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Whatever happened to the Red Clyde


In the aftermath of the independence referendum the Labour party should address some key questions. But above all it must ask itself “Whatever happened to the Red Clydeside?” From the beginning of the twentieth century to the era of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work in, Glasgow has been a bastion of left-wing socialism and working class solidarity. It produced titans of the Labour movement like John Maxton. But in the referendum working class support for Labour collapsed. And the great Labour party bastion of Glasgow swung behind independence. Notably working class Labour voters were more heavily pro-independence than the middle classes.

It is clear the Labour supporters of independence in Glasgow, and elsewhere, were not blood and flag nationalists. Nor were most of them personal admirers of Alex Salmond. Instead too many of the poorest of the poor in post-industrial Scotland appear to have given up on the Labour party as a means of securing social justice. Nobody could have explained the problems with currency union more lucidly than, that smoothest of Edinburgh lawyers, Alistair Darling. But still Labour voters in the West of Scotland were moving to supporting independence. It took Gordon Brown delivering thundering speeches on social justice, in the authentic tones of a son of the manse, to stem the tide.

It also helped that the British business and political elites threw everything except the kitchen sink into terrifying Scottish voters. There were very real issues about the currency, which actually made it debatable whether Scotland would have been genuinely independent. But the more apocalyptic threats were just that, threats. Had the campaign gone on any longer I fully expected claims that independence would have been accompanied by an Ebola epidemic.

I served on the National Executive of the Labour Party in the nineteen nineties. Then New Labour’s justification for ignoring core Labour voters, like the voters of Glasgow, was that “they had now where else to go”. More recently Scottish MPs warned Ed Miliband that our position on issues like welfare risked alienating Scottish voters and handing an advantage to the SNP. They were told in no uncertain terms that the priority was the voters of Middle England. It would seem that strategy nearly lost us Scotland.

In the short run there obviously need to be powers for London and other great cities which parallel those being handed to Scotland. In the medium term the far-reaching constitutional change needed cannot be the subject of a hurried parliamentary stitch up at the “fag end” of a discredited administration. There needs to be a Great Britain wide constitutional convention which involves civil society.

But it would be a mistake if activity about constitutional matters crowded out the issues about poverty and social justice raised by so many of the working classes in Glasgow and across Scotland. Socialism is a moral crusade or it is nothing. That is ground that we should never have ceded to the SNP. And these are concerns raised by working people across the UK. It is time to ensure that our agenda for the 2015 General Election is not just chasing the votes of a few swing voters in marginal Middle England seats. We have tested that strategy to destruction. We need a genuinely progressive agenda in 2015. Only in this way can we be sure of victory.


  1. James Martin says:

    Well leaving aside the fact that Red Clydeside was as much (if not at times far more) associated with the Communist Party than with Labour during the period that Diane mentions, the argument over policies while correct is really only half of the problem.

    Scottish Labour has long been a pretty horrible place given the huge predominance of New Labour waste of space right-wingers (and some of their actions -or lack of them – during the recent independence debate nearly lost the vote entirely). And what is the point of trying to get a better programme to reengage working class voters when you still have a toss-pot like Douglas Alexander at the end of the process?

    No, the real problem is that following the expulsions of left-wing members in the Party either at the time of the Anti-Poll Tax movement or Iraq (where of course during the first of what turned out to be many attacks on the country Galloway was expelled for telling the truth about war-criminal Blair), the Party lost its genuine activist base and its replacement by New Labour control freaks and middle class students wanting a well-paid political career has led to the inevitable alienation of what should be natural Labour voters.

    But the worst of it is that this madness has continued under Miliband – and in fact in many ways has got worse. Look at how hard-working Scottish trade union organiser Stevie Deans who was successfully recruiting Labour Party members was treated by Miliband. He was reported to the police (the police!). And look what happened next, the already much reduced influence of trade union members in the Party was further reduced at the special conference that Miliband had been panicked into arranging by the Daily Mail.

    So no, it is not just policies – but basic Party democracy that is necessary to restore if we are to re-engage with our natural supporters in any meaningful way again.

    1. Rod says:

      ” the special conference that Miliband had been panicked into arranging by the Daily Mail.”

      It wasn’t the Daily Mail that panicked Miliband. Dumping the unions has long been a Progress ambition. And this compliments the state-funding for political parties that Miliband favours.

      The disgraceful fake crisis at Falkirk was entirely the work of Labour’s elite, including Miliband. By discrediting the trade union movement, and then dumping the collective link, they created more career opportunities for Blairites and probably hoped to win a few votes in marginal southern seats.

      None of this will deter the ‘Left’ within Labour from supporting the Labour Party – if they accommodated Blair and Iraq they’ll accommodate anything.

      As Jon Lansman admitted the other day: he’ll oppose Labour policies once a labour government has been elected*.

      But, of course, by then it is too late.

      * “I suspect most of us will grit our teeth and campaign as best we can for a Labour victory in spite of our disagreement with many aspects of the manifesto including the central thrust of the economic approach. Then we’ll oppose what we didn’t agree with in the first place and didn’t vote for as soon as the election is over.” (September 15, 2014)

        1. Rod says:

          I’m a member of the National Health Action Party*

          Not that I’m expecting them to form a government in 2015 but I believe it is sheer foolishness to do as Jon does and vote for, and campaign for, a party whose policies one doesn’t support. To do that is to retreat from the battle of ideas and hide in a comfort zone.


  2. Well said Diane. The Labour Party must now respond to understandable Clydeside and Dundee Labour disillusion with the remnants of New Labour policy and ideology with which UK Labour is still stuck and the continuing denial of internal democracy for grass roots Labour Party members from which we all continue to suffer.

    1. Robert says:

      You’d better talk to Voters not members labour membership is not growing, and calling people who are in Unions members has always been open to question.

      Members have a say in the internal politics but if labour wants to win it better start talking to voters, especially the young people who are not seeing labour as an answer but the problem.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Diane Abbot makes a series of valid points and James Martin provides some addional important background. On the basis of this it is difficult to resist the conclusion the Labour hold a central responsibility for the rise of separatism in Scotland. Natural Labour supporters were alienated by both UK Labour and Scottish Labour.

    Given Labour’s poor track record and the inability of “one nation” Labour to break with “new” Labour does it not seem no more than wishful thinking to say

    “It is time to ensure that our agenda for the 2015 General Election is not just chasing the votes of a few swing voters in marginal Middle England seats. We have tested that strategy to destruction. We need a genuinely progressive agenda in 2015.”

    Without the genuine party democracy that James Martin argues for this is just not going to happen. Can Labour renew itself in this way or is it now organisationally moribund and incapable of shedding its structures of manipulation by a small clique? Without doing that there is no chance of the progressive program that Diane Abbott calls for. It is certainly going to happen before the 2015 election.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Damn! Another bad typo. The last sentence should have been “It is certainly not going to happen before the 2015 election.”.

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