Even at the best of times the conference season can appear more like an inflation of the political bubble, and less like a serious attempt to speak to the concerns of the real world.
This year, the contrast between the political insiders’ world and the harshness of life’s realities for many assumed a particularly acute edge, with the Scottish National Party gathering in Glasgow, just as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – working with the Ferret website – published the data that showed the terrible toll on our streets.
I raise this not to make a glib link between the SNP conference and the brutality of life for some sleeping on our streets, but instead to make a broader point: it must surely be obvious that our political and economic system is failing and has to change.
At its most extreme end, our politics presides over visible homelessness and unjustifiably high numbers of deaths on our streets. For too many people, it means in-work poverty and a daily struggle to make ends meet. For many, it means worries about their health services, their children’s schooling or their quality of life in older age. And for others, it means precarious work or too few rights at work.
Our economic model of early 21st century capitalism is failing. It is not simply austerity that is failing people – although this makes matters worse – but the inbuilt gross inequalities in wealth and power in the economy.
And if these arguments sound like a socialist’s critique of our society’s failings then that is because they are. I have been a democratic socialist for my whole adult life and I have never known a time when the left’s solutions to our society’s problems were more urgently required.
Instead of challenging the status quo, we have governments in Holyrood and Westminster that uphold it. In Scotland we have a Government that has been in power for 11 years and things simply have not changed for the better. The blueprint for independence contained in the SNP’s Growth Commission report amounts to a cuts commission that openly commits the party to ten years of austerity. So, we are offered not only the maintenance of the existing economic order but a plan to deepen it.
Indeed, the balance sheet of the SNP conference is a fascinating insight into where they stand on this matter. For a party in dominant first place, it is notable just how much time their leadership spent attacking the party in third place.
The SNP leadership are many things but they are not politically naïve. They know full well that politics is not static and that a progressive space has opened up. Their cuts commission is the much-heralded blueprint for independence but was barely mentioned at either of the last two SNP conferences after it was greeted with justifiable anger from the left of the Yes camp. Whilst the SNP has strapped itself into ten more years of the austerity rollercoaster, Labour’s UK and Scottish leaderships have both moved onto a radically different agenda.
With the Growth Commission kept quiet, a raft of announcements from the SNP leadership sought to wrap the Government in positions that echo those of Scottish Labour and Jeremy Corbyn.
On a range of policies, from using Government money to drive up working conditions, to ensuring more support for local business and our manufacturing industry as well as a Scottish Investment Bank, the First Minister is simply following the agenda set by Labour.
But if we look beyond the spin we discover an habitual timidity. The First Minister has announced that the Infrastructure Commission “will explore the feasibility of a Government-owned National Infrastructure Company”. A commission to explore the feasibility of something is not a bold, decisive, radical step. The First Minister’s long-delayed national investment bank is a pale imitation of Labour’s plans: Scottish Labour is committed to delivering a Scottish Investment Bank with £20 billion of funding over the next decade – ten times more than the amount proposed by the SNP. And that’s in addition to the £20 billion from our National Transformation Fund for key infrastructure investment.
Similarly, the First Minister says the SNP will make Scotland one of the first carbon-neutral countries anywhere in the world but then falls short of promising to do so by 2050. Whereas the Government’s target is for a 90 per cent reduction, it ought to commit to the full 100 per cent, supported by Scottish Labour.
And so it goes on: an overall plan for austerity, with some progressive-sounding measures, that simply do not challenge the fundamentals of our failing economic system. There is a stand-off. A country in need of profound economic and social change, with a Government that seeks to preserve a progressive veneer, but one that is not equipped or willing to deliver the real change that is required.
The blunt truth is that a Jeremy Corbyn-led government in Westminster would deliver a far more radical and progressive agenda than anything that has ever been offered by the Scottish National Party. A Corbyn Government would govern to the left of Nicola Sturgeon’s administration. And a Scottish Labour Government, under my leadership, would go much further on an agenda of investment, public ownership, workers’ rights and reducing wealth inequality than the present incumbents.
What’s happened with the transformation of the Labour Party poses a very interesting question for progressively minded individuals who have looked to independence and the SNP as the vehicle for social justice. Of course, there will always be those whose support for independence is the driving force for their politics.
But there are many whose support for it has been more based on an idea that it might be a route to social change. Many of those people are likely to agree with a socialist’s critique of the problems facing our country than they will with the Scottish National Party. Indeed, many of them are socialists. If profound social, economic and environmental change is your motivating drive, then far greater change than anything offered by the SNP is available. It should be grasped with both hands.