Thursday, 13 August 2009

Labour's place in a devolved Scotland

As the (admittedly self-proclaimed) architects of devolution, one of the crucial repercussions of the decade since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened has been the difficulties which the Labour Party has faced in trying to find its place within the new political tapestry.

Ironically, part of the problem has arisen from the situation that out of the main Scottish political parties Labour is the only one which doesn't actually have a devolved political structure. Iain Gray is the leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament - beyond that his jurisdiction is limited, with technically no role as leader of ordinary party activists like myself. Instead, the party remains run from London, albeit with a strong core of Scottish MPs at its heart.

This has left Labour wide open to its designation as "London Labour" by the SNP, arguably the single most effective attack that the Nats have put together in the past decade. Regardless of Labour's role in devolution, regardless of the strong Scottish history to Labour, regardless of Labour's work in the Scottish Parliament, Labour is billed as being a party of outsiders, of non-Scots whose priorities lie elsewhere.

The SNP have stuck to this line of reasoning so successfully that it has become a recurrent motif in political discourse in Scotland. Sadly however the SNP cannot claim all the credit for this situation - Labour must shoulder a large part of the blame through its own actions which have added very strong credence to the attack.

There has been a very visible hostility to the Scottish Parliament from many Labour MPs in Scotland, with outright warfare often seeming to bubble beneath the surface. Successive Scottish Labour leaders have been undermined and restricted by interference from down south, leaving Salmond and his party free to crow about the Englishness of the party - and let's not pretend that this isn't the allusion which the SNP are seeking to entrench in public opinion. The 2007 Holyrood campaign ended up with three different camps interfering in the running of the campaign, each appearing to mutually loathe the others. The internal politics of the party spilled over into the vital work of trying to return a Labour administration to the Scottish Parliament, and helped to contribute to the subsequent defeat. And ever since the party has appeared adrift in the Scottish political environment, shorn of its role as the presumed political leaders of the country and not sure how to function in opposition to a canny minority government. Coupled with an evermore unpopular and aimless government in Westminster and it is no wonder that Labour's opponents in Scotland have been walking around with broad smiles on their faces.

Labour needs to stop and determine what Scottish Labour means. I am not advocating divorce from the UK wide Labour Party, however I think it is becoming ever clearer that to be successful in the devolved environment Scottish Labour must be able to demonstrate and create a clear and engaging Scottish identity. Polling since the SNP came to power repeatedly demonstrates that Scots do not seem to want independence; however they very clearly do want a Scottish Government which will fight on their behalf and use the powers (of which they wish to see more) entrusted to them to put forward a distinct Scottish agenda.

The reality is that this agenda would best fit with the Scottish Labour Party, however the party is failing to respond to the public's demands. Scotland is a diverse country and the somewhat simplistic view that it is a solely left wing nation ignores the realities of the different communities and environments existing across the nation. However, the context of Scotland does ensure that there is scope for a progressive agenda which is not achievable at Westminster under the current voting system.

The SNP have tried to bill themselves as the leaders of this progressive agenda, however the reality is that this does not sit easily with their actual political agenda. Fundamentally the current SNP administration (and admittedly it could be very different if one of the other Nationalist factions in the party came to power) is a broadly centre-right party supportive of business and less motivated by the realities of combating inequalities than by the PR positives of talking about it. They are making some attempts to address some of Scotland's shocking problems, however as with much of their rhetoric the reality is rather sparse. And needless to say, the other Holyrood parties are not filling the gap - the Tories are Tories no matter what Osbourne tells the world; the Greens are currently too small to be much more than Jiminy Cricket type figures; and the Lib Dems are, well, quite frankly pointless in the current environment, scared to work with the SNP despite the obvious shared areas of interest and uncomfortable to work with the other parties.

This would appear to leave open a perfect space for Scottish Labour to take the political agenda by the scruff of its neck and rebuild its damaged fortunes, however it is thus far failing to do so. This is because there is a lack of direction and a lack of inspiration motivating the party in Scotland - rather a fatalistic approach appears to have sunk in at points with an approach of waiting and hoping that the SNP/Salmond screw up at some point. This is not good enough.

A properly devolved Scottish Labour Party would not need to entail constant fighting or bickering with Labour on the UK level - such a situation would be counter-productive and would alienate both members and the wider public. However, Labour introduced devolution because there was a recognition that Scotland is a different context and environment to the UK as a whole and therefore requires specific responses to its particular needs and priorities. By failing to follow this awareness through into the actual functioning of the party structure, Labour ignores its own findings and creates a burden for itself which is largely self-inflicted.

It is vitally important that Labour fights to ensure that Scottishness does not become a copyrighted property of the SNP - this would be damaging to both the party and the country as a whole. The Lib Dems and Tories are less worried about that situation - the Lib Dems being more firmly European/internationalist in billing whilst the Tories remain happy to fixate on their status as Unionists, albeit with a more Scottish tinge in recent years. However Labour has the potential to demonstrate that Scottishness is a broad spectrum of realities, rather than just the slightly Brigadoon-esque approach wrapped in sporting pride (although admittedly that is rather tarnished after last night's woeful performance) which the SNP have successfully peddled over recent years.

This potential is failing to be met because fundamentally the Labour Party as a whole is lost just now, stuck in a period of navel gazing and infighting which appears to be the natural status of all political parties, particularly those in power for a significant period of time. The party does not know what it wants to be, and therefore is lost and to a certain extent uninterested in working out how a devolved party should work.

The problem with this is that, to the general public, it appears like arrogance and complacency, an ignorance to the reality that Labour cannot rely upon any heartlands or safe seats. The SNP's growth is not inexorable and they will struggle as their own internal contradictions strive to become dominant, particularly in a situation where the government and/or the independence agenda runs into trouble; however the reality is that they are working very successfully to eat into the traditional heartland constituencies and supporters of the Labour Party, whilst at the same time possessing a much broader national support than the Labour Party does. The very contradictions which have caused in the past, and will do so again, so much trouble for the SNP are also the strength that allows it to be supported in rural communities and urban communities, in areas of affluence and destitution. There is always somewhere else for the SNP to regroup - Labour lacks this strength in regards to the distribution of its support, even if there is a strength in terms of the actual depth of the support itself.

Labour needs to motivate and captivate the Scottish public, draw them into a vision of Scotland's future which can challenge and defeat the tartan and lace vision which the SNP promulgate so successfully. The polling indicates that Scots want to be part of the Union, but are looking for strong voices to stand up for the fact that we do have different priorities in Scotland. The SNP provide one side of this desire, but there is a gap just now which should be filled by the Scottish Labour Party. The party needs to devolve the structures, to firmly establish the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party as leader of all members, elected or otherwise, in Scotland. They need to give this role the freedom to react to the Scottish agenda alongside working closely with the wider UK party. It needs to develop the inspiration that Scotland is looking - for the first two terms of the Parliament the Lab/Lib coalition 'managed' Scotland quite well, but the public are looking for so much more. They want successful management coupled with a belief, a conviction, that Scotland can and will be better. The SNP argue this very point, coming to the conclusion that this can only be achieved through independence - Labour has a responsibility to set out the alternative but equally compelling vision of improvement, achieved through the strength of union but within a Scottish context.

Within the Scottish Labour Party it is sometimes easy to become fixated upon the hatred, indeed utter vitriolic loathing which elements of the SNP have for the party. This hatred is hard to read, particularly as so much of it is spawned within the free-for-all of the internet where common decency is a long lost myth; however to fixate upon it misses the fact that the people of Scotland do not hate the Labour Party, rather they are bored and apathetic towards it. In many ways this is worse.

Scotland has been billed as a Labour country for decades, even when this ignored the realities of what was happening on the ground. There is no doubt that the election of May 2007 was traumatic for the party and it is still struggling to find its feet - after all, two years is no time at all in the grand scheme of things. However, the struggle appears to many people to be stagnating into inertia and this is where the danger lies for Labour. A vision, a motivation, heck a sign of coming out fighting - these can start to counter an SNP government which at the end of the day only has one more MSP than Labour. After all, we are technically only a resignation away from a change in administration. However, inertia and stagnation can turn an electoral defeat into long-term isolation from power and a disconnection from the Scottish public. There is constant talk of the fightback, however we are yet to see evidence of it arriving - in the meantime the SNP attack London Labour as a way to avoid discussion of their own paltry efforts in government.

So an end to London Labour and a new start to the Scottish Labour Party, a centre-left party rooted in the experiences and dreams of Scotland and endlessly driven to improve the lives of our fellow citizens. A party of ideas, a party of limitless dreams which are not mired in politics of identity but which liberate the citizens of this country to be all that they can be. Scottishness is not a simplistic concept, not matter how hard the SNP try to boil it down to a single common denominator, and the Scottish Labour Party should be at the heart of this debate. To sit on the sidelines is to concede the debate and to lose the country - the Scottish Labour Party has a responsibility to the people of Scotland which requires it to fight and to win.