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Great to hear the talk but ‘left’ means something

We have suddenly seen a resurgence in political attacks on the ‘right’ in Scottish politics. Just as long as everyone remembers its a political philosophy and not a photo op.

This weekend Scottish Labour seems to have started to do something it hasn’t for a while – base its pitch for power as coming from the left. And so we are getting entirely justifiable attacks on Alex Salmond and the SNP for right-wing actions like spending time with Rupert Murdoch and continuing to obsess on cutting corporation tax. We get Johan Lamont openly decrying Alex Salmond for being right-wing and setting out Labour as an alternative. There is certainly traction with the idea that the SNP really has flirted with neoliberal capitalism; in fact, at the height of the ‘Arc of Prosperity’ nonsense it was more than flirting, with the SNP very much in bed with the sort of insane, speculative and corrosive economy since exposed in Ireland.

But it doesn’t take much effort to point the finger in the other direction. Labor has hardly done much to buck the neoliberal consensus, is still backing PFI, is also committed to Council Tax freezes, is pro-Trident and so on. In fact, if the emails people are sending me are any guide, the broadly-defined left in Scotland is in the middle of a deep debate about whether the SNP is a left-wing party and what is the alternative? What I don’t think the SNP is aware of is that just now it is losing the argument. Then again, I’m not sure Labour realises it isn’t winning it.

There is one basic reason for this – the idea of a political philosophy is not something either side seems to want to dwell on. Or at least not be seen to. Instead both sides are running a sort of flashcard strategy, letting different sides see moments of what they want to see as a strategy, not properly leading debate as a vision.

The SNP problem is simple; it wants to run two (possibly three) philosophies as if they don’t affect each other. It wants a neoliberal economy doing socially progressive things and it wants a socially-progressive welfare state not getting in the way of business. So it wants multinational corporations to own a free market in clean energy (a little bit nasty, a little bit nice). It wants a strong NHS but it is going to cut business taxes meaning that the burden falls on people while corporations get a free ride (a little bit nice, a little bit nasty). And then there are a couple of things in areas such as sentencing policy and opposition to nuclear weapons and power where there is a genuine sniff of radicalism.

What the SNP seems either unaware of or more likely content to accept as an unresolved contradiction is that one prevents the other. You can’t allow the economy to be corporation-shaped and society to be people-shaped, for the simple reason that these two things are in conflict. Corporations don’t like being regulated, but unregulated corporations eat up and spit out people and their concerns. The state needs funding, but letting business out of a proper contract with society that sees it contribute to the public for all the things the public does for it (supplying an educated workforce, maintaining a transport network, protecting property rights and so on) simply makes a just state unviable. And it is an insult to suggest that the contribution of corporations is to ‘create jobs’ not pay taxes. That is no different than suggesting that corporations should foot the entire tax bill because people make their contribution to society by turning up to work. One philosophy negates the other. We can bluff our way out of this in Scotland for a while, but eventually one philosophy is going to take precedence over the other. We can’t have a Latvian economy with a Danish welfare state.

Scottish Labour has a different problem. It doesn’t really make a shining virtue of its neoliberalism but almost fails to notice it – it still seems to think that PFI is a good way to organise public infrastructure but doesn’t talk about it much. It is hard to see the gap between the two in actions on matters economic, just in rhetoric. But the Labour Party has problems in the social policy side. Forget the commentator class and its lazy use of language; populism has nothing to do with popularity, the root of the word being ‘populace’ not ‘popular’. It is a political philosophy which is based on the idea of ‘uniting’ a populace behind a party by defining that populace as being beset by something or other alien and different (anti immigration is a populist policy, giving everyone a tax freeze or whatever is just a bribe). Put simply, the Scottish Labour Party has mistaken working class populism for left-wing politics. So it is ‘good, working-class people against knife-crime-neds’, or ‘good, working-class people who like a drink and a smoke against the middle-class health lobby’ or ‘working Scots who think the government should be creating jobs not letting Libyans out of prison’ and so on. The problem is simple – these are right-wing stances, not left-wing ones.

And so it is great to see a proper pressure applied on both parties to answer for their right-wing failings. It would be better still if each side had properly understood what they should be shooting at. We need them both to come out and tell us what is their philosophy for the relationship between wealth and power, between corporations and the public interest. We need to hear what sort of society they plan to create and how. We need to see what they mean by progressive reform. Because if this is just a handy vantage-point from which they can throw stones at each other just for them to climb back down into the same politics as before then they have to face a fight from us.

So it is nice for us (the actual left) to be getting the namecheck. But if it is isn’t supported by a proper understanding of the disaster that both parties played their part in inflicting on us over ‘Devolution – The Neoliberal Years’ then it’s just cynical talk. Can either Labour or the SNP offer a real answer? First they’ll need to step back and understand the question.

Robin McAlpine