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.