Is there a Future for the Scottish Labour Party?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, May 17th 2015

Should he stay or should he go? That is the question Scottish Labour have been asking themselves since a week past Thursday.

It is, however, the wrong question. Leave aside whether it has come up with the answer for now, with a damaged Jim Murphy staying at the helm for a month, at least.

Murphy isn’t the problem for Scottish Labour. He has only been leader for just five months. Granted, in that time he has done little to make it look like he is the answer.

Post-election, the party has shown little inclination of understanding the predicament it finds itself in. Len McCluskey, head of Unite, didn’t help matters by saying that Murphy made ‘certain’ that Scottish Labour lost and so should resign.

So far the post-election responses have shown that Labour doesn’t know how to debate. There is the vision of the distant past represented by the likes of Len McCluskey, and a politics of the near past in the form of Jim Murphy. Neither really have much of a clue about what has happened and what to do to change it.

It never used to be like this. Scottish Labour like British Labour was not only a party of the future, but the party of a collective and people’s future.

The Scottish party was one which supported communities, cleared slums, eradicated virulent illnesses, and took bold initiatives such as the Hydro-Electric schemes across the Highlands.

This was a party and a future people felt optimistic about, believed they owned, and saw themselves and their children in. At its best, it is one many of us directly got to know from our grandparents and parents, and benefitted from.

This future was profoundly located in the benefits of the union – of ‘pooling and sharing resources’ across the union. The only problem is at the height of the real ‘social justice union’, Labour didn’t explicitly sell it as such – instead implicitly invoking the union as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Now with Britain looking disunited economically and socially, let alone constitutionally, making this pro-union case looks a near-impossible task to pull off north of the border.

The predicament Scottish Labour finds itself in has to be understood as part of three interlocking crises. First, there is the Scottish aspect. The party became the political establishment, failed to develop a positive devolution agenda, and then struggled to adapt to the rise of the SNP as their main challengers.

Second, there is the British dimension to this. This began to become a problem with the collapse of the post-war consensus and its progressive pillars of full employment, public spending and redistribution, and then what came after this.

This included the collapse of Labour’s rationale, Thatcherism and New Labour’s accommodation of this, all of which have pushed British politics increasingly rightward.

Lastly, none of this can be seen, as it usually is, in isolation. Nowhere in the Western world is social democracy in rude health. Look across Western Europe and none of the mainstream social democratic parties are making the political weather.

The Norwegians and Italians are not in too bad shape compared to others. But elsewhere the once powerhouse parties of the continent – Germany, Italy and Sweden – are in retreat. Not to mention the implosion of the Greek and Spanish parties under the pressures of austerity.

This situation isn’t just about lack of presentational skills or a plethora of Ed Milibands across the continent. It is instead about some pretty fundamental and long-term factors. It is about the collapse of the managed capitalism of 1945-75 which gave workers, trade unions and most of the working class and middle class a powerful stake in growing prosperity.

Since the mid-1970s work, the economy and society have all fragmented, and become more impermanent and individualistic, for good and bad. This has produced a whole wave of social liberalisation – which most people on the left welcome – in terms of gender, sexuality and race.

But it has also produced the onslaught of economic liberalisation, which has failed to provide greater prosperity, but introduced competition, choice and outsourcing into many aspects of domestic life where they were previously not found. All of this has undermined the left’s credo and base, and in particular its reputation for economic competence.

What is on offer at the moment in Scottish and British Labour is an unappealing diet. It seems to revolve around two versions of ‘Back to the Future’. One is a new centrism returning to Blairite assumptions and talking endlessly about ‘aspiration’ and ‘the middle ground’. The other is a left nostalgia and romanticism, which yearns for the certainties of a past, which isn’t coming back. Neither offers much for a politics of the future.

A successful politics would have a few key ingredients. For a start, it would not be based on a profound pessimism about what people think. For all New Labour’s glossy upbeat rhetoric it actually believed Britain was ‘a conservative country’. And traditional left-wingers have been fighting change and people’s decisions for decades.

Second, it would not settle for a defensive politics which sees the highest progressive aspiration as the status quo in public services. That gives the agenda of change to the right. So whether it is the BBC, the NHS or state education, left-wingers have to come up with a different agenda of change.

Third, Scottish Labour has to lose its sense of disappointment and bitterness at the people. In response to May 7th, one former Scottish Labour MP, Brian Donohoe said he could now tell his ex-constituents to ‘fxxx off’. A senior Scottish Labour politician commented pre-vote that ‘I hate Scotland and can’t wait to leave’. That’s the mindset of a party which has forgotten that its mission is meant to be to serve, not for the people to serve the party.

Scottish Labour has to use its defeat as a release. To recognise that they can free themselves from their old assumptions and dare to step outside the confines of being Scotland’s political establishment.

That moniker no longer fits; so the party needs to let it go and learn to live a bit dangerously. That would involve stopping being a prisoner of its own past, understanding its own past successes, and finally becoming, what it says it is, namely, the Scottish Labour Party. Better late than never!