The need to be political
Social justice will define Scottish politics long after the constitutional debate is over, says PAUL DEVLIN
As James Kelly has said elsewhere on the site, the review and debate on the future direction of the party is clearly gathering pace and a place to share our views is useful and thought provoking, hence this post directly referring to pieces written by others.
First of all, I have to declare an interest/seek the sympathy vote (delete as applicable): Tom Harris is my constituency MP and I don’t think I am betraying any confidences in saying that in a chat before our CLP meeting on May 12, Tom asked me if I thought he had been too harsh in his Labour Uncut piece in which he stated that Labour deserved to lose on May 5. My reply was that, on the contrary, as well as it being needed to be said, we needed to realise that the same was true in 2007 and that the soul-searching we are currently undertaking should have been initiated then.
Between 2007 and 2011, it was our responsibility to present ourselves as a credible government in waiting. The result on May 5 and the associated Scottish Election Study showed how lacking in credibility we were. An oppositionalist tone on issues such as minimum pricing of alcohol (where our argument was that such a policy would simply increase supermarket profits, when a few months later we voted against a levy on such profits) hurt us deeply. I am also afraid to say that the tone of press releases since the election on proposed sectarianism legislation and the recent pictures of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi do not suggest that we have learnt our lesson.
In a recent piece for LabourHame, Tom emphasised just how radical the 1999 devolution settlement was. This is true and understandably, the first Labour-led administrations focused on legislative and executive competency. However, in hindsight perhaps they did not articulate enough of a positive vision of the type of country a devolved Scotland would/could/should be. Moreover we weren’t politically aware enough when making decisions such as the proposed closure of A&E departments in Ayr and Monklands. As well as this (rather bizarrely) being allowed by us to be a factor in the 2011 election, I was reminded when following the watering-down/u-turn on Andrew Lansley’s health-reforms in England of the question Tony Blair asked successive health secretaries when they had outlined suggested reforms: “What are the politics of this?”
At various meetings over the last few weeks, I have heard a number of party colleagues, be it councillors, MSPs, MPs and party members, say, almost with surprise, that this SNP Government is overtly political. Of course it is and that is a lesson we need to learn if we are to return to power.
Others on the site have put forward their own vision, from a focus on child poverty (and the recent statistics on pupils in Glasgow leaving school with no qualifications is something that should shame all of us) to “devolution-plus”. The one issue I see with the latter is that not only have the SNP already seen the attractiveness of this (as Greg Williams acknowledges) but have actually made most of the running, making us appear behind the curve in relation to an enhanced devolution settlement for Scotland.
While it single-handedly won’t offer us a vision, one thing is clear, it is time for the next leader of the party in Scotland to be just that (and not simply leader of the MSP group at Holyrood). It was instructive that during last year’s UK leadership hustings, most (if not all) candidates relayed an anecdote whereby when they referred to Iain Gray as the Scottish Labour leader they were quickly corrected. As much as it may pain us to say it (and I have to confess a grudging respect for the First Minister), a politician that will go down in history as the first to lead an SNP administration and the first First Minister to command a majority at Holyrood is not one that can be easily dismissed, no matter how much we wish it so. Our party structures, while not offering a full solution, must enable, rather than hinder, our alternative as First Minister.
We must also be aware that Alex Salmond will not only aim to exploit the timing of the referendum on independence (aware that any attempts by Westminster parties to force his hand only plays to his advantage) but that he will have a Plan B (and C and D for that matter), whether it be an offer of ‘devolution max” on the question paper or even a strategy for after a “No” vote. As I say, I very much doubt any of these strategies will involve him standing-down.
Finally, back to a vision of 21st century Scotland. As I referred to above, the recent statistics on children leaving school with no qualifications blights our country, as does the (undeniably related) fact that 20 per cent of children live in relative poverty and 10 per cent in absolute poverty. It’s maybe not a vision as such, but with targeted policies such as Nurture classes (like everything else) facing a funding squeeze we need to ensure that social justice is and remains at the forefront of our policies. It is after all what fundamentally differentiates us from the SNP and ultimately something that should take precedence when the constitutional debates (both within the party and on independence) have long ceased to be at the forefront of our minds. The people of Scotland, rightly, will expect no less of any Scottish Labour party.
Paul Devlin is a Labour Party activist in Glasgow South CLP.