Labour and the Referendum.

On 6th February 2014, The Herald published an Agenda feature by Professor Bob Holman suggesting why a Yes vote in the independence referendum would be good for Scotland and for Labour . (Why A Yes Vote Is The Best Thing)

I offered the following in response: however, the Herald replied that it was too long, but offered instead to publish a 500 word letter instead. This is to be found here: Remember The Good Labour Has Done At Westminster with my thanks to the Herald for publishing it.

But here is my full text.


I have never met Bob Holman, either at Labour Party meeting or elsewhere; however, I am told that he is nice man with the best of intentions. However, having worked since 1985 for two Leaders of the Council and two Lord Provosts, and in economic development and social policy for the Council, I do know something about Glasgow and its social and economic problems.

I also know about the Labour Party, having joined in 1977, and been continuously in membership since then, in five different constituencies in England as well as in Glasgow.

It is armed with this experience that I would strongly contest his assertion that a Yes vote would be good for Scotland and for Labour. I will also add that the height of my political ambition has so far been to contest an unwinnable council bye-election in the London Borough of Southwark in 1983. The closing date for self-nomination for candidacy in the Scottish Parliament elections for my home seat is 10th February, and I have resisted temptation once more. (So I am not writing in any official capacity and nor with any goal of currying favour – yes, I actually believe this stuff.)

What I believe is required, as a social democrat in the Labour Party, was perhaps best put by the Polish philosopher Lesjek Kolakowski …“ an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy.”

At the same time he warns

“…The trouble with the social democratic idea is that it does not stock and does not sell any of the exciting ideological commodities which various totalitarian movements – Communists, Fascist, or Leftist – offer dream-hungry youth. It has no prescription for the total salvation of mankind … Democratic Socialism requires, in addition to commitment to a number of basic values, hard knowledge and rational calculation …”

Which is where the argument against a Yes vote and the siren voice of independence comes in: it is indeed an “exciting ideological commodity” with not one but many prescriptions for the total salvation of the Scots and Scotland.  Readers of this paper and especially of its letters page will see evidence of this day and daily: likewise we have the White Paper of the Scottish Government by which Professor Holman himself sets such great store.

However, let us take a bit of Kolakowski’s “hard knowledge”, and apply it to Holman’s home patch in Easterhouse.

  • In my time in Glasgow, its public housing has been transformed from some of the worst in Europe to some of the best. How did it come about? By the UK Treasury writing off £300 million historic debt on those houses.
  • Pensioners in Easterhouse are now entitled to a minimum income of £145.50 per week for single people (£222.05 for couples). How did that come about? By the introduction of Pensioner credit.
  • Working people in Easterhouse – for example those working at Glasgow Fort – are entitled by law to a pay rate of £6.31 an hour. How did that come about? By the introduction of the National Minimum Wage.
  • Families in Easterhouse are entitled to tax credits of up to £2,720 for each child. How did this come about? By the introduction of Working Families Tax Credits.

It would be wrong to take these examples as having solved all of the problems of Easterhouse, but no-one can deny that all of these have improved the lives of the people concerned, sometimes to a massive degree.  And all were the direct result of Labour Party policies, brought in at Westminster.

To this we can add: the winter fuel allowance increased from a mere £10 under the Tories to £250; protection introduced against unfair dismissal after 12 months in a job instead of after two years, and increased the compensation from £12,000 to £63,000; equal rights given to part-timers workers for the first time (equal pay, pro-rata pensions, pro-rata sick pay etc); paid maternity leave increased from 14 weeks to 39 weeks, and paid adoption leave and paid paternity leave introduced, plus emergency time off for parents and carers.

The total effect has been to make Scotland not “one of the most unequal countries” possible as the SNP White Paper falsely tells us, but according to research at Stirling University, somewhere in the middle rank – about 14th, about as equal as France or Switzerland, and better than Canada and Australia.

So the reality is that like Easterhouse, Labour made Scotland better, but with plenty still to do.  It is with this in mind that we turn to Kolakowski’s “rational calculation,” and apply the acid test for practical progressives, which is to examine what politicians have done in power.

Readers might guess that I am more a Denis Healey man than a Tony Benn fan: one brought UK colonialism to an end  East of Suez and tamed inflation caused by the Tory Barber boom; and the other one’s outstanding achievement was to waste our money on Concorde. And unlike, Bob Holman, I think achievement is more important than background: who cares if Attlee went to Haileybury or Bevin left school at 11? Or that Tony Blair went to Fettes and Oxford, when his government was responsible for all of the above?

So we should compare Labour’s outcomes with what the SNP has done in power.  For example, in comparison to Labour’s policies, it will be instructive to calculate the effects of the SNP’s prized flagship policies:

  • how many people in Easterhouse are enjoying free university fees (at the cost of places at the excellent local John Wheatley College)?
  • How many people in Easterhouse are benefiting from the Council Tax freeze which disproportionately rewards the rich?
  • How many people in Easterhouse will benefit from the protection of how much inherited unearned wealth which is the effect of “free” elderly care?

The message is must clearly be that in office, Labour at Westminster has done far more for the people of Easterhouse than the SNP at Holyrood.  What is more is that Labour’s achievements did not stop at the border: they were made at a UK scale.

So benefits to the people of Easterhouse were replicated not just in other Scottish towns and cities, but in every corner of the UK. 

As a result, the Child Poverty Action Group described Labour’s  achievement of taking not just 100,000 in Scotland out of poverty, but 900,000 in the whole of the UK as “a remarkable achievement, certainly without historical precedent in the UK, and impressive compared with other countries.” Similarly, Labour built 149 new hospitals and drove waiting times down to just 2 weeks – the lowest since the 1970′s. In all Labour upgraded more than 1 million council houses, saving billions on fuel bills.

These achievements, together with Scottish and Welsh devolution, come on top of the great historic advances made by Westminster – old age pensions, full adult suffrage, the NHS, the Welfare State, abortion rights for women, and equal rights for ethnic and sexual minorities.

Most of these were the result of Labour being in power. As a social democrat, I am proud that Labour has served so many and so widely, and can continue to do so. We will not give up our cause lightly.

Finally, I can recall an earlier enthusiasm of Professor Holman: his welcome for Iain Duncan-Smith.  My jaw literally dropped to see a not very bright Tory, notorious above all for his opposition to a social Europe, being taken seriously as a friend to the poor in Easterhouse.

Duncan-Smith should have been judged by his record then, as those advocating Yes should be judged on their record now. It is either thin or non-existent. In comparison, Labour’s record, for Easterhouse, Glasgow, Scotland and the UK is one of which we can all be proud, and proof that Westminster is more effective in delivering benefits (in every sense ) on a wider scale to the poor and disadvantaged than Holyrood  can dream of.

Peter A. Russell is a member of Anniesland CLP and Chair of the Glasgow Fabians. He writes in a personal capacity.


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