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.

Comments (14)

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  1. ronald alexander mcdonald says:

    Good article Pat.

    I believe that the key to a YES vote is Labour voters. The very existence of LFI is sending an earthquake style shudder down the spine of the Labour Party. Hence the desperate comments by McColm and other to try and discredit them instead of being sensible and open dialogue.

  2. Paul Cochrane says:

    I await the slaughtering of the LFI/Kane duopoly in the Sun/Mail/Scotsman/Record/Better Together site tomorrow!

  3. Albalha says:

    It was interesting listening to Vince Mills on the tele t’other night, still in the fold but hardly on message, but is against independence. I’d like to see a considered debate between him and John McAllion or similar.

    Recently I met a former colleague,in short, old Labour. Anyway I witnessed the full force of the ‘if you’re voting YES you don’t care about workers in Bradford, Newcastle etc’. Maybe I’m not as well versed in the nuances of international socialism but this has to be a stretch, even for real believers, surely?

  4. Superb article.

    I worry that Scottish Labour’s long standing hatred of the SNP is so deep and irreversible that nothing will change that; they will persist in their support of a failed Union whose grandiose ambitions they clearly endorse (including nuclear weapons) rather than support a democratic. nuclear free Scotland.

  5. Jim Monaghan says:

    albatha, Vince and the CfS group have a vision for Scotland that differs little from ‘Common Weal’ or RIC apart from whether we are independent or part of a federal republic. We shouldnt be closing the door on these people

    1. Albalha says:

      That’s sort of my point, I really would like to hear Vince and someone like McAllion debate independence, I imagine there are quite a few undecideds who’d lke to hear it too. I’ve no desire to close the door on anyone we need to get over the line.

      To be fair, however, I’m a YES.

  6. Andrew says:

    There is an issue with LFI, which is that it claims to be a group made up of Labour Party members and supporters and clearly they work with people who are neither.

    There are people who do actually vote Labour and support Scottish independence, there are also people who are actually members of the party who do too (me included) but if the prerequisite for membership for LFI is simply that you have to have once voted Labour (even if it was decades ago) or identify with Labour history then the group will reduce its impact.

    I respect Pat’s right to go to events like this and join the group, but there is a big difference between associating with the labour movement and associating with the modern Labour Party. This group has explicitly chosen to do the latter and Euan McColm has raised valid questions.

    People may consider his journalism to be trashy, but it’s not ideal if there are SNP councilors providing the foot soldiers for a group that claims to be linked to the modern Labour Party.

  7. Murray McCallum says:

    I’m not a member of any political party.

    It seems odd to me that a LFI commitment to free education, national healthcare, a living wage, fairness at the centre of welfare, possible re-nationalisation, and the removal of WMDs from Scotland causes such an issue within the Scottish Labour Party.

    Mind you, such fundamental core values are at odds with the general direction of the Labour Party and its leadership. I guess it boils down to individual Scottish Labour voters to decide whether a Yes or a No vote are most likely to achieve their own social democratic aspirations. I am personally struggling to understand their angst.

  8. Bill Cunningham says:

    The whole point of Euan McColm’s atricle is that it is disengenuos when 80% of peple in pics purporting to be Labour for Independance are SNP COUNCILLORS OR SUPPORTERS. It is fraudulent , they should be supporting their own groups.

    1. Bob Duncan says:

      Except they didn’t purport to be any such thing. They were simply photographed with LfI’s Alex Bell and their names were added under the original image on Facebook.

      The names and legend were clipped to create the “fraud” image released by Better Together, which was removed from its context and which falsely stated that the SNP members were pretending to be part of LfI.

      So, who exactly was being disingenuous here?

      1. Alba4eva says:

        Yup. The dirty tricks of Bitter Together doctoring photos in place of making a positive case for the union. No surprise there.

    2. Ken MacColl says:

      They are doing that too!

  9. Ken MacColl says:

    It is more than 50 years since I lived in Ayrshire but I have family there who are politically involved and I know that the Council Leader of the SNP controlled East Ayrshire Council is Dougie Reid, who is a high profile Councillor in Kilmarnock- I would imagine that anyone who was remotely interested in politics in Kilmarnock would know this and what Dougie looks like. Anyone would realise that the YES campaign is a cross party group seeking support from all those entitled to vote in the 2014 referendum just as the No campaigners are seeking similar cross party support although their on the ground presence is yet to manifest itself. This is certainly true here in Argyll
    The picture of Dougie and some of his party colleagues supporting the LFI street campaign that appeared on Facebook prior to being clipped and amended by opponents does not attempt to deceive anyone and Dougie Reid and his fellow councillors are clearly not wearing false beards or other disguise.
    With Labour’s present abysmal standing in Scottish polls and the apparent disappearance of Johann Lamont from the political scene over the past month, along with the emergence of genuine debate within the YES camp I suppose it is inevitable that there will be a few hares set to run but this particular story looks to me like the start if something very small.

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