State Power and Party Myth: the managed decline of Scottish Labour
George Galloway’s analysis of the referendum, though often so far from the reality on the ground, hits the nail on the end in one respect. New Labour was the handmaiden of Scottish independence
The answer, according to George, is for the British people to get ‘their Labour party back’. A return to the pre-Blair organisation will, as many sincere activists believe, provide the only vehicle for progress in these isles.
This problem is a complex and damaging one, both for the party itself and for Scottish politics in general. The cult of Labour, its insistence that it can once again represent the working class and that it is the exclusive owner of this ability, results in a strange complacency in the face of a rapidly changing politics. One Nation Labour is clearly the only party that can save the union, this most unequal of countries, while claiming to be the only vehicle to make it more equal. The party that oversaw the greatest transfer of wealth to an elite since the 1920s, offers the sole vehicle to escape a problem of its own making. This week its Scottish branch suggests that it can do this by offering something that Devo Max campaigners describe as: ‘a tinkering of the tax powers contained in the Scotland Act’.
The party repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the nature of the debate. It’s not about technocratic offers of a set of minor powers wrapped in tartan. It’s about something far more resonant, as Ian Bell put it in response to David Cameron: ‘what happens when the society you mean to create is not one we would consent to inhabit?’.
All too often we think in terms of nations, not societies. The two terms are closely related, but pundit after pundit has failed to recognise that Scotland, already a nation, is really holding a vote about the kind of society it wants to be part of. This is something that Labour has refused to acknowledge. Its offering on more devolution, suggesting such radical moves as a Scottish Health and Safety Executive, is a rather sad void where there could have been real vision.
This peculiar phobia that the British left has developed for democracy outside the remit of the palace of Westminster may be thinly veiled by invoking claims to otherwise absent ideals of solidarity and socialism. However the truth is never far from the surface: if you want to rule a highly centralised unitary state, you have to defend that state to the hilt, however reactionary the results of that act of preservation might be.
Though a smattering of left-wing unionists claim the disease of ‘nationalism’ as the ultimate capitalist demon, this is grounded in theory, not history. The left slays myths with theory: that’s what it prides itself on. Stuffy old romantic nationalism is the sworn enemy of all that the British left holds dear. Britain often likes to flatter itself that, in 1848 for example, the wave of nationalist revolutions that swept Europe did not reach the shores of old blighty. Red Clydeside, though it has its own mythic quality, is little more than a footnote in the story of how Britain, uniquely in Europe, did not witness a revolutionary moment, but developed a parliamentary workers’ party instead.
For those who subscribe to this view ‘nationalism’ in Scotland provides the ultimate mythic beast to slay. Yet behind this apparently ideological objection is just an even greater, perhaps more compelling, spiritual monster: the Labour Party itself.
Underneath those contemporary right of centre robes, many still believe there is a throbbing heart of proletarian politics waiting to be uncovered. Gone are the neo-imperialist wars, PFI contracts, Foundation Trusts, free schools, Trident renewal, spiralling inequality and Asbos. Rather than face up to this legacy, the party clings to a romantic, mythic, continuity that pales in comparison to that invested in most nation states. Ironically this is all premised on the lack of a genuine revolutionary movement in British history.
In this sense, unionists also have their Bannockburns. For many it’s the largely fictive class struggle that the historic Labour Party is supposed to have conducted, or might lead in the future. Soothed by this notion, the British leftist forgets a catalogue of uncomfortable realities and floats off to the idea of a more abstract ‘labour movement’. In this new red dawn, Nye Bevan’s visage will beam down upon rows of trade union banners, bearing portraits of Benn and Jenkins. The chorus of ‘The Red Flag’ will swell as Gillian Duffy and Peter Tatchell enjoy a lingering embrace, while a distraught Peter Mandelson chisels the old Clause Four onto a tablet of stone. The worker’s party will be reborn.
Buying the idea of a renewed left wing populism emerging from the Labour party involves re-writing a lot of history. Forget the party’s recent scurrying to the ‘filthy rich’ for a few hundred votes in Kettering and look at the abject failure of Labour as both a revolutionary and parliamentary party. An organisation that showed no solidarity with the two totemic labour struggles of the 20th century and was so used to the touch of ermine that even in its moment of post war triumph it left the carriers of one of the world’s most pervasive aristocracies intact. Guess what? If you don’t abolish Eton, Etonians get back into power. What makes this failure so galling is that the trauma of past division means that questioning loyalty to the party is the ultimate crime. No one is dead to the party in quite the same way as a leftist who has spurned the righteous path to the promised land.
To put it bluntly, the British labour movement failed. It failed so thoroughly that even moderate social democracy is hard to come by in a UK government today. Far more than any ‘nationalist’ on the pro-indepedence left, it resorts to exhortations of pride and abstractions: knocking back the Kool-aid of social justice with the cyanide of British nationalism. Leave the system in tact, we are told, and somehow the New Jerusalem will be recreated. Just don’t ask for a map showing how we get there.
What is remarkable about the work of Owen Jones and the prospect of a renewed left wing populism his work represents, is how timid he is on constitutional structures. The English left’s poster boy recently showed himself to be committed to the ‘dream’ of a federal Britain. This then is the state of the union: radical thinkers equate a perfectly normal European form of government, not as some attainable political project, but as a dream.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Labour party, still trapped in its own existential crisis, argues against change not on the basis of workers rights, but instead cites board-room threats of capital flight from the big four supermarkets and massive financial institutions. It fails entirely to speak to the idea of federalist dreams and insists that Scottish politics must remain provincial in its concerns.
This straightjacket will be seen as a massive strategic error: whatever the result of the referendum. What is thrilling about the current phase of Scottish politics is the opportunity to allow ideas to inform policy. To return to first principles to create the kind of political structures that would make many of the obscene policies that Scotland has to bear impossible.
However much you might try and sweeten the neo-liberal reality with student politician enthusiasm for Marxist theory, Labour is not a radical party. Its potential to be one is questionable. It has a support base, no doubt, yet its safest seats enjoy the lowest turnouts in the country and it has not produced a charismatic leader for a generation.
Labour abandoned the workers because the workers lost. The workers lost because the party they thought to be their own abandoned them. The party remains caught in a trap of its own making. Steadily, it has hollowed out, leaving a brittle New/Blue Labour husk. What is left there but a set of lessons in how not to build solidarity? Shorn of that mythic identity as the only progressive force in Britain, we see a dogmatic mistrust of the masses and the ‘working class’, a term that is perhaps the greatest causality of the war against the majority started by Thatcher and continued by Blair.
On the other hand groups like Radical Independence, Green Yes, Labour for Independence and Common Weal are concerned with engaging the missing million, whose sense of class consciousness is lost at sea. We live in a UK of Benefits Street, rampant inequality and an austerity based consensus. Without a Common Weal to occupy the vacant gap left by the idea of Labour’s 1945 socialist commonwealth, solidarity cannot be reborn on the back of the fragmented, low pay, workforce that the party helped to create.
In Britain at least, neo-liberalism’s great achievement was to sever the link between the unskilled working class and the skilled who would once have backed Labour without question. Many C2s now own their own home in Scotland and do not feel the kind of solidarity with those who missed out on the smash and grab opportunities of the 1980s. Throughout Britain class politics has shifted to mirror America: in which only a poorly defined ‘middle’ is referred to.
The great tragedy of the Labour Party today is that many activists remain so psychologically scarred by the abandonment of its every shibboleth that it cannot displace the new professional caste that has replaced Blair and Brown. Numerous well meaning left-wing politicians are trapped, powerless, by the reality of Iraq and the crashing failure of the new dawn heralded in ’97.
The greatest problem that the post-New Labour party has to grapple with is its lack of a cohesive vision. As Scottish Labour gathers for their pre-referendum conference they continue to fail to understand that, without Clause Four, without the post-war vision of socialism and an attainable, easily identifiable goal that supporters can rally behind, it cannot compete with the SNP. The party’s operatives remain too blinded by hatred to realise that a tangible outcome in the form of independence is their opponents’ key strength. All too easily they mistake the compliance of a pro-union media with the potential of a ‘more powers’ platform as something activists and citizens might rally behind. As September looms ever closer the convening, visionary potential of Yes is evidenced more and more by a blossoming grassroots campaign that Labour cannot match.
Perhaps the trauma is still too intense. This was the party that, in 1997, had everything. Youth, money, confidence, an activist base. As sociologist Stein Ringen, points out with great clarity: if even a party as fortunate as New Labour fails so lamentably, the system has to change. He states:
During the last 30 years or so the British constitution has been drastically reshaped. Mr Blair and Mr Brown inherited Mrs Thatcher’s centralisation. Had they broken with that legacy they may have succeed, instead they slipped into continuing it and, inadvertently perhaps, undermined their own cause and condemned themselves to ever more effort for ever less gain. If New Labour, with all that the gods gave them in 1997, could not rule this country, then no government can.
Ringen’s solution is radical decentralisation and a systematic renewal of democracy. Perhaps, as is evidenced by Miliband and Lamont’s deafening silence on such issues, the one real tenet of the Labour Party, from MacDonald, through to Callaghan and Blair, is to always leave the system intact. Distracted by its own socialist/reactionary schizophrenia, social justice must always come a poor second to the sanctity of a powerful British state.