Dear Johann or Ken: A Seven-Step Recovery Plan for Scottish Labour

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, December 17th 2011

Dear Johann (or, in the unlikely event, Ken),

Congratulations on being elected Scottish Labour’s sixth leader in twelve years; that’s nearly as hot a seat as Hearts or Chelsea FC, those two tottering giants.

Of course, I should be accurate, and acknowledge you as the first ‘official’ leader of all Scottish Labour; but I wouldn’t get too excited about presiding over your mighty empire now shrunken. Once the powerhouse of Scotland, Labour now holds Glasgow and North Lanarkshire at council level (and may not next May) and is the leading party in the Scottish Parliament in not a single region.

Let’s be positive. Scottish Labour has good traditions and values and a proud history (for the most). Many Scots like and identify with your backstory, but are not convinced by the recent past or present.

I, like many, have a personal story of slow detachment from Scottish Labour. I joined the party in my late teens in the early 1980s in Dundee and was a member for 24 years. While there were high points, 1987 and 1997, it was never an enjoyable political experience.

There was the self-preservation society, the corruption in places like Dundee, the cronyism and complacency in Glasgow in the West, the tin pot local heroes and councillors who thought they ruled the roost.

When I first came to Glasgow I remember canvassing for Labour in the 1992 election and feeling ashamed at asking people who lived in poorly maintained, badly designed tower blocks to vote Labour. It seemed then that, particularly at local elections, to vote Labour in Glasgow defied any logic, while party members played a game of ‘fantasy Labour’, ignoring the state of affairs their party had brought about, instead blaming everything on ‘Tory cuts’.

My story is one amongst many. People still like Labour values, but they have grown to detest Labour practice. There lies an opportunity to be heard and (dread word) reconnect, but it is going to involve swallowing some bitter pills. Here are my seven steps for Labour’s recovery plan.

1. Become Fully Scottish Labour

Never mind the middling Boyack-Murphy party review. Become a fully autonomous Scottish Labour Party: the true inheritor to Keir Hardie. The party is now to be able to speak on all devolved areas, whereas it needs to cover every area of policy, devolved and reserved, domestic and international. You need to aspire to speak for Scotland.

2. Accept the SNP as Mainstream

Learn to (if not love) the Nats, accept and empathise with them. They are a normal, mainstream political party, not the Scots equivalent of the Vietcong. Drop the language of ‘separatist’ and ‘separation’. Most people either don’t understand it or think it bonkers. Start by trying to accept that the SNP have the good of Scotland in their heart, that you agree on many policies, and just happen to have different visions of Scotland. Or maybe even dare I say it, different routes to the same vision.

3. Accept Labour Scotland is over

Labour politicians pre-devolution bought into the myth of Labour Scotland, the idea that Labour spoke for a majority of Scots, aided by the distortions of FPTP. Now, some Labour dinosaurs at Westminster may not realise this, but Labour were always a minority appeal, and now you are even smaller, one minority amongst many, like the Nats.

4. Apologise for taking the Scots for granted

The only way you can get Scots to listen to you again is by apologising for Labour taking Scots for granted. Only then can you remind people of the good elements of your past, and be able to present a fresh prospectus. It would be good if you could candidly tell where Labour got it wrong. How about apologising for small-minded municipalism, telling people off all the time, and legislating for a Scottish Parliament without having any real idea what you would do in it? Say this without caveat (no Blair pseudo-apology) and people might begin to listen to Labour again.

5. A new language of the union

Forget ‘devo max’, Calman and fiscal autonomy. Stop obsessing about what you see as the SNP obsession: independence. It comes over as if all Labour want to talk about are the Nats and independence. A new language of the union, once you have ditched the pejorative language of ‘separatism’ isn’t about wonky things like ‘devo max’, but the kind of Scotland you want to create. In short, what would a Labour vision look like and why is it different from what you tried before.

6. Labour as the party of labour

One-third of Scots workers are in trade unions; across the UK it is a mere 22%. Yet how do people convey their voice at work; their individual and collective anxieties in an age of individualism and consumerism?

Labour have to be labour, and stand up for working people; for the working poor who are the vast majority of people in poverty in Scotland and the UK (not as tabloid myth has it people on benefits). This would go beyond the ‘squeezed middle’ and address flat-lining incomes for many over recent decades, insecurity, inequality, how poverty undermines working and middle class households, and take a stand against the excesses of casino capitalism.

7. Finally, social justice Scotland

Scotland tells itself it is a centre-left, egalitarian land and yet it is scarred by some of the worst inequalities and outcomes in Western Europe in health, and of anywhere in the world, in violence. Why not begin to tell a distinct social justice, story, which confronts social democratic Scotland with some unpalatable truths? Why does this supposedly centre-left country put up with such a situation? Who actually benefits from social democratic Scotland and its complacencies?

It is going to be a difficult few years for Labour. All the pressures will push you to stay in your comfort zone, be bunkerist and play to the base.

What you have to do is tell a distinct Labour message. Be authentically Labour. Connect to your past with a present and future account. Inhabit a politics which no one else does, which marks out part of the political terrain as Labour; give issues a voice which aren’t heard or fully expressed.

Johann or Ken. Scotland needs you. That may seem unlikely at this point of SNP popularity, but Scotland needs a credible, thoughtful opposition.

That should be you, but if you don’t take risks and change your tone, language and strategy, then you could head the way of the Scottish Tories, only more bitter and unpleasant. It’s your choice.

I wish you all the best. You will need it. Gerry