Douglas Alexander’s speech garnered plenty of coverage in the media yesterday. And so it should have.
It was a very good speech. Nearly a great speech in fact. With a rhythm of earnestness and a tone of solemnity. As a scene-setter for the weekend ahead, it hit its mark perfectly.
The clarion call was for Scottish Labour to have the “courage to change”. “Let it be said of this Party, gathered in Dundee: We had the insight to understand, and the courage to change. For it is only by embracing change that we can prove ourselves, once more, worthy of our Nation’s trust.”
Johann Lamont picks up the baton today and according to the trails in the media overnight, will effectively tell her party to get over itself. We got gubbed, everybody had their mope? Good. Blow your nose and get on with it. There’s work to be done if we are to reclaim a relevance in Scottish politics.
It’s a theme that Douglas Alexander also focused on, though his speech suggested that his party hasn’t quite worked out what went wrong: “we have to understand how we find ourselves in this position, if we are to break its dynamics and so generate a different outcome. The origins of our defeat last May were deep, not recent. And they demand an honest and painful reckoning.”
The difference in pace being advocated here is interesting. Alexander is right – I don’t think Labour does understand how it got to this place and his speech doesn’t really provide answers. Currently the party is playing a game of political blind man’s buff, groping around in the dark, clutching at objects, reasons and chinks of light.
But Johann Lamont is also right – there is simply too much to be done, too many electoral challenges ahead to enter a period of deep introspection. And if Labour hasn’t used the last ten months to clean and suture its wounds, then hell mend it. How long does a party need?
Douglas Alexander gives the party points of focus – the forthcoming council elections provide an opportunity to lay bare what he sees as the SNP’s betrayal of “vital local services” by offering communities “not just good value, but good values” of “defending services, upholding fairness, protecting the vulnerable”. Interestingly, he appeals to old Labour instincts: “Just as in the 80s it now falls to Labour councillors to be the last line of defence for our communities. The last line of defence against a Tory Government with policies tearing our society apart, and a Nationalist Government determined to tear our country apart.”
The main focus of his speech, though, is on the big political issue of constitutional change. Like other big beasts in the Scottish Labour movement, he is keen to move the party away from a position of intransigence and into much more fluid territory. At last, Labour is prepared to contemplate more devolution for Scotland: “we must be open minded on how we can improve devolution’s powers, including fiscal powers, but be resolute in our rejection of separation. Working with other parties, with local communities and with civic Scotland – as the authors of Devolution, we must be both the defenders and developers of Devolution.”
This is good news for the likes of me who want the no to independence option on the ballot paper to be based, not on the status quo, but on souped up devolution. And there is plenty in this position for Nationalists to scoff at – what took you so long is the obvious opener. But the key in the next two years is both to hear more detail about what this involves and also to ensure practically that the proposed improvement of powers becomes reality before the vote (or at least with a realistic prospect of happening).
I don’t sense a reluctance here on Douglas Alexander’s part. More than anyone else in the Labour movement, he has been calling for a real, hard look at what took them to catastrophic defeat last May and how Labour can recapture its radical edge in policy terms. I might not agree with his Blairite instincts on public and social policy but he has been hinting at the need to allow devolution to flourish for some time.
In this speech, there is an undercurrent of excitement about the possibilities for Scotland and for Labour in a maxed-out (or at least plussed-up) devolution settlement.
But he also sets out a coherent challenge to the SNP and a thoughtful argument for staying within the United Kingdom. The opening passage pays homage to Thomas Watters, the last Spanish Civil War veteran from Scotland, who died this week. “Internationalism – never nationalism – has always been our lodestar”.
That’s the likes of me telt then! And interestingly, Alexander’s speech does point up one of the few genuine areas of difference between Labour and SNP folks.
“So when nationalists say to me that being part of Britain cuts Scotland off from the world, I say to them: That’s not my Scotland. And when they suggest that we’d be better to just ignore the struggle of others and instead look out for ourselves, I say again: That’s just not the Scotland I belong to. And even if Scotland ever did succumb to such an outlook – the world is heading in the opposite direction. From the Eurozone Crisis to the Environment, from Export Markets to Mass Migration, interdependence – not independence – is the hallmark of our age. So, if we can’t escape from that interdependent world we have to ask ourselves: How best we can influence our world in the service of our ideals? Let us say confidently and clearly: There is nothing “positive” or “progressive” in retreating from the world.”
This is the most interesting section of the speech, in my opinion. Only a handful of Scottish politicians – like Alexander – are comfortable in such territory. The SNP used to be very good at articulating its international stance, at the role for independent Scotland on a global stage, on why Europe rather than of course Europe. But the lure and demands of domestic politics has rather dulled that instinct. Thus, it finds itself triangulating such issues rather than explaining them.
It has a problem if the likes of Alexander can persuade his party to say more and push harder on these kind of lines. And be given the space by their parties to articulate more what interdependence looks like in a global age, in a way that suits the political narrative south of the border. That, though is the question – Alexander’s instincts are not likely to be shared by middle England.
And Scottish Labour is pretty uncomfortable too in this zone: Johann Lamont’s bread and butter is public sector-oriented, with values, fairness and social justice her guiding lodestar. Expect to hear an awful lot of the latter and very little about the big international constructs of independence versus interdependence in her speech today.
(If I can work out how to, I will post a link to Douglas Alexander’s whole speech later.. )