Scottish Labour, where's the coffee?

Gerry Hassan
15 September 2008

Iain Gray faces a daunting set of challenges as the new leader of the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament. In an OurKingdom essay, Gerry Hassan asks whether the party could yet find a way forward, in Scotland and beyond, in challenging an unravelling global order.

As one Scottish born leader’s hold on power diminishes, his prospects now hanging on an ever-weakening thread, another, a young pretender, enters the gladiatorial ring. We are talking about the fate of Gordon Brown and the new leader of ‘Scottish Labour’ (more on that term and position later), Iain Gray.

The fate of these two, greying, middle-aged, male Scottish Labour leaders are inextricably linked; if Brown goes down irreparably damaged by a rebellion at his party’s conference next week, Gray’s days will be if not short, even more difficult and nerve-racking. Yet, if Brown gets through the next few weeks both may then be impaled on the difficulties of the forthcoming Glenrothes and Motherwell and Wishaw by-election campaigns which the fortunes of Scottish Labour will greatly influence. Scottish Labour is in trouble, its dominance of Scottish politics over the last fifty years is over, and its current condition and decline are a harbinger of what may come to pass as the future for the wider party.

Scottish Labour as a Football Team in Trouble

The election of Iain Gray as leader of ‘Scottish Labour’ is – and this is no mean achievement - the party’s fifth leader in nine years. However, it is their first ever-democratic election. The party is being extremely cagey about releasing the full results of how many people voted. It claims a not too poor 58 per cent turnout amongst its ‘official’ membership of 18,000. This would mean that just over 5,500 party members actually voted for Gray for him to get his majority (along with uncertain numbers of trade unionists, MPs, MSPs and MEPs). Of course, it tells you something about Scottish Labour’s secretive like traditions that there is no public transparency as to how it conducts itself in elections.

Just as troubled football managers are jettisoned by a nervous chair the first sign of bad results, the same is true of Scottish Labour these last few years. Kevin Keegan, Sam Allardyce, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, they are just so interchangeable!

It was another sign that democracy is still an early learning experience for Scottish Labour that during the contest no major differences were revealed between the three candidates for the leadership. In their fifteen party hustings and numerous media debates they were all broadly prepared to consider the merits of a windfall tax and were for more autonomy for Scottish Labour, but were silent, evasive or unwilling to address a swathe of major issues: nuclear power, Trident, the disastrous consequences of British foreign policy and the nature of the British state.

The Potential Cathartic Nature of Leadership Elections

Leadership elections can be a significant turning point for a party. They can provide the moment when a coalescing of factors make a party wake up, smell the coffee and say no more are we going to carry on as we have done.

The Scottish Labour contest was not one of these moments, though it should have been. This is a bad omen for the larger British wide leadership contest Labour also needs. In Scotland the party’s leaders showed no real sense of anger, hunger and dismay about the situation the party is in, even though here they have already been thrown out of office. There is little sense that the party needs to change the way it acts, sees the world, Scotland and its opponents, and start mapping out a new philosophy and direction.

In recent times there are a number of examples where political parties have used leadership contests to positively take charge of their own fate. The Labour leadership contests of 1983 and 1994 were two examples. Both of these were historic national events involving hundreds of thousands of party members and trade unionists. The 1983 contest began the party’s road back from the abyss with the marginalisation of the then still powerful ‘hard left’ and election of Neil Kinnock. The 1994 election saw Labour embrace the politics of modernisation advocated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, leading to New Labour and three election victories, which eventually took the party to the existential crisis it now finds itself in.

Another UK example has been recently provided by David Cameron’s election as Conservative leader in 2005, which despite the denial of many in Labour, was the point where the party decided to put doctrinaire obsession with Thatcherism and Eurosceptism behind it, embrace the legacy of New Labour and develop a modern Conservatism in Blairite colours.

The re-election of Alex Salmond as leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party for the second time in 2004 has in retrospect turned out to be a major turning point for the SNP: the moment it decided to get serious politically about challenging Labour - which coincided with the moment of New Labour’s post-Iraq unravelling and the perhaps even more profound decline of Labour’s one-party domination of Scotland.

Scottish Labour is far from reaching its much needed turning point. This month’s election shows it is more at the place the Tories were in after losing in 1997 or Labour in 1979. It is still stunned by its defeat in the May 2007 elections to the Scottish parliament in Holyrood. Stunned and not yet thinking; still assuming that it can change the world to suit its assumptions, rather than the other way round. Reality has not yet sunk in.

Fade to Gray: Living in a Black and White World

Iain Gray’s progress to the leadership is surprising, given he was a fairly undistinguished minister (Enterprise 2002-3), then lost his seat in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, and spent four years as a Special Adviser to Alasdair Darling, the Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequor whose recent long profile in the Guardian revealed not only his ideological vacuity but also his lack of street intelligence claiming that he had “no idea” there would be a financial crisis.

Gray’s leadership acceptance speech showed spark, along with a bit of fight and contained some good lines and was well delivered. As has to be the case these days he founded his claim on leadership on his life story. But its value was undermined by his attempt to use it to get at Alex Salmond. Even his biography was sacrificed in an effort to make Salmond a pariah.

Scottish Labour detests the SNP and their judgement is disabled and distorted by the hold these views have over them. Even more, they hate Alex Salmond with every bone in their body and find him a detestable, morally objectionable figure – someone who they think should be universally held in contempt by the court of public opinion. The best thing Scottish Labour has done in recent years has been hate and vitriol.

There is something wrong here in the heart of Scottish Labour; something which reveals the ambiguity, doubt and emptiness which lies at its core, and transmutes this into hatred of others.

You do not need to be a psychoanalyst to work out the source of the pathological effort to turn Salmond and the SNP into an untouchable taboo. As I have explained in a previous essay in OK, the SNP is a not very left-wing social democratic party that is relatively competent and popular even thought it still has to win over large swathes of Scottish public and institutional opinion to its cause. In short, Labour has created a mythical, omnipotent, ‘dark’ SNP which only exists in its mind and psyche and nowhere else.

Five Challenges for Iain Gray: ‘Labour’s Coming Home’

The Scottish commentariat say that the future for the party north of the border is clear: Scottish Labour needs to become more Scottish, get more autonomy, and the leader needs to become the leader of all ‘Scottish Labour’.

Most people in the country have little idea that there is strictly speaking no such entity as ‘Scottish Labour’. The party is not an autonomous body, there is only one British Labour Party. Thus Scottish MPs in London and MEPs in Brussels and the Scottish branches of trade unions, vote for the leader of the Scottish Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament. Gordon Brown is still ‘officially’ the leader of Scottish Labour as Tony Blair was before him.

If we put this not unimportant point to one side, we can ask what does Scottish Labour stands for. Here are five tests the party needs to pass:

  • Labour was born as a party whose aim was to protect people from and humanise the worst aspects of capitalism. The party through its history never did this perfectly, but was informed by this moral compass. Since New Labour this has no longer been the case, as the party sided with the interests of corporate power against people. Scottish Labour has aided this by advancing PFI, marketisation and private prisons. Memo to Gray leadership: can Scottish Labour see the corporate takeover of Labour as part of the diminishing of our democracy, and acknowledge its part in this sad episode?
  • It should accept and embrace the SNP as a normal, conventional political party. Memo to Gray: the SNP are here to stay. Scottish Labour needs to accept them as a permanent fixture so it can then engage with them on an issue by issue basis while also competing at a more macro and strategic level.
  • Recognise that the old ways of Labour running Scotland were patronising and paternalist. Memo to Gray: admit this openly stating that while Labour began with the best intentions it slowly morphed over the years into a ‘self-perpetuation society’ and nomenclature which looked after itself and ran Scotland for its own benefit. Find a couple of examples of how a Labour council mistook the party for the people, and say that we will never practice this again.
  • Openly admit the limited and unattractive mix of polices by which Scottish Labour attempted to ‘govern’ Scotland under devolution. These were a strange, unattractive mix of old-style labourism and marketisation. Memo to Gray: drop symbolic policies in each: the authoritarian anti-social behaviour agenda of awarding kids prizes for ‘grassing’ on their neighbours, and the whole PFI/PPP agenda, would make an ideal two.
  • Start to think openly about the economy, social justice, public services and issues of culture and identity (the last of which should not the sole preserve of the SNP). It may be hard for some Labour people to understand, but when party representatives go on about ‘Labour values’ very few members of the public have any idea what this means. Think about it. A decade plus of New Labour trashing everything social democrats hold dear. Memo to Gray: start thinking about what living in a small northern country with the capacity to be one of the world’s leading social democratic societies should be like. Why doesn’t Scottish Labour dare to begin to imagine what a successful Scots social democracy would look like? And then address what the party would have to do to get there?

Scottish Labour has to undertake the difficult task of no longer behaving as if, thanks perhaps to SNP over-reach or a mistake, things will default back to where they were. The starting point needs to be a project of taking the Labour Party back into the hands of its members and supporters and reclaiming it from the corporates and big business - a bold course which would have ramifications beyond Scotland.

British Labour has colluded with the vested interests of the global order in the last two decades. This is an agenda which has slowly fallen apart, and delivered less and less, as the international, Wall Street way has began to fray and fall, and reveal its lack of capacity to deliver prosperity, security and hope to most of the people in the developed world, let alone wider issues of global justice.

The SNP has not distinguished itself by opposing this approach, rather its project is to demonstrate that it is fit to govern within the neo-liberal order. Redefining Scottish Labour in opposition to this, reclaiming it from the dominant order of recent times would be a step for Scottish politics of some significance. It would open up a genuine area of disagreement with the SNP rather than debating the merits of whose ‘Scotland plc’ works better, and would have consequences for the future of British Labour and challenging the debasement of our political life.

The question, however, is whether there is anything left to reclaim, especially given the modest numbers involved in the party’s first democratic leadership contest. Can the 18,000 foot soldiers have the energy, will and insight to begin such a process? Forget about trying to ‘save the Union’. What Scotland needs is a Labour Party whose slogan is, ‘Labour’s coming home’.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst and author and editor of twelve books on Scottish and UK politics including The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas, After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade and The Political Guide to Modern Scotland. He can be contacted on: [email protected]

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