Malcolm Chisholm’s killer question

Observing the opening gambits of the Yes and No camps in the New Year is fascinating. Who and what is shaping the narratives? Where are the central threads? What insight might we glean from speeches on strategy and tactics? Who is laying a breadcrumb trail on the nature of the debate to come?

Looking at speeches made and articles written by big beasts on both sides in the last week, they appear to share a common focus: Labour.

Despite recent Scottish election results, Scotland is predominantly a Labour-leaning country. More people identify themselves with Labour than any other party, though those old hegemonies in terms of party politics are weakening. Folk increasingly are prepared to switch their votes around according to circumstance and consequence, in electoral terms. But in the battle for votes in the referendum, those who would still identify themselves as predominantly Labour voters form a significant constituency. The focus on all things Labour would suggest that private polling in both camps indicates it’s soft in terms of yes/no intentions. For yes, these votes are persuadable; for no, these votes must be shored up.

Hence, we’ve had an appeal from Nicola Sturgeon to Labour supporters to discard party jackets. And a riposte from Anas Sarwar in his adjunct to Gordon Brown’s speech in Fife last week. He said: “There are those whose talents lie in re-writing history, where for them airbrushing the successes of the Labour movement across the UK is an everyday ambition. Quite happy to say in one breath that the UK has never helped to achieve social justice then on the other saying we need independence to protect the NHS and the Welfare State. Institutions thought up by, created by and delivered by the Labour movement right across the UK. And there is a reason for that. It’s a deliberate attempt to con Labour voters into thinking that no change, or no good, can ever come through a Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK and that only a vote for independence can bring change. Well, they’re wrong.”

Sarwar’s theme is continued by Jim Murphy in his essay for Scotland on Sunday today. Urging Scotland to change governments, not passports, Murphy suggests that one of the central arguments proposed by those arguing for independence is that voting yes allows Scotland to rid itself of Tory governments forever. His thrust, though, is that we can change governments without constitutional reform and achieve the Scotland we want. “What holds us back has never been the United Kingdom, it has only ever been the type of government in the United Kingdom. But they’ve always been chucked out; as Cameron and Clegg’s coalition can be just months after the referendum. The things that Scots have demanded – jobs, homes, devolution, a health service and so much more – have always been delivered by ambitious Labour governments. And those achievements have been irreversible.”

We’ll return to the historical revisionism in both statements, but clearly Labour thinks it’s on to something. And there’s a kernel of truth in all this. Yes Scotland and the SNP in particular, have and continue to highlight the impact of this Conservative led government on the lives of ordinary Scots to appeal to undecideds. And at various points, they have explicitly suggested that voting yes allows Scotland to divest itself of the risk of governments we did not vote for imposing its values on us anyway.

Which is why Malcolm Chisholm asked what I reckon is a killer question for Yes at First Minister’s Questions this week. “Given that the First Minister’s whole referendum strategy is based on having a Tory Government in London, how will he scare the Scottish people when they are faced with the prospect of a Labour Government that will boost employment, freeze energy prices and provide the resources for a massive expansion of childcare?”

Leaving aside the hyperbole, the question amounts to this: if, as polls are beginning to suggest, it appears that Labour will win the next UK General Election and not the Conservatives, what then? If the threat of continued Conservative rule is weakened the closer we get to the referendum, how will Yes respond?

It is a crucial question for the yes camp and clearly one which they have begun to wake up to. Labour is still leading in UK polls; it’s not a dramatic lead but a consistent one, and would be enough to deliver at least a minority Labour government. Overtures are already being made to the Liberal Democrats about the possibility of working together in coalition.

There are ways to address this. The Scottish people are not fools but pointing up the shockingly arrogant and misleading revisionism currently being bandied about by leading Labour figures needs to happen. I’m no torch bearer for the Liberals but as a historian, I’m affronted that their role in delivering key planks of our welfare state – state pensions for one – is being airbrushed. Scottish Labour’s track record on social housing also bears repeating, ad nauseam.

And as some of the rebuttal statements already suggest, seeds of doubt need to be sown as to whether things, particularly on welfare reform and economic policy, would be any better in the short and medium term under a UK Labour government.

But if Yes is to successfully shift this narrative, its chief proponents might need to make the ultimate sacrifice and discard their own party clothes. Effectively it comes down to positing that Labour’s charm offensive is entirely self-seeking. Labour wants Scotland to vote no in order to vote Labour into power in 2015. But how to counter that? By suggesting that by voting yes in 2015, Scotland can vote for the Labour Party it wants – or at least the sort of old Labour values many still hold dear – in 2016.

Taking such an approach will be discomfiting to many in the SNP, particularly those elected representatives, activists and supporters who are as capable of displaying as irrational hatred of all things Labour, as many in Labour demonstrate towards the SNP.

But it might be a necessary evil. The question is can they do it, if the need arises? For so many years, cause and party have been intertwined but if needs must, will the SNP be prepared to separate its loyalties and argue that only independence offers Scotland the opportunity to vote for the sort of Labour government and values many still identify with? In short, if required to do so, will the party be able and willing to put cause first?

*I apologise for the lack of italics and more especially, links in recent posts. I am blogging currently from the wordpress app on the iPad and cutting and pasting from articles and inserting links is clunky and beyond my limited skills. The speeches and articles referred to above are all readily searchable.

Why Labour wants us to vote no

I am puzzled by the virulence with which Labour folk have thirled themselves to the Union. 

To put it another way, I am bemused by their inherent opposition to independence.  Oh, there are a few hardy souls who still hold to the notion of an international struggle to create a socialist utopia where the workers have united to defeat the dead hand of capitalism.  But even that doesn’t explain it.  For one, you wonder what they are doing in the modern Labour party at all and for another, why does a union which was formed 300 years ago for politically and economically expedient reasons, represent the most effective vehicle in the 21st Century for achieving such a goal? 

But for the rest of them, those who got with the new Labour project either willingly or with reluctance, why does it matter so much? 

In trying to fathom out what’s going on, it pays to follow the clues set out in the utterings of leading protagonists. Every few months, Gordon Brown appears in some grande espace to share his thoughts – deeply thought, of course – on it all.  Yet, he is more kailyard than any independence proponent, constantly harking back to olden times when in his mind at any rate, Labour delivered measures to address inequality, poverty and social injustice from its vaunted position of government across the UK. 

Then, we have Douglas Alexander’s contributions, which are often thought-provoking.  His recurrent thread is that to abandon our friends and family elsewhere on these islands would be a deeply selfish act, ignoring that we share common values and leaving them to the vagaries of an electoral system which threatens them with permanent right wing rule.

And this week, Blair McDougall – on the telly, no less – was adamant that not only would all the Better Together parties bring forward their proposals for more devolution before the vote in 2014, but that Labour’s would “bypass the Scottish Parliament” (his exact words I think) and devolve things like welfare to local communities.  His assertion blithely ignored the inconvenient fact that the interim report of Labour’s devolution commission has already stated that it is not for devolving benefits. “Labour has always been the party of the UK welfare state“, that report states, and “Labour is therefore committed to maintaining common pensions and benefits across Britain..”

Ah but, the report then goes on to say, “..we want to look at whether there are any particular areas of social security which relate closely to devolved services, or where there is already scope for variation in different parts of the country (sic), and whether there may be a case for devolution there“.

It all speaks volumes, as does puzzlement among old Labour types at one of the most consistent findings to emerge from polls on voting intentions in the referendum. That Scots would vote yes if they thought they’d be better off in an independent Scotland.  And what is the trigger amount?  Five hundred pounds. 

They are astonished that Scottish people would sell their souls, as one put it, for such a paltry amount. Yet, that actual amount tells its own story. It speaks to how poor the lot of so many Scots families is, that five hundred pounds is considered by many to be a significant sum by which their lives could be changed.

What that figure tells me is that many families in Scotland think being better off by five hundred pounds would transform their households’ economic fortunes. It says that when compared with current earnings and income, being able to add to that by five hundred pounds a year, would make them all feel substantially wealthier.

For many Scots, the fact that this amount is far from paltry is a significant indicator of the extent of poverty and low wages prevalent in Scotland under the current set-up.  Far from being puzzled, Labour – in power at Westminster for 13 of the last 16 years, in control at Holyrood for 8 of the 14 years of its existence and ruling in cities like Glasgow, with some of Scotland’s poorest communities, for all 17 of the unitary authority’s years of being – both as a party and across its membership, should be thoroughly ashamed.

Taken together, this breadcrumb trail of ideas, arguments, policy, attitude and approach, speaks volumes. At no point since 2007 when a vote on independence became more of a possibility than a pipe-dream has Labour deployed more than a knee-jerk reaction to the prospect of independence for Scotland.

At no point has the party examined its soul to determine whether independence might be a good thing for Scots and indeed, everyone in the UK.  At no point has the party explored its historic roots and values to determine whether independence  – as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself – might represent a modern, desirable extension of its commitment to home rule. And at no point has Labour paused to consider whether independence and the fresh start it represents for Scotland might be the best way to fulfil much vaunted values of equality, equity and social justice.

No, what Labour has done, and continues to do, is to treat devolution as its own policy play thing.  The fact that politicians like Margaret Curran still proclaim that Labour delivered devolution (ignoring the important role the Scottish people played themselves) reaffirms this.  Which is a controlling mindset if ever there was one.

Indeed, Labour’s entire stance in this referendum debate has a base motivation.  It is feart – terrified in fact – that independence for Scotland would mean a loss of power and control for it.  At its most benign, this political attitude is patriarchal; at its worst, it is utterly selfish and self-seeking.

Think of it this way:  is Labour’s concern for Scots mirrored in constituent parts of England which have for decades voted Conservative?  Do they use conference speeches and media platforms to warn, cajole and frighten the people who live in such safe seats on the consequences of their voting behaviour?  Or have they just written those seats off, by and large, as unforgiving and therefore, no longer important electoral territory?

The question all the undecideds and persuadables in this debate might want to consider is why Labour is adamant that independence would be bad for Scotland.  Is it because it would be bad for everyone who lives here, our communities and country? 

Or is the answer much more prosaic – is it that an independent Scotland is bad, because it is bad for Labour’s electoral ambitions?

The reason – the real reason – Labour want us to vote no in 2014, is so that we vote Labour in 2015.

It needs Scotland’s votes if it is to have any chance of winning that election and forming the next UK government.

So, its promises of jam tomorrow are really an election bribe and the timing of their announcement will highlight that. In wanting to bypass the Scottish Parliament in channelling more powers, the party demonstrates its contempt: devolution is not an ingrained commitment to democratic renewal and community empowerment. It paints Scotland as too wee and too poor to be economically successful to try and counter the lure of improved economic well-being. We might even be treated to a bidding war over this five hundred pounds figure in the months ahead.

Labour is making this debate on our future all about them and not about us at all.  And in doing so, shows why if we want a different politics, where power is vested in the people and not the parties, then we need to vote yes.



All that pooling and sharing and little to show for it

Having just read the speech Gordon Brown gave on Monday, it’s now clear why Scottish Labour took a while to post it.  Let’s just say it’s not one of his finest. And that’s being charitable.

Indeed, you wonder if the Scottish media which collectively wets its pants every time this big political beast shares his thoughts with us on the domestic political stage, wasn’t left feeling a little foolish once they heard it. Having touted and trailed the speech frenziedly, it rather disappeared from view on the news agenda and few have bothered to critique it.

While the historical revisionism visited upon the poor pupils of Govan High School was breathtaking, we won’t bother taking him to task in a line by line deconstruction of his assertions about what Labour MPs delivered and who and what is responsible for the growth of the British welfare state.  A history degree has its uses but would only get in the way of this blogpost. But two points.

First, there is truth in the aspiration and ideals of those early pioneers of the Labour movement, and Gordon Brown rightly suggests that they are just as pertinent today as they were then. The bit he misses out is how Labour – and the New Labour experiment which he expounded, followed and belonged to – rather disrespected all that its forefathers stood for. If you want to rule in UK, OK that means appealing to white van man in a handful of marginal seats and he and his ilk are much more Thatcher’s children, who politically have little desire to pool and share in the way Brown extols elsewhere in the speech.

The second point is that Brown’s revisionism obliterates from view the role that Scotland played in setting the scene for the emergence of a welfare state, a role from which the Labour party was born. Scotland had a public, free education system before England did:  it might have been rudimentary but the principle was there nonetheless. The poor law might have been inadequate but the idea of a common weal, of there being a need for institutions to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society was evident, even if it lost its principles somewhat in execution.

And while the postwar Labour government was pivotal in the creation of the National Health Service, the reasons for its ready adoption as an idea whose time had come was as influenced by pragmatism as by ideals:  two successive large-scale wars had shown the pitiful state of men’s health in particular, and if we wanted a fitter and more robust fighting machine, something had to be done.

Moreover, the concept of a welfare state was not an exclusively Labour ideal, nor was it a particularly British one;  it was informed by thinkers and reformers from a range of backgrounds and its elements had its origins in different parts of these islands and indeed, elsewhere.

What Brown espouses as a “positive, principled and forward-looking case for the union” is in fact mired in the past and constructed on myths. His political theory relies wholly on the last century for solutions; worse, it ignores the present day reality that the pooling and sharing of resources has not resulted in equality nor economic security for many Scots or indeed, English, Welsh or Irish either.

Somewhat ironically, it was also revealed this week that Glasgow – a city which until very recently has been red through and through, with Labour running the council, holding all the UK seats and most of the Scottish ones too – has more work-less households than any other city in the UK.  It also has appalling health indicators – low life expectancy, higher than average hospitalisation due to alcohol-related conditions and rates of coronary heart disease. Over the last fifty years, Labour, more than any other political party, has held all of the cards which count and it has failed to find in them a flush which might fix the problem that is Glasgow.

Gordon Brown suggests that if we just hold fast to old thinking, we can find a better future. His speech offered nothing of value nor innovation. Worst of all, in the skip of a sentence, he suggests that the only way to counter the current Tory regime is by voting for Labour. This is rose-tinted and near-sighted politicking at its worst.

And there’s nothing hopeful about it: indeed, intrinsic to the concept of pooling and sharing resources is the belief that Scotland is too wee and too poor to achieve anything without the help of its neighbours. He quotes statistics: I could counter with my own. He refers selectively to current SNP policies and positions: I could volley back another set more in keeping with founding Labour principles than his party’s current incarnation espouses.

He said nothing – other than vote Labour – about how we might pool and share resources on these key social policy areas more effectively. He offered no new ideas. He provided little food for thought for his ostensible audience of young Scots on their futures. He missed an opportunity to offer something relevant to this debate.

For all the pooling and sharing that has gone on over the lifetime of the UK and especially in recent years, the impact on poverty in Scotland has been marginal and transitory, the gap in inequality has grown to a chasm, and the prospects for the next generation of pensioners are pitiful. All that pooling and sharing, and we’ve actually got very little to show for it.