After the Referendum – What should Labour Do?

After the Referendum – What should Labour Do? 

STUC, 333 Woodlands Road, Glasgow

Saturday 25th October 2014

Programme

 

This conference is for members of the Labour Party.

10.00   Welcome from Elaine Smith MSP, Depute Presiding Office Scottish Parliament and Convenor of the Campaign for Socialism (CfS) and Neil Findlay MSP, Shadow spokesperson on Health, leading discussion on the consequences of the Referendum decision.

10.45   Break

11.00   Industrial and community policies (based on STULP document)  –  a short introduction  from Jackson Cullinane (Political Officer Unite) and then group work.

The manifesto is available here: http://www.revitalisescottishlabour.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/STULP_manifesto_2014.pdf

12.00   Local Democracy – policies and powers. Councillor Gordon Munro (Edinburgh) will provide a short introduction and then there will be group sessions led by Councillors Matt Kerr (Glasgow) Angela Moohan (West Lothian) and Kenny Selbie (Fife)*

13.00   Short lunch break

13.30   What powers and what democratic structure do we need to deliver a winning agenda – introduced by Richard Leonard (Political Officer GMB) and Dave Watson (Head of Bargaining and Campaigns, Unison)

14.15   Concluding session with group feedback and agreeing a working committee to take the ideas forward – Pauline Bryan CfS

15.00   Fraternal greetings John McDonnell MP

 

*Not all of the invited councillors have responded yet

The Citizen, the Journal of the Campaign for Socialism, will be available at the event.

Independence a Short Cut to Nowhere

Far from being a certain route to social democracy, as some suggest, Scottish independence is a short-cut to nowhere, says WILL BROWN. We need a longer term strategy for a progressive unionist future.

A key argument on the left of centre in Scotland, repeated this week by George Monbiot in the Guardian, is that independence will allow Scotland to achieve what it cannot in the UK: social democracy. Friends in Scotland echo this, saying people are fed up with the status quo and just want a chance to change.

And indeed, the referendum campaign in Scotland, especially at grassroots level, has revitalised activism, and encouraged people to question future possibilities and engage in discussions about political alternatives in a manner that stands in startling contrast to the pervading media image of disillusion, apathy and cynicism about politics. Organisations such as Common Weal and National Collective, and events like Yestival are signs of a political debate far more passionate and imaginative than that offered by the mainstream parties.

In these times, who could not be tempted by the chance to separate, to begin afresh, as many on the left are, in England as well as Scotland? It is an impulse that animates, not just nationalists, but many advocates of regional devolution too: a chance to govern ‘our own area’ freed from the constraints of Westminster and the City.

Yet, this position sits uncomfortably with the history of socialism and social democracy in Britain. Social democracy in post-war Britain was indelibly a unionist creation, as was the broader socialist movement that emerged from the late 19th century. One only has to skim through the profiles of ILP pioneers and politicians on this web site to understand that socialist and social democratic politics in Britain are … British.

No nation within the UK can claim a right to that heritage, separate from another. Indeed, one would have to acknowledge that it wasn’t even only a British creation, but one which melded and made room for politics from elsewhere too – including from Europe and from Britain’s colonies.

Denying the role of England and English political activists and politicians, the role of the union, in creating the very social democracy that many pro-independence campaigners seek to ‘rescue’, does a huge disservice to the many political activists who have worked and continue to work for social democracy north and south of the border.

One has to ask of the left who are supporting independence, what price solidarity? What of the solidarity across the UK that forged campaigns for the vote, against unemployment, for the NHS, and today, against austerity and the bedroom tax? It wasn’t the left in England – or even a majority of English voters for that matter – who inflicted the poll tax on Scotland.

But it was a united movement, north and south of the border, that brought an end to that Thatcherite abomination, and it could be too with the bedroom tax. One is tempted to suggest that some of the left-wing supporters of independence need to remove the blue Saltire from their eyes and see a bit more red.

Hard truth

Perhaps one could live with this traducing of history if the political prospects looked good, if indeed independence could propel Scotland towards a revitalised social democracy. The hard truth is they don’t look any better there than in the UK as a whole. The pursuit of separation, tempting though it may be, is more a sign of desperation than of long-term strategic thinking for those on the left.

In today’s global economy, the prospects for social democratic policies in any one country are poor. Certainly since the late 1970s, but before that too, almost every attempt to implement social democracy has had to face crises brought on by the reaction of capital, in the form of currency traders, bond traders and investors. In major economies, from the UK in 1945 to France in the early 1980s (and France today for that matter), social democratic governments have had to tack and weave in the face of adverse international economic winds.

Most have eventually changed course; many capsized in the storm. As Vince Mills has argued cogently on this web site, the idea that such experiments would be more sustainable at the scale of a Scotland-sized economy, as compared to a UK-sized economy, seriously underestimates the constraints small nations face in today’s international system.

There is an assumption among many on the left that political independence automatically delivers a real, de facto independence from international capital. Yet the strength needed to make such left of centre experiments survive is more likely to be found within a larger economy and, even then, would need the kind of broad public support and active popular participation that has been so lacking from so much of Labour’s history. Without these defences, the pursuit of independence seems more like a strategy for hiding in the long grass hoping the tigers of international capital will forget you are there.

It is true that the prospect of even a modest social democratic programme in the UK is fraught with difficulties. It is this that makes the temptation to go it alone in Scotland so strong. (Of course, independent Scotland, by denying Labour so many seats in Westminster, makes it even more difficult to achieve on a UK-wide basis.)

But independence is a short-cut to nowhere. At best, it offers a short-lived honeymoon. At worst it offers the kind of instant crisis-management, ‘facing up to economic realities’ and ditching of principles that have greeted so many social democratic governments. How long will it be before we hear a leader of independent Scotland echo Callaghan in ’76 and tell the disillusioned electorate that ‘in all candour this is no longer possible’?

The prospect of crisis, and the pathologies of diminished expectations that would surely follow, are all the more pressing given Alex Salmond’s amazingly ill-considered currency policy. About the only point on which I have ever agreed with George Osborne is the question of currency union. No UK chancellor with an ounce of sense (and, more importantly no English, Welsh or Northern Irish taxpayer) would agree to a currency union without cast-iron commitments, limits on Scotland’s fiscal and financial policies, and regulation. After the crash, after Greece, Spain, Iceland and Ireland, it would be astonishing if anyone would be so cavalier with future prosperity as to agree to the kind of deal Salmond is seeking – giving Scotland all the financial freedom and England all the liabilities.

In reality, ‘independent’ Scotland would have only tough choices: a deal in which Westminster and the Treasury put severe constraints on all the major levers of Scotland’s macroeconomic management; a deal for joining the Euro that would come with equally stiff requirements; or ‘unofficial’ use of the pound (‘sterlingisation’) in which the Scottish government operated without any control over interest rates, no central bank and almost no ability to borrow money from the markets. The choices are limited and however hedged about it might be with nationalist denunciation of ‘London’, the EU or ‘international capital’, Scotland would be forced to accept one of them.

Progressive alternative

So what is the alternative to independence? What prospects can be held out to those north of the border craving a change, any change, from the status quo of austerity?

The perception south of the border is that one of the signal failures of the No campaign has been an inability to articulate a Labour defence of union and vision for a progressive unionist future. Shackled within the all-party Better Together campaign, and by Labour’s own record in government, the very idea of an alternative unionist future has been hidden, allowing the Yes campaign to paint the referendum as a stark choice between unionist austerity and independent social democracy.

Alastair Darling’s woeful performance in the second TV debate owed something to this obvious trap, making it easy for Salmond and his jeering acolytes in the audience to taunt him about austerity, the bedroom tax and NHS privatisation. Questioned about what union had ever delivered, Darling even failed to make the obvious point that the NHS itself is a unionist, Labour creation. Of course Labour’s record in office also constrained what this particular Labour politician could credibly argue.

Thankfully, there is now some acknowledgement that the No campaign needs a clearer sense of what a Labour future might hold for the UK, a UK including Scotland. The absence of a Labour defence of union has belatedly prompted recognition from the Party that it needs to remind voters of the possibility of an end to Tory rule even without independence. It has also spurred Gordon Brown back into the political fray (although he too is shackled by his years of subservience to the City) and prompted Jim Murphy’s 100 streets in 100 days’ campaign.

From a more left-wing position there is the argument Vince Mills has made from the Red Paper Collective, pointing out that the short-cut of independence represents a failure to face up to the power of the City and the power of capital, and the constraints and difficulties this puts in place. The need to present a progressive alternative to independence, to challenge the SNP’s false dichotomy of independence or Tory rule, could hardly be more pressing.

Admittedly, the idea of a progressive political future is a hard sell wherever you may be. The forces ranged against us, the antipathy to socialist values (north and south), the dead weight of past Labour governments, and the absence of a clear progressive voice from today’s leadership all make the siren call of independence so much the stronger.

But a longer-term strategy is needed, one which acknowledges the difficulties faced by left-of-centre politics wherever they may be: a strategy that is aware of British social democracy’s shared unionist history (warts and all); a strategy that builds on past solidarity between socialists north and south of the border, rather than one that abandons that shared struggle; and, perhaps above all, a strategy that learns from, and is energised by what has been so good about Scotland’s referendum campaign – the grassroots activism, the popular participation, the opening up of the parameters of political debate, and the willingness to imagine a better future.

This article first appeared on http://www.independentlabour.org.uk

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Boris Johnson and the NHS

Vince Mills

One of the enduring ironies of the referendum campaign is the extent to which the ‘Yes’ camp has attacked the ‘No’ camp for using negative tactics and scare stories and then used precisely the same tactics themselves. What is worse, is that in the process concerns that we on the left share and would want to analyse are subjugated to the simple Yes/No binary, closing down the space for a serious discussion.

The most important area for consideration here is the NHS, but before we look at that, let us consider the issue of Boris Johnson. Enough has been written about the mop top with prime ministerial ambitions to fill a wilderness of dustbins, but not enough of that has focused on the reactionary core of the man’s politics – his elitist upbringing, neo-liberal instincts and social prejudices.  Politically there is probably little to separate him from Cameron except that he has managed to develop a populist appeal based on what is seen as ‘personal authenticity’ which disguises the awful consequences of the politics he espouses – food banks, a working poor and a trade union free economy, a precondition of the first two evils.

In Scotland the possibility of Johnston’s accession to the prime ministership focused less on the swarm of political plagues that would infest Britain should he succeed and more on what it might mean for further powers for the Scottish Parliament. Here is the Scotsman:

“The London mayor stated his opposition to devolving greater tax responsibilities to Scotland as a poll showed he had opened up a big lead over his rivals as the politician the public would like to see replace Tory Party leader David Cameron.

Nationalists last night seized on the intervention to warn that Mr Johnson’s comments offered a “grim insight” into Scotland’s future devolution prospects in the event of a No vote and a Johnson premiership.”

This of course entirely contradicts the implications of Scotland voting ‘Yes’ that its supporters are wont to promote.  The SNP has offered endless assurances that negotiations over the currency and Trident and the myriad of other matters will be a walk in the park given the desire for agreement on the part of the rUK government they insist will follow the acceptance of a ‘Yes’ vote. If Johnston wins, according to their interpretation, we will have a politician with a popular base who appears to be hostile to concessions, thereby increasing the risks to getting a settlement on issues the SNP consider core, like the currency. Admittedly this is less of an issue for those in the ‘Yes’ camp who support an independent  Scottish currency, but that takes us back to the issue of who is actually calling the shots in the independence campaign and like it or not it is not Jim Sillars and Dennis Canavan

The obfuscation of serious socialist dialogue evident in the Johnston case is magnified when it comes to the question of the NHS. In fact the NHS in Scotland has been a considerable success, certainly in comparison to its travails in England and it therefore demonstrates the effectiveness of devolution in delivering Scottish solutions for the Scottish context. As Dave Watson on Unison noted in June in the openDemocracy site:

“Since devolution, the NHS in Scotland has taken a very different path to that of NHS England. It has embraced co-operation rather than competition. And new figures show that Scots reckon that it delivers for them.”

Not that it has saved the Scottish NHS from PFI/PPP and the left certainly needs to discuss how, for example, additional borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament could help address that issue.

But that is not the discussion we are having at the moment, however.  Instead in language every bit as ‘scary’ as the scaremongering the ‘No’ campaign is accused of, leading ‘Yes’ politicians predict the end of the health service in Scotland as we know it. Here is the BBC website:

“Earlier this year First Minister Alex Salmond warned of a “growing threat” to the Scottish NHS from an agenda of “privatisation and fragmentation” at Westminster.

“Under the Westminster system, cuts to spending in England automatically trigger cuts in Scotland,” he said. “So if private money replaces public funding in England, our budget will also be slashed no matter what we want or need.””

The argument being pursued here is that because the Barnett formula works on increased funding going to Scotland based on an increase in England, then a spending cut in England as a consequence of privatisation will mean less money will go to Scotland.

What is really egregious here is the failure to explain the full horrors of privatisation.  The private sector is not coming into the market to take money and offer care to patients who might otherwise have used public services – that form of privatisation is peripheral.  The point is that services are subcontracted out to the private sector, like hip replacements funded by public money!

Consequently the amount of public money going into the Health Service in England is not falling. It is, according to a report produced by the Charity the King’s Fund which looked at a number of projections, increasing and according to the Treasury’s official Red Book for the 2014 Budget spending on England’s NHS was scheduled to increase from £105.6 billion in 2013/14 to £110.4 billion in 2015/16.

In light of this what are we to make of the Sunday Herald’s Panelbase poll on 17th August on the NHS.  Here is the question that was asked:

“Does the prospect of an increased role of the private sector in the NHS in England having an adverse effect on the Scottish budget which funds NHS Scotland make you likely or unlikely to vote for an independent Scotland?”

If it were true that the increased role of the private sector in the English health service would have such an impact on the Scottish budget then yes, that would be of concern. But as we have seen there is no such reduction. The ‘poll’ therefore was a cheap exercise in propaganda rather than an attempt to help understand attitudes to an area of national importance in both England and Scotland. Despite, or perhaps because of  the questionable wording of the Panelbase poll which the accompanying article claimed showed the NHS was the key to winning women voters, only 42% women said they likely to vote yes on that basis, 38% were unlikely and 20% women were undecided – hardly a ringing endorsement.

Of course, and rarely mentioned by independence supporters, ‘we are doomed’ if Cameron and the right can win the next election. The UK polling site puts labour ahead in the polls by 36% to 33% which translates, using their methods, into a 32 seat majority for Labour.

I hope that if, as the polls suggest, there is a ‘No’ vote the Left can devote its energies to exposing the damage and the danger that Cameron, Johnson and their ilk pose and discuss radical alternatives including what additional powers a Scottish parliament will need to underpin successes like the NHS.