Darren McGarvey: Labour's lack of snide remarks is a smart strategy

At the weekend, I happened upon a Scottish Labour rally. Well, I say happened upon, but I suppose it was, in truth, more of a deliberate choice.

New Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard is so earnest he makes Jeremy Corbyn sound like Lex Luthor. Picture: John Devlin
New Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard is so earnest he makes Jeremy Corbyn sound like Lex Luthor. Picture: John Devlin

My partner, a working musician, was invited to perform at the Rally for Real Change by poet and activist Jim Monoghan and I decided to tag along.

I’m not sure why I feel the need to explain myself like this.

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Perhaps it’s because I’m all too aware of the vitriol reserved for anyone in the Yes movement who even so much as hints at the notion they may be, for the briefest of moments, paying attention to Labour again. My advice for those people is simple: get used to it.

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Regardless of the absurd levels of criticism hurtled at prominent pro-indy figures like Cat Boyd – or myself once this piece is published – listening to Labour is exactly what more and more Yes voters appear to be doing.

Not least because we are getting really bored of the whole ‘red Tory’ trope and the fact that, apparently, every issue for evermore now has to be viewed through the prism of constitutional politics.

People need to bear in mind that some of us don’t just associate Labour with Better Together. We associate Labour with the double-glazing windows and central-heating that was installed in our council houses in the 1990s. We associate it with the minimum wage, social security and the NHS.

The rally, held at St Luke’s on the edge of Glasgow’s East End, was packed. Dare I say it, there was a buzz about the place. It reminded me of the early days of the Yes movement, circa 2013, when nobody was really sure what the future held.

On the sea of uncertainty, buoyed mainly by a strong sense of purpose, underscored by vague ideas about what sort of society we wanted, our pipedreams were tangible enough to give our movement its initial shape and signature.

In the early days, we were very clear about what we were for and not just what we were against and, while not always politically practical, this is a good place to start.

Despite Labour’s long political life, there was a palpable sense of renewal at the rally.

In the room, there were Yes and No voters, as well as people who didn’t support Leonard in his leadership bid, but who came along nonetheless, perhaps in recognition that it was time to move forward. When the speeches got started, what was most immediately apparent was the distinct lack of cheap and easy crowd-pleasing rhetoric that we’ve come to expect from the main political players.

To my ear, the lack of snide remarks was refreshing. I got a real sense that this is a party that’s now up for a scrap, confident that if an election was called tomorrow, it’s ready to fight.

In fact, I recall only two sparing references to the SNP throughout the course of the evening and both of them were well above the belt. Instead, they focused on their plan, articulated with such idealistic simplicity that it’s almost naïve: make society fair for people. Yes, it may be simple, but it’s also very powerful.

Perhaps, ironically, this sentimental, overly simplified message of social justice has the potential to throw the independence movement into reverse – without so much as mentioning it.

Now, I can already sense a gaggle of outraged nationalists about to darken my digital doorway to explain that Labour’s only political strategy consists of “SNP bad”. To them, the idea that Scottish Labour could re-emerge from the indyref abyss, confidently, having learned some hard and valuable lessons, is laughable.

But sometimes we laugh at things because they are painful (and true).

Granted, at a public level, Scottish Labour will have to retain a certain level of hostility to the SNP, even when it’s right, for reasons of political theatre, but the culture within the party seems to be changing.

That infuriating façade of political entitlement, after going so long unchallenged, has begun to fall away.

Enter Richard Leonard, a man so earnest he makes Jeremy Corbyn sound like Lex Luthor. Under Leonard – hopefully with no clumsy interference from Corbyn (or Owen Jones) – Scottish Labour has a chance to reboot the franchise, completing the party’s symbolic return to a genuinely left-wing position, disowning much of the baggage that makes many Yes voters sceptical of them in the process.

It’s not hard to understand why Anas Sarwar lost to Leonard in the Labour leadership election. For all the effort he made trying to conceal it, he might as well have named his campaign Call Me Tony, for all the difference it would have made to a section of the electorate which, perhaps unfairly, associates the Labour Party with selling it down the river to placate wealthy Conservatives, bankers and tax-dodging multi-nationals.

Leonard represents a clean break, both from New Labourism and, perhaps, from the notion the SNP has monopoly on social justice and, regardless of whether you agree that this version of the Labour Party is electorally viable, this process of renewal is precisely what’s needed.

Whatever success lies in store for Labour in the medium or long-term, it will only have been possible because the era of Corbyn and Leonard created sufficient political distance between Blairism and whatever comes next.

However, the most notable aspect of the rally, for me, was its posture towards Yes voters that aren’t Scottish independence fundamentalists.

There was a tacit recognition of the vast areas of political overlap between the SNP and Labour and that pitching a Scottish Labour message solely to hardcore unionists, under electoral duress from the Tories, may not be the best long-term strategy.

This will, of course, infuriate hardcore nationalists, but it’s not the hardcore nationalists Scottish Labour is trying to appeal to – it’s everyone else.