What is Scottish Labour for?

As Scottish Labour regroups after the General Election, the temptation will be to focus on organisation and structure. Important though these are, the real question the party has to ask itself is – what is Scottish Labour for?

After the 2007 and 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, Scottish Labour held reviews that gave detailed consideration to internal structure, election organisation etc. Tucked away in both reviews was a mention of political purpose and strategy, but it was left to another time, it was regarded as of secondary importance. No political party has a divine right to exist; it has to have a clear political purpose. Scottish Labour needs clarity over its key purpose and then needs to find a way of expressing it in language activists can explain and voters can understand.

For me the answer is, it’s inequality stupid.

UK income inequality is among the highest in the developed world and evidence shows that this is bad for almost everyone. This is of course the core message of the ground-breaking study by Wilkinson and Pickett, ‘The Spirit Level’. More recently the EU’s official think tank on life at work said: “…the level of wage inequality in the EU as a whole is below that of the US. However, wage inequality in the UK, the EU’s most unequal country, is now above that of the US average. The UK, Latvia and Portugal are the three most unequal countries in Europe“. They also found that since 2008 increasing inequality has been driven by in developments within the UK. Danny Dorling’s recent myth busting in the Guardian reinforces the point.

It has been argued that Ed Miliband’s focus on inequality was one of the failings of the UK Labour election strategy. However, while there clearly were failings, tackling inequality wasn’t one of them. Even Tony Blair recognised, he was “absolutely right to raise the issue of inequality”. The problem was that Miliband’s approach was too timid (e.g. the £8 NMW) and presented badly using language that didn’t include a big enough coalition. The trick is to explain the damage inequality inflicts on everyone, not just the poor and disadvantaged.

Having explained what is wrong with our society, Scottish Labour has to show how it will fix it. That requires some big and really bold policies, such as – childcare free at the point of use; building 10,000 social houses every year; raising real wages and tackling insecure work. There are many more examples in the Red Paper on Scotland 2014. The key is ‘big and bold’, policies that are inspirational. Not, as the current Scottish Labour policy consultation paper does, offer the sparkling promise of multiple reviews!

This is also about political positioning. Scottish Labour can only win on the left of the SNP – the Tories exist to stretch the SNP on the right. The SNP is a very broad coalition, which is why they duck difficult issues like redistribution and retreat into process. One social attitude survey question asked voters of each party, ‘do you support abolishing inheritance tax?’. SNP voters were more in favour of this proposition than Tory voters. There is a lot of SNP rhetoric about the big issues facing Scotland, lots of reviews and consultation, but less real action.

That is not to encourage Scottish Labour into more tribal rants against the SNP. Instead, Scottish Labour should acknowledge the positive actions, park the past and move on. Telling voters they made a big mistake is never a smart political strategy. For the future, it’s about Scottish Labour’s positive vision and how the broad SNP coalition is holding Scotland back.

That leaves how Scottish Labour addresses constitutional change. It is often argued that Scotland, and other parts of Europe, even England, is being subsumed in tide of nationalism. The evidence for this is actually very weak. A longitudinal study undertaken at the LSE shows that the number of people in Scotland identifying as more Scottish than British has significantly declined since 1999, while those identifying as equally Scottish and British is increasing. This chart illustrates the shift.


This doesn’t mean that Scottish voters don’t want constitutional change. They overwhelmingly want greater devolution, which is why the trade unions in particular argued for a second question in the referendum. Scottish Labour should not be a unionist party – it is a party that sees the UK as a means to an end, not an end in itself. This means being positive about greater devolution based on the principle of subsidiarity. Ironically, this is a task made easier by the loss of MPs, shifting the Party’s political focus from Westminster to Holyrood.

Another feature of Scottish Labour’s new distinctive offer has to be devolution to local government and communities. This is again about political positioning, making the contrast with the SNP’s centralism. This requires a new approach to public service reform based on local democracy and integrated local delivery in actual communities of place. However, that means the Party has to have a political strategy for local government. Too many Labour councillors are passive administrators, rather than agents of radical political change.

In short, Scottish Labour has to break away from its establishment mentality and become insurgents again. A party of ideas, prepared to take radical and practical action on the inequality that blights so much of Scotland, damages our economy and takes everyone else down with it.

3 thoughts on “What is Scottish Labour for?

  1. “Scottish Labour should not be a unionist party”. Its a pity STUC or The Redpaper Collective never said that before the referendum.
    Don’t try and rewrite history.

  2. As a post mortem on the Labour election wipe-out in Scotland this article is a thought provoking and truthful analysis of Labour failings and what the author thinks should be done with a focus on first principals and on tackling scandal of inequality and unfairness which to my mind is applicable across the whole of the UK and not just Scotland.

    But that is not the focus of the wannabe Labour leaders who are unsurprising into the blame game with a vengeance and are busy regurgitating the tea-leaves of focus groups and think-tanks and pointing nostalgically to the winning Blair years. Basically it was it was Ed’s fault and unlike the astute Tories Labour failed to appeal to the aspirational working class – Osborne’s strivers – but with the right leader apparently we can tell the story better and wait while the Tories mess up and its Buggins’ turn.

    So I think it is fair to say that Westminster Labour is unlikely to change the narrative and focus – any time soon – by concentrating on fixing broken markets or by accepting that the Blair/Brown governments embraced a toxic mixture of neoliberalism, light touch regulation and privatisation agenda with enthusiasm while turning a blind eye to the greed, excesses and illegality of the city and big money and the behaviour of corporate, wealthy and celebrity tax avoiders. Nor are they likely to come clean and admit that under Labour workers’ rights were trampled-under foot to facilitate an avalanche of outsourcing, privatisation and wage cuts with minimum opposition to while inequality, social exclusion, poverty, deprived neighbourhood communities (aka the Labour heartlands in Fife) and the need for food banks and charitable giving grew exponentially.
    When the author suggests that it is time to move on from tribal rants at the SNP and the politics of negatively and to focus on: “……the damage inequality inflicts on everyone, not just the poor and disadvantaged…. …………..that blights so much of Scotland, damages our economy and takes everyone else down with it.” he is spot on.

    And while I’m not in any-way impartial, it is the best analysis on Labour’s woes and the way forward, I have read to date. Whether anyone in the Labour hierarchy is listening, well that’s another story.

  3. It looks like it will take a while for Labour to become a party of insurgents. It was said that voters did not trust Ed to deliver on his manifesto and that is surely also the case for Holyrood 2016 and the current crop of MSPs and potential candidates. It was incredibly foolish not to suggest a middle way question for the IndyRef and if it was an attempt to profit from SNP despondency following a predictable defeat I think it might just have backfired a little. Charismatic leaders help, but a positive platform that is not seen as a bitter attack on the SNP has got to be the starting point. Trying to embarrass the SNP on FFA is not the answer. Ideas for Holyrood policies and of course some new personnel without the No campaign baggage would help. As a Yes voter I am prepared to consider voting Labour again but then Tom Harris or whoever opens their mouth and I am repelled.

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