Scottish Labour’s Ratner Moment
In a weekend in which the strongest candidate for the post of new leader of the Labour, Tom Harris said: “We are not taken seriously today. We are not saying anything that’s relevant. The only thing keeping us in contention is that all the alternatives are crap. That’s not much of a standard to go by: Vote for Labour because everyone else is crap” and in which Ed Balls has told us that he wouldn’t challenge the Tory cuts, and in which Red Ed told us that under his Socialist Nirvana students would pay £6k not £9 for higher education, you are left wondering what is going on? What is the point of Labour?
Iain Macwhirter has a good go at disentangling the Purple, Brown, Blue and Red, but to be honest it’s pretty clear that these people don’t know their colourful elbow from their different hued RSS. The problem is not just the dissaray of the Scottish Party but its rudderless head. On the eve of Mr Miliband’s first anniversary as Labour leader, 63 per cent of the pubic say that they find it hard to imagine the Labour leader running the country. His own side is also pessimistic, with 49 per cent of Labour supporters saying that they find it difficult to see him in Downing Street. More here. The Scottish Labour Review is to be welcomed but what is it to be independent of?
Harris’s outbreak of disarming honesty is to be welcomed but his elevation has it’s own problems. He seems perpetually confused about the nature of Scottish politics and the challenge ahead. He’s quoted as saying that “It is also an “absolute disaster” that the party is synonymous with the public sector. Someone could contribute to society by becoming wealthy and paying taxes, not just by becoming a social worker or a teacher.”
Clearly they could, but the problem would lie with the implicit insult to both teachers and social workers – both groups of workers desperately coping with the detritus of Labour’s legacy.
Harris though is smart, he’s web savvy and has clarity, guts and communication skills. The problem is that if you follow Macwhirters multi-coloured encyclopedia of Labour thinking he’s on the far-right (the Purple Brigade inhabited by unreconstructed Blairites). This puts him at a disadvantage for three reasons: 1) His leader Ed Miliband is trying to carve out a post-Iraq, post-PFI agenda (albeit not very well) 2) the Scottish people have repeatedly rejected the ethics of this model 3) the culture of even the confused and disheartened Scottish Labour Party is sick and tired of Tory-lite policies.
For all his social media savvy Mr Harris seems to be all at sea about basic political orientation. Writing at Better nation he says: “It would seem that he and the SNP have set themselves up in a bizarre contest to be the keenest defenders of separatism, and in that defence they will be steadfast. But why have they allowed themselves to be so entrenched on the nationalist side of the debate, and is there any prospect whatsoever of them even entertaining the notion of Scotland continuing as part of the UK…?” A comment which contends with his Ratner moment as a classic for the weekend. Why indeed have the nationalists been entrenched in the nationalist side of the debate? For the permanently adrift, such certainty seems odd.
If Tom Harris is a little confused his opponent Ken McIntosh (also at Better Nation – the new Labour Hame?) seems uninspired. Laying out his vision for Scotland he says “I like having the BBC.”
“You see” (he adds)… “I believe our task in the Scottish Parliament is not just to secure good government and a sound economy, but to build the good society, a happier, kinder and more confident Scotland.” Now this sounds exciting (who could argue with ‘happier’ or ‘kinder’?) but it’s just a wee bit short on detail.
If we jump back to Macwhirter’s Swap Shop, and discounting Old Labour, Hard Labour, Brown Labour and (sadly) Blue Labour – had anyone noticed the return of Red Labour? This, the only political path likely to prevent Scottish Labour’s decent into oblivion is not on the cards from Messrs Harris, Macintosh, Lamont, or anyone.
Ian Macwhirter writes: “Red Book people think conservatories are where right-wing politicians come from. Not to be confused with Gordon Brown’s 1978 book of the same name, the Red Bookers are a small but influential group on the Labour left led by Eoin Barry Clarke, editor of the website Green Benches, who wants a return to “ethical socialism”. Contributors to the Red Book, which is being launched in Liverpool this week, include the former Tribune editor Mark Seddon, and Scotland’s former deputy first minister, Cathy Jamieson. They want to see banks mutualised, Trident abolished and neoliberalism rejected in favour of income re-distribution and job creation. They overlap with the Compass group of left-liberal Labour people led by Neal Lawson and Baroness Helena Kennedy.”
A coherent articulation of this message from a well-respected voice like Helena Kennedy would give Salmond a run for his money but with Ratner-like clarity Tom Harris spells out why this is not going to happen in party hollowed-out by the pursuit of power and disabled by compromise and chameleon politics.
Writing in the London Review of Books in June this year, Neal Acherson wrote:
“The fundamental perception of British socialism, and Scottish socialism especially, is about wasted lives, the strangled destinies of ordinary people. Last summer, I went to Jimmy Reid’s funeral in Govan. Billy Connolly, once an apprentice in the same shipyard, told a story about going for walks with Reid in Glasgow. ‘He’d point to a tower block and say: “Behind that window is a guy who could win Formula One. And behind that one there’s a winner of the round-the-world yacht race. And behind the next one … And none of them will ever get the chance to sit at the wheel of a racing car or in the cockpit of a yacht.”’ Does the SNP see its fellow human beings that way? It certainly sees the nation clearly: it has all the angry confidence, the impatience to get down to the heavy lifting, the bright-morning optimism Labour has lost. But how about the compassion?
Jimmy Reid began in the Communist Party, moved to Labour but ended up in the SNP. Latterly, whichever party he was in, he was fond of saying that ‘the rat race is for rats.’ Alex Salmond might prefer Scotland to win the race first and waste the rats afterwards. But at the funeral he announced that Reid’s words, and the speech that contained them, would be reprinted and distributed to every schoolchild in Scotland. After he said this, Salmond looked up from his text and added, almost to himself: ‘What’s the point of being first minister if you can’t do things?’ And Govan Old Church slowly began to rumble with applause, hands beaten by shipyard workers, bankers, ministers of the kirk, women and men of all the parties including Tories, soldiers on leave, families in black who had come from the isles. On this they agreed: in Jimmy Reid’s name, they wanted this man to do things. Now he can.”
Compassion is still the question, but the chances are still far higher that a movement can cajole the people of independence to inherit the mantle and vision of Jimmy Reid than anything associated with Scottish Labour.