Labour in Scotland have had the toughest days in their history, steamrollered by the SNP at the last Scottish elections and facing further losses in May’s council battle. Vince Mills, a left activist in the party takes a look at where the party finds itself.
Perhaps ‘wither the Scottish Labour Party‘ might seem like a better title for an article on the shape of the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) after its Spring conference in Dundee. Or at least such might be the impression on a neutral commentator looking at the half empty Caird Hall that was a persistent feature of the conference for most of the ordinary business of the gathering. Mind you the Caird Hall looked like Vatican square on Easter Sunday compared to the remnants of the Liberal Democrats who huddled together in Inverness. The Caird Hall certainly filled up for Johann Lamont’s first speech as leader of the Scottish Labour Party on the Saturday afternoon of conference.
And with that new leader, who won with the full support of the unions and the left of the Party and, at least according the polls, with a position on devolution that is supported by most Scots, this conference seemed like the perfect time for the SLP to take back the centre left ground occupied by Salmond’s SNP.
Did it? Here we are going to have to resort to Kremlinology. The usual means of understanding shifts in political direction in Labour’s tradition – debates pushing particular positions leading to changes in policy – these have long since gone. Managerialism has become embedded in the culture and indeed the very structures that could deliver positions for debate that might be embarrassing to the leadership have been stripped out.
So to understand whether there is a change taking place, at least in the Party’s upper echelons, you have to look at who the leader is promoting, what hints are being offered in key speeches and how the unions’ concerns are being treated. Let us start with promotions. Neil Findlay MSP for the Lothians and unapologetic leftist was given a role on the backbenches. This may seem unremarkable but would have been unheard of in previous regimes. Such has been the strength of the right that there was no need to trouble itself with inclusion even if in the exclusion of, for example, Elaine Smith, now depute presiding officer, you excluded the MSP with the largest majority in Scotland, risking the obvious inferences from her Labour electorate.
The speech that Johann Lamont delivered also hinted that things could change. She said, for example:
“I know that many of our comrades in the trade union movement left us in May because they felt we had let them down. And so I will work with my trade union colleagues to re-engage with union members and demonstrate that our cause is a common cause.”
At this point of course you are entitled to ask what the cause is and how can it be delivered jointly. Here the managerialist response kicks in. Unite had considered proposing an emergency motion at conference the effect of which was to seek a special conference to debate the constitutional question. However to accept this may have looked like a challenge to the leader who, it is well known, favours a one question referendum with a flat ‘NO’ as the response.
Consequently the motion was withdrawn and in its place there was an executive statement briefed in advance to the press, announcing the creation of a commission to consider Labour’s response to the constitutional issue comprising MPs, MSPs, Trade Unionists and missing, as far as most leftist delegates could work out, party members. So too was the role of the party collectively, whose role in endorsing or rejecting the conclusions that the commission might come up with remains unclear.
Suspicions that minds were already made up and that party members real role was as supporting cast were not helped when in advance of, and subsequent to, the conference SLP members received a helpful reminder from the Party leadership that the Scottish government was having a consultation on the referendum. The message from Scottish Labour not only pointed you to the consultation; it filled the answers in for you. Here is part of the pre-written response:
“There should only be one question in order to give a definitive answer on whether or not Scotland remains part of the UK. I do not support attempts to muddy the water with further questions on other matters. I want the referendum sooner rather than later and do not see the need to wait almost three years.”
Whatever your position on this – I favour a second question – there has been no widespread discussion or debate in the SLP about it; there has only been the statements of the leadership. Furthermore many in the Trade Union movement including those unions affiliated to Labour, are spread over a range of positions from independence on the one hand, a small but significant section, to a variety of positions up to and I suppose including the status quo, although few are actually articulating that position.
The Labour Left
The extent to which the new Scottish Labour leadership is really ready for dialogue and change in a way that would upset the SNP’s bandwagon is still in doubt. The left response at conference at any rate was a clear desire for even greater unity. At both the Campaign for Socialism‘s fringe meeting, comprising predominantly constituency activists and that of Revitalise the Scottish Labour Party, which is an informal network of trade union and constituency activists, there was a stark acknowledgement that the left could only survive as an alliance between the trade union movement and individual activists and that they could only have an impact through serious organisation and democratic convergence on policy positions and support for left candidates. Consequently there are moves to transform the informal Revitalise into a more formal and better resourced organisation.
Even supposing this succeeds and nudges Labour left, it will not be in time to stop some embarrassing defeats for the Party in May. Labour may well lose overall control in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire although the former is more likely than the latter. Glasgow is riven with disputes and petty jealousies and an organized schism in Glasgow First, formed around a group of deselected councillors. However, in the absence of any electoral project that can offer a serious left alternative Labour setbacks may provide grist to the mill of those in the SLP trying to grind out a victory over Blair’s legacy – a managerialist party machine imbued with neo-liberal politics.