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Together We’re Sombre

When I started writing this, I wanted it to be a simple piece on Scottish Labour after our conference this month, but when one thinks about politics it’s hard to shut up about it (maybe that’s just me). The fact is, all of the issues I want to discuss are related, because we can’t take one situation in one country at one certain time, isolate it from the international situation, and claim that ‘this is how it is’. Labour’s difficulty in Scotland is reflective of the labour movement across the world.

As a young student in a part time job, it can be difficult to attend political events (ask anyone in this position and they’ll tell you the same). On Sunday I managed to travel up to Perth as a new member, and first time conference goer, and whilst I have left with a positive frame of mind, I can’t help but question some of the messages we as a party were putting out. Upon entering conference, one can’t escape the ever watchful presence of the buzzwords – ‘Together we’re stronger’. It’s on twenty different televisions, it’s beamed in huge script in the main hall, it’s the repeated mantra of many a speaker, and if that wasn’t Orwellian enough, it patiently awaits you on a television screen as you visit the toilets – no, I am not joking.

The slogan, and the initiative it relates to, bears far too much resemblance to the bleak political outlook of the rest of Orwell’s famous novel than I’d like to experience. Slogans seemed to be a key feature of the day, and while I’m not against using slogans, the whole point to them is that they encapsulate something meaningful in a short resonant manner; unfortunately, in this case, they’re far too vague to do either of these things. ‘Together we’re stronger’, but who’s we? The working classes – agreed – but a critique of the elite we’d face (in or out of the UK) is vital if we’re to remain relevant. Without proper analysis, without a desire to define what makes ‘us’, Labour in Scotland can only react to the two nationalisms, or navel gaze.

At conference, it seemed once again that Scottish Labour would reject one form of nationalism in favour of another, a masterstroke if ever there were one. Alienating 45% of the country is daft, begging on a unionist basis to a core unionist vote you’ve already lost, even more so. Scottish nationalism is not the way forward, but make no mistake, British nationalism is far worse, far more toxic, and anyone who would stoke that kind of nationalism need look no further than Trump or Le Pen to see where it leads. To quote a fine young socialist, we don’t need a pound shop Ruth Davidson; in my own words, we need a Red Rosa.

The only place I can see that coming from, is in the work of our growing youth movement, through giving Scottish Young Labour the platform it needs within the party in order for all of our young members to be heard and inject their enthusiasm; and through the terrific work of Scottish Labour Young Socialists, the embryo of our movement, who convinced myself that there was, and still remains, something within Scottish Labour worth fighting for, and who’s nurturing I have no doubt will give our party the chance to choose from many hundreds more Red Rosa’s in future struggles.

My biggest motivation for travelling all the way up to Perth was of course to see Corbyn. To see someone who you have great respect for, a good solid socialist, in the flesh for the first time was great; to see him dancing at a Northern Soul event not ten feet away from me was nothing short of wonderful. In saying that, I do have some minor criticisms of his speech. I think Corbyn has had to indulge the line of the Scottish Labour leadership, and some on the left for that matter on independence; I disagree with his comments – I was one of the few in the room that did from what I could see – there must be more nuance in our approach, an understanding of why people want independence, and how we can patiently explain amongst them – not down to them – why it is not the driving force in our movement, but that the need to empower the working class is.

Other than this, I couldn’t help but enjoy what was a wonderful speech – something I don’t think would have been the case if I were to have been present at Sadiq Khan’s speech. I don’t wish to get bogged down in debating semantics, the point is that the impression which has been left after his speech is that Scots who voted yes (I did so myself) or who would wish to be independent now are racist. I’ll happily give Khan the benefit of the doubt in that he might not have meant it that way at all, and that’s fine, but it does not do any good for those of us in Scotland tasked with bridging the increasing gap in society as a result of the referendum, far from it.

This is especially important when considering recent events. Nicola Sturgeon herself has said she has respect for Tony Blair, she’s happy to take support from the rag that is the Sun, her predecessor was best pals with Murdoch and Trump, she wants independence simply to give control back to NATO and the EU – my god comrades, she lifted slogans straight from Thatcher with the ‘don’t just hope for a better Scotland, vote for one’ line; and yet even so, where are we to capitalise upon these frighteningly easy wins, to call her out on quite frankly blatant Tory actions? Too consumed in undermining Corbyn to notice it would seem. With the Tories in power in Westminster, and now the main opposition in Holyrood, it’s clear that the trajectory of politics in our country will move right; if we are not there to drag it left, if we continue with this dreary, extreme centrism – devoid of any serious political content – we can only watch powerless in horror as we race to the bottom.

Navel gazing is bad enough; our problem is we spend far too much time gazing at the SNP’s navel, maybe we wouldn’t be third if we thought about radical policy, and stood on our own platform. To hell with what others are doing, what are WE doing? It’s time to drop the arrogance, we’re not entitled to a single vote in Scotland, but Scottish Labour’s meltdown must be taken in context: decades of betrayal and abandonment, where people still live in poverty and unceasing austerity, frustration and anger, the inability to effectively challenge the Thatcherism so eagerly continued by Blair, the shackling of the trade union movement, our primary means of defence being the bureaucratic EU rather than building a social movement and strong trade unions to defend us properly, the list goes on and on.

In short, from the hey days of 1945 until now, the events of the last two generations have played out in the last two or so years; contradictions have bubbled away beneath the surface in Scotland, but they went unseen, and here we are. Scottish Labour’s ivory tower has crumbled. As we step out, once more upon the same level as the people we’ve previously neglected, perhaps we’ll listen this time. Perhaps we’ll look up together at a brighter future, rather than look down in contempt. Perhaps we’ll realise what we can achieve with the working class at our backs, and not at our feet. Perhaps we’ll see their condition, listen to what we’re being told, and strive to empower them. This is crucial if we are to survive.

Is Scottish Labour’s condition a bad thing? From a labour supporting view, is it right to be so critical of the party? In my defence, I say self-criticism is always necessary, I say this out of love for my comrades, my colleagues, and my people – the working class, who deserve so much more from us. Mincing words will mince our direction, so let’s be honest, open, and clear. Let’s have straight talking politics.

It’s important that we discuss how Scottish Labour’s current position relates to that of the rest of the party, and the international movement. The fall in the support of social democratic parties across Europe is certainly due to the bankruptcy that neoliberalism has left our movement in. Even so, against a backdrop of people across the world turning away from traditional parties: Labour, both in membership size – and yes, very much in electoral results – remains a cut above sister parties across Europe. Don’t be fooled into thinking Corbyn is hard left or unelectable, just like the other buzzwords, this is spin and doesn’t take the full picture into account. That we are doing so well in the aftermath of Blairite negligence, Thatcherite arrogance, and years of feebly accepting the neoliberal agenda, is a testament to the strength of Jeremy’s ideas, and the kind of politics he represents. However, to move forward, it’s time to stop thinking we can simply manage capitalism as in previous years, the conditions no longer exist even for the temporary victory we achieved post WWII; it didn’t work for Syriza; it’s not working for the PSUV; and it certainly wouldn’t have improved the lives of ordinary Americans to the extent needed if Bernie were president – as welcome as socialist ideas are there. Instead, let’s talk about other ideas.

Let’s examine the views of thinkers like Gramsci, and see that our strategy can’t simply be about winning elections then going on to tinker around the edges (sure there are achievements we can win, but as the Tories are so admirably showing us, even the victory of the welfare state we created in 1945 can be rolled back) but that real change is won through the struggle for position in all aspects of civil society. To fantasise for the glorious socialist past is an illusion no different to the imagined glory of Scotland circa Bannockburn and Britain circa Waterloo. Let’s live in the present. That means understanding that there are moments which are defining opportunities that need to be prepared for.

People who call for revolution, or harp on about it as just being round the corner, show a complete lack of touch with the situation as it is. Here and now is our starting point in any analysis we make, strategy we adopt, and policy we pass. Our goal is to create a culture, from the bottom up, which can seep into every aspect of civil society, and the state. When the old kings of Europe fell, they fell because the forces which took their place already had control of the key sectors of the economy, already held power in all but name. That must be our strategy, resurrecting the sleeping giant of the international working class, showing them in action, and through experience – not with sermons from the mount – that they are the ones who create power in our society; but in order to wield it, they must organise. Workers must be active in their workplaces within the trade unions: even more importantly, for those already engaged in the trade union movement, all of our fellow workers (whatever their background, their work area or their beliefs) must be shown that they are the union, and given all the help available to fight for not just decent, but for the best possible working, and living conditions for themselves, and their families.

Next, we need to realise that political power is about more than just elections, the kinds of improvements we wish to make to society cannot be done without the support of our membership, the trade unions, the working class, and society as a whole. Within the limits of our current system, there is only so much we can do, which is why the counter culture we need to create has to take control of the narrative back from a media that supports the entitled powerful few over the struggling many.

We need to build worker power by bringing our communities together: by putting solidarity back into our work, whether that be through encouraging voluntary work to support our elderly; supporting those forced by Tory cuts to resort to foodbanks; or standing up for those of us unlucky enough not to be able to get even poverty pay zero hour contracts jobs, who face cruel benefit sanctions, serious mental health problems, homelessness, and – something which brings shame to all of us – death at the hands of a heartless, and truly nasty Tory party.

It is of utmost importance that we in Labour in Scotland appreciate the scale of our task, but that we also get to it to the best of our abilities. Only a strong united socialist labour movement can put an end to the horrors that far too many of our people face on a daily basis. A socialist labour needs to be in government in Scotland, and in the rest of Britain: building a social movement to support those who need our help most; holding political education events across the country to explain why we are in the situation we are in, what alternatives there are, and how we can most effectively pursue them; and preparing right now the next generation of socialist leaders who can carry on the mantle that we are grateful to Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn, and all those who came before them for setting out. Only radical politics will lead to radical change. Let’s get to it then.

16 Comments

  1. Danny Speight says:

    Wouldn’t a study undertaken by the party to see where it went wrong in squandering its support in Scotland be a good thing? Find out what went wrong instead of following what you did before would seem like a good idea for Kezia.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Danny,
      Its too late for that now. Labour or The Branch Office are finished for good in Scotland.
      They are voting with the Tories as we speak in a hopeless and futile attempt to try and stop a second referendum. They will lose of course. They know that before the vote is held but why pass up the chance of stepping off a cliff when the offer is there? We’ve got a name for that as well, its called doing a Corbyn.

  2. treborc says:

    Scotland has a new party of the left with the SNP, I say new it was to the center right before .

    But it’s taken over the roll of the left, sadly it cannot forget it’s battle to get independence .

    Labour in Scotland whether it’s young people or middle age or the elderly , it has to find a way of being relevant again sadly Kezia is not the one .

    Corbyn is fighting the Tories and the Blue labour and the other groups who all want to take power .

    Little wonder voters are not returning.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Treboc,
      I don’t like to be the one that is always the bearer of bad news, but Im afraid Labour has no support left in Scotland. Apart from Kezia, there is no one. There are unsubstantiated rumours of the sight of an old couple in Dundee, the McBonker’s, (they don’t have a radio), I think Labour can still rely on them, but apart from that and a mad solicitor with dementia in Auchtermuchty that is it.

  3. Robin Edwards says:

    Ref 2 is a golden opportunity for the Scottish Left to reinvent itself after the disasters of Scottish Labour and the SSP implosion and after going to ground and losing its own independence inside the SNP. It can stand for a Yes To Independence in the referendum but argue for a Scottish Exit from the neo-liberal EU. It can put forward its own radical socialist programme for a post-Westminster and post-EU Scotland and its own vision for a New European Settlement that favours workers over bosses.

    1. James Martin says:

      And just what is progressive about splitting the British labour movement Robin? Who benefits from that?

      1. Robin Edwards says:

        Scuse me. British Labour Movement = UK. Actually in the minds of the imperialist Labour leaders, left and right, who live from its crumbs that is probably true.

  4. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Aiden,
    When you say, “I think Corbyn has had to indulge the line of the Scottish Labour leadership, and some on the left for that matter on independence;” you are spot on. That is exactly what he did last week. At Perth on the Saturday when asked about a second referendum he had “absolutely no problem” with it, he said “it was none of Westminster’s business”. 48 hours later he had backtracked. By Monday he had been “mischievously misquoted”. Which was rubbish. He hadn’t. What happened was, he caved in to pressure. He didn’t change his mind. Keizia Dugdale or someone from the branch office told him to get back on the telly and do a fuckin volte face. That is the measure of Jeremy Corbyn. He is not a leader. He is a coward.
    And that is Labour’s problem Aiden, your leader is not a leader. He is weak. Of course he was right with regard to a second referendum, but he has no conviction. He is feart of his own shadow.
    Because of that lack of leadership, today Aiden, Scotland is going to witness Labour stand again with the Torys at Holyrood, in opposition to a second referendum. In opposition not only to the Scottish government but it will be seen as, opposition to Scotland’s people and their aspirations. And they will be on the losing side.
    Scottish Labour know they are done for. They know there is no way back for them. It is too late. There is no point in a change of tack now. Their hatred of the nationalists has been their undoing. They cannot think straight because of hate.
    I could explain this to you Aiden, but it would take too long. Briefly, it started back in the late 80s with a piece of legislation called the ‘Community Charge Act. Scotland’ You might have heard of it as The Poll Tax. Check it out. Donald Dewar and Brian Wilson (Scottish Labour MPs at the time) toured the country telling Scots to pay it: ‘that Labour are a party that upholds the law’. Scotland said this is unfair, this is a bad law and ‘no we won’t pay it’. That was the start of it, The Decline, and of course where one party declines another ascends.
    It went from bad to worse. One night in 1992, Scottish Labour were told to ditch their unilateralist nonsense and that they were now multi lateralists. Which they did, with some difficulty, as you can imagine. It didn’t look good. Supporters were confused.
    Then, The Downfall, Better Together.
    Aiden, I can save you a lot of time and effort. Before you invest too much of yourself in the Labour Party, don’t accept everything at face value. Make your own judgement, as in when you “see him dancing at a Northern Soul event not ten feet away”. What are you looking at? Is it wonderful? or is it an old, middle class, odd ball politician in a position he never thought he would ever have to carry off trying to look like what he imagines an old, middle class, odd ball politician looks like?

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Aiden,
      Im very disappointed in you, but of course I am not surprised. You dont half like the sound of your digits on the keyboard but when it comes to a response to a comment you have been well trained: zilch, zero, non comprehendia, in communicado, mischievous reporting, not what one does when one writes an article for a Labour website.
      I get it. Can you imagine the implications Aiden, talking with ordinary people. Best avoided.

  5. Matty says:

    MacKinnon is talking rubbish as normal. JC is not for independence but he doesn’t believe that Westminster should block a referendum if Holyrood decides to hold one. The decision at Holyrood is for Scottish Labour.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Matty, as you type, Labour in Scotland are voting against a second Scottish independence referendum. They will lose of course, but they will do their patriotic duty and stand by their convictions along side their unionist kamerads in The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.
      That is why Scottish Labour or The Branch Office as it is called up here are of no relevance any longer to the body politic of Scotland.

      1. James Martin says:

        It has long been a left socialist position to oppose reactionary nationalism (represented in Britain by the SNP among others) that seek to split the working class along national lines and tie it to its ‘own’ ruling class (SNP again), but at the same time for socialists in the larger nation not to oppose separation of people in the smaller one genuinely want it. Lenin in fact was pretty good on this given the nationalities question in the Tsarist empire makes the UK issues look like small change. Corbyn was simply following this principled position, that is that he opposes separation but will not oppose a referendum from his Westminster position, although it is not contradictory to have at the same time socialists in the Scottish Labour Party opposing that referendum and independence, in fac t it is key to the strategy (and they are after all the key to winning working class unity against ‘their’ reactionary nationalists). The New Labour Blairites don’t get this of course (far too principled for eejits like West Streeting), but then neither do the reactionary Scottish nationalists in the SNP or the reactionary English ones in the Tory Party. These are the same nationalists who witter on about ‘branch offices’ when it was actually Labour Party members in England and Wales who were dominated by a powerful New Labour Scottish leadership layer for many years, in other words the problems in the Labour Party, just like the problems of working class people, are ones of *politics* not nation.

        1. Richard MacKinnon says:

          James,
          First, it was Johan Lamont that coined the phrase ‘branch office’ in her resignation speech; as in ‘London Labour treats Scottish Labour as the branch office’ .
          Second, tell me why it is that Scottish Labour will today vote with the Scottish Conservatives to deny Scotland a second referendum.

  6. Bazza says:

    Of course the problem in Scotland was that Right Wing Labour there (Pre-Corbyn) ran to Blairism and deserted Old Labour which the Scottish people pretty much liked and the SNP as arch opportunists said thank you very much we’ll have your old clothes.
    Scottish Labour under its current mediocre leader was pushed a little to the Left and made a little gain (the SNP didn’t win outright in Scotand this time and rely on a few Green) but I would argue the answer is Big Left Push Big Gain!
    Scotland could be won back by a Left Wing Labour.
    The SNP are not socialists but one can understand with the antics of Right Wing Labour why some socialists joined them.
    Of course it is up to the Scottish people but as a UK citizen I would argue for a more Federated UK with as much power to the nations and regions (Scotland, Wales,The North of England, South, East, and West – roughly 5%, 5%, 20%, 20%,20%, 20% respectively of UK) as possible but some decisions would have to be taken nationally like a living wage, corporation tax, tax or otherwise Big Business would set nation/region against nation/region in a race to the bottom in pursuit of profit plus a cooperative UK would support other nations/regions in difficulties.
    For example Scotland and North Sea Oil and if we get local government settlement rates back to being based on population and NEED the richer areas of the UK would help those with the most poverty; simply put collectively we could do more as socialists.
    In England we should have current MPs sitting in a local council chamber in the regions some times in the year (to avoid an extra tier of regional MPs) and regions like the North could devolve decisions even further ie to Yorkshire, Lancashire, and in the West to Cornwall.
    I can understand – many Scottish working people want rid of the Tories for ever but this is how many of us working people in the North of England also feel but as a left wing democratic socialist I would argue for more UK wide solidarity for diverse working people.
    I care about poverty in every country of the World and in every nation/region in the UK and believe the UK Left can be more effective UK wide whilst still managing to devolve power!

  7. David Pavett says:

    A good read. Aiden Anthony O’Rourke makes a series of important points. I think there has been far to little discussion about Labour’s dramatic collapse in Scotland and how the grounds for this were laid in decades of betrayal before Corbyn came on the scene.

    I strongly agree with the point about sloganised thinking in which intead of encapsulating detailed analysis and clear prigrammes the slogans replace both. This has become a part of Labour culture and, alarmingly, is as true of the Labour left as much as its right.

    The dismal half-baked politics of Kezia Dugdale will not lead to a revival or threaten the now dominant SNP.

    There needs to be a debate about nationalism and I agree that British nationalism is not an attractive alternative to Scottish nationalism. I will believe that Scottish Labour is going somewhere on this issue when it responds to that powerful theoretician of Scottish nationalism: Tom Nairn. I have a sinking feeling that few in Scottish Labour have even heard of him, let alone see the need for a response to his work.

    The recently issued NPF draft policy statements contain more than a trace if British nationalism in which it is not enough that we try to put right what is wrong in Britain but in addition (or even instead) the talk is of Britain leading the world again. This even comes with echoes of former imperial glory e.g. on how our great legal system came to be replicated in so many countries. I agree with Bazza that we should instead be debating regionalisation.

    The description of empty slogans beamed into toilet TV’s gives a whole new meaning to “crap politics”.

  8. C MacMackin says:

    I agree, this was a good read. I was particularly pleased to see it stated that “to move forward, it’s time to stop thinking we can simply manage capitalism as in previous years, the conditions no longer exist even for the temporary victory we achieved post WWII” and the emphasis on needing society-wide mobilisation to enact progressive reforms. Having recently started getting more involved with my local party, I’ve been pondering how to raise these ideas for discussion.

    I also agree with the need to reject both British and Scottish nationalism. It is possible to oppose separatism on the basis that togethor the nations of the UK are much more than the sum of their parts, and that the UK would be culturally poorer were Scotland to leave. I’ve often wondered how we can claim that multiculturalism is viable if even the English and the Scotts can’t live togethor in the same country. I have some sympathy for those who think that an independent Scotland would be a better terrain on which the Left could fight, but I’m inclined to disagree. Nevertheless, I believe in self-determination, so if they choose to go that route, I wish them the best of luck.

    As David and Bazza have said, rather than arguing for British nationalism, the Left should be arguing for regionalisation. I think that true federalism will have to be the answer, which would require an end to the current system of parliamentary sovereignty (it is not federalism if Westminster can unilaterally take back devolved powers). Unlike Bazza, I don’t think that having devolved assemblies of MPs is a good idea, because that would require voters to balance regional and national politics in their decision. Better to have a completely separate body, like the existing Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish assemblies. If we don’t want to introduce a new layer of government, then we could consider abolishing county councils in counties with individual city councils as well. Given that the Left is always demanding increased democracy, we should also think about how we could do this in the new regional governments. Could there be a place for a second chamber with members randomly selected from the population? Could we come up with a regional version of participatory budgeting? How could we involve people in the running of the newly-devolved sections of the civil service?

    There would also be big questions of exactly what should be devolved both in terms of responsibilities and tax-raising powers. If public services are devolved, how do we ensure fairly uniform standards across the country? We could use this as an opportunity to bring up public ownership, as things like water, electricity distribution, and buses could be well-suited for regional control. Given that we on the left believe in the need for a national economic plan, we’ll have to consider how we could make this compatible with federalism. Finally, proper federalism would probably require a written constitution, which would raise a host of questions about whether to include human rights, whether to include social rights, the existence of the House of Lords, the role of the monarchy, etc. The right constitution could help advance the Left’s causes, but the wrong one could hobble it.

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