Category Archives: independence

Whither the Scottish Labour Party?

Stephen Curran and Johann Lamont campaign in Glasgow Southside

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.”

Independence Referendum

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.

For a Socially Just Scotland

Gregor Gall looks at what a socially just Scotland would look like and how that differs from the vision of the Scottish National Party.

Saltires on N30 strike demo
Saltires on N30 strike demo

The now unfolding public debate on independence in the run up to the referendum in late 2014 provides for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put the case for a socially just Scotland. So long as the debate is not parked in the cul-de-sac of constitutional politics and constitutional wrangles, it should be relatively easy to ask the mainstream political parties and opinion-formers just what is their vision for a socially just Scotland is. And, if they come up short, then use the occasion to put forward a radical vision of what is needed to achieve a socially just Scotland. This is because there is no point having the debate, the referendum or voting for independence (or ‘devo-max’ if it makes it on to the ballot paper) unless we can imagine a better, more socially justice and equal society in Scotland. So a lot is up for grabs.

“Progressive Beacon”?

The SNP in particular has a blind spot in any search for a socially just, independent Scotland because while it has some reflexes to the left on social issues, it is positively neo-liberal in its economic policies. And economics easily trumps social issues in the capitalist mainstream. So for Salmond to have recently pronounced that Scotland after independence – under the SNP – could become a ‘progressive beacon’ for other countries is, frankly, way off the mark. This is because the centre piece of the SNP politics is not so much an independent state under capitalism – which it is – but that through state-sponsored trickledown economics, the economy in Scotland can grow and everyone and their living standards will be levelled up in the process. The key policy in all this is to cut the rate of corporation tax to something like that of the Irish Republic. But we must recall the Republic became massively unequal despite the overall economic growth and such a pursuit of inward investment as part of a programme of economic deregulation created the conditions for the extended age of austerity that Irish citizens are now experiencing after the ‘boom’ turned to ‘bust’.

In economic terms, Salmond and the SNP take the view that all new jobs are good jobs regardless of their terms and conditions. This could be seen by Salmond’s welcoming on two recent occasions of Amazon’s investment in Scotland. He did not even think to attach any conditions – like those of union recognition or a living wage – to the receipt of public funds that Amazon received for making these investments. Jobs that create spending power to the SNP are the source of economic and social betterment. But it does matter what kind of jobs are created and how they are remunerated. It also matters that they are secure jobs. Equally, it matters that low paid jobs should not be subsidised by a social wage because, in effect, this means the taxpayer is subsidising employers and letting them off from paying a level of wages that requires no social wage prop up.

Social Justice

In other words, the notion of genuine and deep-seated social justice (never mind socialism) is absent from the SNP’s economic policy. Salmond wants to create economic growth and let others determine who benefits from it. In effect, this means the employers and existing power elites will make these decisions. That is probably why many employers are not fazed by independence and many are for it – especially if corporation tax is lowered.

It then seems that the SNP’s ability to win the ‘yes’ vote in the referendum is – all other things being equal – very much weakened but its inability, if not unwillingness, to demonstrate how and why an independent Scotland could and would be better for the mass of citizens in Scotland. This is not to say that the SNP is not a socialist party – clearly, it is not – but that it is hardly even a social democratic party either. Social democracy is defined not just as the search for social justice within capitalism but the willingness and ability to do so through progressive reforms where state intervention ameliorates the processes and outcomes of the market. In other words, reforms.

The vision on the left which supports independence should stress above all else the possibility of determining people’s own economic relations and, thus, social destiny. Whilst a republic should be part of this vision (especially as the SNP wants to maintain a constitutional monarchy), the key reason why citizens should vote at all and for independence will hinge upon whether they believe their living standards and those of their kids will be better in terms of jobs, health, education and so on.

But this in itself is not enough because a vision of this better life could be a neo-liberal one of growth and expansion as per the SNP. The two extra ingredients that are needed are a) a more just and equal society and b) an environmentally sustainable one.

Jock Tamson’s Bairns

The phrase ‘we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns’ still means a lot in Scotland and indicate that the political centre of gravity is to the left and essentially social democratic on many issues. In order to provide a representation and outlet for the values bound up with ‘Jock Tamson’s bairns’, the arguments for independence must comprise arguments for a redistribution of wealth – something that will scare many of the SNP’s business supporters. Equally well, we cannot allow the progressive vision of an independent Scotland to be one of economic growth at all costs – even assuming it was more fairly distributed – because of the environmental devastation that would create.

None of this makes an argument for or against independence as such. The key issue is whether the situation of independence is an opportunity to advance a radical left agenda. And it seems, there is far more of a possibility to do so in the run up to and under independence than under the status quo (whether of ‘devo-max’ or not). I use the term ‘possibility’ rather than ‘probability’ because the weakness of the left cannot suddenly be magically solved under independence. However, with the focus of debate likely to be on ‘what kind of Scotland do we want?’ and with more latitude to determine this in Scotland itself than ever before, the argument for independence seems substantially stronger than the argument against.

Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire