What is Scottish Labour for?
Readers, I’m sure I’ve blogged on this before and had wanted to do a nifty link to last year’s piece, suggesting you could just read it and save yourselves time and bother.
But I can’t find it so maybe I just dreamt that I wrote it. In any event, last year or this, it’s pertinent to ask, what is Scottish Labour for?
Because, try as I might, I cannot find the answer. And more importantly, until and unless Scottish Labour finds the answer, it is doomed to perpetual opposition.
We know what they are against. They tell us so every single day and in every possible way. A rattle through recent postings on Labour Hame reveals an unhealthy obsession with all things related to the independence referendum and the SNP. And their membership as leading lights in Better Together confirms that not only are they against independence but they are also opposed to any change whatsoever, by virtue of a lowest common denominator approach adopted in order to campaign alongside the Tories. Which leaves a lot of Scottish voters who do favour more powers for their Parliament rather puzzled.
So, they are not for independence nor are they – officially – for more devolution. Except a few brave souls are. Kezia Dugdale MSP spoke at the STUC’s A Just Scotland event in Edinburgh yesterday – an event I would have attended but for my innate propensity to march and rally winning out – and proclaimed herself to be a devolutionist, not a unionist. Hurrah. But we need to start hearing and seeing what this means in practice, given that officially, Scottish Labour (including Kez herself) remain implacably opposed to a “more devo” option on the ballot for a referendum.
Thankfully, the Red Paper Collective is prepared to fill a gap, depositing some interesting and challenging ideas into the constitutional brew. None of them, of course, will ever catch on. The Collective’s left alternative – its redprint, if you like – promotes economic redistribution and increased powers for Holyrood, some of which “would require a challenge to EU law and changes to UK company law“. Which, of course, might be possible if they all voted for independence, given that the political will in either Scottish or UK Labour to do any of this is sadly lacking.
Leaving aside the constitutional debate for a moment – and please, let’s do – what else can we discern from recent Scottish Labour activity? How about the response to the draft Scottish budget?
I actually thought Ken Macintosh did a decent job picking holes in the Scottish Government’s budget proposals, but his quiet, laconic style of delivery fails to inspire confidence that he is a man in charge of his brief. But here, as ever, it was all about what the SNP was doing, what was wrong with it and what shouldn’t happen. A few throwaway remarks calling for “immediate action on procurement, an ambitious employment programme and most importantly, investment in construction projects” do not an alternative economic strategy make. And on the last two, while the detail might differ, the headlines suggest that this is exactly what the SNP is focused on (the wonks amongst us will of course, point to a procurement reform bill in the business programme). The lack of real divide between the SNP and Labour on core economic policies will do little to usher all those lost Labour voters to return to the fold.
There is more sign of brain activity from UK Labour, given that the UK election comes sooner. Ed Miliband’s nascent proposition of pre-distribution has potential, even if, as an economic and social policy the concept still has far to go, not least in obtaining a vote-winning catchy moniker. And Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, appears to be winning the argument for his economic growth plan. Meanwhile, Douglas Alexander has shown in speeches over the last year a thoughtfulness about where Labour goes, at UK and Scottish level. Some of it is quite promising, even if the cloaking of it all as purple Labour is just too garish to contemplate seriously.
But it is not enough for UK Labour to know what it is for: the changes mooted as a result of the trouncing in the 2011 elections to create a distinct Scottish Labour enterprise means that the party up here can no longer hang on the policy coat tails of its parent. And while the Murphy/Boyack review proposed change and Johann Lamont declared herself up to the task, little has happened. A promised commission on devolution has not yet been established. There was talk too of a policy commission – or was that Iain Gray? – yet no signs of that either. Aside from the aforesaid Red Paper Collective, which is clearly not a mainstream development, there is little sign of intelligent life.
Which is confirmed by the recent comings and goings in backroom staff. These changes suggest that Johann Lamont is starting to sort out some of the internal issues which have bedevilled the party throughout devolution, but no voter is going to choose a party on the strength of its internal structures. The party has to focus internally and externally – at the same time no less – if it is to make progress and many outside observers are bemused as to why Johann Lamont is moving on all fronts at a snail’s pace.
There is some concern, that having acquitted herself rather better than many expected, the Scottish Labour leader now fancies her chances as a putative First Minister, rather than the Kinnock-esque reform role the Labour party faithful voted for her to perform. If the former idea starts to take hold, a handful of personnel changes is likely to be the full extent of internal reform. Others may have to grasp the nettle if Scottish Labour is not going to fall into the trap – again – of persuading itself that a few tweaks around the edges together with continually pointing up the failings of the SNP will be enough to win back power.
Which brings us back to the question – what is Scottish Labour for? Who knows. Is there any suggestion that we might find out soon? No. Is there any sense that folk inside Scottish Labour want to work any of this out? Not really.
Which suggests that another election cycle may need to come and go before we get to find out, by which time Labour’s worst nightmare in the form of independence could well have happened.