Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Time to end the same old show

RMT union expulsion from Labour is but a symptom of a deeper malaise facing the party in Scotland, argues Gerry Hassan.

Scottish Labour prides itself on its distinctive culture, ethos and political outlook compared to the rest of the British party. This is a party defined by the fact it has won every Westminster election in Scotland since 1959 - twelve in a row - while the rest of the party was shaken to the core by the four defeats post-1979.

One word sums up Scottish Labour's different road: constancy, meaning a sense of certainty and sureness that its way of looking at the world has been vindicated by events. From the vantage point of Scottish Labour's citadels in the 1980s it saw a social democratic politics define the Scottish civic resistance to Thatcherism, and painted a stereotype of England as lost to Labour and some mythical Mike Leigh land. The workers were different in Scotland; they still thought of themselves as working class and of collective solutions; in England, they had embraced tax cuts, share options and council house sales.

Scottish Labour did not get on with the Blair revolution from the outset, and resented it when New Labour imposed a referendum on support for a Scottish Parliament on them pre-1997. The election of a Labour Government did not remove this state of affairs, as the party could still gripe at the New Labour project, but the onset of the Scottish Parliament - Labour's coming home - began to undermine this mentality. It has been a bumpy experience, necessarily one of transition, whereby the old Labour politics has taken time to begin to wither.

The first thing to note is the significant reverse Labour experienced at last year's Scottish Parliament elections. The party lost seven constituency seats - its worst reverse in post-war times, while its regional list vote of 29 per cent was the lowest the party won since prior to the breakthrough election of 1922 - worse than the debacles of 1931 and 1983. Labour's retreat was only disguised by the bigger humiliation inflicted on the Nationalists, and the way the additional member system makes the overall result more nuanced in its impact.

Scottish Labour lost seats to a wide array of forces across the political spectrum - left, right and centre. It lost three marginal seats to the SNP, where the Nats had dug in and organised. It lost one to the Lib Dems, one to an Independent hospital closure candidate, and significantly, two to the Tories. The importance of the Tories winning seats from Labour signals the wider shift going on in Scottish politics - the slow, weakening of the anti-Tory consensus forged in the 1980s, and the coming in from the cold of the Tories as a pariah party. The fact that David McLetchie, Scots Tory leader, could win Edinburgh Pentlands, and defeat Enterprise Minister, Iain Gray showed something profound at work.

The pointers suggest that voters were beginning to punish Labour as the incumbent party of Scotland for several generations. Labour, Scotland's political establishment, had hidden this fact behind its fancy rhetoric opposing Thatcherism and the weight of the civic society consensus. After four years of the Parliament, run by a Labour-Lib Dem administration, and various Labour local government scandals, and other unedifying displays - 'Lobbygate', 'Officegate', the scandal of the escalating costs of the Holyrood Building Project - voters began to realise there was no point in continuing to kick the Tories. This is bad news for Scottish Labour, as it suggests 2003 is the first instalment in a series because Labour still governs most of Scotland. If so, they will be held increasingly responsible for the state of the nation.

The debate on proportional representation in local government touches wider issues about the kind of Labour Party devolution will bring about. The party is unenthusiastic, if not outright opposed to this, and Jack McConnell, First Minister, has only supported it as a price of coalition with the Lib Dems. Now PR has the potential to change the face of town hall politics across Scotland, and challenge some of the nasty and indefensible ways Labour runs Scotland without much opposition and scrutiny.

It could herald a new era in local government with a very different kind of politics and Labour Party. There is an argument in favour of PR, and an argument against. What the McConnell leadership has done is abrogate any sense of responsibility by arguing that he is against PR, but his hands are tied as a price of coalition with the Lib Dems. This is the opposite of any notion of what political leadership is about.

This touches on a fundamental issue about the character of Scottish Labour, namely its lack of democracy, and the audacity of the leadership running the party with little reference to proper procedures and debate. The party has had three First Ministers, but not one proper election and debate, validating any of these leaders, their programme and any sense of vision they might have.

Instead, the party's North Korean tendencies have come into play. Donald Dewar was prior to the Parliament coronated leader in a manner similar to an Eastern European Communist regime with 99.8 per cent of the vote. Henry McLeish, the accidental second First Minister, actually had the inconvenience of an election, but it was a mini-one of an electoral college against Jack McConnell, which was meant to go to a wider ballot of members, but did not. And after McConnell had withstood pressure from party grandees and Gordon Brown and stood, he then forgot all about democracy when he later became the third First Minister, winning the Labour contest without an open election. First, he was to face Brownite supporter, Wendy Alexander, but she quickly withdrew, then, Malcolm Chisholm, Health Minister, announced he was to stand from the left, and then declared he could not get the nominations, with suspicion that a deal had been done to prevent a democratic contest.

Scottish Labour has thus given three First Ministers to the nation without any party debate or discussion about their credos and visions. And this links into a deeper argument. Scottish Labour is now in coalition with the Lib Dems - an unsettling experience for a party with deep monopolistic traditions - but no debate has taken place in party channels about whether this is a good thing or not. This is just not the way the party leadership operate; they just do things, and if party members get annoyed or challenge it, they are out-manoeuvred at party conference to stop debate. So the chance of coalition government being used to develop a different, more pluralist Labour politics is thus, squandered and wasted.

This is at last being challenged. A new alliance made up of UNISON, the GMB and TGWU is arguing for a democratisation agenda centred on three demands: the right to a recall conference before any coalition deal, amending Policy Forum documents, and the right to debate reserved issues. This coalition is made up of people beyond the usual suspects of the hard left and oppositionalist whingers. Instead, it links up disgruntled constituency and trade union activists, soft left with hard left and decent right-wingers.

A showdown was waiting to happen at Scottish Labour Conference as we went to press. The leadership have been reduced to a rump of sycophantic supporters from Old and New Labour, and their only chance of avoiding defeat seemed to be to stop a debate, claiming that these constitutional amendments should be tabled for next year. But that will only delay the inevitable. A party that the leadership have taken for granted, and that has long been characterised by its compliant nature has finally had enough.

Scottish Labour cannot go on as it has been. The party leadership seem to believe they can be in coalition government and deliver such issues as PR for town halls, while pretending they do not believe in such things. They seem to have an Ostrich-like outlook of trying to ignore the new realities of Scottish politics whereby two parties now sit in the Parliament firmly to the left of Labour and SNP - the Scottish Socialists and Greens. Both of these parties won 6-7 per cent of the list vote in last year's elections, and provide a home for disillusioned Labour (and SNP) voters, while the SSP also acts as a haven for disgruntled trade unionists and unions that consider disaffiliating such as the RMT which has already done so, and FBU and CWU which may do so. The Scottish Labour leadership seem to have no answer to how they can respond to this new, unfolding environment, and how they should respond to this reconfiguration of the party going on in front of their eyes.

These are inevitable consequences of the processes unleashed by devolution. A Scottish Parliament has produced a more pluralist, uncertain political system. And that requires a Scottish Labour Party which uses its members and resources, and is not run by some self-appointed, self-serving clique. The democratisation of Scottish Labour will either force the existing Labour leadership to change their style and approach to politics, or as is more likely, some years down the line, throw up a new leadership which has been created by a culture of debate, discussion and democracy. It might just have the chance of being a stronger leadership in a stronger, healthier party, which has the prospect of offering a more energising and galvanising prospectus than the current 'safety first' politics.

Gerry Hassan is editor of The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas, published by Edinburgh University Press, £15.99, and is co-author of The Political Guide to Modern Scotland, published by Politico's Publishing, £20.