If you’ve not read Euan McColm’s piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, I’d recommend that you do. Though you might want to grab a mug of strong coffee and a pen and paper first.
That’s because he sets out the intricacies of the tangled web of Scottish Labour politics. And how it really is all about them and not about us.
Euan explores Labour’s current inability to get its story across. He concludes that the party needs a new storyteller, one who can not only craft a narrative the electorate will buy, but also sell that narrative to voters coherently and convincingly: “Scottish Labour’s is a tired old story which meanders along, punctured by moments of pathos and unintentional comedy. Anyone who believes that Johann Lamont is going to change that now (after three years in charge) is either mad or deluded. Or both.”
He lays bare the extent and scale of Labour’s problem but fails to highlight the glaringly obvious; that Labour in Scotland is so focused on its own machinations that it cannot see the extent of its problems. The very fact that all this internal manoeuvring and calculating is going on during the most important debate in Scotland’s history shows how far Labour has drifted from its founding principles, values and purpose.
People like Jim Murphy – and even Douglas Alexander and a few others besides – are weighing up the ifs, buts and maybes of outcomes from not only the referendum, but also the 2015 UK election. For Labour it is all about power for individuals and the party: the fate and the future of Scotland and her people are but pawns on the chessboard.
I’ve listened to a fair number of very decent Labour folk try to articulate why Scotland should vote no in September. They sing yesterday’s song, harking to the past and what was achieved particularly in the postwar years. Which is fine and I agree with much of what they say. But this debate isn’t about the past, it’s about the future, Scotland’s future. And on that, their cupboard is largely bare. They have a string of soundbites which sound plausible but which go nowhere. Their arguments fail to frame their opposition to what the independence offer means for families and communities. Let them talk long enough and they disagree with themselves, ending up far from where they began. I’m not even sure they believe what they are saying half the time.
When their devolution-plus proposals are more timid and offer fewer powers being transferred from Westminster to Scotland than the Conservatives, then the game’s a bogey. Their Devolution Commission final report offered less than was touted because it was a shoddy compromise, finalised within a framework of hoping to win the UK election in 2015. What that means is that if Labour is in charge of the UK in the next five years, they’ll be putting precious little Scotland’s way in terms of further devolution. Because if they’re in power, they don’t want to be handing it over to us. It really is that simple.
And if they lose, then MPs hoping for UK Ministerial office start to look elsewhere. After years of ignoring Scotland’s wee pretendy parliament and playing with the big boys, some of them might set their sights on Scottish leadership and the possibility of First Ministerial or other Ministerial office in Scotland. I’m sorry but if Jim Murphy is the answer, then someone, somewhere is asking the wrong question.
Already Labour is working towards winning in 2016: that’s why it has selected most of its parliamentary candidates to run already. Forget the referendum, that’s just a sideshow: the real focus is on regaining what they see as their rightful place in Scottish politics. In power, in control and in charge.
Which is not to say that there are not good and decent Labour people whose hearts and minds are much less calculating than that. Some of them really do believe in the Union. Some of them do believe that what they offer is best for Scotland and her people – the best of both worlds is more than a slogan. I – and many others I know – share common values on fairness and equality in particular. It’s just that those core beliefs are being obscured by naked ambition, particularly at leadership level. And yes, I agree that power is needed to put into effect the policies you believe will change people’s lives.
But what are these exactly? Scotland will get control over housing benefit, the rest will stay at Westminster. It will get all income tax levers but not the ability to cut tax, only raise it. A UK Labour government will stick to the Tory public spending plans – that’s familiar. So the £5 billion cut to Scotland’s block grant, putting at risk key public services will go ahead in the next two years. The freeze on energy prices is good but takes no account of the disproportionate impact of high costs on rural Scotland. Worse, freezing bills for a limited time gives the energy companies a continued opt-out on investing in providing outlying areas with greater choice of cheaper energy. It’s a short term fix.
And in the absence of a positive offer to stay in the Union beyond the notion of family and a shared past and the hint of a Labour government to come, Labour is resorting to the scaremongering tactics so expertly practised by their Tory counterparts in the Better Together coalition. You might not put border controls up but we will, cries Ed Miliband. Thus, he would treat us differently from a completely foreign, neighbouring country across the water. I’ll resign if the Treasury allows a currency union, whines Ed Balls. Who cares, shrugs most of Scotland.
The very fact that Labour is selecting candidates not just for the 2015 UK election but also the 2016 Scottish election tells its own story. The fact that it is having these internal conversations in dark corners about who is best placed to lead the party in Scotland tells us all we need to know about where the party’s priorities lie. And it ain’t with the people of Scotland.
It’s why more and more Labour party members and supporters are not just moving from no to yes but also getting involved in the Yes campaign. They want to talk about the future of us all, not just their party. They want to be part of this exciting, big conversation that individuals, families and communities are having about their future and their country’s future. They want to talk about how best to end child poverty, to protect and nurture our NHS, to raise incomes, to create a fairer society for all.
And that’s a narrative we can all get behind.