This piece was first published on on the Labour Hame website as Labour’s down-to-earth radicalism.
A month on from the referendum Scottish Labour finds itself in the curious position of conducting a post-mortem after an election victory.
Labour played a critical role in a hard fought and ultimately successful No campaign, but has emerged beleaguered and bruised from the battlefield, while its opponents seem to be regrouping effectively, many of them already impatient to resume the fight.
Labour has polled poorly since the referendum, and is in danger of losing a chunk of its core support: a third or so of the party’s own members voted for independence, most heavily in its central belt heartlands. There is internal unrest, with groups emerging within the party urging radical reform, and even a change of name. And the party leadership is under daily pressure from a press ever eager for new signs of Labour unease and division.
It is important in the midst of all this to maintain a sense of perspective. There are many who will be quietly grateful to Labour, both inside and outside the party, for the part it played in saving the Union, which but for Labour’s support would almost certainly have been lost. And Labour’s current internal debate has engaged many eloquent voices across the labour movement, demonstrating the existence of the vibrant inner life that so many of the party’s opponents have accused it of lacking.
But it is clear that the difficult role Labour had to play in this most brutal and important of campaigns has scarred our party, not least by damaging Labour’s reputation with two important political constituencies.
Firstly, many Labour supporters open to the undoubted strengths of the argument for Scottish independence have been alienated by the stridency of the No campaign’s denial that independence might have afforded any positive political possibilities, and, in particular, by Labour’s entanglement through the Better Together campaign with conservative forces whose motivations for a No vote were quite different from our own.
Secondly, the Yes movement energised a new generation of political activists – through groups such as the National Collective, the Radical Independence Campaign, the Common Weal and Nordic Horizons – who share many of Labour’s abiding values yet hold the party in utter contempt.
Both of these constituencies voted Yes on progressive grounds, believing independence to offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break with an irredeemably neoliberal UK, and thereby create the space for Scotland to pursue social democracy free from the fetters of UKIP-voting middle England. Both are genuinely puzzled not so much by the legitimate reservations Labour might have had about the possibilities afforded by independence, as by the relentlessly negative and dismissive tone of the campaign it conducted.
They have a point. Certainly, Labour was right to highlight the shortcomings of the various cases for independence made by the Yes groups. The SNP’s White Paper, for example, was an uneasy attempt to blend the low tax ‘Celtic Tiger’ model of independence with expensive social democratic aspirations. The Common Weal advocated an abstract, idealised Scandinavian social democracy that cannot simply be transplanted to Scottish soil in the absence of the cultural conditions that make the Nordic model possible. And, inspirational as it undoubtedly was, and is, the political constituency for the Radical Independence Campaign’s soaring vision of an independent socialist Scotland simply doesn’t exist: they wanted SYRIZA, but they would have got the SNP.
But Labour must recognise that these were – and are – vibrant and exciting movements, suffused with hope and imagination, overflowing with the very qualities that have been missing from mainstream politics for so long. The appeal is clear to anyone attending a Common Weal or Radical Independence meeting: here one will find crowds of knowledgeable idealists fired by the possibilities afforded by political ideas for the making of a better world.
In fact they are exactly the kind of progressive people who in another time would have found their natural home within Scottish Labour. But for them Labour is an object of scorn: the party that worked with the Tories to rubbish their aspirations, and that fought a negative, nihilistic campaign motivated primarily by a self-interested concern to preserve the Scottish block of MPs it needs to form a Westminster government. It should worry us that the referendum has brought so many progressive people into politics who see Labour as an obstruction to rather than a channel for radical political change.
How then can Labour begin the hard process of reaching out to these new voters, with whom it shares so many political values, and of repairing its reputation amongst the many long standing supporters whom it may now lose?
That long, difficult journey starts, I think, by recognising that Labour needs to find a way of appealing to the imagination: to the heart, and not just the head. The Yes campaign lost the battle on polling day, but it won in the fields of the political imagination. Scottish Labour has to find a way of demonstrating that, ultimately, it is a party of hope and ideals, not of technocratic reform, and that it can offer a worthy a political home for those who want the freedom to dream that politics can move history forwards towards something better.
Labour’s current internal discussion has yielded many ideas as to how we can set about doing that. I want to suggest that Labour should be radical in the true sense of the word, by going back to its roots to consider its founding principles. If we do so we will find that there is a crucial sense in which Labour is already, always, and by necessity radical – radical by design. Crucial because it is exactly the kind of down-to-earth, powerful, transformative radicalism that has acute relevance for people struggling to make ends meet in today’s harsh economic world.
The clue is there in the party’s title. Labour is the party of work. We were founded to ensure everyone is resourced with the economic support they need to lead secure, meaningful and rewarding lives. That is a basic human concern that will always be relevant. And so long as Labour holds on to that simple idea we will always be at the cutting edge of politics, always able to help people with this most fundamental of issues.
Other parties prioritise concepts such as nation, liberty, sustainability, or the defence of property. All of these are of course should be important concerns for any serious political party. But Labour starts with something less abstract, more concrete. Labour is first and foremost concerned with what matters most to the great majority of people during their day-to-day life: with conditions of employment, with fair pay, with education and skills, with health, with childcare, with the recognition of domestic labour. With everything, indeed, that bears on the economic conditions that determine our opportunities to participate fully in society, and share in the prosperity generated by our collective endeavour.
Labour’s default political vocabulary is material, rooted, radical, speaking to people in the vivid language of everyday life. Certainly, Labour honours concepts such as equality, social justice, rights and liberty, but the party is most distinctively itself when it talks of jobs, pay, holidays, health, security, pensions, and education. These are concrete words that resonate, that people can readily connect with the day-to-day realities of their lives.
It’s a simple message that is particularly powerful today, when so many of us feel our working lives and material circumstances are out of control, our lives buffeted by harsh economic winds generated by obscure forces over which we have no agency.
For some the working world is still experienced as a field of opportunities. There are still good secure jobs commanding high salaries. But for increasingly many, without the gifts, security and connections necessary to access those prosperous enclaves the economic landscape is darkening, becoming an ever more forbidding territory of insecure contracts, poor pay, unpaid overtime, demanding bosses, rude customers and monotonous, demeaning toil.
This is precisely the point at which Labour can help people, the point at which many people today need the greatest help. Our historic understanding of the fundamental importance of work, and our accumulated experience of devising and delivering policies that support working people, makes Scottish Labour the best positioned of all of the parties to help people cope with the severe economic challenges they face.
Scotland’s unbalanced economy
Scottish Labour needs to design policies capable of fixing the deep structural issues that make Scotland’s economy unable to generate the decent jobs people need. Some of these problems can be addressed using the powers already available to the Scottish Parliament, and the new capacities promised by the 2012 Scotland Act. But the fiscal and regulatory powers available to Holyrood need to be strengthened still further if a future Scottish Labour administration is to acquire the full set of tools it needs to implement the fundamental restructuring necessary to set the Scottish economy on the right course.
To frame the fundamental economic challenge in crude terms: Scotland’s economy still produces a reasonable number of good jobs in highly paid sectors such as financial services. It generates a good many more poorly paid, insecure and stressful service sector jobs, offering too few or too many hours. But it no longer produces anything like enough of the middle income, skilled and secure jobs necessary to form the bedrock of any economy that works well for the majority of its people.
That is ultimately due to the precipitous and ongoing decline of Scotland’s manufacturing sector. Manufacturing is so important because it is the sector most able to provide the bulk of the kind of quality jobs that offer people decent, dependable incomes, and – because of the skills they need to master – the prospect of job satisfaction. And a healthy manufacturing sector has a multiplier effect: research into new processes and technologies undertaken by advanced manufacturing seeds new businesses, creating the kind of dynamic networks of small to medium sized companies characteristic of well balanced economies.
The causes of Scottish manufacturing’s decline have been well documented:
- British monetary policy for at least the past 30 years has been designed primarily for the benefit of the UK’s financial sector rather than the export of manufactured products.
- Business investment in research and development has declined for many years, and is now amongst the lowest in the OECD, with company directors pressurised to prioritise short-term profitability to provide quick returns for shareholders.
- It has become harder for businesses to secure finance from a banking sector now more interested in the possibilities of capital accumulation through speculation in international markets than the longer-term investment required for the patient building of new industries.
- Ownership of Scotland’s manufacturing sector – like those of so many other countries – is now largely concentrated overseas. Globalisation allows fleet-footed multinationals to move their capital elsewhere with relative ease, including that temporarily located in their Scottish portfolios.
An active state
Labour needs to challenge the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy that insists governments can only adopt a passive role as regards economic management, confining themselves to the cultivation low tax, low wage environments in the hope of attracting inward investment. Labour must instead rehabilitate the idea that the state can design effective economic strategies capable of developing and sustaining the economic eco-systems that deliver skilled, well paid jobs.
Other countries have and are doing that, with success. The so-called BRIC economies (Brazil, China, India and Russia) have all used the power of the state to help build powerful industries that have driven forward their economies, lifting millions from poverty. Large European economies such as France and Germany continue to provide state support for key industries through strategic investment and the cultivation of interlocking supply networks. And the United States famously supported its motor industries in the wake of the 2008 crash.
Scotland is well positioned to follow suit. Just as 40 years ago Scotland was blessed with the windfall of oil and gas, so today developments in technology have made possible the marshalling of our natural resources, particularly wind, wave and tidal energy. The development of the Scottish renewables sector should be a prime focus for an intelligent economic strategy, with its potential – quite apart from its ecological importance – to support the creation of thousands of skilled new jobs. This and other high value industries could be built up through targeted state investment in the necessary capital, skills, infrastructure and research.
This kind of ambitious industrial strategy needs to be at the heart of Labour’s economic policy if we are serious about addressing the structural weaknesses in the Scottish economy. It should be supplemented with a range of other measures designed to empower workers, such as the enforcement of a living wage, and the safeguarding of the rights of trade unions to organise effectively. And steps could be taken to further anchor production under Scottish ownership by making it easier for found and develop firms run on co-operative lines.
The Scottish Parliament already has some of the powers it needs to pursue a far-reaching economic policy. Education and training, for example, is already fully devolved. But many existing powers need to be strengthened, and some new ones devolved.
It is critical, for example, that Scotland obtains the fiscal powers it would need to fund a major programme of economic renewal. The 2012 Scotland Act goes some of the way, allowing Holyrood to raise 30% of its revenue from devolved taxes. But that should be augmented with further tax raising powers to give Scotland extra fiscal flexibility, including the capacity to set varying tax bands to allow the design of a progressive tax regime. And new tax raising powers should be accompanied by additional freedoms to borrow prudentially.
In addition to these enhanced fiscal powers Scotland needs further regulatory powers, such as the authority, when necessary, to be able to take companies into public ownership to nurture their development, and to require banks to make sufficient funds available for business investment.
Building on our traditions
Together, these powerful fiscal and regulative levers would give Scotland the flexibility it needs to pursue a forceful economic strategy within the framework of the Union. Labour’s core principles and traditions make it uniquely well qualified to use those new powers to make a real difference to the lives of the many Scots struggling with today’s economic storms. Labour already has a track record that is more radical than any of its political rivals, radical because has repeatedly delivered the practical economic help that people need most of all, including the minimum wage, social security, universal secondary education and the expansion of further education, social housing, the National Health Service, statutory working conditions and the protection of trade union rights.
Scottish Labour needs to build on that legacy by stepping up to the fundamental political challenge of our day: the restructuring of our economy so that it serves all, not just a few. If that requires the devolution of powers beyond what the party has already asked for, then those powers should be sought.
In doing so we would follow in Scottish Labour’s Home Rule tradition, which has pursued the appropriate devolution of power to Scotland not for its own sake, but always and only for the sake of improving the economic conditions of working people.