Euan McColm: Revolution postponed as Scottish Labour struggles to raise eyebrows
IT was billed as the biggest revolution for Scottish Labour in 90 years and promised to be the answer to the party’s plummeting electoral fortunes.
A year ago this week, Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack published their review of the party, and proposed a raft of changes designed to restore both credibility and a sense of purpose. Broken hearts would heal, the political dead would rise, and the May 2011 election would present a low to which Labour would never again descend.
Twelve months after that once-in-a-century shake-up, however, and there’s no sense of shift. In fact, I’d argue – as would Labour insiders – that the party is adrift, with nothing of interest to say.
Of course, there are internal shenanigans and Holyrood chamber clashes to satisfy the nerdish. But Scottish Labour needs to do more than feed the chattering classes. It has to start selling big ideas that’ll make the tea-on-his-lap voter look up at the third item on the TV news.
Some in Labour fear that a focus on matters constitutional has taken the leadership’s eye off policy, with potentially disastrous results. It’s an understandable interpretation.
For the first years of the Scottish Parliament, it wasn’t a lack of ideas that appeared to trouble Labour politicians, but a fear of implementing them. Always answerable to the party in London, Scottish Labour ministers compromised or ditched plans rather than clash with MPs. They feared that to push the limits at Holyrood would play into SNP hands.
In time, it was clear the reverse was the case and SNP taunts of “London Labour” started to ring uncomfortably true. The review of the party last year was not supposed just to be a cosmetic exercise. In creating, for the first time, the role of Scottish Labour leader, the party was to find a new independence from London, and from that freedom would flow creativity and confidence.
It’s not happening. Instead, Scottish Labour is focused on the referendum, with attacks on Alex Salmond’s plans a priority. Another two years of that? Political suicide.
The BetterTogether campaign – in which Labour is the largest player – depends on a viable opposition presenting a vision of a successful Scotland within the UK. Where are those challenging, engaging ideas on education, justice, health?
Optimists and pessimists alike within Labour agree this lack of vision is the greatest problem. Those with a more upbeat outlook say leader Johann Lamont recognises the need for a distinctive, socially democratic message. I understand Lamont and her advisers see education as an area where they can present a vision distinct from the SNP’s.
But of detail there is little. In six months, I’m told, the policy tree will hang heavy with fruit. But for now, not even a bud.
There have been internal changes in Scottish Labour. Former political hack turned Downing Street adviser Paul Sinclair was a good addition to the leader’s team. But his expertise is strategy and communications. It will be down to others to give him the ammunition he needs.
Older hands speak well of younger additions such as Jenny Marra and Kezia Dugdale. Both present well and show growing confidence – but, again, they need something to present. And they need to play a part in creating that something.
So the message from optimists is “we’ve got nothing, but we’re on it”. But other Labour figures are less sure. From some quarters comes the gloomy view that the referendum has “throttled” internal policy debate. It’s easy, those sceptics point out, to say you’re going to have ideas, but another thing entirely to actually develop them and, finally, use them to bewitch the electorate.
One former Labour Cabinet minister insists that ideas seized by past Holyrood administrations “never” came from the party, which was always cautious and resistant to change. There never was, and still isn’t, the faintest whiff of creativity about Scottish Labour thinking, said this one-time player. On issues from sectarianism, to anti-social behaviour, to the smoking ban, party members – from MSPs to activists – played the roles of cautious followers rather than daring pioneers.
Former First Minister Jack McConnell once said he had never rejected an idea for being “too radical”, which may give weight to criticism that Labour’s policy problems arise from a conservative mindset. Let’s give Scottish Labour the benefit of the doubt, for a moment: if the desire to create radical, defining policies is genuine, then education is a good area to choose. Mike Russell has been surprisingly low key since assuming that brief in the Scottish Cabinet. His reputation as a radical thinker has not been borne out by his stewardship of the department (though let me concede, defenders of Russell argue that, in dealing with some dry and complex issues recently, he’s proved he’s a grafter).
Back in 2007, Labour’s manifesto included plans to raise the school-leaving age, blocking off an educational rubbish chute that sent those without college or training places straight to the dole. The party also announced plans for science academies, aimed at nurturing our most commercially viable talent.
The same social democracy – better opportunities for all – that underpinned those ideas needs to run through plans for education that address current financial restraints, while attracting voters. This is difficult stuff. In 2007, there was some cash swilling around. Lamont knows she can’t rely on ideas that cost money, these days. If she’s to present a truly progressive vision for better opportunities for all, then she’ll have to talk about how it’s funded.
So no small challenge for Labour. But it’s time the party met it and made us sit up and take notice.
A year ago, Labour promised a transformation. Today? I’d settle for the party being just the slightest bit interesting.
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