Henry McLeish: Labour only agenda is social justice

THE BATTLE for the future of Britain is nearly over, writes former First Minister Henry McLeish
Labour leader Ed Miliband in Paisley. Picture: John DevlinLabour leader Ed Miliband in Paisley. Picture: John Devlin
Labour leader Ed Miliband in Paisley. Picture: John Devlin

The polls loom ever closer. David Cameron claims, with little support in Scotland, that he is winning the economic war and now deserves a mandate to win the peace.

Looking back to the hugely memorable 1945 election, Churchill after winning the war was roundly beaten by Clem Atlee who, in a landslide victory, was favoured to win the peace and set Britain on a different path.

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This is the simple choice facing the four nations of the UK but this has been partially obliterated by the drama of Scotland’s post referendum big bang, which, using a cosmology metaphor, is still expanding the size and nature of Scotland’s new political universe. Being on the doorsteps in an election campaign is always good political therapy, providing invaluable insights into how “real” people think and will eventually vote and giving a sobering reminder of how hollow the “we are all in this together” mantra has become in Conservative Britain.

Keir Hardie Street, Methil remains a suitable and sentimental place to assess Labour’s chances in the forthcoming election, now just a few days away.

This Glenrothes parliamentary seat, as it is now named, has been a red stronghold for 80 years. The 100th anniversary of Keir Hardie’s death in September this year would be a good year for Labour to carry on an enduring socialist tradition. Born a few hundred yards from this famous street, it was difficult not to be emotional about political history and family ties.

The street, named after Labour’s greatest hero and most influential founding father James Keir Hardie, has a history of its own. There is much to reflect upon and in particular how the wisdom and inspiration of the past can help shape Labour’s future.

But how do you separate the real political signals from the usual noise and chatter of a campaign?

Support for Labour on the doorsteps of Methil is genuine, not a great surprise, but there were significant generational differences. I was conscious though of a less trusting, more sceptical and troubled atmosphere than I had ever experienced in the ten elections I had fought in the last 40 years.

There is a powerful sense of Labour fighting a political “mood”- hard to describe but obvious when you meet it. This is politically very difficult to deal with. If the polls are to be believed the Labour party in Scotland faces an uphill struggle.

Traditional loyalties are breaking down There is a political menace around as the SNP continue to benefit from and exploit the extraordinary aftermath of the September referendum. Anti-Tory sentiment is deepening. People are more questioning and less accepting.

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The politics of Scotland and England continue to diverge and the distinctive politics of Scotland and Britain pose huge challenges to Labour. The disillusionment of the voters with the old Westminster politics is palpable, and perplexing for those steeped in the post war hegemony of the two party system. Never has Scottish politics so dominated a UK general election.

No one is in any doubt when canvassing that there is a distinct and bewildering new political landscape in the making in this post election referendum period. There is an excitement and consciousness about Scotland.

Why the opinion polls in Scotland have remained unchanged for month starts to make sense. The ghost of September past is haunting this campaign. The spirit of the Yes or the 45 campaign is hanging together at a time when the No campaign has understandably moved on and has reverted to three parties seeking their own votes.

Old politics finds it hard to cope with mood, energy, drive, passion spirit and emotion. So what is going on? How should Labour respond in the last few days of this campaign? More importantly how can this be maintained in the run up to the Holyrood election? Maybe the wisdom of the past – credibility and radicalism-can inspire Labour’s political future in Scotland.

More and more parties are competing for votes on fairness and social justice. For Labour in Scotland, this is the challenge and the only agenda.

Labour’s history, the inspiration of our founding fathers, progressive principles and ethical socialism and real practical achievements of the NHS, the Welfare State and the minimum wage reinforce our claim to be the party of social justice. Labour in Scotland has to counter the perception that the SNP is now the party of social justice and the poor.

Labour has to strengthen its anti austerity message, embrace universalism in terms of tuition fees, prescriptions and personal care, promote social justice and support extra public spending on sensible social investment: these are Labour’s issues.

Labour has to challenge the SNP on what it stands for. How does a populist party sustain a broad coalition of political interests to deliver constitutional change but at the same time move to the left?

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Labour, has to promote with more conviction, passion and self belief that they are the party of social justice and fairness and argue the social democratic case for tackling inequality and promoting social mobility. Another major test for Labour is whether they can create a convincing, credible, supportable and sustainable solution for Scotland, within the Union.

Home Rule has to be the answer but this can probably wait until after the general election. Social Justice and Home Rule are big issues which will determine the future of Scotland and seal the fate of both Labour and the SNP.

Labour’s founding fathers had something to say which was relevant to the times they lived in, were passionate about a different tomorrow and engaged electors in a common cause; the common good not the middle ground.

Labour must reassert a more distinctive and powerful philosophy where self belief and inspiration are evident and ethics, values and principles provide the enduring base for a progressive set of policies.

This is what standing for something means but it has to be radical and credible. A new political order is there to won. People want to vote Labour but reassuring and inspiring them is now more difficult in our multi-party politics with a volatile and fragile electorate. Labour has to be a cause, a movement, a campaign not just a party.