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Renewing Scottish Labour

Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr explains why he’s running for deputy leader of Scottish Labour - to empower a new generation in the party's grassroots and ensure that Labour fights for real democracy, even when it's a challenge.

I have spent the last twelve years of my life talking to the people of Glasgow as a Labour member, councillor and parliamentary candidate. In 2017, I was 60 votes away from turning my corner of the city red again but now, after our bruising defeat last month, we find ourselves having to ask some difficult questions.

Even after a tough election, we still have a base to build on. Nearly half a million people voted for the Labour Party in Scotland. We are linked directly to working people through our proud affiliation with the trade unions and we have a talent pool of committed councillors and young activists that can, and will, help to advance our cause. Most importantly we still have a cause worth fighting for, and only Labour can fight for it.

But we have to honest with ourselves. Scottish Labour’s difficulties didn’t emerge on 12 December, they started after devolution. Labour are the party of devolution but we have struggled to adjust to devolution as a party. The Laird Report laid out what many of us have been saying for years, unheeded, about how we organised as a party. Labour became complacent and we lost people’s trust. And the truth is the Scottish Labour Party has barely come to terms with losing power in 2007, much less the situation we now find ourselves in and the continued domination of constitutional politics.

The Scottish Labour Party can’t keep making the same failed analysis after every electoral defeat which leads consequently to the same failing response. We can’t keep making the same decisions and expecting a different result. And that is why I am standing for deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

We have rightly accused the SNP of centralisation, but if we are honest our own party has concentrated political power in the twin electoral bubbles of Westminster and the Holyrood parliamentary group. We have failed to respect the transformational change delivered by Labour councillors, but also the tremendously talented young activists and trade unionists who chapped doors with me day in, day out during the general election.

The Scottish Labour Party must understand that politics happens in every community, not just political chambers. There was a time when the Labour Party was the community – it was Labour members and activists who ran community centres, advice centres and supported neighbours in their time of need.

Over decades the party has submitted to a hierarchical structure, where those who are privileged enough to hold political office believe they should become all powerful, and members and activists are only encouraged to support candidates at election time. And as our party’s democratic structures eroded so did the trust placed in us by our communities.

I am committed to helping Labour, and will work alongside Richard Leonard and every different section of our party to ensure every member has a voice. Building up the confidence of our membership and encouraging them to become more active in their communities is what will help us to rebuild trust where it has been lost. 

Our party needs to change how we treat each other. Like all families we fall out and we disagree but we should never forget we are a family. Too often we have people turning to the press and providing a running commentary on our internal discussions. Our challenge is hard enough without harming ourselves. This behaviour lets down not just our members, but every single person in Scotland who needs Labour. 

We started losing support from the early 2000s, and our loss to the SNP in 2007 was a wake-up call that we ignored. We thought the electorate had made a mistake and would change their mind. We were wrong.

Since then, Scotland has been consumed by a constitutional debate that camouflages the SNP’s record of failure in government. This suits the SNP, but having the constitutional question front and centre of Scottish politics also suits the Tories. 

In the past two elections our party sought to reach out to the alienated. We had a tremendous policy programme that I was proud to stand on as a candidate in both 2017 and 2019. It was a programme that would have transformed the lives of the many. But we lost and part of the explanation for that loss was that we couldn’t get past the two constitutional questions of Brexit and Scottish independence.

Brexit is done but IndyRef2 and Scottish independence more generally are still very much live debates that we in the Labour Party have to address. If we are to win people back to our cause, to change and transform lives, we need to be clear where we stand.

I am against independence because I think it will prolong and intensify austerity and that it will be working people who will pay the price. The economic reality of independence and the hair-brained plans for the currency really will jeopardise the life chances of far too many people for at least a generation. Even the SNP’s own Growth Commission recognises this. 

But we are democratic socialists and it’s no longer good enough to say that we think the Westminster government should block a democratic mandate if it emerges. Doing so plays into the hands of the SNP. Moving forward, Labour must separate the process of IndyRef2 from the substance of independence itself. We must say, quite clearly, that we will campaign against independence but not argue for blocking another referendum if that’s what the people of Scotland decide they want.

Critically, Labour has to develop its own option for the constitution. Scotland cannot afford the status quo any longer but the solution to the current situation is not independence. We have to develop and present our plans for a stronger Scottish parliament with new powers within a stronger, fairer and better UK.

That’s why Scottish Labour must argue for the UK Labour Party to debate how we redistribute power and wealth across the country. It’s time to address the concerns of those who feel left behind and disempowered.  

We have a pool of new young talent, brimming with ideas and ability. Others must now start to think about passing on the baton to this generation. That is why we also need to consider internal party democratic structures that dictate how we choose our candidates for the 2021 election.

I will examine these to ensure we are battle-ready for the 2021 election. Labour politics needs to move beyond the bubbles of the parliaments, where some still think cosy stitch-ups are the order of the day. These practices exclude the wider membership and forget about the talent that lies outside Holyrood. 

Scotland’s people need a renewed and revived Labour Party. The SNP have presided over nearly 13 years of failure. Our NHS, our councils, our colleges, our schools and our GP practices are all in decline. Poverty and inequality have grown. Health inequalities shame our country.

Yes, it is Tories who have perpetrated an attack on our most vulnerable but tragically our parliament, which should be a people’s parliament, has been posted missing in trying to mitigate the worst excesses of Tory governments.

We must move forward together, with all of our talents and experiences put to work in every community in the land – that’s the party we desperately need, and the party I will seek to build as the next deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party.