Natalie McGarry: Listless Labour losing value

AMID vague promises and a vacuum of policies from the left, the Yes camp can seize the initiative, writes Natalie McGarry

The Labour for Independence splinter group is just one of the party's problems in the independence debate, writes Natalie McGarry. Picture: Ian Rutherford

THE campaign group United With Labour was launched in the last few months to argue for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom. That there is little narrative to accompany this beyond vague promises of more powers if the Scottish electorate put their X in the no box is problematic for a Labour Party which seems – at UK level at least – to be in thrall to the Conservatives and voters of middle-England.

It is repeatedly argued that the existence of a separate Labour campaign to preserve the sanctity of UK hegemony is not a sop to unions like Unite who chafe at campaigning with the Tories as part of the official No campaign umbrella group, but is instead necessary to expound a Labour values argument for retention of the union. But it is difficult to determine what these Labour values are. Are they traditional Labour values as espoused by those like Dennis Canavan who preceded the New Labour years? Or Labour values à la Blair acolytes like Jim Murphy MP, and indeed, Better Together’s Blair McDougall and Alistair Darling? Or, further still, to the post-Brown opposition Labour of the Coalition era?

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That Labour Party currently stares out from the abyss of a policy black hole seemingly without a ladder or the motivation and wherewithal to climb free. The Labour Party in opposition is devoid of ideas, bound up in useless rhetoric, and seemingly incapable of presenting an alternative ideology to that of the coalition. Ed Miliband’s impotence in the face of Conservative austerity measures accounts for their poor showings in opinion polls. A Labour Party which manifests itself as Conservative-lite isn’t a serious opposition.

Labour party strategists in Scotland have a different sort of enemy in the SNP. Being outflanked from the left is an unsettling position for the Labour Party in Scotland, and one which they have been unable to reconcile. The rightward lurch of UK Labour makes policy making and prioritising very difficult in Scotland, especially as some of the most pernicious changes imposed by the Conservatives, and felt in Scotland, are from powers retained by the UK parliament, like welfare, which, according to Social Attitudes Surveys, an overall majority of Scots would like to see devolved.

Over the last year we have seen the Scottish Labour Party announce many policy reviews, but we have yet to see any clear thinking about what they offer, either as a party of government post-2016 within the UK, or in terms of a wholesale transfer of powers from Westminster to Edinburgh which a 2015 UK general election win for the Labour Party would allow them to pursue. As for pre-empting and considering what they would have to offer as a Scottish party in the event of a Yes vote to independence, forget it; they mirror the UK government in their stance of no pre-negotiating or forward planning.

Instead, the Labour argument for keeping the union is increasingly characterised by the solidarity myth, which assumes that the Scottish electorate will continue to vote for the party – and their block of Scottish MPs will stabilise a UK majority government at some unidentified point in the future. They posit that Scotland needs to stay in the union in order to save the people of the rest of the UK from perpetual Tory rule. An argument for remaining in the UK which rests on an attempt to circumvent the democratic will of the rest of the UK seems a spurious one.

If the pro-union parties are to be trusted on extra powers for a Scotland which votes No – running the gamut from status quo to devo max – the ability of the Scottish electorate to influence policy across the rest of the UK is limited. If the Tories get their way, they will “solve” the West Lothian Question by creating a two-tier structure of MPs. The ability of the Scottish contingent to offer solidarity will be further eroded and democratic legitimacy further undermined. What likelihood a future Prime Minister from a Scottish constituency who is shackled by limited voting powers?

Solidarity is to be admired, but solidarity does not and should not respect borders – whether they start at Gretna, or are at the boundaries of the European Union. We have an opportunity to change things in Scotland and we should not reject that opportunity to address inequality under a misplaced sense that we can influence welfare policy in Salford or Southampton. If United With Labour are looking to the UK Labour Party to save us from growing inequality, they need to show us the policies – which seem more elusive than the Australian night parrot.

While the Labour Party in Scotland refuses to consider the consequences of independence or discuss further powers in the event of a no vote, the same kind of stonewalling is not evident in areas of the North East of England where the Association of North East Councils commissioned a report to look into whether the “Borderlands” from Teeside to Cumbria would benefit from greater Scottish autonomy – be that further devolution or full independence.

The North-East, suffering from the economic negligence of a South-East obsessed UK government, is to be admired for planning “what-ifs” and thinking about how the region can benefit from constructive cross-border engagement – whether Edinburgh remains in the UK, or not.

It’s surprising that the SNP Government have not made more of this report, which gives independent credence to their claims of social and economic union and cooperation regardless of political union. A mature, cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with the rUK could be the best example of solidarity by leading from the front. It is certainly worth considering.