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Labour can’t be radical by default

Some in the Labour Party may think that the way the constitutional debate has exposed a clear vacuum in the SNP’s vision of what it is for has helped redefine the Labour Party by default. It hasn’t, and the really difficult questions for the Scottish Labour Party lie ahead. One more poll suggests they haven’t yet offered any compelling answers.

There is one unintended consequence of the constitutional debate in Scotland – suddenly political parties are being expected to answer some hard questions about what they think government is for. This is interesting, if (so far) a bit dispiriting. For the SNP, up until now, the more the question is asked ‘what do you think government is for’ the more the SNP seems to be replying ‘just to make sure nothing much changes’. In emphasising constitutional and political continuity the SNP seems to be stating that the Party views government as a process of not scaring the horses. In the case of many in the party this is inadvertent – they are being persuaded this is clever, even though it is no such thing. For some in the Party this is their real agenda – it is the right wing of the SNP that appears to be driving the bus just now. Meanwhile, for another large group in the SNP this is the reverse of what they think government is for. For them independence is about the ability to change things, not keep them the same.

I suppose I should be encouraged by this, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Political parties being forced to ask the usually unasked question of ‘what is government really for?’ at least reveals the thinking or lack of it. But the question points in every direction. What are the Tories for? They’re for the British State, for deference to power and for the oligarchic order of things to be maintained forever. Easy. Unpalatable in Scotland but simple and consistent. What are the Lib Dems for? There are so few of them in Scotland now and this question is so powerfully put in focus in London that no-one seems to be asking it in Scotland.

The really interesting emerging question is what Labour thinks it is for. While it has not been so openly exposed, the divisions seem to me as large as in the SNP. It is all very well for their No campaign leading light Alastair Darling to imply that he is there to achieve justice but we all know he has much more interest in the efficient functioning of Big Power. Darling went native with Blair and bankers a long time ago. He really couldn’t be much clearer – government is about maintaining the strength of the strong. We can then be stronger in an act of togetherness.

Johann Lamont tells the story differently. For her Labour (and the union) is about social justice. Or that’s the rhetoric. Yet it is hard to see what this means. From everything she has said so far she seems to believe that tackling poverty and creating jobs is the priority and that this is best done in the context of a Westminster parliament. And yet this matches up in no way with any sensible analysis or debate about what reform or change at Westminster is needed if this is to become true. She has (with justice) accused the SNP of being policy-light in its approach to the constitution. But while that is indeed true, she herself is policy-free in the same context. The big issues of the British State – the excessive power of the military and the military business, the excessive power of the financial sector, the rampant inequality and resultant poverty, the corruption and isolation of the governing classes; so far she has done more to praise these than address them. Banks in an independent Scotland would be dangerous – implying the banks we have are not. Leaving NATO or scrapping Trident would be dangerous – suggesting the status quo offers us the best possible protection.

But above all the Scottish Labour leader tells us that the independence debate is a distraction from the much more important issue of poverty. Well, there is no arguing with that, other than to point out that many left-independence supporters would argue that independence is the best chance to create a Nordic-style approach to the problem of poverty and inequality. This may be right or wrong, but it is at least a vision and an argument. Ms Lamont has said again and again that we’re distracted from tackling poverty. So what is her proposal? Where are her ideas? For that matter, what is her analysis of the problem? It is not enough simply to say over and over that poverty is wrong and constitutional debate is preventing a solution. We need to hear a persuasive solution before we can be expected to take this argument seriously.

Then there is ‘local Labour’. The strength of Labour in local government has largely been maintained. But it would be a fairly brave person that would declare with any certainty what ‘local Labour’ is ‘for’. In fact, for the most part it seems fairly non-political, largely administrative and much to do with establishment and tradition. There are glimpses of radicalism in Labour local government (Glasgow’s Living Wage for example), but it would be hard to assemble enough such glimpses together to arrive at any meaningful conclusion.

Meanwhile the Labour left is working hard to develop a story about a vision for a more just society through reform of Britain. There is much to applaud in the vision, but many difficult questions to be asked about the reality of the environment in which it is being proposed. By all accounts opinion polls in England pointed to widespread support for Cameron’s vicious welfare cuts. How does this square with proposals to go in the opposite direction? Is there a realistic mechanism for implementing the sorts of policies coming out from the Labour left?

But even more to the point, can the Labour left even get the wider Labour Party to adopt these policies? The argument is that the conditions have changed in Britain and that Ed Milliband is starting to look for more radical alternative policies. There is some mild evidence for this trend – Milliband is being slightly more bold about some of his criticisms of the British State and the financial industry. But this must be put in proportion – he is making the sorts of criticisms Vince Cable used to make. This is accurate and reasonable but well short of a radical reinterpretation of Britain. And on so many other issues – Britain’s nuclear deterrent and military subservience to US policy, full support for the anti-democratic Monarchy, continued obsession with pro-business policies and so on. But one issue above all raises doubts, and that is that Milliband is still in thrall to Daily Mail sentiment on big social questions. He is falling over himself to appear to be on the side of sceptics of immigration and he seems fully signed up to the ‘demonisation of the working class’. He continues to say that ‘Labour is the party to look after the interests of the squeezed middle’. So we know he means ‘nasty bankers’ from above, but who are we supposed to assume is doing the squeezing from below? And who is going to speak for the interests of the ‘crushed bottom’?

Meanwhile, like one of those Victorian Grotesques in which photographs of the dead are taken posed as if alive, Blair is back to tell us the bankers are not to blame, the Muslims are still planning to kill us all and the biggest mistake of his premiership was not Iraq but the Freedom of Information legislation. And he has a voice many times the size of the Labour left.

All of this matters very deeply for Labour. I have wondered why it is that Labour thinks a referendum victory for the No campaign is helpful for the Party. I have always believed it would be a devastating catastrophe for Labour. The day after the result, what will Labour have to say? Who will Lamont blame for inaction on poverty then? What vision for reform and change will we hear amid the depths of the ongoing recession, at a time when it is likely Scotland will face belligerent mocking from South of the Border as Cameron and the Evening Standard crow? Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman is entirely right – a referendum victory for the No campaign might prove devastating for Scottish Labour. It might very well leave the SNP in power for a generation if the UK decides (from the top down) that a No vote is an endorsement for itself.

There has been much feeling among political classes that the SNP has lost its way. This is true. There is an assumption which springs from this that Labour is in the early stages of a revival, in part because the media likes some of Johann Lamont’s knocking copy. But then again, this was the political view when Iain Gray got the better of a ‘lacklustre’ Salmond at some points in the run up to the 2011 election (remember that many commentators were predicting a large Labour victory). As a reality check to that political view we have a poll today that shows that the public still demonstrates little regard for Scottish Labour – out of touch, incompetent and boring is the prevailing view.

The SNP is at something of a crossroads. Will it become a straightforward establishment party run by its right wing and the civil service? Some in Labour may be tempted to believe that this makes them the ‘choice of the people’ by default. It doesn’t. Scotitsh Labour has been talking and talking about ‘renewal and rebirth’ at least since it lost to the SNP in 2007 and very possibly since the Iraq scandal of 2003. And yet of this renewal, what signs? The constitutional debate is showing signs that the SNP isn’t quite sure what it – or the power of government – is for any more. But the debate is starting to prove just as cruel at asking difficult questions of their biggest opponents. Compelling answers from either side are few and far between.

Robin McAlpine