“What are we here for brothers?” So said Ron Todd back in the 1980s.
More recently, the question has been posed now for a number of years by our political commentators: “what is the point of the Scottish Labour Party?”
So let us face it: in Scotland, Labour has had it. Whatever the reason, whoever is to blame, it is all over for the hegemonic, monolithic electoral juggernaut that was Labour in Scotland for seven decades.
I have made it clear that I think Labour itself has brought this about in many ways.
We hid behind First Past The Post for years: I remember Jimmy Allison telling party members “the four party system favour us by splitting the rest”. We kept on doing the same things over and over, even when the population was no longer gravitating around the same communities of interest: trade union, churches, council houses, the co-op. We failed to equip ourselves as a party in government and (especially) in opposition at Holyrood, which we assumed we would govern for ever and a day. We alienated many in the communities we served by not rising above petty disputes and feuds.
We offered the voters second best at the ballot box, and campaigned in prose while the SNP governed in poetry. Above all, we failed to see that the Scottish independence referendum was an opportunity for us, the Labour Party, and that if we failed to take it, the SNP would supplant us culturally as “the party of Scotland.”
That process is now all but complete, and will be finished at the local authority elections in May.
So that is the self-flagellation done. Or nearly, because our catalogue of failure cannot be complete without an account of the failure which is probably most significant and at the same time emblematic of where we went wrong, and where our continuing further difficulties lie: our failure to hold the middle ground.
By the middle ground I do not mean the lowest common denominator or the indecisive: I mean the middle ground under which lies the keystone of Labour’s bridge to a better world. It is the ability to take the best from wherever it is found, and to create a non-dogmatic programme for the benefit of those who need it. So we are responsible for a mixed economy instead of a state-controlled command economy or robber-baron capitalism, and for public services carried out professionals under the control of elected citizens.
Labour is the best of both worlds party: so it is all the more ironic, if not tragic, that our downfall in Scotland came about by first our triumph in delivering the best of both worlds in the form of devolution, and our failure to defend it.
Devolution also has the benefit of being the form of government favoured by the people of Scotland as measured in three referendums, dating back to 1979, but its main value is that allows for a large degree of home rule while retaining the economic security of the broader and bigger UK. This shown by the cash flows from south to north in the recent years shown in GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenues Scotland.) Like any other part of the UK, we share in the potential to redistribute the tax take from the wealthiest parts of the country to those that are less well-off. (Similarly, when the UK’s offshore oil was being landed in Scotland, the revenues were redistributed to other parts as they needed them.)
The larger and more diverse economy is better able to absorb the shocks of the global economy, but at the same time, a devolved parliament has the powers to spend Scotland’s revenues (including the Barnett Formula top-ups) according to local needs.
It is a simple solution to what was seen as a democratic deficit: the best of both worlds. However, and incredibly, Scottish Labour never succeeded in making the Scots love devolution.
Many were sceptical from the start, and others developed scepticism as they saw their fears realised that Holyrood would actually take powers away from more local levels of government. Labour’s personnel at Holyrood did not help: the public held Donald Dewar in affection and he was widely and sincerely mourned, but there has no such warmth towards any other Labour figure since: Henry McLeish, anyone?
Or how many people love the building, despite its vast and uncontrolled costs? The SNP saw the lack of love for Holyrood and snapped it up as an opportunity, introducing policies like free prescriptions and claiming others like free university tuition as their own. In other words, they marketed Holyrood – but in their own image, as the halfway house on the road to independence that it was never meant to be, and certainly not by Donald Dewar.
So Labour allowed the devolved arrangements to be painted as not the best of both worlds, but as second best, and pleasing no-one. Holyrood was designed to be the best form of government available to Scots, instead we have allowed it become regarded as a stepping stone to independence, and second best to both nationalists or unionists. So by the time the 2014 referendum came round, the No campaign, and Scottish Labour as part of it, was all but apologising for our own achievement, conceding that more powers were needed and promising them.
And so the effect has been devastating. We cannot be either the champions of the union or of independence, as those two positions are well-filled by the Tories and the SNP respectively, and we have abandoned arguing the merits of devolution. This is a truly dreadful place to be politically, made worse by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. We are stranded in the middle in a politics now increasingly defined as being about competing nationalisms. Our call for federalism is welcome, but belated.
It would be easy to call a plague on both their houses, and it is here that the question is posed: what are we here for? The answer lies not in any certain future, but in its very uncertainty.
In a recent blog, Ian Smart wrote honestly and perceptively that Nobody has a clue. That includes me, but I do know what I believe. Which is that Labour offers the best solutions to the constant and increasing stresses of the world because our solutions are collective solutions; that the only way to govern those collective decisions is through the democratic process; and that the messy, inefficient and deeply human process we know as social democracy is needed now more than ever.
I believe in what it says on my Labour Party membership card, that “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”. I am also of the opinion that our politics have been hollowed-out – it is a discourse where internet hearsay has greater currency than academic fact, flags matter more than food on the table and the likes of Trump, Farage and Sturgeon can con great swathes of population who seem not to care that they are purveyors of massive falsehoods.
In such circumstances, it is vital that those of us who believe in truth and solidarity and in evidence-based policy and politics stick around. There is a place for us in all sorts of collective forums, online and in our communities and our workplaces, in trade unions, in newspapers, in credit unions, as local candidates.
We may not win immediately, or ever. Labour might become a 20% party or 10% party like some of our sister parties. But when it is very dark, those who can shine a light have duty to do so. And then the good times might just come back.
But in what form that might be, I haven’t a clue.