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.

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  1. Jacqui says:

    Wonderful post – very moving. I felt like cheering and crying at the same time, when i read the part about Jimmy Reid and Alex Salmond. Is it really going to happen….I think it just might.

  2. Scottish republic says:

    Mike, I read your articles and think I’m reading a high quality professional.

    Do you write for any journals?

    Another brilliant piece – actual research and coherent thought – almost entirely missing from the MSM in Scotland nowadays.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks but I’m a low-quality amateur. I did write for the Guardian for three years then they suddenly stopped commissioning/publishing (same thing happened to Chris Harvie and others). I’ve also written for Variant, Scottish Left Review, Indymedia, Product, Newsnet, Open Democracy and (very briefly) the Scotsman.

    2. Michael Gardiner says:

      Yes, it is really well written and a fine summation of where we are. I suspect the reason it’s not in The Guardian is that this level of accuracy would be too alarming for their readers.

  3. James Morton says:

    It’s a brilliant article and neatly underlines the problem facing labour. The conservatives were dashed to pieces by 1997 and what is left is slowly washing away. Incapable of accepting that they were the architects of their own misfortunes, they have since tried to transfer all the blame on to the Scots people. They have nothing new to say, nothing new to offer. The reality of Scots politics today leaves them confused and baffled. The Tories became irrelevant as people questioned not only what they stood for but what use are they? The country has moved on since Thatcher and Major – it seems that we don’t need them or their politics no matter how much they whine for the need of a centre right party. They keep harking on about how Annabel Goldie and repaired their reputation, but lets be honest – she didn’t – the shrinking votes for Scottish conservatives are testament to that. They seem content now to live in the past and talk whimsically about how they were popular once in 1955. So ends the sad and tragic tale of the Lesser spotted Tory, But now we come to Scottish Labour and their misfortunes. For too long this party rode the wave of anger against Thatcher and Major and coasted along into power forgetting how the Tories defeat came to pass, and certainly never thinking for one minute that it could happen to them. But happen to them it did, and now seem hell bent on making all the mistakes the Tories made, which is to keep banging the same old drum but only a little bit louder, with the odd individual making some stupid comments that are guaranteed to rub up Scots the wrong way.

    They seem genuinely incapable of expressing a passion for anything, or to make a stand on principles, and of course to hold and defend an opinion. This last charge can be laid at the feet of most politicians today. But when you are trying to rebuild a shattered reputation and defend the Union, not being able to communicate clearly is a huge disadvantage,

    Now Cameron thinks he can muscle his way forward in dealing with the SNP menace. Cameron hasn’t got the man-power – even with the Libs watching his six. This leaves Labour – how are they going to handle it? if they come on in the same old way, the Salmond will see them off in the same old way and won’t break a sweat doing it.

    When the SNP spoke, it was with a passionate vision for Scotland and its people. I think they can do the compassion thing as well. The conservatives don’t do compassion or fairness – the majority of people in Scotland do not trust them, or at least trust them to be conservative and so will not allow them to get their feet through the door. The liberals were and still are – politically speaking – dead men walking. Labour bragged about being worse than thatcher, they did away with the 10p rate on tax, dithered as the country slid into recession and stopped listening to the electorate. The Scottish labour party was just as guilty.

    The Scots may have voted Labour in the general election to keep out the Tories, but when it came our parliament – we clearly found them wanting. I have seen and heard nothing that would make me change my mind on this.

  4. Doug Daniel says:

    Excellent article, Mike. A great example of the quality of thought that can be found in blogs which is somewhat absent in the media. From what Harris and Macintosh have told us so far, it seems the change in leadership/management in Labour in Scotland will not result in a similar change in the party’s approach to the constitution. The status quo is no longer acceptable to the majority of Scots, and it is unlikely the Scotland Bill will do enough to satiate their appetite. If they don’t change to at least back FFA, Labour in Scotland will remain moribund.

    You’ll find me crying in the corner. Honest.

  5. Scottish republic says:

    With rare exception (e.g. Iain Mcwhirter) the Scottish MSM is rubbish.

    And I’m not just talking about comment, the standard of ‘journalism’ is poor and getting poorer by the day.

    Bella, Cal Merc and Newsnet are at least honest and give the facts.

  6. Geoff Barr says:

    Is the plan to publish all of Jimmy Reid’s works? In the days when I knew him he was the General Secretary of the Young Communist League. He worked hard to impose a Stalinist discipline on that organisation. Not a lot of compassion then.

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