Friday, 23 January 2015

The shifting politics of Scotland

First published in the Morning Star on 30 December 2014:
It’s been a quiet time in Scotland recently, apart from the Smith Commission on devolution powers, a new first minister, her programme for government, SNP mass rallies, a Labour leadership election, a shadow cabinet reshuffle, the Rangers manager handing in his notice, and the first fall of snow.

I mention the football story because there are parallels with Labour’s situation.

On the one hand there is a top table perplexed by the desertion of supporters and apparently losing touch with its core business and league position. Then there’s Rangers.

Unkind perhaps, but 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.

That doesn’t wash any more. The SNP, at least in the public eye, is out-Labouring Labour.

The Labour leadership election was an opportunity to redress that. The campaign did shift the focus onto social justice thanks to radical policies from Neil Findlay and Katy Clark, both backed by my union Unison. Encouragingly, victor Jim Murphy ran with many of those policies.

Mind you, I fell off my seat reading a Guardian report that Murphy insiders were surprised to discover how divisive he is in some quarters.

That’s not a political bubble they are in, it’s a hyperbaric chamber cut off from the world till normal pressure resumes.

And resume it will. If Labour carries on looking inward rather than out and listens to itself rather than the natural supporters who have gone to the SNP, we will have a self-congratulatory group of elected politicians believing they are winning the political knockabout right up to the point the chamber door opens and they hit the fresh air outside any of the parliaments.

I don’t grudge Yes voters their celebration and it is a stroke of genius that the celebration comes out of defeat.

The adulation of Nicola Sturgeon’s rallies across the country does strike an uneasiness about whether nationalism — albeit ostensibly left-leaning — is what is uniting rather than the hard policies that would really

address social justice. Nevertheless it is impossible to deny that the SNP has created a mass movement that any other party would relish.

Sturgeon’s programme for public services, the NHS, the living wage, welfare, gender equality, childcare and Trident is rightly resonating hugely with the crowds she attracts — and much wider.

Of course the facts don’t always back the impression, what with the SNP’s enthusiasm for cutting business taxes, failing to enforce the living wage in procurement, slashing college places for working-class kids, decimating local government with 40,000 jobs gone and possibly 40,000 more, and selling off railways.

And we won’t get anywhere on social justice until all parties grasp the nettle of the council tax freeze that has wasted £2.5 billion, mainly benefiting better-off households while starving local services.

Policies aside, the SNP also has an understandable party political aim of burying its opponent.

The Labour “standing with the Tories” label from the referendum has stuck.

The simplicity of the label makes it all the more effective as it touches the nerve of communities in Scotland still suffering from the legacy of Thatcherism.

It was even used by the SNP to rubbish the Smith Commission conclusions only minutes after it had signed up to them.

The way to challenge that is for Labour to provide a real democratic socialist alternative.

Murphy’s initial pronouncements on setting policy independently of London — although already possible on devolved matters — hopefully shows a recognition that politics have moved in a different direction in Scotland.

It is good to see Findlay and Sarah Boyack in Murphy’s new shadow team and it would be even better if trade unionists got more directly involved in the Scottish party to keep geeing it along.

Much as I have challenged the assumption that there is a mass shift to the left in Scotland, the centre ground has indeed moved and the opportunity now is to capitalise on that.

We need two parties vying for the social justice mantle, not an unchallenged one-horse race.

Having said that, the first challenge is not a Holyrood election but the imperative to get the Tories out of Westminster.

While the parties slug it out, it is all the more important to bring the focus back on to fighting austerity, building alliances and taking the arguments wider.

It is not enough just to win tax, welfare and borrowing powers. Politicians need to be challenged on how they will use them to create a fairer Scotland.

Despite all the grand words, a raft of existing powers to tackle poverty and inequality have lain unused.

That’s why we should support the People’s Assembly Scotland’s innovative plan for “safe place” debates in local communities that allow the focus to be on fighting austerity now, rather than raking over the divisions of the referendum.

A planned Questions for Scotland project will launch in the new year with online questions and local events.

It will publicise the politicians’ answers and urge people, irrespective of political allegiance, to get together in local and national debates about challenging austerity.

It will be a much-needed forum to keep the focus on the real-life human cost of cuts and build for action to hold whoever governs to account.

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