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Article By Richard Leonard Labour’s need for a new vision


Unless the Scottish Labour Party understands the historic scale of its defeat in the Scottish election on May 5 and the seriousness of the position it has fallen into it has no hope of recovery.

I am bound to declare an interest.

I was one of those selected to represent the Scottish Labour Party before the people in the election.

I put forward a policy agenda of full employment, public ownership of public services and greater equality through a living wage and equal pay.

This may have influenced the vote of some electors, but not many of them and then probably not all that much.

It was Labour’s worst election result in Scotland since 1931.

The party’s share of the popular vote was the lowest since 1923.

Only 15 out of 73 constituencies returned a Labour parliamentary representative.

I lost, and with loss comes humility and honesty.

I don’t have all the answers.

The reasons for Labour’s rout were partly tactical, partly strategic and overwhelmingly political.

Strathclyde University Professor John Curtice has concluded “Labour’s vote fell more heavily in areas with more working-class voters and in areas with relatively high levels of social deprivation.”

Many of the seats where Labour lost to the SNP were among those with the lowest turnout – the Glasgow seats of Shettleston, Kelvin, Anniesland and Glasgow Southside.

Part of Labour’s problem was a switch of voters to the SNP as a result of the degeneration of the election into a presidential contest, the last-minute unilateral policy U-turns, and a defensive campaign.

But the biggest factor was differential abstentions – no doubt brought about for the same reasons.

Where the SNP polled highest, in Carrick Cumnock and Doon Valley, it tended to be in the wards with the highest turnout, and the more prosperous wards at that.

Conversely where Labour significantly out-polled the SNP in former mining villages, turnout was typically below the constituency average.

This decline is long term. In the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections Labour polled 908,392 votes on a 58 per cent turnout.

This year it polled 630,461 on a 50 per cent turnout.

That’s why the response to the defeat must be political more than organisational, more national than local but firmly led by the party’s grass roots.

Labour needs a vision of the kind of society we want to build, an up-to-date relevant compelling case for socialist transformation, rooted in people’s everyday experience bound by a golden thread of intellectual credibility.

There must be collective leadership.

We should begin with the election rather than the appointment under patronage of the shadow cabinet in Holyrood.

People are looking to the labour movement in their struggles to defend locally delivered, publicly owned services, in their fight for jobs and useful work, for educational opportunities and for dignity in retirement.

And make no mistake.

The SNP five-year council tax freeze – and its bid for a much bigger cut in corporation tax than even George Osborne is contemplating – will lead to closures, rising charges, pay cuts and job losses if left unchallenged.

So the Scottish Labour Party must reconnect with the broader movement in the defence of jobs and services. Labour must vigorously oppose injustice, inequality and privilege.

Aspiration shouldn’t be confused with materialism. Citizens should not be pigeonholed as consumers.

People have aspirations – but many of them are social and collective.

They want decent affordable housing, they fear for rising youth unemployment not for themselves but for the next generation, they want accessible public services like libraries and public health delivery in their own communities.

And what people aspire to most of all is having more power over their daily lives.

To borrow a phrase of John Maclean, they want to “rise with their class not out of their class.”

So Labour needs to articulate a credible and convincing case for the alternative – for full employment, economic democracy, an equal society and common ownership.

And greatest of all a radical redistribution of power not from one Parliament and one set of politicians to another – but from those who happen to own the wealth to those who actually create it.

In the wake of the 1931 defeat, RH Tawney wrote a seminal essay, The Choice Before The Labour Party, in which he argued that what was wrong with Labour was not “a failing in organisation or a weakness in programme.” It was, declared Tawney, its “lack of a creed.”

And that lies at the heart of what is wrong with the Scottish Labour Party today.

It needs to rediscover its purpose and its soul, and so win the battle for hearts as well as minds.

To do that it must become less of an electoral machine and more of a political movement.

Renewing Labour’s distinctive and historic mission to secure equality, peace and democracy, including economic democracy is not only the right thing to do.

It would win back the confidence of working people and so win back their votes too.

Richard Leonard is political officer for the GMB in Scotland and a former chairman of Scottish Labour. He was the party’s candidate in Carrick Cumnock and Doon Valley in the Scottish Parliament election on May 5.

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