Douglas Alexander: New era evokes 1997 election

A Cornish flag is held at the annual procession for St Piran in Perranporth. Picture: Getty
A Cornish flag is held at the annual procession for St Piran in Perranporth. Picture: Getty
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IN THE months before the referendum I debated in village halls and town halls, school halls and church halls.

From the Hebrides and the Highlands to the Borders and our great cities I spoke and I listened.

I heard a Scotland divided on the issue of independence but a Scotland united in its desire for change.

Those who voted no, and those who voted yes, shared something in common: Fed up of a country that was run only by a few, there was a longing for politics to change.

The powers that are now coming to the Scottish Parliament are a vital step on the journey to that kind of country, a journey that both builds our nation and strengthens our place in the UK family.

Yet amidst all those referendum exchanges I also sensed deeper trends stretching far beyond Scotland.

Trends shared by a generation living through a period of profound transition, as the politics of the 20th century gives way to the politics of the 21st century.

The politics of the 20th century was largely defined by questions about how to organise modern industrial societies. How to generate stable economic growth and distribute national resources fairly was the dominant political debate.

The character of 21st century politics is still emerging, but it is undoubtedly already defined not only by issues of economic production and distribution, but also contests about identity and insecurity.

Indeed, the rise of identity, culture and self-expression as drivers of people’s vote is proving a key feature of today’s politics not only in the UK, but right across the industrialised world.

This shift was only accelerated by the global financial crisis. The crisis has left deep economic scars but the impact has not been not only on our bank accounts, but in our sense of security and identity

A dramatic fall in living standards and prolonged period of austerity has meant everyday life is more insecure and the future more uncertain, with people feeling that they are simply treading water: Working harder and harder just to stay afloat.

But to see the impact of the global financial crisis as simply economic would be to miss a key part of its transformative power in today’s politics.

The 2008 crash not only broke banks, it broke trust in the competence, motives and honesty of the powerful – including politicians around the world - who were seen as failing to prevent the crisis or judged unable to resolve its effects.

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That potent combination of doubt – around motive and agency - has led to a unique crisis of trust that permeates all of public life today. Crosscurrents of dissatisfaction – from distrust of politicians to concerns about living standards to fears of international threats – are prevalent everywhere.

And it is against this backdrop of distrust -- only exacerbated by the sense of loss, bewilderment and bereavement of the losing side – that the Smith Commission began its work.

Its report this week showed politicians could, in fact, work together and keep a promise of change .

The Barnett Formula remains – but the Scottish Parliament will have the ability to set income tax rates and bands.

On welfare, Holyrood will have control over a whole raft of benefits – especially ones which affect carers, disabled people, children and families and older people.

Holyrood will also have the ability to design programmes to help get people back into work.

Taken together it represents a chance to make a difference to the lives to some of the most vulnerable people in our land.

As someone who over the decades has marched, campaigned and voted for a stronger Scottish Parliament to build a fairer nation, I see this as not as an end, but as a new beginning.

No party and no politician has any excuse. No more maybes. No more ‘if only we could’. No more ‘we would if we only had the power’. The Scottish Parliament is now even more empowered to tackle child poverty, reduce inequality and deliver economic change.

That is a radical challenge to every party in the Parliament – those in government and those in opposition. It is not a partisan political point. Politicians and even parties can come and go. Democracy and civic engagement are more fundamental and enduring elements in the nation’s health. It is therefore the responsibility of all sides to step up, exercise the powers at our disposal and show that we can both listen and lead.

For there is a hunger for a politics that does much more than simply describe the powerful and profound economic forces shaping our lives as those forces ebb and flow. People want a politics which seeks to harness, and shape those forces. A politics which gives expression to action, rather than being rooted in reaction.

Of course these proposals will not be unanimously welcomed by all of our fellow citizens in Scotland or indeed across other parts of the United Kingdom.

But the Labour Party – throughout the UK – will make them work. It is what the people want to see happen.

Why can I make that claim? Because the anger and alienation and the appetite for change in how politics is done and where decisions are made, is not limited to Scotland.

Just a couple of weeks ago I travelled to Teesside to appear on the BBC Question Time programme. That evening, in Middlesbrough, the audience made clear how they felt politics wasn’t working for them and that in Teesside they too feel marginalised from too many decisions.

That’s why we are determined to bring changes to the way our politics, economy and society works, not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom.

That means promoting social justice across society. Fighting here in Scotland and across the UK to restore the 50p rate of income tax. Ending the exploitation of zero-hours contracts. Enforcing the minimum wage and increasing its value to over £8 hour.

But inequality is not just about the economy and the chances that people have within it. It is also about inequality of power. We live at a time when so many people have lost faith in politics. Where people feel all the parties are the same and no-one will listen to them.

That’s why the changes made in the Smith Commission are only one part of Labour’s broader plan to change the way politics works after the next election. A plan to win power in the general election in order to give power away after it.

That will happen in Scotland, and in England too.

In Scotland, I believe that guaranteeing powers to the Scottish Parliament is only the beginning.

We have to also bring powers directly to the individual communities where people live.

Just one example is the work programme which should be designed and directed by the people who actually know what is going on in individual towns and cities.

Our commitment to changing the way we share power, also means big changes to the way we govern the whole of the United Kingdom.

That’s why the next Labour government aims to replace the House of Lords with a Senate for the Nations and Regions.

Ensuring that every part of the United Kingdom have voices right at the heart of decision making.

And it is why we will hold a Constitutional Convention, in which people will have their chance to shape the way we are governed – looking in detail at how we should change the role for other Members of Parliament in the face of the increased powers for Scotland. Opportunism and partisanship cannot dictate the future shape of the constitution nor the role of each nation’s MPs within it.

For far too long, England, has been one of the most centralised nations in the world.

Choking off the energy and the initiative of the great towns and cities that once powered the industrial revolution: Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester and many others.

The people of England want their own democratising decentralising settlement too. They have watched the energy and passion unleashed by the referendum, and they want to share in the political renewal it is generating.

Devolving real powers and real responsibilities to the cities and counties of England, so that they can take decisions for themselves, not wait to be told what to do by Whitehall.

It means shifting responsibility and accountability over transport, economic development, skills and apprenticeships down, enabling power and prosperity to be spread across the regions and not hoarded in London.

And it will enable pride and possibilities to flourish in the town and county halls of England once again, as it does today in Holyrood

It is all part of our plan to build a better, different kind of United Kingdom - with power shared, opportunity increased and inequality reduced.

The General Election is now only 6 months away. Its outcome remains uncertain.

Yet in a crucial respect it is now shaping up to echo the historic election of 1997.

In that election, Labour offered radical constitutional change for Scotland – with the promise of a Scottish Parliament: A promise we kept.

Yet what is too often forgotten is that this pledge was embedded in a broader vision of a more democratic, modernised United Kingdom – with a Welsh and Northern Irish Assembly, together with a Mayor for London.

All those promised changes have now become established features of the United Kingdom.

Now, almost twenty years on, Labour will once offer to the electorate radical constitutional change for Scotland, together with a radical agenda of decentralising, democratic reform across the UK.

Just as Scottish Labour, the party of Keir Hardie, has been at its best as the party of Scottish home rule, UK Labour has been at its best as the party of democratic, social and economic renewal.

Times are changing. Politics is changing. Labour now stands ready to again change our country.

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