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.

Scotland: Myths, Realities, Radical Future


The Red Paper Collective has argued the case for greater devolution of powers to a Scottish Parliament for many years.  It is pleased that this is now almost universally accepted. But it is important to recognise that not all parties involved want powers for the same purpose. 

The Tories would be pleased to devolve sufficient powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so they could argue that henceforth Westminster will double up as an English Parliament as well as a UK Parliament.  They would try to present themselves as the defenders of England against the other parts of the UK that are after its wealth and Scottish Tories would be happy to pursue a low tax low, low public expenditure approach in Scotland.

The SNP would shamelessly absorb each new power while continuing to blame its failures to raise families out of poverty, or to secure working people decent wages and conditions, as being out of their hands.  Each new power would only be stepping stones to independence.

The Red Paper Collective, however, believes that new powers, if used effectively, can make a substantial difference now.  It does however mean that those in power in the Scottish Parliament must have the political will to challenge the vested interests of big business.

Support for Devo Max or Full Fiscal Autonomy could only benefit working people if it was implemented with the intention of reclaiming the Scottish economy for the Scottish people.  It would have to involve bringing the economy, particularly oil and gas, into public ownership.  It would probably involve asking people to make sacrifices in the short term so that a new type of economy could be built with the needs of working people at its core.  And even then success would almost certainly depend on extensive solidarity from workers in the rest of Britain. No-one, least of all the SNP, is suggesting this.

Full Fiscal Autonomy became central to the election campaign but once the numbers were shown not to add up it was claimed firstly, that the Smith Commission had said there should be no detriment to Scotland from its new powers, even though full fiscal autonomy was never an option under the Smith Commission and secondly, it was not going to happen so therefore the Institute for Fiscal Studies critique of it is “absolutely irrelevant.”

The new powers that should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament must be ones that enable it to undo some of destructive effects of not just the coalition austerity package, but the centralisation of power introduced by the SNP Scottish Government.   We need to end what Professor Prem Sikka calls the “organised humiliation of ordinary people”.  The Scottish Government’s 8 years of council tax freeze has taken over £2.5bn out of local authority budgets.  The Small Business Bonus Scheme has cost £900m without a shred of evidence to show its benefits.  The underspending by the Scottish Government for this year alone has been £444m.  Each of these is a political choice by the Scottish Government.  None of them have been imposed by Westminster. But each exposes an intervention on behalf of the better off at the expense of the poor.

The new powers that will certainly come to the Scottish Parliament could be used effectively in so many ways by effective use of taxation and borrowing, but the Scottish Parliament has not even begun to make effective use of its existing powers largely because it has lacked the political will.  As Neil Findlay MSP a contributor to a new Red Paper Collective publication has said:

“We need an alternative to the way our economy works, who owns it and therefore controls it and in whose interests it works. We need prosperity in place of austerity and democratic socialism in place of trickle down free market economics.  We must judge the use of any further powers on the basis of whether they enable Scotland to achieve these goals.”

Pauline Bryan is Convenor of the Red Paper Collective which today publishes its new publication Scotland: Myths, Realities, Radical Future.  www.redpaper.net