Independents for Labour
It was a bright and optimistic Saturday morning this last weekend, and I decided I wanted to attend Labour for Independence’s policy conference. The website said I could if I joined the organization. I strolled up to the venue (the STUC building in Glasgow’s Woodlands Road), filled in my form, and paid my ten pounds.
I’m not a member of the Labour Party – but they asked me was I a member of any other party? I’m not, no. So, in I went, to listen to my colleague on the board of the Reid Foundation, Robin McAlpine, expound inspirationally on his “Common Weal” project. This is an attempt to create a Nordic-style policy platform for Scotland – worth attempting under any conditions, but only fully realisable under independence – that could bring together social-democrats (and democratic socialists) from all parties and bodies in Scotland.
At lunch break, I shared a nice glass of diet Coke with some interesting new comrades in the Schoolhouse bar next door, and then sauntered off into the Glaswegian sun. A rare, non-family weekend indulgence, its rarity only proving Oscar Wilde’s dictum about the problem with socialism being “that it takes up too many evenings”. And also, to me, an example of the civic and political innovation that we hoped would be unleashed by the referendum campaign.
But in the days since, social media has thrummed with outrage, that people like me – out-and-out independence supporters, with a history of supporting the main party advocating that, the SNP – could get away with associating myself with the red rose and capital-L of “Labour”, in any way, shape or form.It’s come to a head with Scotland on Sunday columnist Euan McColm’s piece in Think Scotland today, which tries to demonstrate that the group Labour for Independence is a shady “front” organization for the SNP, Yes Scotland, or other independence-supporting entities. Here’s the nub of his charge:
Voters who believe Grogan [Allan Grogan, founder of LFI] and his acolytes represents a real movement for independence within Labour ranks are being conned. From the people in its publicity shots to the activists leafleting “like a boss”, Labour for Independence is kept alive by Scottish nationalists. The impression of momentum is down to the involvement of people such as an SNP Minister’s bag carrier, and the support of senior Yes Scotland officials… Labour for Independence is a sham, a tawdry little con in which some of the party’s most bitter rivals are complicit.
I’m sure Allan and his “acolytes” can answer for themselves about the organisation they’ve founded. And in terms of McColm’s photographic evidence of SNP members seeming to pretend to be LFI activists – again, those individuals can no doubt speak for themselves. Certainly, from the perspective and experience of being an advisory board member of YesScotland, I’ve gotten used to being in promiscuous ideological environments – Green party MSPs talking to property developers, leisure entrepreneurs talking to Scottish Socialists, artists as controllable as “unguided missiles” blethering with the Deputy Minister.
The democratic principle and clarity of a campaign for a Yes vote brings many types, actors – and parties – together in the same activist process (as does, of course, the No campaign). Yes Scotland as its most idealistic – and this is a fault to some – says that a Yes vote kick-starts a transformed political culture in Scotland. We become a place where all existing political allegiances have to figure out what it would be like to seek their “good societies” under the full powers of a nation-state. This should be an exciting, challenging and fluid moment.
So it doesn’t automatically surprise me that SNP members and activists would want to try out – maybe just to see what it feels like – a “Labour” identity, in the course of Yes campaigning. After many years of disillusion, even rage, at the Labour party in Scotland – and consequently, support for an SNP who make a better argument for universalism and social justice than they did – I guess that’s what I flirted with last Saturday morning.As I tweeted over the last couple of days, I have a lot of form with Labour – as movement, and as party. My first two Westminster votes were for Labour, in 1983 and 1987 (you may remember a certain song…). I came into Scottish activism in 1988 via Jim Sillars’s book Scotland: A Case for Optimism, an argument for “independence in Europe” that was driven by his analysis of the failures of the Scottish Labour Party he founded in the late seventies.
With Hue And Cry, we were involved with STUC-inspired events like the Day For Scotland, or protests against Caterpillar or Ravenscraig closures. Yes, it’s true, a good lump of the current SNP Cabinet were able to get this particular music-monkey elected as the SNP candidate for Glasgow University Rector (beating a great hero of mine, Tony Benn). But this didn’t preclude me from being involved in the post-1992 cross-party movement Scotland United, occupying mineral-water-sprinkled rooms with the likes of John McAllion, Dennis Canavan, Bill Speirs, Campbell Christie, George Galloway, and many others.
I’ve always been genuinely fascinated by the culture of ideas around Labour. I spoke at events organised by, and wrote articles for, Marxism Today – in which thinkers like Stuart Hall and Eric Hobsbaum were vital beacons of hope and critique in pretty grim times. MT’s leading lights – Martin Jacques and Geoff Mulgan – developed their “New Times” analysis of Thatcherism into the prospectus for the think-tank Demos, which fed into New Labour. (Indeed I was an associate with Demos under its head Tom Bentley in the mid-2000s).
I’ve been friendly with Mulgan for over 25 years – from the time he tried to (unsuccessfully) recruit me into Red Wedge at the Town and Country Club in 1987, through a presentation on The Play Ethic I made to his team, when he was head of policy in Blair’s Cabinet Office in the early 2000s, until right now – where I’m working on a futures-conference with him for Nesta in London. I’ve spoken at a few conferences of the centre-left, all-party, but essentially Labour-oriented pressure group Compass (which I joined recently) – and have a London dinner-date with its founder Neal Lawson next week.
I recount all this (stifle your yawns) to prove only one point, which I’m sure many others could make as well. Namely this: it’s possible to be a supporter of Scottish independence over nearly three decades, and to find ways to express that politically and electorally, by voting for parties who support that end-point (and under Euro and Holyrood elections, more than one at the same time).
But it’s also possible, over the same period, to be interested in the analysis of culture, economics and society that the Labour tradition represents – and to wonder whether the best of that could flourish under independence.
Previously on Bella, I’ve tried to engage constructively with some of the ideas around One Nation Labour. I also think the shift to society being defined by values of “production” and “craft” than “lifestyle” and “consumption” – which people like Jon Cruddas, Maurice Glasman, and Jonathan Rutherford are exploring through the Labour Policy Review – is very interesting. Unfortunately, they’ve tangled it up with UKIP-inspired anxieties around immigration and welfare dependence.
This simply doesn’t play in Scottish civic nationality, where concepts like the “common weal” – to which all contribute their productions – can actually find genuine popular resonance.
I am speaking personally here, but it seems to me that organisations like the Reid Foundation, the Radical Independence Convention and Labour for Independence can all function as bridges – between the social-democratic/democratic-socialist practices and traditions one might bundle up as “Labour” (old, new, blue or yet-to-come), and the constitutional launch-pad of a Yes vote in the coming indy referendum.
As I wrote in my Thoughtland article in 2012 predicting a “Labour For Independence”, it would seem a real tragedy if the entirety of Labour in Scotland, party and movement, found itself entirely on the outside of history, come a Yes vote in September 2014.
In the period between that vote and the first parliamentary elections in 2016, will Labour members and representatives really be content to stagger around in the ruins of the Union, trying to flip their collective psyches from virulent opposition to constructive support? (If the recent polling resilience of the SNP is anything to go by, one can barely conceive of that party’s dominance in the post-Indy moment).
Or would it be best for some of the brothers and sisters to have thought and spoken clearly and publicly beforehand, about the kind of Labour Scotland they would want to see under independence? (The late Stephen Maxwell’s book Arguing for Independence could almost serve a therapeutic function here. I recommend as many comrades read it as possible).
There’s a lot of smart, personable, attractive people in the Labour movement, Scottish and UK – one of the reasons why I’ve always wanted to keep dipping into their culture and practices. But this sour tone of “fronts”, “conspiracies” and “shams” really has to wash away at some point. It’s not a huge deal that I, or any SNP-friendly type, is a member of LFI. But it is, I think, a hopeful sign that the best of Scotland’s talents and passions could be put in the service of independence.