conclusions as to the reasons for our defeat.
Obviously, there are the exceptions, still trotting or blaring out the old mantras that it was because we weren’t left wing enough or right wing enough. Good luck to them. There, however, seems to be a remarkable consensus elsewhere that the true reasons were that we weren’t positive enough, competent enough or Scottish enough.
Hopefully, if LabourHame flourishes, it will be in the development of how these shortcomings might be overcome. So that’s where I’d like to start.
Having been given the opportunity of a wider audience, I don’t intend to use it simply to repeat what I’ve already said on my rather sad and lonely personal blog. Those interested can click on the link. Rather, I’d like to address what we might mean by positive.
As a political project, the Labour Party has been a success. Neil Kinnock probably expressed this best when he asked rhetorically why he was the first Kinnock for a thousand years to go to University but there are any number of other examples: people no longer endure serious illness for want of the resources to seek medical treatment; generally, they no longer live in substandard housing or, indeed, enjoy no career opportunity other than that followed by their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. These are our achievements. But it is neither enough in modern times to expect the electorate to support us for fear that such days will return or indeed expect them to support us out of simple gratitude for battles won long before they were alive. I live in a mining area. There are people here who would never vote anything but Labour, as the party that nationalised the mines. But they are all now over 80. A majority of the electors, even here, have never seen a coal mine other than on the telly, never mind enjoy an appreciation of what nationalisation meant.
The Scottish Labour Party took a particular perverse pride in never being entirely signed up to the new Labour project but in reality we benefited from it. Patently, we got votes in 1997 that we had not secured in 1992, let alone 1983. I’ve never liked Blair but anybody who suggests that the victory (at least in ’97) was “despite him” is, frankly, deranged. We also, however, benefited at that moment from a peculiarly Scottish phenomenum; that Labour in Scotland had become not just the party of the working class but also, very much, of the educated middle class. Donald Dewar, John Smith, Sam Galbraith, Gordon Brown and any number of others were people who could have been successful, indeed already had been successful, in life without ever having been involved in politics. And who could, in that capacity, have been our colleagues, even our friends. They made it respectable to be a Labour supporter, not incompatible with personal success and, coupling that with their commitment to a Scottish Parliament, allowed Labour to become the national party of Scotland, as it undoubtedly was for the next ten years.
The problem was that at the same time there was an alternative narrative, and a seductive one, that all of this was because Scotland was a naturally more left wing country than England. It is not.
The demography of Scotland undoubtedly gave it strongholds of organised Labour in greater proportion than those south of the border (although not, it should be noticed, in Wales). And there always was the inheritance of the Scottish enlightenment, indeed of Scottish Reformation, whereby there was a liberally inclined middle class with a particular commitment to education with whom it was possible for these strongholds to make common cause.
Nonetheless, Scots were always and have always been economically aspirational in their personal lives. Until the mid seventies, at least, achievement of that aspiration, or even the possibility of that achievement, was regarded as incompatible with continued allegiance to the Labour Party. That was behind the first (“It’s Scotland’s Oil”) surge of the SNP, reflected particularly in the strength of that wave in the new towns. Moving out meant moving up. And moving up meant (politically) moving on.
Now, leftist critics will say, the SNP threw this pearl away by voting to bring down the Labour government in 1979, suddenly revealing to these aspirational voters that they had been the victim of a “false consciousness” and returning them “back home”. But that is only half the story. The SNP undoubtedly imploded in 1979 but, while Labour did recover, so, indeed so much more so, did the Scottish Tories. And one suspects the latter did so not just because their supporters realised that the SNP were “serious” about independence (and thus therefore not to be trusted with a tactical, anti-Labour, vote) but also because Thatcherism, in its pre-imperial phase, held a certain attraction for a significant section of the Scottish electorate.
By 1983, things had changed again. In the midst of the disaster of that election, we did, admittedly, do… alright… But, as the slow collapse of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party began, the big gainers, even in urban Scotland, were not us but rather the SDP/Liberal alliance. Aspirational voters were still, clearly, unwilling to lend us their support, even as they turned away from the deaf ear Thatcher herself had turned to Scotland.
’87 was different. It is not always the economy, stupid. At the high point of Thatcherism, Scotland and England did undoubtedly start to significantly divide in their voting patterns. While at the time many, myself included, attributed this entirely to the National question, with the benefit of hindsight it is clear not just that Labour had benefited from that feature but also that it had positioned itself to do so.
The swing voters of Scotland had not suddenly woken up to their working class heritage. For that moment at least, those of us them who wished to move on personally nonetheless felt they had similarly minded compatriots in the higher ranks of Scottish Labour. Because while we might not, even then, have been prepared to say so expressly, our leadership was visible example of that being the case.
So we won, and won big, and for ten or more years, through the creation of the Scottish Parliament and beyond, continued to do so. But our own false history contained within it the seeds of our own destruction.
One of my oldest political allies is Francis Aloysius McAveety, who lost Shettleston on May 5. Quite literally, a child of the working class east end made good. A guy who rose, thanks to his mother, from a very difficult upbringing to obtain the Highers to go to University; to become a teacher in his own community; to displace an old and tarnished incumbent to become a Glasgow City councillor; to then sweep out a discredited regime to become leader of the council itself. And then to become an MSP.
All the while bringing up a family of his own.
Nonetheless, on 5 May he lost one of our safest seats.
He lost not because of any personal failing but bizarrely because of his own achievements and those of so many of his generation. Because his support for the redevelopment of the east end had made it possible that people who wanted to get on in their own lives, as Frank had in his, could now do so without leaving the east end, living in the new modern, owner occupied, estates. Estates Frank himself had fought to create. Asked to explain his defeat, Frank himself explains that those who live in these estates, people whose personal life path followed a similar path to Frank’s own, didn’t vote for him. Why? Because for all Labour’s own achievements, in our own rhetoric we portrayed ourselves not as the party who had helped them move on but rather the party that was concerned only with those left behind.
Now, our party was set up to help those left behind. But for us to succeed their numbers must inevitably get smaller. That is not a cause for regret – quite the contrary – but it does require us to wake up to the fact that victory at the polls has long since moved on from encompassing the simple ability to sing the old songs to the old audience. All the more so when that song only ever worked initially when sung in harmony.
Ironically, The SNP are still regarded with some suspicion by the established middle class who have a natural distaste for their more braveheartish features. Thus Labour’s survival in Eastwood. The SNP have however secured a virtual monopoly of aspirational working class and first generation middle class voters. That is not their achievement. To accomplish it they simply had to be “not Labour” while at the same time also being “not the Tories”. On any view, that is our failure.
In developing a positive agenda, how to win back these voters is where we need to start.
So certainly we need to be more competent and more Scottish. But the starting point is to be more positive. It is no accident that so many socialist publications, in so many different languages, bear the common title “Forward!” Let’s get going in that direction.
Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart