What’s the Story?
The 2011 election campaign was very hard for me to take. As a Labour staffer, I was responsible for dealing with the media on
Iain Gray’s visits to key seats. As polling day approached, I had seen enough to know that we weren’t going to win. When I walked into the count at the SECC, in Glasgow, I expected that we would lose Kelvin and maybe Cathcart if it were really bad. Shettleston and Anniesland left me stunned.
Before I eventually left to get some sleep on the floor of a conference room at John Smith House, one SNP activist told me, “Labour needs a new story”. That’s not quite right. I think we need to remember an older one.
It is the vision of a better world that has always given the Labour movement its moral force and ability to inspire people. To put it more simply, we need hope and optimism. 2014 is going to be a very big political year and, whatever the outcome of the referendum, the positions that each party takes will shape they way they are viewed by the electorate going into the next Scottish Parliament elections.
Home rule has been part of Labour’s platform since the very beginning and the party needs to embrace its own traditions. Opinion polls consistently show that, while most Scots are unconvinced about independence, they want more power over tax and benefits devolved to Holyrood. It is time to put their views at the centre of the debate.
Johann Lamont could steal the initiative by publishing her own proposals for a stronger Scottish Parliament, including control over most taxes and benefits. This would make the referendum about two competing visions of change for a reformed UK and give Labour something positive to campaign on.
The party also needs to broaden the conversation and learn a lesson from the SNP about how to put pressure on the Tories at Wesminster. Even after Alex Salmond won an outright majority, there were serious legal questions about the Scottish Government’s ability to hold a referendum on independence because the constitution is a reserved matter.
However, all parties recognised that the SNP had won a political and moral mandate in the election and the Edinburgh Agreement solved the problem.
The historic deal agreed offers a roadmap for sorting out other controversial issues and, specifically, the Bedroom Tax. Since the policy was introduced, in April 2013, over 80,000 Scottish households have had their benefits cuts because the government deems that they have ‘too much space’.
A person living alone with a spare bedroom loses 14 per cent. That rises to 25 per cent for anyone with or two or more spare rooms and there is no exemption for disabled people who need extra space to store equipment.
As a result, the sick and disabled have been hit hardest. The Bedroom Tax is even crueler and more unfair than the Poll Tax in the 1980s because it targets people who were already suffering severe hardship. For many families, the impact has been devastating. Citizens Advice Scotland report that in the first six months since its introduction, the number of people approaching them because of rent arrears rose by 41 per cent.
The coalition parties pushed through this policy with the support of just 12 out of 59 Scottish MPs. This is a disgrace to democracy. Labour should respond by making the next election a referendum on the Bedroom Tax, with a clear commitment that it will be abolished wherever the party holds power, whether that is in Scotland or at Westminster.
It doesn’t matter whether welfare is formally reserved or not if Labour is prepared to claim the political and moral mandate of an election victory in the same way that the SNP have done with the referendum.
After 2011, we should recognise that Scottish politics is being played with new rules. Labour’s distinctive contribution must be to speak up as a force for socialist and progressive politics.
Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter @apmcfadyen