It is has become clear that most people agree of two things since 7th May. One is that the Labour Party lost very badly in all parts of the UK and especially so in Scotland. The other is that we have to change drastically if we wish to be a party of government ever again.
Some of us have been here before: in 1983, in 1992 – and to a lesser extent in 1979. There are even some people who remember 1959, the third consecutive defeat – which prompted Rose and Abrams to ask the question “Must Labour Lose”?
What is different from most of those earlier crises is that the Labour vote in 2015 is much lower either in votes cast or share of the vote, or both: in 1959, we took 12 million votes (or 46.4%)in 1979, 11½ million votes (39.2%); in 1992 we again took 11½ million votes (30.8%). The exception was in 1983, when we took 8½ million votes (27.6%)
To rub it in once more, in 2015, we took 9⅓ million votes or 29%, and in Scotland, we took 700,000 votes or 24%.
This is an electoral catastrophe, by anybody’s standards. It could signal that Labour is on its way to extinction, especially north of the Border. It is possible that the electorate believes that we have no function in modern Britain.
Indeed, this is the position which strategists must contemplate: the possibility that Labour has achieved its historic function, by delivering the big institutions and legal framework necessary for an advanced mixed economy, and is no longer needed.
In short, Labour may have delivered what Keir Hardie promised – at least the relevant and sensible bits, i.e., excluding temperance, immigration bans and vaccination conspiracy theories – and it may be time pack our bags and go, leaving others to run the show.
On this reading , the heavy lifting is done, and the need for a “big tent”, “Morrisonian” UK party is over. The larger part of Scottish voters, it seems, believes the SNP are better custodians of, for example, the Scottish NHS and education services than Labour, and will serve as a more effective voice in Opposition at Westminster.
So that is where we are: the machine is switched off. The only question whether it was a life support system or a PC.
In the first case, the obvious strategy is to wind up the Scottish Labour Party and join the SNP, forming an entryist movement within the party to seek the abolition of Clause 2(a) – “Independence for Scotland”- leaving the much more sensible Clause 2(b) – “the furtherance of all Scottish interests.” RIP Scottish Labour, in others words.
But my instinct – and I take it that of most of my comrades – is the alternative: to switch off the Scottish Labour Party and immediately re-start.
After 1983 and 1992, we saw exactly this process take place: respectively, Neil Kinnock’s dramatic intervention against the doctrinaire left within the party, and Tony Blair’s modernising revision of the Party’ aims through the adoption of the new Clause 4. In the one case, it put Labour on the road to recovery, in the other it completed the process.
Unfortunately, Scottish Labour has already squandered one such re-founding opportunity.
Personally, I found most of what Jim Murphy did as leader laudable and I fall into the camp that says none of the other candidates (or his predecessor) would have done much better. However, the special conference to underscore Scottish Labour as a “patriotic” party was misguided.
Indeed, its sole useful purpose may have been to suggest that to try to steal the nationalists’ clothes may not be the best away forward. Labour needs its own distinctive and relevant offer: and the restart button is to be found on the back of our membership cards. It reads:
“by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone so as to create … a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”
This statement – which we all accepted either when it was adopted or when we later joined the Labour Party – is the antithesis of nationalist thought, expressing as it does the power of common endeavour, and the values of freely living together, solidarity, tolerance and respect.
In contrast, nationalism states that a separate Scotland will achieve more, that people should be parted and that the spirit of solidarity is worthless, even that tolerance and respect are optional, as the behaviour of the SNP and its supporters towards political opponents shows.
Labour’s reboot should therefore major heavily on co-operation, redistribution and solidarity, at every level from workplace to macro-economics.
Obviously, a reboot on the scale required cannot be achieved all at once, but needs to be phased in: 2016 may be too soon to take a grip on the popular imagination, and some of the gloss will still be on the SNP after its success of 2015.
However, with the priority in that election set to be the avoidance another wasteful and divisive referendum, there will be plenty of room to put sharing and redistribution front and centre of Labour’s manifesto. In short: Scotland benefits from redistribution within the UK; and even if it did not do so, redistribution from wealthier areas to less well-off areas is a good sound social democratic principle.
However, the best place to start on the electoral road to recovery in earnest will be the Council elections of May 2017. Tactically, it will also be the place to launch effectively a new party, with a considerable existing voter base and the benefits of a proportional system.
Manifestos could include demands for and commitments to greater co-operation , both externally (between Councils) and internally (between the authority and community-based service providers and users). Likewise redistribution could be championed in the form of the concentration of funds in needier Council areas. Solidarity would crucially involve rebuilding relationships with the local trade unions and trades councils, as well as the community and voluntary sector.
Many councillors and activists will no doubt point out that they do many of these things anyway. My answer is that I know you do, but their political effect can only be strengthened by being part of a greater – indeed elemental – political narrative.
If Labour does not provide that narrative, the SNP will. Their narrative is Scotland; ours is co-operation and solidarity. That is the battle of ideas in a nutshell: “nation” against “solidarity” and only one can win.
Like the Clash said, “Death or Glory.”