It seems to be the age of seven questions as Tony Blair once again acts as an uncomfortable sage for Labour and Ed Miliband. With Scottish Labour having just held its Annual Conference in Inverness this past weekend and the party’s Devolution Commission interim report out on further possible devolution meeting significant party opposition in parts of the trade union movement, it is time for Scottish Labour to assess where it is and what it needs to do to change and to start shaping the political weather.
Six years into opposition for Scottish Labour and after six leaders (Dewar, McLeish, McConnell, Alexander, Gray and now Lamont) here then are my seven observations and suggestions for current leader Johann Lamont:
1. Careless Talk Costs Political Lives
Your ‘something for nothing’ speech has gone down in political mythology; not quite the ‘Sermon on the Mound’, but cast that way by opponents. There was a point to your argument, but strategically and tactically, it was ineptly executed. There was no preparatory work, of building advance positions, and signing up significant allies prior to the speech.
The language was counter-productive and damaging to Labour. ‘Something for nothing’ might work as a soundbite from your spin-doctor Paul Sinclair or in a ‘Daily Record’ editorial, but it deeply hurts Labour by embracing right wing populist rhetoric.
2. Show You Have Changed
Most people in Scotland still think benignly of Labour – but of the idea of Labour – not the reality. Part of the idea has been nicked by the Nats hence some of your fury at them. People think they know what Labour says and where you come from; in short they treat Labour like a tired, predictable supermarket product which is long past its sell by date. You have to do something dramatic to win popular attention and show that you have changed. A declaration of Scottish Labour independence from Westminster could be one such act.
3. Devolution is not the answer
Devolution emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a half-way house to stop the SNP. It is a narrow set of political processes about politicians, parliaments and powers which doesn’t reach out and connect with most people. If Labour continually see the answer for Scotland’s future as devolution, it is posing a closed conversation. Instead, while it must have a forward offer on more powers, Labour should make its modus operandi about a socially just Scotland.
4. Do something about Britain
Another problem with stressing future devolution is that this doesn’t just involve the Scots. More devolution demands British wide debate, solutions and reforms. It brings us to the elephant in the room of the problem of the British state.
This is where Douglas Alexander’s suggestion of a post-2014 second Scottish Convention if Scotland votes ‘no’ is wrong. Scotland cannot continually revisit the processes of the 1980s – Convention, Scotland Act, Scotland only solution. There has to be an acknowledgement of the British dimension and the problem of Britain.
This is where Labour could steal the thunder from the Nats, who by their nature don’t talk or propose British wide solutions. What is to stop Labour openly acknowledging that British government, public institutions and the central state have become a huge part of the problem for Scotland and most working people in the UK? And set up a Commission on the Future of the British State which draws from Scotland and the rest of the UK.
5. Be Careful Who Your Friends Are
Labour unionism has historically been very different from Tory unionism. This is where you need to be very careful about the Tory toxic brand. Labour unionism was always about the union as a means to an end, namely, a fairer, better Scotland in a union working to those ends. Such a politics is no longer plausible in the fourth most unequal country in the rich world.
Where this takes Labour is the terrain of arguing for the union as an end in itself – the cul-de-sac of the ‘Better Together’ coalition. This position is tolerable in the short-term, but even by September 2014 it will cause problems for Labour and has nothing in common with a progressive politics. The union has to be a means for Labour.
6. Differentiate from British Labour
Scottish Labour has to be equal parts of its promise: Scottish and Labour and that sometimes means differentiating yourself from British Labour. Other parties such as the Lib Dems and even Tories do this north of the border, but Labour are wary of this. There are anxieties of playing into Nationalist hands, and concerns about what the Westminster Labour dinosaurs will put up with.
These are not good reasons for not acting. Here is one suggestion: Trident’s replacement. Scottish Labour used to debate defence and foreign policy when party rules allowed it between 1972-98. Now you are not meant to. Overturn that and come out against the militarisation of the Clyde.
7. After Labour Scotland
Once Labour was not just a party of the future, but the party synonymous with an optimistic, generous, future Scotland. Now the party is widely seen outside its ranks as inward looking, and defined by a defensiveness and attachment to the status quo across most of life rather than change.
What would an optimistic, confident Labour Scotland look like? For a start, it would be a party talking in a different tone from now. Maybe you don’t realise it but often you give the impression of wanting to tell people off, and that the people don’t measure up to the way Labour thinks they should behave.
In recent times, you have compared SNP MSPs to school children, and gone on perhaps a bit too long about your days as a school teacher: the reference to the school bells and, this week, the challenges of leading a class in the 1980s.
Labour has to learn to live with the SNP, not be all curmudgeonly about independence and the SNP’s date with history. It makes you sound surly and as if you have a major chip on your shoulder.
So – a different language, stop going on about devolution, challenge the British state, embrace a different unionism, and establish a tartan red wedge between yourself and British Labour.
Finally, whether you still think it wrong that Alex Salmond and the SNP are sitting in seats in the Scottish Parliament rightfully yours, change your mindset and start being optimistic and hopeful. This worked for the SNP in 2007 and 2011 and for New Labour in 1997. Learn from the best: copy, imitate and make it your own. And maybe try and avoid some of their mistakes at the same time.