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Poverty isn’t a rebranding opportunity

Scottish Labour is suddenly all about poverty, but it looks more like a means to attack the SNP than a realisation of past errors. Credibility comes from action, not PR.

Everyone at the Reid Foundation is very conscious of just how important it is to maintain party political neutrality. It is central to our aim – to unite people around ideas and actions, not identity or affiliations. In writing on the site I try to reflect this by creating a balance of ‘positive reinforcement’ where political parties are doing good things and ‘critical engagement’ where they aren’t. So the SNP got plenty criticism here on its NATO stance and will continue to get more so long as it holds to its neo-Thatcherite trickle-down corporation tax cut nonsense. On the other hand, it pushed through the equal marriage legislation with more conviction and courage than is happening at Westminster and it has made a resolute defence of universal public services. Both have been met here with approval.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour’s pot-shots at universalism have not been well received on the left. That is probably a bit of an understatement. And we haven’t been slow to be critical here. It is for that reason that I have been watching carefully with the intent of giving some ‘positive reinforcement’ when Scottish Labour produces something good. Johann Lamont has done some good things on gender in internal Party matters, but it seemed a bit shy of something you’d necessarily write an blog piece on. There have been some good bits and pieces from Labour MSPs – we’re obviously very supportive of Neil Findlay’s lobbying bill, found interest in Iain Gray’s thoughts on bus re-regulation and back the largely Labour-led campaign on an inquiry into blacklisting. But none of this is really defining Scottish Labour itself.

I really, really want to be able to say something positive about developments in Scottish Labour. But I have found it difficult. Now we have the news that Anas Sarwar is going to lead some sort of campaign on ‘redistribution and poverty’ to reposition Labour back on the left. Something positive to write about? I am not holding my breath.

Another thing we seek never to do on this site is to personalise politics unnecessarily. But the Sarwar problem here is the Labour problem – I don’t believe him. I am utterly confident that if this was eight years ago and Tony Blair was introducing the ‘bedroom tax’ (a nickname that doesn’t come close to summing up the vile nature of this policy), Mr Sarwar would have an article in this weekend’s papers with an unequivocal defence of the policy. The word ‘redistribute’ would not appear. I believe this is convenience and not conviction.

Likewise a number of Labour figures in Scotland who are suddenly unable to go a sentence without shouting ‘poverty’ and claiming the SNP is disinterested in the problem. Again, this would have more credibility if the people involved had used the word as often or taken it so seriously when they were Ministers in the Scottish Executive. I recall little from those first eight years that gave me any sense that this was a real priority.

But the biggest problem for Labour seems to me to be that it has no option but to address these issues within the context of a London Labour Party which has done nothing like enough to shake off its Blairite tendencies. There are big and influential figures at the top of the Labour Party who continue to counsel that redistribution must never be mentioned – and not done either. Ed Milliband has said a few things about easing life for the poorest and making things fairer. So has David Cameron and George Osborne. A Mansion Tax isn’t a bad idea, but its tinkering around the edges of real wealth. A ten pence tax band is yet more tinkering still – making me agree with Danny Alexander is not something I relish but he’s right that raising personal allowance thresholds would be more effective. Just less gimmicky.

Otherwise, Labour is desperate not to be seen to be ‘soft on welfare’. Let me put it like this; if Labour did everything Labour says it might do if it got into power it would be less than Blair and Brown did with tax credits. Which is to say in the current context it would do nothing. And that is IF they did everything they are hinting at. I don’t believe Osborne is going to crack down on corporate tax avoidance. I am far from convinced Labour will take seriously any of the actions needed to make a serious dent in inequality.

And this is where the biggest problem for Labour lies; it has not yet accepted the real legacy of its years in power. The outcomes of Labour rule were much like the outcomes of Tory rule – increasing economic inequality, the whole-sale privatisation and commercialisation of government, a blind eye to corporate corruption and tax avoidance and cheap populism that got us into wars and legitimised the anti-immigration movement. Labour has apologised for letting public debt rise, for not being tougher on immigrants, for not being harder on Europe. In fact, it has apologised for everything that right-wingers didn’t like. Apologising for its socioeconomic record? Nothing. Like an alcoholic, I want to hear the admission that the past was an error.

But London isn’t talking about redistribution anyway. In what for me is the least pleasant formulation of words to come from the Party since Blair went, it’s all about the ‘squeezed middle’. This phrase is carefully designed to redirect antagonism at two different groups – the rich and the poor – galvanising the segment of society most likely to vote. This could not be further from tackling poverty; it is taking advantage of it by demonising it.

So let’s return to Scotland. There is little that the Scottish Government can do to redistribute income, irrespective of the political hue it takes. In fact, the best way (as Stephen Boyd points out in his excellent Scotsman article) is simply to fund public services. Forget all the means-testing, neoliberal rhetoric, redirecting money from universal public services to fund remedial activity for poverty almost always puts the money into the pockets of the professionals paid to do the remedial work. It very rarely puts money into the pockets of the poor themselves. Like it or not, universal public services do.

So how is Labour going to redistribute? As far as I can tell it is about ‘further education’ (like only poor people go to college) and ‘jobs’. Even though creating ‘jobs’ always means creating low-level jobs. And that is where most poor people are – in low-pay employment. The idea of a skills-led redistribution strategy is intellectually bereft – training everyone in Scotland for a job doesn’t give everyone in Scotland a job.

Meanwhile, our good friends at the Red Paper Collective got together at the weekend. These are very intelligent people with all the right solutions. I have picked up only bits and pieces of the conversation and, for example, it seems there was a fair bit of criticism of the Radical Independence movement. This is perfectly fair; as a nascent initiative it is not yet properly organised or focussed and it may well offer more than it delivers.

But – and this is a big but – RIC is not content with a critique. It is an action-focussed initiative. Whether the actions work or not, it is unfair to suggest that it is not making a very serious attempt to influence the independence debate. It has not hesitated to be critical – in public – of some of the SNP policies. An independent Scotland isn’t ‘RIC’. But nor is it ‘SNP’. And much more importantly, the Scottish Labour Party isn’t the Red Paper Collective, never mind the UK Party, never mind Westminster government.

And also importantly, most in RIC have done everything they can to find common cause with groups like the Red Paper Collective. RIC has focussed more criticism on the SNP than it has on the Labour and trade union left. Can the same be said in the other direction? From where in the Labour left has there been a public criticism of Scottish Labour and its Daily Mail-baiting?

I want the Labour Party in Scotland to regain a meaningful radicalism, and not a right-of-centre radicalism. Unfortunately, poverty and inequality seem not like horrors that keep the Labour leadership awake at nights but a temporary focal-point for their hatred of the SNP. And Labour’s first visceral hatred should be of poverty itself. It most certainly isn’t.

So if Labour thinks that more self-righteous attempts to tell the media pack that it is ‘reclaiming the left’ is the same as reclaiming the left, it remains a Party deluding itself. We’ve heard you cry “wolf!”. Now shed some tears of repentance and show us a thought-through alternative to inequality. Or stay where you are.

Robin McAlpine