Yesterday evening, I attended my CLP’s Nomination Meeting for the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party. It was an excellent meeting, in both senses – a good turn-out in numbers and a wide range of views being aired.
On the one side, we had the those who believe that Labour’s problems in Scotland can be addressed by the adoption of a leader who is to the left of where the party currently stands, and who support Neil Findlay for Leader and Katy Clark for Deputy. Their case rests on the assertion that Labour has lost contact with those who supported us in the past, and that this can be rectified by a number of left-friendly measures, including making Minimum Wage the same as the Living Wage, building 50,000 new homes for rent and a national strategy to end poverty in Scotland.
The trouble with these proposals is that the left agenda in Scotland is already much more radical than their programme. The evidence of this can be found in many of the online comments to my recent LabourList article in which I urge Labour to take the initiative: http://labourlist.org/2014/10/what-should-scottish-labour-do/.
One of the remarkable features of post-referendum Scottish politics is the way in which the anti-UK and anti-Labour forces have coalesced. They now represent single front comprising the larger minority which would support independence, plus the far left (including ex-Militant and SWP Trotskyists and ex-CPGB in an opportunistic alliance) and the Scottish Green Party. In short, it seems impossible to outflank the nationalists on the left, just as it is impossible to be more nationalist than the SNP.
The other side of the argument at our CLP was the case surrounding Jim Murphy. The cases for and against Jim were aired. Against: that he is a ‘Blairite’, that he voted for the invasion of Iraq, that he supported student loans to replace grants, and that he is “the most rightwing person in the Labour Party” (from someone who obviously does not know me as well as she thought. Or Hopi Sen.) The case for was also predictable: that he is the known election winner that we need to avert electoral disaster, that he has a high recognition factor with the wider electorate, and that being Blairite is not a bad thing, as New Labour won handsome election victories after decades of Labour failure.
Further discussions went into a bit more detail. These included a contribution which mainly comprised a denunciation of the Iraq War, and a very incisive destruction of that argument by an Iraqi Kurd comrade; praise for Neil Findlay’s role in defending the No case against the Yes Campaign’s lies on the NHS, and someone pointing out that he actually lost that argument; contributions from full-time trade union officials supporting the line as they were paid to do; and an intervention by a past CLP Chair who last drew attention to himself by telling the press he was voting Yes against CLP policy and the Labour Party (he favoured the Findlay/Clark ticket by the way). Others argued that it was essential that the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party should be an existing MSP.
Our MP, John Robertson very fairly declined to bang the drum for his own favoured candidate. Instead he drew attention to the fact that Scottish MPs do not cease to be Scottish when they go to Westminster, and to the false Nationalist opposition of Holyrood versus Westminster.
Then the vote: for Deputy Leader, we voted clearly for Kezia Dugdale as the CLP nomination; for Leader we voted very narrowly for Neil Findlay. This fairly reflected the keenness and indeed the quality of the discussion.
Two things were striking about this debate.
The first is the seriousness with which the discussion was conducted, and consequently the respectful way in which the cases of those under consideration and their supporters were received on all sides. This was a vast improvement on earlier leadership and policy debates.
This perhaps reflects the gravity of our situation. My assessment– based on current opinion polls – is that at best after May 2015 Scotland will be like it was in 1974, with the SNP winning 10-15 seats and second in another 35-40. At worst – and this is a very real risk – the SNP will break FPTP and win over 40 seats and Labour will hold fewer than 10.
The second feature that is striking is that it was a debate that returned to Labour’s roots. For as long as the Labour Party has existed, it has been an alliance of “left-wing” ideologues and “right-wing” pragmatists. Sometimes – such as in the 1980s under Michael Foot and before being addressed by Neil Kinnock – the left has dominated; sometimes, as from the mid-1990 – under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – the right has dominated. Our oldest question was debated yet again: are we going to do better from the left-far left, or from the centre-left?
Labour governments are like all others: they do some good things and some bad things; they also leave some things undone and do some things that are unnecessary. It is reasonable that the Blairite New Labour governments, having demonstrated that we could win and win well from the centre-left, governed from the same place (“We were elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour”). So it follows logically that the left will see more to criticise in those governments, and the right will see more to praise.
My own view is that economic orthodoxy is the price that needs to be paid to ensure the economic stability required to guard our relative prosperity against calamity, and thereby in turn to protect our public services, pensions and welfare. I also believe that the evidence of the last decades is that Labour is best placed to win elections from the centre.
I concede that it is possible that post-referendum Scotland is a left-wing exception to the general rule of western democracies (Germany, France, Spain, Greece) that social democracy is in retreat.
However, it seems more likely that the referendum has simply provided a populist home to all of those who are unhappy with the reality of modern world. It appears to be the ideal place for all of those who reject economic necessity, and those who think the UK is their enemy, who think capitalism is their enemy, who think the media are their enemy, who think “the Establishment” is their enemy, even some who think their fellow Scots not rejecting Britishness are their enemy.
Many of those who hold these views long ago rejected the Labour Party: some of them are even known individuals who were expelled from Labour for trying to destroy our party from within. Now they are pressing even harder with their narrative of Labour “betrayal.” It is difficult to see how we can now win them back, or even why we would wish to do so.
In contrast, I thank my comrades in my CLP and welcome the debate that we enjoyed. However, I will vote for Jim Murphy in the ballot of members which starts soon, and would urge others to do. I will also vote for Kezia Dugdale as Deputy, and I believe that as a team, they stand the better chance of restricting Scottish Labour’s losses to a level below calamitous. If Neil Findlay and Katy Clark are elected, I hope I am wrong. And I am sure – especially after last night – that the reverse applies as well, and that their supporters will support our leaders whoever is elected.