Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Giving Scotland a reason to back Labour for social justice

First blogged on UNISONActive on 1/12/14 As the dust still swirls after the referendum, the challenge is to bring the focus back to the Scotland we want to see now. Of course the ‘neverendum’ campaign will continue but at some point we will have to address what we do with the powers we have now and will gain soon.

If, as advertised, it has all been about getting the powers to deliver on social justice, some have raised the question as to whether it really matters which party is in power in Scotland so long as it uses those powers to deliver.

After all, Nicola Sturgeon’s initial policy commitment seems to reflect the assumed Scottish consensus on social justice and is broadly welcomed. Of course if you dig down it is a bit less radical than it seems and we still have the smoke and mirrors about funding. That’s the nettle that still has to be grasped. Little talk of redistribution of wealth still reflects an unsaid political assessment that a mass commitment to the reality of funding real social justice may still be a bit skin deep.


Much is said about the great political debate that awoke during the referendum campaign. But when you got down to the brass tacks of how you deliver social justice – at least for the public campaign - it became less of a debate and more of an evangelical statement that the mere arrival of independence would sort all that out.

The huge influx of new members to the SNP should encourage us that people are returning to engage in politics. But with a party that was founded on one principle alone, independence in the future, we have yet to see what influence the inevitable divergence of views of its new members will bring to policies in the here and now – and on what history and principles they may be based. The Scotsman’s inside view of the Smith Commission makes interesting reading on this for all the parties.

There are many and varied forces at play that turned defeat into a message of hope at Nicola Sturgeon’s triumphal mass rally that make me a bit edgy. Just as edgy as I felt about Kinnock’s Sheffield rally in 1992. It just isn’t the way we do things. Like party conventions in the USA, these events are long on theatre and adulation but short on policy. And they all have one thing in common. They are overtly party-political whether you like it or not.

Yes, I know, party politics again. The very thing we are told was rejected by the millions who turned out to vote. But the fall-out from the referendum has been completely driven by party politics. Party politics with a concerted drive to ‘punish’ Labour, admittedly by biting further into its own self-inflicted wounds.

Labour didn’t cover itself in glory by sitting with Better Together. The scene was set for an active and calculated repetition of ‘Labour standing with the Tories’. The simplicity of the statement makes it all the more effective as it touches the nerve of communities in Scotland still suffering the legacy of Thatcherism. It is all the more effective because Labour was already disappointing many of them. It has even been used by the SNP, just after they signed up to it, to rubbish the Smith Commission conclusions. (see The Scotsman story again). It disregards any policies, no matter how radical they may be. That is how effective it is.

There was a time when folk didn’t need to know policy detail. Labour was created by working people and earned their loyalty. The Tories represented the privileged and would do nothing for working people. That’s all you needed to know. Much has changed but the objectives underpinning the creation of parties are still important in analysing what their aims will be – and what they will be prepared to trade off to achieve them (see The Scotsman story again).

In the meantime, let’s lay a couple of things to rest about the referendum lest they muddy the waters on how and why people vote. Many, like me, were voting No long before the ‘vow’ of the Westminster leaders. We voted for pooled resources and a broader vision of solidarity between working people that didn’t end at a border. Suggesting No voters were suddenly swayed by the ‘vow’ is not only supremely simplistic and patronising, it misses the point about why the Yes camp lost.

It lost because, despite the frustrations of many people who saw no other way of getting social justice and a sophisticated campaign with a fair bit of jingoism thrown in, it could not convince on what a post-indy Scotland would look like, how its currency would work, how welfare and pensions would be secured, how wealth could be created and redistributed, how we would fund our NHS and all our other services. Would poverty increase – and for how long - before all these things were sorted out?

Thanks to more in-depth polls, we now know the vote was not as polarised as the spinners would have had us believe. It was not oldies that outvoted the Yes voting young. We know there is a class division – and we ignore it at our peril - but we also know that did not fully explain the more complex demographic of Yes votes in Glasgow and Dundee with the lowest turnouts in Scotland.

Whatever we make of the reasons for the result, if social justice, as we are told, was at the centre of the great debate and not party politics, surely that should now give us a platform to unite across party boundaries.

The trouble is that attempts to build that unity are hampered by the division, and often bitterness, left over from a pretty damaging latter part of the referendum campaign.

The People’s Assembly Scotland’s steering committee recognised that as it met after the St Andrews Day rally against racism at the weekend. Calls were made for a ‘safe place’ where people from both sides of the referendum divide could get down to talking about the real effects of austerity, how we build broad campaigns in communities across Scotland to tackle that, and how we use any powers to create real change.

The ultimate betrayal of this whole process would be to get the powers and do nothing with them.

Labour needs to give those communities a reason to believe it can and will do something about austerity and will use those powers. It will only convince if it delivers as much on its founding principles as the SNP has on its.

A Labour party that believed in itself created the NHS against powerful forces of self-interest. It put people to work and gave them homes when the economy was in a worse state than it is now. These policies were delivered by leaders in tune with the founding principles and who were not afraid to call themselves socialists.

Labour delivered the minimum wage. It delivered a Scottish Parliament with more powers than people at the time had even hoped for. More recently – and despite the big fib that Labour borrowing created the financial crisis - Labour action staved off the worst effects of the crash. Since then, it has been Tory austerity that has caused the problem with services slashed and borrowing now higher than under the Brown government.

Austerity underpins all, but there are choices. It was an SNP government that chose to cut tens of thousands of jobs in local government - with all that has meant for services to the most vulnerable - for fear that any council tax change would damage the chances of winning the referendum (founding principle taking precedence). Of course we welcome plans to address the council tax now the referendum has passed but local councils cannot survive the delays of the timescale envisaged.

Let’s also not forget the re-selling off of our railways for 10 years when they knew powers were coming to bring it back into public ownership.

For its part, Labour has lost its way on its founding principles with ‘austerity-lite’, trying to appease the dwindling number of those who vote rather than engage the natural supporters who don’t any more. That’s a recipe for anodyne focus group policies designed to appeal to swing voters. That way you lose belief in what you stand for and the belief of those who naturally support you.

Those who don’t vote turned out big style in the referendum. So we know people will vote if they are engaged and if they can see a real cause and effect of their vote.

The loyal core of Labour support has been sorely tested. They have been given little to vote for. The vitriol between some Labour and SNP activists may be understandable given some of the dirty stuff on the ground but it is an insider sport now greatly divorced from the reality of the millions who voted in the referendum.

Far too many people now identify with the SNP as champions of Scotland and a tradition of social justice. We all know the facts don’t back the impression (enthusiasm for cutting business taxes, previous warm words for TTIP, slashing college places, decimating local government, selling off railways) but that is where we are. The old tactic of barnstorming attacks on the SNP now risk being seen as attacks on 1.6 million folk who voted Yes, many of them for sound ‘old Labour’ reasons.

How you revive Labour is not by political knockabout. Of course there needs to be party political debate and Labour cannot avoid that when it is under such party-political attack. But it needs to be more sophisticated. It needs to go back to those founding principles.

To answer my own question, party politics do matter. But they only matter if the party can build the trust that comes from a belief that it will stand by its founding vision. If trust is there people will feel they have something to vote for and their vote will matter in bringing change.

That is why Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack are welcome candidates in the Labour leadership election. Neil has lived in the world outside politics. He has a clear vision about what is important to the people who naturally support Labour. Sarah is greatly experienced, has been a good friend to UNISON, especially on home care, international and environment issues, and is steeped in a tradition of social justice.

Labour in Scotland needs to do things differently. That needs radical change and with the number of MSPs and MPs nominating the establishment candidate, you have to think that consensus is more aspiration than reality.

The party now needs leadership that will grasp the nettle and challenge austerity with an ambitious public works programme, a commitment to universal benefits and services with redistribution of wealth for the common good and decent pay for dignity not just survival. A leadership that will restore the £140,000 college places stolen from working class communities.

A leadership with the courage to use new powers to create fairer benefits and remove the cynical employment tribunal fees that are such a barrier to rights for working people. A leadership prepared to tell Ed Balls that the child benefit cap is an attack on universal benefits and an abandonment of the people that need it most.

A leadership willing to actually use the powers we will have. Most of all, a leadership that doesn’t just say it believes in these things but actually does, and has the energy to re-engage voters into believing they will be delivered.

Neil Findlay has impressed most on this and that is why he has won the backing of UNISON and so many other unions – and that is important because unions are far more in touch with real life than the political bubble. If he can restore confidence in voters and restore belief in so many of the 45% in the Labour roots they came from, he will be a winner.

And with a good number of Labour MSPs and Scottish MPs facing an enforced change of job in the next couple of years, a winner is what they need. But if they think winning will come from more of the same (no matter how it is dressed up) and repeating all the policies and strategies that have created the problem, they will have quietly chosen voluntary redundancy in advance.

They will also have missed the boat on the greatest opportunity we have had in years to bring the issue of social justice back to the mainstream heart of politics in Scotland.

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