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Scottish Labour repositions itself to the left of the SNP

photoThough the swirling waters of the River Tay looked freezing, the sun shone on Scottish Labour’s conference in Perth this weekend. And inside the conference hall, delegates seemed more confident than last year. Not necessarily that they will win the vote on independence – there is no complacency there – nor that they have got the better of the SNP, but that they have at least got it right about where they are now positioning the Scottish party. A clear and distinct Labour vision for Scotland within Britain. Firmly to the left of the SNP and with a clear commitment to more devolution, not only from London to Edinburgh, but within Scotland in opposition to the SNP’s centralisation.

Scottish Labour is the party of devolution,” said Johann Lamont in her keynote speech. Not historically accurate for a party whose modern commitment to devolution was a response to the rise of the SNP in the 1970s and the election of Thatcher. But a true reflection not only of Labour’s record of delivering a modern Scottish parliament, but also of its new commitment to devolve a whole new range of progressive taxing and spending powers to that parliament, and to “double devolution” to local councils currently subjected to SNP austerity and unable to raise any new revenue.

Prior to the late 1970s, Labour based its defence of the union on its commitment to the welfare state, and that commitment is now renewed. Forgotten is Johann Lamont’s reference to the “something for nothing culture” of universal benefits which still cast a shadow over last year’s conference. Nor was there any mention of a welfare cap, in spite of the intention of Ed Balls to whip Scottish Labour MPs into voting for one this week. But housing benefit will be devolved to enable a Scottish Labour Government “to abolish the bedroom tax, ensure secure funding for the provision of social housing and reduce abuse by unscrupulous private landlords.”

Together-We-CanAlso devolved are a range of spending powers designed to enable a union-friendly offer of fairness in the workplace – a Scottish health & safety executive, the operation of employment tribunals in order to improve access to justice by abolishing fees, and the enforcement of equalities legislation. And railway powers to facilitate a “not for profit” option for the Scotrail franchise. And all alongside further commitments in a deliberately red package on a living wage, ending zero hours contracts and tax avoidance.

There is clearly a buy-in to this left shift from Ed Miliband, and from the Scottish deputy-leader, Anas Sarwar, a Westminster MP previously associated with Progress but sufficiently ideology-free to accept the abandonment of remaining traces of Blairism in the Scottish party. Even Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander must acquiesce, a recognition that this shift is an electoral necessity in the run-up to the independence referendum.

However, few express confidence in a ‘No’ vote. The uncertainties of the turnout and the inability of the polling to predict the effect of a high turnout are the problem, together with the inability of the ‘no’ camp so far to make any dent on the don’t knows. And delegates generally accept that the SNP will not necessarily be damaged by a ‘no’ vote. And even if there is a ‘no’ vote, there is a recognition that the issue of independence will not disappear from Scottish politics.

The tribal hatred of the SNP and of Alex Salmond in particular is undiminished but there is a realisation from the Labour leadership north and south of the border that a leftward shift is the only way to stem the tide of Labour’s core voters towards them.

What is less clear is that this leftward shift will be sustained until the next Holyrood election  in 2016. A Labour government in London pursuing austerity policies will not make victory easy, and at that point Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander are likely to be much less helpful. For all the talk of “a new moral economy” there is precious little talk about the alternatives to austerity in Scotland even on the Left, and efforts to build a campaign against it have barely begun.  There is a real danger for Labour in Scotland that the SNP wakes up to this before the Labour left.


  1. David Ellis says:

    It is a pity Scottish Labour can’t position themselves on socialist principles instead of in opportunist relationship to others.

    The Scots would be crazy not to vote Yes to independence but Scottish socialists need to take this opportunity to promote a radical programme for Scottish socialism. Too many are tail-ending Salmond’s watered down reformist muddle and demagoguery.

  2. Robert says:

    Labour Scotland came out with some new labour ideals and to be honest if I was in Scotland to day I would be a member of the SNP not labour.

    Labour is not socialist it’s not even labour it’s become Progress and sadly all this is hopelessly to late and is basically trying to steal the SNP thunder.

    Labour would put up fees for students labour would have a welfare state run with firms like ATOS yes it’s going now but another will be found, no free bus passes and no free education labour is socialist no it’s not it blood Tory

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