openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Scottish Labour must return to its radical roots

Labour is becalmed ahead of Scotland’s election. For the party to surge, it needs to ride the current of contemporary activism.

MK Headshot.JPG
Maddy Kirkman
23 November 2020, 11.03am
Living Rent activists protest outside the Scottish parliament
Sam Lopez

This month marks the anniversary of the birth of Jennie Lee in 1904. A Scottish socialist and Labour MP, she was elected to parliament in 1929 at the age of 24, at a time when women under 30 had only just been given the right to vote.

Born before the first television broadcast, she went on to become the first Minister for the Arts in Harold Wilson’s government. She was elected before Cambridge University would award women degrees, and played a key role in the creation of the Open University, harnessing the “white heat of technology” to create educational routes for those denied other opportunities to study. She both reflected and drove enormous changes in our politics, our society, and the Labour party.

Today, Scottish Labour will only thrive if we too reflect and drive the changes in our society.

Evolution takes time and effort, but it isn’t hard to find inspiration. Look at the explosion of activism in recent years – school strikes on the climate crisis, Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, a surge in collectivised tenant action, campaigns for trans people’s rights. The intersections with the politics of the Labour movement seem clear.

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There is a shared focus on economic inequality, on restorative justice for historic and ongoing wrongs, and on reimagining how we see ourselves in relation to the state and to one another. Labour must embrace these movements and these ideas, alongside those that the party was founded on, to find relevance as a modern left-wing party.

Unfortunately, too often our conference motions and policy forums are too slow, and the political will is not strong enough, to keep pace with this re-energised political consciousness. It isn’t enough for Labour to simply be sympathetic to these struggles, let alone to see which way the wind is blowing and then pick a side. It isn’t even enough to extend solidarity to those fighting them as though they are external to ourselves. We must integrate a genuine understanding of intersectionality into our socialism – because that’s where it belongs.

My own background is as a disabled activist in the Disabled People’s Movement. I learnt my socialism from old White men, my feminism from young Black women, and I learnt struggle from disabled people. People who engage in activism despite finding it hard to wash and dress themselves; people who read and write their politics online despite needing assistive technology to do so; people who maintain an optimism about what society could be despite being punched by depression every time they wake up. We are people whose second-to-second existence is characterised by our marginalisation and the denial of resources. For some of us, it is a struggle for survival.

The liberation of disabled people is incompatible with capitalism. As long as we determine a human being’s value by what economic surplus they are able to produce, those of us who need extra inputs to create the same outputs will be undervalued. For as long as we rely on a system of tax-and-spend to administer meagre social security, rather than genuinely redistributing wealth and power, disabled people will continue to be seen as a burden to society.

It shouldn’t be hard to integrate these perspectives into our socialism and into Labour’s platform. That oft-quoted line from Marx about abilities and needs could have been written with us disabled folk in mind! Liberation from social and economic oppression must be Labour’s guiding principle and the future of the party depends on our engagement with this kind of politics.

We’ve come a long way in the process of incorporating feminism into our socialism; acknowledging domestic work as labour and recognising how patriarchal power and capitalist economics prop each other up. There is still some way to go, but the understanding is growing.

This isn’t “identity politics”, either. I know many of my comrades on the Left will cry; “There is no war but the class war!” – but if we fail to recognise the interconnectedness of all our struggles, we may win some battles, but we will lose the war.

Also, this can’t simply be a project to “regain trust” – a phrase often used to describe efforts to win back those Black and Asian voters who have slowly turned away from us. In the same way that the Labour Party cannot see trade unions as cash machines standing ready to fund election campaigns, we cannot see the communities who desperately need political reform as voiceless ballot box fillers who shore up our vote from time to time while seeing little of their own struggle reflected in our work. Instead, engagement with these groups must be conducted with openness and integrity – and most importantly, with a focus on listening.

That work begins outside of parliaments and outside of an election cycle. Constituency Labour Parties should prioritise engagement with the communities around them: running political education sessions, inviting speakers, sharing resources and offering practical assistance. Party members can’t just tell voters that we are on their side, we must show it. This is what it means to be a movement.

In the same way that setting out to “regain trust” without first becoming trustworthy is doomed to fail, engaging with communities cannot be about building a Labour platform outside the party. Instead, we must build platforms within the party, and create spaces where new ideas can be nurtured. Reaching outwards during manifesto development may be standard practice, but even that is not half as effective as Labour becoming recognised as the vehicle for change by those who are fighting for it.

There is evidence of this in our 2021 manifesto, where the influence of tenants’ unions and climate activism on our fundamental reading of the status quo created more radical policy. We must learn to do the same for liberation movements because embracing such politics only makes us stronger.

Similarly, working for a more vibrant and intersectional movement can address many of the challenges we face in diversifying political representation. In recent weeks, there have been legal wranglings over the best model of affirmative action to prioritise underrepresented groups in upcoming regional list selections. Becoming stuck in these debates five months away from an election is not effective or sustainable. Instead, we should work for a culture where marginalised voices are respected and candidates with different backgrounds naturally come to the fore and are offered support.

Just like in Jennie Lee’s time, Scottish Labour will only thrive if it both reflects the changes happening in our society and drives the advancements needed to meet the challenges of our time. The Labour Party must continue to evolve, staying rooted in our values and bringing forward new faces and fresh perspectives.

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