Labour could be the future but is feeling a bit too self-satisfied with itself

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 26th 2017

This week the Labour Party Conference gathered in Brighton. It hasn’t been in such good spirits for many a year – with the highest membership of any party in Europe, and the biggest increase in its vote in a UK general election since 1945.

The spirit in many respects is a little too upbeat. Corbyn’s Labour did not actually win the June election, despite Theresa May’s campaign being the most inept by a major party in living memory. There is too much backslapping, feeling smug and self-congratulatory, and the conference opened to delegates singing the now mandatory semi-football chant of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’. Leadership cults and worship are never advisable: imagine the Nats doing this under Salmond or Sturgeon at her peak, or the Tories under the imperial reign of Thatcher?

Labour has earned the right to be taken seriously again. There is a good chance it will form the next UK Government. But it does need a big further shift to do so – needing 64 seats for a bare majority and cannot forever duck and dive on Brexit. The biggest UK political issue in decades hasn’t even been properly debated at conference, as the Eurosceptic leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell want to square their opinions with a hugely pro-EU membership and concentrate on Tory divisions. This isn’t sustainable or serious politics at such a time of crisis.

Meanwhile Scottish Labour faces another leadership contest. Whoever wins the battle between Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar will be the sixth leader since the SNP won in 2007, and the fifth time the party members have been involved in making a choice. None of the previous contests have shown that the party has much insight into what went wrong in recent years and where to put it right. But at least the party is starting to get into the habit of having debates – something it didn’t do in its years in power.

Neither Leonard or Sarwar are fully paid up Corbynistas although both claim allegiance to the UK party leadership. That is a bit more problematic for Sarwar, who last year signed a motion of no confidence in Corbyn, and has been hit by controversies about his business interests. The son of Mohammed Sarwar, he had a 23% share in a family business – United Wholesale (Scotland) (motto: ‘We Lead, Others Follow’) which he has now divested. It is a company without union representation and which doesn’t pay the living wage. But Leonard, while the favourite, has only been a MSP since 2016 and is a ponderous, slow public speaker who hasn’t yet mastered the arts of political debating and the soundbite.

One of Scotland’s most staunch Corbyn supporters, Neil Findlay, MSP for the Lothians since 2011, has just published ‘Socialism and Hope: A Journey through Turbulent Times’. This concentrates in diary form on the period January-September 2014 when the indyref debate reached a crescendo and the aftermath where Jim Murphy became Scottish Labour leader, defeating Findlay, and led the party to near-destruction in the 2015 UK election. But it also offers insights into Scottish Labour, trade union and working class culture, the Labour left and left politics generally, and the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as UK party leader.

What comes over in Findlay’s account is the importance of place, the past, working class struggle, history, collective memories and the act of remembering in the culture of the party and wider movement. Findlay is from the West Lothian former mining town of Fauldhouse and his affinity and identification with the small town shines through large parts of this book.

He champions Fauldhouse Miners Welfare Club, its annual Gala Day, the local junior football team (Fauldhouse United), even the cricket club (the second oldest in the country) and the golf club. An acute sense of the importance of the past is evident from the annual memorial to commemorate the Auchingeich pit disaster of 1959 in which 47 miners died; to continually pushing for an amnesty for those striking miners who were they believe wrongly convicted and blacklisted as a result of the 1980s strike.

Findlay candidly gives his assessment of Labour colleagues and of political enemies. While it won’t surprise many to find he has a low opinion of Boris Johnson (‘ham actor’), Michael Gove (‘little squirt’) or UKIP MEP David Colburn (‘bampot’), he is equally unsparing closer to political home.

The Better Together campaign (a ‘fiasco’) and Labour effort in the indyref continually get his fury as he worried they were in danger of throwing away victory. His greatest invective is directed towards Jim Murphy who in the indyref, according to Findlay, was ‘trailing around Scotland standing on an Irn Bru crate shouting at passers-by and conning the madder elements of the Yes campaign into abusing him.’ Even when Murphy is hit by an egg in Dundee, you sense that Findlay’s sympathies lie less with Murphy and more the egg thrower.

Margaret Curran gets similar treatment. She is lambasted for undermining her lifelong friend Johann Lamont when she is leader with Findlay reflecting that Curran ‘can’t even look at me now, which is good.’ Thomas Doherty, Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife from 2010-15 gets special attention with Findlay imagining him being told off by the whip: ‘all yer colleagues think you’re a c**t and I have investigated these allegations and found out that you are a c**t, so start behaving yerself.’

Political figures Findlay respects include old-fashioned socialist firebrands and orators – Jim Sillars is one; George Galloway another. When a Labour figure crosses over to Yes in the indyref, Findlay believes it is because they want to resurrect a moribund political career. Sillars he assesses is a different pedigree: ‘I have more respect for the likes of Jim Sillars and Alex Neil, who left the Labour Party thirty years ago, before or in the middle of their careers on a point of principle.’ Galloway he describes as ‘brilliant’ and ‘his searing analysis of the case for independence’ as ‘fantastic’. The exception to this is (the now late) Labour moderate Tam Dalyell who acted as a mentor to Findlay over thirty years: ‘the dogged campaigner who gets an issue and runs with it until he gets a result.’

In the final months of the indyref, Findlay debates with left-wing supporters of independence and finds them wanting, Sillars included. He summarises the case he puts as ‘Scotland is a left-wing country (is it?) and all we have to do is vote for independence and socialism will follow. Oh, and I’ve written a book and it contains the manifesto for that socialist Scotland’ and asks ‘What planet is he living on?’

He has even less time for Robin McAlpine of Common Weal viewing him as ‘one of these guys who wants to be seen as a bit whacky, but also a deep-thinking intellectual’, but who ‘talks utter bollocks’. Tommy Sheridan is an ‘attention-seeker extraordinaire’ and the Radical Independence Campaign he opines is devoid of class politics, with Findlay asking of independence: ‘what is the plan to bring about socialism with a divided working class and trade union movement?’

Sometimes Findlay’s judgement is acute. Martin Sime, long time head of SCVO is ‘Salmond’s mate from university and does whatever the Scottish Government ask’. Sometimes he is unguarded, calling pro-independence blogger Wings over Scotland ‘the vile blogger’ and ‘a cretin’. At other points he shows his blind spots asking the Scottish Green Patrick Harvie to ‘name anything the Greens have done in their history’, stating ‘they have achieved little or nothing.’ But as for the Stalinist paper the ‘Morning Star’, friend of left-wing dictatorships the world over, it is ‘great for getting an alternative view of the world.’

Findlay consistently opposes Salmond’s version of independence: low-tax, low-regulation, race to the bottom economics, and challenges shortcomings in Labour. But he also misses the limitations in the left and Corbyn’s political agenda. Only at one point does he ever come close to understanding what has happened to the Scottish party, when he compares its downfall under Murphy to Rangers FC, writing:

The analogy with Rangers FC is obvious. A successful team, media-friendly owner and manager, well-known stars, but built on sand and when pressure is applied, everything falls apart. That is the reality of New Labour. No matter how energetic Murphy and Co. are, no one believes what he says. This project also has foundations of sand.

Of the current Scottish Labour candidates his view of Anas Sarwar is lukewarm: ‘well-mannered, ambitious and extremely well-connected’. Richard Leonard is ‘a really clever and articulate man’. Findlay has subsequently nominated Leonard, but there is little analysis which shows any sense of why Scottish Labour has fallen so low, or what a left-wing politics of the future would look like.

Instead, there is a lot of displacement and bewilderment about Scotland and a political culture which has moved away from Findlay and his kind of left-wing politics. This is combined with a mix of bravado, machismo and settling scores, but also a degree of personal honesty and self-reflection rare amongst politicians.

Yet, with Corbyn as leader of British Labour, the party’s left are ascendant in a way they never have been before. That means the attitudes and pronouncements, silences and omissions, from the ‘Morning Star’s’ view of the world to Brexit, matter more than ever. Whatever your opinion, after the events of the last few months, and the wider backstory since the crash, Prime Minister Corbyn looks more likely than it ever has been. But that wouldn’t be the end of the story, merely the beginning of more uncertainty, rather than a new dawn.