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The Labour-union link: the view from Scotland

Labour Scottish conferenceEd Miliband’s dog whistle reaction to the Westminster bubble was not just a poor tactical response; it reflects the political elite’s failure to understand the wider Labour movement. It also has particular consequences for the Scottish Labour Party.

For those outside the Westminster bubble there is bewilderment as to how Ed got himself into this mess. The obvious answer to Cameron’s Commons barb was: “We will take no lectures on party influence from a Prime Minister who has policy dictated to him over the dinner table at No 10, by the very financiers who got us into this economic mess“. This would be followed by much Westminster style bellowing and then move on to the next issue. Instead the focus is placed firmly on the Labour Party’s historic relationship with the trade unions and the Tories financial reliance on hedge fund managers is forgotten.

More importantly from a Scottish and a wider UK perspective, it is a huge and unnecessary distraction from the issues Labour should be focusing on. Scotland’s current employment rate is still 4.7% below its pre-recession peak, long term unemployment is rising and youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. The ConDem cuts have had a major impact on Scotland with 52,000 (8.6%) public sector jobs lost, and far from plugging the gap, private sector employment has fallen by 5000 (0.3%). Scotland remains a profoundly unequal society, most vividly demonstrated by health inequality with a near 30 year difference in life expectancy between the poorest and most affluent communities.

In response to these challenges we have an SNP government that is entirely focused on the independence referendum. The polls show that Scots agree with Scottish Labour that jobs, public services and health should be the priority of the Scottish Parliament. On the left, the recently published Red Paper on Scotland 2014 makes the case for social and economic change rather than constitutional change. It is therefore unhelpful for the UK Labour Leader to send us off on our own internal constitutional distraction. We can hardly attack the nationalists for being distracted, when we are engaged in a similar detour.

The trade union movement’s historic links with the Scottish Labour Party has a strong structural base at all levels in the Party. The affiliated unions play a central role in the party both organisationally and politically. Devolution has if anything strengthened that understanding, with a much greater degree of political engagement in the Scottish Parliament. While the differences in public attitudes between Scotland and England can be exaggerated, there is little doubt that collectivism has a greater resonance in Scotland.

For these reasons, it is hugely disappointing that Ed Miliband gave the impression that he didn’t understand the fundamental basis of trade union organisation and the collective approach to party affiliation. In fairness, the Collins Review consultation paper does at least start to rebuild confidence with its recognition of, “a collective engagement with our party, for trade unions”. Unless this is fully recognised in the final proposals there will be a huge political and financial blow to the Scottish Labour Party that is rebuilding after the 2011 election debacle. It needs this distraction like a hole in the head.

There are other, equally serious consequences. If the UK Labour leadership is seen to be out of touch with Scottish values that inevitably leads to calls for a different approach in Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party already has autonomy over devolved matters, a different structure and rule book with its own directly elected Leader and Deputy Leader. We may not choose to adopt all the UK Party changes, as we haven’t in the past in policy areas.

The even bigger risk is that trade union members would look elsewhere for their political voice. Some of those pressing Ed on this issue will argue that the trade unions in England have nowhere else to go. That isn’t the case in Scotland where the Tories are an irrelevance. The SNP may not be democratic socialists, but they are not Tories either and trade union members, in significant numbers, have already lent their votes to the SNP. This approach will do nothing to win them back.

The leadership’s tactical blunder should not be converted into a strategic failure that costs Labour the next UK General Election.  Another UK Tory government would be a disaster, but the long term consequences in Scotland could be equally bad.  We must hope and organise to ensure that the Collins Review consultation paper is the first stage in avoiding the abyss.

Dave Watson is a member of Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee, a past Chair of the Scottish Labour Party and Secretary to the Scottish Trade Union Labour Party Committee (STULP)

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