Simon Pia: A battle for core support

Despite a dearth of new ideas from the top of the sleeping giant of Scottish politics, stirrings at Labour’s grassroots suggest a desire to reclaim traditional ground, writes Simon Pia

After David Cameron and Alex Salmond squared up to each other in boxing gloves in a newspaper mock-up last week, it is clearer than ever that Scottish politics now revolves around a single issue.

The only show in town is the referendum, as if anyone had any doubt over the last year, and what was the mighty Leviathan of Scottish politics, the Labour Party, is now more than ever in danger of being marooned like a beached whale on the sidelines. The single issue of the referendum suits the Nationalists perfectly, along with confrontation between the SNP in Edinburgh and the Tory-dominated government at Westminster. It is the ultimate distraction from their record in government, whether in health, the economy or education, and directs focus on to the failings of the Cameron government.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Yet it is remarkable that Labour, a party that polled over one million votes in Scotland as recently as the 2010 UK election, more than the SNP racked up in their historic triumph last year, should now be seen as verging on impotent while some Tory commentators even glory in its irrelevance.

There are some in the Labour Party who believe they can afford to play a waiting game, but any Westminster MP who believes the referendum is, if not a foregone conclusion, as good as in the bag – there has never been an opinion poll that has shown a majority for independence – need only look to their Holyrood colleagues. Labour led in polls throughout 2010 up until March 2011 when the Scottish election campaign kicked off. The analogy had been made with carrying a china vase across a polished floor and being careful not to drop it. This caution, timidity even, backfired spectacularly with a sophisticated Scottish electorate, which is increasingly difficult to second-guess, delivering three distinctly different results at general, Scottish and local level over the last three years.

There is a danger in taking the voters for granted, as Labour has discovered to its cost at Holyrood, but the electorate, particularly Labour voters, is currently being undersold, insulted even, in the independence debate, with both the lack of substance, detail and transparency in the Nationalists’ case on the economy, defence and the EU, and the lack of an alternative so far from Labour.The party has an obligation and duty – not just to the Scottish people but to the democratic process – to fill the vacuum.

Part of Labour’s problem, which is really no longer excusable, is that it is still struggling to come to terms with the end of the Blair era and adapt to devolution, despite minor cosmetic adjustments to the Scottish leader’s status post-2011. Ongoing tension between Labour at Holyrood, the junior partner, and party HQ at John Smith House in Glasgow erupted in a turf war at the weekend with media reports of the suspension of Rami Okasha, the director of strategy and communications.

Whether Holyrood manages to assert itself as first among equals, instead of a “third-class citizen” behind Westminster and Glasgow City Council, what the party has not yet faced up to is that politics in Scotland is seen through the prism of Holyrood. The Nationalists have fully focused on this, outspending and outperforming Labour in the last two Scottish elections.

However, Scottish Labour is also hidebound by the party’s struggle to adjust across the UK to life after Blair. Douglas Alexander and David Miliband wrote in the Observer last week about lessons Labour must learn from President Obama and the Democrats, and somehow concluded on the need to fixate on reforms to the state and appeal to the mythical middle England of the “small businesswoman in Ipswich… and personal trainer in Gloucester”, a giveaway perhaps that Douglas and David are still stuck in the era of Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman.

But what did stand out from the Democratic convention was the blatant appeal to its core interest groups, such as women, blacks, Hispanics, young people and trades unions. When was the last time union placards, such as the United Auto Workers’ at the convention, were seen on the floor at a Labour conference? Time and again President Obama, Bill Clinton and vice president Joe Biden played the “class” card, identifying themselves as the party of the “middle classes”, the ordinary folks and a very different thing from the British middle class, and the rich Republicans.

One of the keynote speakers, Elizabeth Warren, the senate candidate for Massachusetts, almost brought the roof down when she said: “Our middle class has been chipped, squeezed and hammered… people feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: they’re right.”

But the Blairism in Labour stops it from making such naked, stark distinctions ordinary Scots are crying out to hear from their politicians. They want to know someone is on their side. Alex Salmond and the SNP are not going to go there, especially as they rely on the endorsement of billionaires like Jim McColl, who lives in the tax haven of Monaco, and the support of Rupert Murdoch.

Labour, though, remains a party afraid of its own shadow from its pre-Blair days, its very roots as a social democrat movement. Meanwhile, the Democrats are not afraid to revisit the values of FDR and the New Deal, and that included Bill Clinton.

But despite the dearth of new thinking and ideas from the party hierarchy, and with the promised commission on the next stage of devolution, only announced after infighting at the Scottish Labour conference in March and still yet to even meet, there are stirrings from the grassroots.

People Power: The Labour Movement Alternative for Radical Constitutional Change, produced by The Red Paper Collective, focuses on issues such as privatisation, the fiscal set-up, public ownership, economic development and progressive values that can be achieved through constitutional change.

One senior Labour MSP dismissed the paper as “usual lefty stuff”, despite not having read it. But the likes of Dave Watson, head of campaigns at Unison, Richard Leonard, the GMB’s political officer, Neil Findlay MSP and Professor John Foster would no doubt not be offended by the “lefty” tag, while their contributions could be more accurately described as pre-Blair social democrat or, as one who attended the former prime minister’s Donald Dewar lecture put it: “It seems to be where Gordon Brown is returning to.”

Indeed, John Foster is a link with the continuity of certain Labour values as he was a contributor to the original Red Paper for Scotland produced by Brown and Robin Cook in 1975 that first laid out the case that was to lead to devolution. But the current ideas and views could best be described as traditional Labour Party ones that were either suppressed or ignored during the heyday of the party’s embrace of 
neo-liberalism in the decade that led up to the financial crash.

But what is new is that the Red paper rejects the status quo post-2014 and sets out the case for federalism. It also politicises the independence debate in a way the SNP seems determined to shy away from as it points 
out what has been missing so far are “the crucial dimensions of class politics and the redistribution of income and wealth”.

It clearly states: “Scotland’s parliament could be part of a federal structure in which England, or the regions within it, could have some measure of self-government while a federal government in London would have responsibility for the currency, corporate tax rates and a portion of income tax. A crucial component would be to maintain the redistribution of income from the wealthy south-east and the City of London (currently the Barnett Formula) to poorer areas like Scotland.”

The Red Paper also calls for an “interventionist” Scottish Parliament with the power to take over or support failing companies – as Obama did with the US car industry – as well as holding key industries and utilities in public ownership and investing in strategic industries such as renewable energy and the life sciences.

Such ideas have operated under the radar but it is time to bring them into the mainstream of the constitutional debate, and Labour could do a lot worse than to invite the likes of Watson, Leonard, Foster or Findlay onto their “commission” whenever it does eventually get up and running.

• Simon Pia is a former Labour media adviser and now freelance commentator