THE Labour party manifesto for the 1983 general election was famously described by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”.
It contributed to Labour being humiliated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, who triumphed with a 144-seat majority. First, the manifesto was wilfully out of tune with public opinion at the time, and ignored the shift in underlying social attitudes that had swept Thatcher to power four years previously. Second, it was written by politicians who, it seemed, would rather cling to familiar ideologies and lose, than develop those ideologies for new circumstances and win. And third, it was the product of a civil war in Labour that had former comrades fighting like cat and dog, which voters hate. The reason for this potted history lesson? Here in Scotland, in 2014, the Scottish Labour party risks writing a suicide note all of its own, for precisely the same reasons.
The Devolution Commission set up by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont produced an interim report in April last year that gave a clear indication as to where it was heading. The most eye-catching proposal was the devolution of responsibility for income tax from Westminster to Holyrood as part of a raft of powers to strengthen the Scottish Parliament, making it both more capable of influencing the Scottish economy and more accountable for the public money it spends. All the signs now, according to sources close to the process, are that Scottish Labour is set to backtrack on this proposal, and that it will be missing from the final report that goes before the party’s conference in Perth next month.
If this is indeed the case, the Devolution Commission report will be a disaster for the same three reasons as the 1983 manifesto was a disaster. First, it will be wilfully out of tune with public opinion, ignoring the demand for more powers for Holyrood that has been plain in every Scottish opinion poll for a decade, as well as the growing cultural confidence about self-government that saw Alex Salmond win a historic majority in 2011. Second, it will have been written by politicians who, in their reluctance to surrender ground to the nationalists, would rather cling to the status quo and lose, than develop their own home rule beliefs for new circumstances and win. And third, it will be the product of a growing civil war in the party between devo-sceptics and devo-enthusiasts that is about to burst into the open.
There is little Scottish Labour can do about this third factor. But there is still time – if it wishes – to avoid the first two. Those making these decisions should have no doubt about the risk Scottish Labour will be taking if its offering on more powers is a damp squib. Is Scottish Labour – the party of home rule from Keir Hardie’s day through to Donald Dewar – really willing to be outbid by the Scottish Conservatives on devolution? The Tory position is not yet known, but there is a golden opportunity here for its leader Ruth Davidson to demonstrate that she has made a break with the Thatcherite party of old. It would be a historic development, and an ignominious one for Labour.
That is before one assesses the electoral risk. This newspaper’s ICM poll a fortnight ago showed that if voters thought a No vote would not lead to more powers for Holyrood, the swing required for a Yes victory fell to just 3 per cent. In the event of a No vote, next year’s general election could – in Scotland – be fought on which party best represented the constitutional position of the voters, which might be problematic for Labour. And when the voters were asked in the 2016 Holyrood election which party best stood up for Scotland, would they choose a Labour party reluctant to empower a devolved Holyrood? This is, therefore, a watershed moment for Scottish Labour. The party should hesitate before writing a new suicide note.
Tackling drugs requires political will
THERE are no votes in drug policy. That is a political truism. But good government is meant to be about addressing the ills of society regardless of whether or not they are an easy sell to the electorate. Scottish governments over the past decade have shown themselves equal to this challenge on a number of thorny issues – Jack McConnell, when he was first minister, introduced the ban on smoking in public places, and also took steps to tackle sectarianism; and Alex Salmond’s administration has taken a strong stand on Scotland’s deep-rooted alcohol problem. These have been laudable initiatives. But in our news pages today Professor Neil McKeganey makes a compelling point when he asks why the same political will cannot be applied to the pernicious social ill of drug abuse. This, as the professor points out, is not an arid area of technical social policy. The all-too-human victims of Scotland’s culture of drug abuse fill our cities’ mortuaries on a daily basis. We barely notice.
These lost lives rarely make headlines, but each is a human tragedy, and each is a life that could conceivably be saved if this was a national priority for government. It is only when a drug victim is a bright young teenager who makes the wrong choice when offered a pill in a nightclub that we tend to sit up and take notice.
But what can be done with a problem that has so many complex contributory components, be they in the areas of mental health, family breakdown, social deprivation or criminal justice? The best parallels are with smoking and alcohol. Each of these is a problem with roots in many aspects of modern Scottish life, requiring a highly co-ordinated multi-disciplinary approach over a longer period of time than an electoral cycle. And yet each has benefited from the full weight of government energy and imagination, driven by political will at the highest level.
As a result, there has been a significant societal shift in each of these areas – just last week, for example, new figures showed that young people in Scotland were drinking less alcohol. What is needed now is a similar degree of political willingness to tackle Scotland’s culture of drug abuse.
If, for whatever reason, this fails to materialise, the grim procession of hearses to our city mortuaries will continue.