Ewan Gibbs, Glasgow Kelvin CLP and Glasgow University Labour Club, sees an historical opportunity for Scottish Labour
POLITICAL IRRELEVANCE IS A BITTER ADMISSION that few activists are ever willing to make, let alone members of proud traditions with grand narratives, stories and heroes. The Scottish Labour left is not known for shying away from remembering its history – and in recent times this provided solace when reality was far from heroic. The experience of the referendum campaign only confirmed that the arguments for radical federalism made by most on the Labour left were a marginal force. In place of any progressive political argument we had the spectacle of Labour embracing flag waving British nationalism. By the summer this was fronted by Jim Murphy, the right’s favoured leadership candidate, who was “standing up to the Nats” on his “Irn Bru crate tour” of selfpromotional “street appearances” and vacuous arguments which seemed to go on without end.
That period is over. There is now an opportunity for an historic interruption of a Scottish politics dominated by an increasingly hegemonic SNP-led civic nationalist Yes coalition on the one hand, and a Labour Party steadily committing electoral hara-kiri on the altar of Blairism and “sticking to the centre” on the other. Johann Lamont’s sudden and unpredictable resignation in the face of coup plotting and antagonism from London triggered a leadership contest. The situation was blown open further by Anas Sarwar resigning as Deputy Leader just days after saying that he would be continuing in the role. You could forgive the casual observer for suspecting intrigue. The very same day Murphy, in a display of exactly the bullying attitude we’ve come to expect of him, stated “I will hire and fire who I want.” Shortly afterwards Sarwar was conveniently made Shadow Minister for International Development in London.
But, lest we forget, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” This time it really is different. The left’s role isn’t like the national leadership elections in 2006 and 2010 when we were trying desperately just to be allowed on the pitch: we’re playing to win. It is precisely the weakness of the Labour Party at present which makes this possible. In Neil Findlay for Leader and Katy Clark for Deputy we have two candidates who are strong because of their unlikeliness and political distance from all that has presided in Scottish Labour for so long.
Neil, a third placed Regional List candidate in the Lothians in 2011, was made an MSP as a result of the wipe-out of constituency MSPs. He’s a rare breed – a consistent left critic of the Scottish government, eventually promoted to Shadow Health Minister. He has campaigned for the Living Wage, against blacklisting and for justice for Scottish miners arrested in the 1984-5 strike.
Like Neil, Katy is most comfortable fighting alongside the labour movement. Both sit on the PCS groups in their respective parliaments and have supported industrial action and opposed austerity when the Labour leadership has shied away from doing so. Katy Clark has a proud record of sticking with principled rebellions against the whip at Westminster. Aside from campaigning against economic and social injustices, such as blacklisting and for equal pay, Katy has been a persistent opponent of war and nuclear weapons. Both candidates have received the overwhelming support of the trade union movement. At present the three largest Labour affiliated unions, Unite, Unison and GMB as well as the CWU, ASLEF, UCATT and TSSA, are backing Neil and Katy. Given one third of the overall vote comes from the trade union electoral college, this should provide a core of support and give both a fighting chance.
Alone, this won’t be enough to win. The campaigns are moving forward on an insurgent activist basis. This is necessary to win over party and union members and pressurise as many parliamentary representatives as possible to back Neil and Katy, given the undemocratic system that sees them retain a third of the weighted vote. It is vital this momentum builds for two reasons. The first is to show that institutional labour movement support means energy on the ground. The second is that the inertia which predominates in Scottish Labour needs to be confronted and destroyed – which has to mean embracing the ‘civil war’ between two polarised options. In Murphy versus Findlay for Leader the distinctions are clear between the establishment right of the Party and one of its few prominent left wingers. But there is a sharper dichotomy between Neil and Katy and all the other candidates; either vote for more of the same or advocate a seismic change.
We need to answer the cosy stories that form a shibboleth against the reality of Labour’s political quagmire. These revolve around a depoliticised scenario where defeats are blamed on personalities and more or less incidental errors: the voters haven’t heard Labour’s message, we lack “good communicators”, and leadership is about having a smooth operator who will “take on the Nats” at Holyrood. This is the convenient myth being peddled by the Murphy camp and his supporters across the media. It neglects the real politics of the situation. What if the voters did hear Labour’s policies in 2003 when 250,000 or so of them left and more or less didn’t return? The story being told at present writes out the influence of the Iraq war and dissatisfaction with New Labour.
The other candidates may have limited distinctions between them but their solutions will not address the key question of the redistribution of wealth and power through a Labour Party which builds public housing, tackles casualised working and underemployment and acts to empower workers. They advocate a variety of strategies which don’t involve any major recognition of the necessity of a politics centred on the fundamental fissures in Scottish society that civic nationalism strategically masks. Overturning this won’t be easy. It’s going to take a kitchen sink mustering from activists at meetings, on the phones and on the doorsteps. A major effort over the next few weeks will be the only way we can hope to shift towards a left realignment in Scottish Labour – which is the only way out of the current political disarray it finds itself in.