Michael Kelly: Confident Labour to decide referendum result

No campaigners must publicise the fact that this is as good as it gets, and win votes by emphasising that reality, writes Michael Kelly

No campaigners must publicise the fact that this is as good as it gets, and win votes by emphasising that reality, writes Michael Kelly

THE Labour Party in Scotland goes into 2013 in buoyant mood and filled with a commitment to make this phase of the anti-independence campaign a positive one. Alistair Darling has already gone on record with this sentiment closely backed up by Johann Lamont. The party has recovered its confidence, and not before time. Because it is Labour that will win or lose the referendum campaign for Scotland.

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Why Labour has recovered is easy to define. After the last UK and Scottish elections the party was at such a low ebb that it simply had to make changes. And it did. The most significant of these has turned out to be the election of Johann Lamont as leader of Scottish Labour.

Her performances at First Minister’s Questions have destroyed the God-like way Alex Salmond formerly bestrode the chamber. That has raised morale throughout the whole of the Labour party, not just among MSPs but down to the grass roots that were in despair not long ago. The other significant factor was the retention of control of Glasgow City Council – not just by the skin of its teeth but by a comfortable margin.

Winning proved that the solid support Labour is used to enjoying in the West of Scotland is still there and will return if the party can convince its natural supporters that it still represents their interests.

It is in learning this lesson and to build on this success that the party’s declared policy for the next 12 months is to make a positive case, not just for the Union, but also for itself. For this it has made a significant change in responsibilities.

In an announcement in December which went largely unnoticed by the voting public, Anas Sarwar MP, the Scottish deputy leader was handed the job of link man between the party and the Better Together Campaign. This shows great self-confidence on the part of Johann Lamont. Many a leader, especially a relatively new one, would wish to keep this role tightly to herself. But she has recognised that she is most effective in keeping the First Minister’s feet on the ground.

She wants to do this by concentrating on the bread and butter issues of politics, the matters, like unemployment, opportunities for young people and care of the elderly, in which she believes voters are more interested.

This promise not to waste the whole of political 2013 to the constitutional debate will certainly please business, whose own New Year message argues that vital matters concerning economic growth are being ignored as politicians obsess over the constitution.

Mind you, that ground seems crowded already as Nicola Sturgeon is also promising to give attention to economic growth and social justice. Quite how you do that and still acknowledge the uncertainties surrounding a break-up of the Union has not yet been spelled out. Sarwar is at pains to point out that while the Tories and the Lib Dems, among others, form the No campaign, the kind of Scotland he wants is very different from that envisaged by Ruth Davidson.

The danger in trying to describe that effectively at this stage is that it could muddy promotion of its central message – that separation would be bad for Scotland. Any suggestion of a split would be exploited by the SNP. .

There is, however, one example of how Labour can distinguish itself favourable from both the Tories and the SNP – that of corporation tax. Instead of cutting corporation tax Labour wants to use it as a mechanism to redistribute income from London and the South-east to the more deprived parts of the UK.

There can be no broader social justice issue than that. The other positive theme that Labour intends to return to again and again is that of Scotland’s shared obligations to others in the UK and the obligations and responsibilities it has north of the Border.

Gordon Brown talked about shared obligations which recognise that one part of the UK is able to help another part, in good times or bad. Poverty doesn’t stop at the Border. Tackling poverty in Portsmouth is as important as tackling poverty in Port Talbot or Port Glasgow.

There are many of us who do not feel that the Better Together campaign has to be positive. If you’re landed with fighting for a No it seems the logical place to start. With a No win little is going to change. Right here, right now you can see the kind of country we are going to be living in. No use kidding on that there is going to be some great dramatic change. Leave it to the separatists to paint a land of Middle Eastern wealth and World Cup triumphs. This is it. Most Scots are satisfied with the status quo

The campaign must be about warning of the dangers of throwing it away. But if there is any positive argument that can sway Scots it is of the interdependence among people. Our obligations to our relatives, friends, neighbours and fellow citizens on the United Kingdom do outweigh any loyalty to a proposed new state the campaigning for which implies rejecting these responsibilities in its demonstration of insularity and selfishness.

The Scots who rejected Thatcher and her blasphemous Sermon on the Mound where she claimed that the parable of the Good Samaritan boiled down to money will equally reject this view of citizenship.

It is not only those of us who are members of the party who must hope that Labour has got its strategy right. Given the enormous influence it has demonstrated it can still exert on the Scottish voting public, it is bearing the major share of the burden of winning the vote against separation.

Other parties are sensibly prepared to fall in behind Labour. The Tories mainly by keeping their toxic mouths shut and the LibDems by quietly working away in the few areas where they still retain credibility. Let all unionists hope the Labour party’s rolled strategy and the personnel chosen to implement it can build positively on the destructive work done last year to the arguments for separation.