An English Labourman Speaks
Dave Cohen is an English Labour supporter and he’s come here to look for a genuine way forward that maximises Scottish autonomy.
Last summer in England, many Labour supporters were engaged and enthused by the independence campaign. It seemed to be coming from the same place that many of us had been trying to approach, only articulating our desires with a clearer voice. Sadly, it turns out not enough of us were listening properly.
I remember when I realised the Scottish Referendum would mean big trouble for UK Labour. David Cameron, the SNP’s biggest asset in their arguments for independence, had for eminently sensible reasons been kept about a million miles from the action. George Osborne had already made a few speeches, how Scottish independence would be a disaster for the Scottish economy, and the currency, and their tax revenues – but the entire UK has known for years that when it comes to economics, Osborne has no idea what he’s talking about. No one was going to take any notice of him.
Then in February 2014, Cameron decided he would have to make a speech. He outlined four reasons for the Union to stay together. His first was the one we heard a million times last year, that intangible link that y’know, just is, you can’t be independent because you haven’t been for more than 300 years.
The second was safer Cameron territory, where he talked about how the union was good for business, competing in world markets and so on. He said this was the least important reason but it was obviously the only one he genuinely believed.
Point three emphasised ‘our place in the world’, and it was here he paraded his familiar awe-full hyperbole about Britain in the UN, not forgetting our wonderful BBC, omitting how he and his friends at News International and the Mail have been actively attempting to kill it off for 35 years.
But all three of these, he continued, were less important than the biggie – “Our shared values. Freedom. Solidarity. Compassion.” In case you’re wondering what he meant by those classically Blair-like verbless sentences, he added:
“In this country, we don’t walk on by when people are sick, when people lose work, when people get old. When you talk about an Englishman, a Welshman, a Scotsman, a Northern Irishman it might sound like the beginning of a bad joke but here it’s how we started our NHS, our welfare system, our state pension system. And these values aren’t trapped in the pages of a history book – they are alive.”
He ended with a burst of pure Cameronese – English people, you don’t have a vote, but do me a favour and phone your Aunty Morag in Morningside and urge her to stay in the union – that offered the clearest insight into his patronising view of the plucky wee Scots, and was up there with the kind of folksy hug-a-husky Big Society waffle he no longer has an Andy Coulson figure to restrain him from.
This cavalcade of drivel provided Labour with the perfect opportunity to put their case for the union, an open invitation to stay part of Better Together, while being able to tear into the astonishing hypocrisy of the man whose party fought against the NHS, welfare system and state pensions right up to the point they happened. And who spends every day as Prime Minister shrinking the state, privatising the NHS and demonising the poor, but here champions the things he despises as the best reason for the union. The message was clear: ‘if you want the NHS, welfare and pensions, stay in the union – but if you want to keep them, kick Cameron out in May 2015.’
I’m not saying that response would have dissuaded many ‘yes’ voters, but it would at least have allowed Scottish Labour a way back into the debate, freed from the Westminster death grip. Instead, there was only silence.
I’m not an expert on the Scottish Labour party, but I do know their default mode has for many years been a negativity of the type you get from people who’ve been in power for too long – ‘vote for me because the alternative is too scary to contemplate’ – and the events of the next few months seemed to bear out their thinking on independence: keep playing on fears, keep scaremongering, fingers crossed.
All this time, Ed Miliband had been painstakingly rebuilding Labour, turning it into a modern social democratic party. Leading by example, Miliband had offered us glimpses of what the party could become: he broke with more than 30 years of Labour consensus, daring to attack Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and big energy firms. He refused to back Cameron’s slavish plans to join America in the bombing of Syria, and successfully distanced the party from their disastrous Iraq jaunt.
Meanwhile he was encouraging Jon Cruddas to develop a blueprint for Labour, a new philosophy, passionate and poetic, involving the genuine decentralising of power including local credit unions, devolution of government and taxes to local communities, and an end to the old Labour ways of ‘command and control.’
The problem with politics is that the leader is always balancing long-term ideals with the everyday banalities of the political agenda. While Ed was patiently allowing new ideas to flourish, nervous northern MPs talked of the threat of Ukip and the need to sound tough about immigration. While he was properly working out how to run an economy without sticking to the Tory rules of austerity, members of the Shadow Cabinet were panicking at the ‘traps’ George Osborne was setting.
And in Scotland, people were doing something I’d never seen in my lifetime – talking openly, to each other and to strangers, about the political future of their country. This should have been the point at which Labour joined in, and most of us in English Labour were jumping at the chance to do so.
Instead all we heard was more negativity, anger at the SNP for daring to be more popular than Labour, and Alistair Darling sounding indistinguishable from Osborne, Clegg and at one point, God help us, Farage. The momentum that carried Labour to several big council victories in parts of the country in May 2014 began to stall. It wasn’t enough to be battling the Tories, and Ukip and the media, Ed was now fighting the panickers in his party, and losing.
September’s ‘no’ vote offered Labour another chance to engage with the people of Scotland. Surely even they understood that 45% of a massive turnout is not a defeat. Instead they engaged with Cameron and his equally stupid speech the day after the referendum. There was no need to rise to the bait, it was nonsense and should have been ignored. “David this isn’t about you,” we should have said, “it’s about two progressive parties desperate for constitutional change working out new terms of agreement.”
I apologise for raking over old stories that you lived through and are still fighting with. I mention them not because I intend to wag my finger and tell you sternly that if you vote for the SNP the Tories will get in (irrelevant), but because I come to you as an ordinary Labour voter, for advice. In terms of political debate, Scotland is so far ahead of England at the moment it’s almost embarrassing.
If we can ignore Scottish Labour (well, most of you appear to be doing that anyway), the rest of UK Labour at the moment stands where I would say the SNP were at the start of 2014. Most people were sympathetic to them, but their opponents continued to enjoy all the advantages of a pliant media and the arrogance that power can offer, and people were not quite ready at that point to commit to voting yes.
So I ask you, in all seriousness, what on earth did you do? How did you open the debate in such spectacular fashion? How did you engage people and develop such a positive attitude towards new ideas, how did you circumvent the mass of finance and power pitted against you?
I want to know because I honestly believe such a debate would allow the thousands of Labour supporters knocking on doors throughout the UK to talk about so much more than saving the NHS and not cutting services as gleefully as the coalition. And you may think I’m being stupidly naive here, but I ask you to indulge that for a moment and remember, back in early 2014, a Labour majority at Westminster with or without Scottish representation was still talked of as a possibility.
Of all the outcomes on May 7, I would say the one that best suits everyone would be a Labour majority, plus a substantial SNP presence. Imagine Labour, freed from the baggage of slavishly backing austerity, committed to the Cruddas vision of devolving real significant powers across the UK, pioneering green technology, bypassing the huge banks to help the poor and cementing our place in Europe. Is that so far from your own vision of Scotland’s future?
You may say I’m a dreamer. Please make me be not the only one.