Whatever happened to Scottish Labour?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, February 26th 2011

Scottish Labour is a party with a great history, tradition and folklore. This was a party once filled with radicals, firebrands, dreamers, agitators and orators – people who believed in a better world – not just as a vague concept, but a living alternative to the inequities of capitalism.

1980s Labour had its Indian Summer of Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, John Smith and Donald Dewar who combined idealism and pragmatism. How come then it has ended up with Iain Gray? Is its current state terminal or if the polls improve, can Scottish Labour once again prove the critics wrong?

We need politicians and political parties until we evolve a better form of politics, yet across the Western world parties are in retreat and crisis. They are hollowed out and battered by market fundamentalism and global economic forces.

Those who remain in them tend to define themselves more and more by being part of a tribe: a Labour, Conservative or Scottish Nationalist one. These forces once had reach, power and connection to millions of people, but are now diminished and much weakened. Yet they still have a stranglehold over most of our political lives.

The story of how Scottish Labour came to its current state is a sad one. The party’s golden age of the 1980s arose from a host of factors: the post-war expansion of universities, the rise of ‘the polyocracy’ as the first wave of working class children went to further and higher education, the slow middle class defection from the Tories, and the power of collectivism and public service. This political generation has exhausted itself, and we are left with the Richard Bakers of the world.

Today the party is shaped by the parallel state – the serial quangocrats, consultants and place people who live their life defending the people’s party and exist when Labour is in or out of office, and which sadly the SNP has not systematically dismantled.

This aids the patronage culture of property deals, land sales and shady activities which at its most extreme exists as a kind of unsavoury shadowland, and which contributes to a payola world which would not be out of place in an authoritarian regime. Scotland has a limited, neutered democracy, where we can vote at elections, but the nomenklatura rule over us oblivious to things like accountability and conflicts of interest.

Modern Scottish Labour ended up a mix of old big city bosses, new money operators and pseudo-business waffle. Scottish Labour like New Labour forsworn any radical idea of political economy, and bought into technocratic managerial gobbledegook such as ‘Smart, Successful Scotland’. This was Wendy Alexander’s vision, but it is no good just blaming Wendy as some do, for this was the fault of all Labour and where was there any alternative?

Where have the radicals gone? Here is a voice from the late 1980s on poll tax non-payment and understanding the Scottish dimension. They wrote that, ‘No one doubts that many will be unable to pay, but the debate is about whether we should organise non-payment as action against the tax.’

They went on to advocate ‘a ‘Committee of 100’ Scots prepared to withhold payment’ led by the then fifty Labour MPs, the famous ‘fighting fifty’. This stance ‘could lead to rather than replace mass action’.

Who was this voice combining radicalism, thinking beyond gestures, and understanding a wider Scotland? This was none other than one Iain Gray writing in 1988. What happened to him? Where is that kind of voice anywhere in Scottish Labour?

The resignation of Wendy Alexander as a MSP – her third resignation – reveals Scottish Labour at Holyrood shorn of any real talent. Instead, the party is reduced to the serial bed blockers who believe they have Labour seats for life: rotten boroughs in all but name with often atrophied, moribund local parties. The party at Westminster is in a slightly better state with talented people such as Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy, but is a long way from the golden age of the 1980s.

What we need to ask is what exactly is Scottish Labour for beyond keeping the show on the road? Apart from humbling Alex Salmond and his interlopers and returning to normal service?

Scottish Labour, we should acknowledge, for all its rose tinted sense of its past was never really a social democratic party in the modern sense. In its early days it was a party of protest and idealism which took an ethical stand against the evils of capitalist society. This era suffered a big blow in the 1930s when the ILP left the party from which it never recovered. By the 1950s Labour became the party of the establishment, power and self-preservation.

In this Scottish Labour have similarities to machine politicians the world over: the old Democratic Party city bosses, the PRI in Mexico and Pakistan People’s Party. In most parts of the world time is up on this type of politics. Mayor Richard M. Daley isn’t anything more than a ghost in the corridors of Chicago City Hall.

The Scottish Labour Party need to know it has to change; that it cannot continue indefinitely the self-preservation society it has meticulously built up over the last few decades.

Every single Scottish Labour leader at Holyrood: Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander and now, Iain Gray, has chosen to do next to nothing to challenge this state of affairs. Lets note the one exception to this story: the introduction of Proportional Representation in town halls which brought the winds of democracy through many a one party local Labour state.

Scottish Labour leaders chose the path of least resistance; they choose to talk the language of democracy, renewal and modernisation, while practising a politics of extending and colluding with the politics of patronage, preferment and clientism. It was easier to do this because that way it shored up the party base, gave you a guaranteed band of followers, and allowed you to get things done.

Where were the voices in the party pointing in another direction? There were it has to be said a few. Wendy Alexander at points realised that the party had a major set of problems, but her solutions were stuck in the New Labour orthodoxies of regarding Labour and the trade union movement as the enemies of progress.

We knew before 2007 that Scottish Labour could not renew itself without losing an election and office. That is a universal truth across political systems the world over. You cannot remain in office indefinitely and remain uncorrupted and then change your ways.

We now know that Scottish Labour cannot renew itself without admitting it has lost and that the old ways won’t do any more. For Scottish Labour, Scottish politics and society, and the state of our democracy. That will in all probability take another defeat.