Since December’s catastrophic election defeat, R.H. Tawney’s assessment of Labour’s wipe-out in 1931 at the hands of Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government has sprung to mind. Labour had failed, Tawney argued, to articulate a distinctive “creed” by which it could be recognised. The party’s purpose, he said, was not to “offer the largest possible number of carrots to the largest possible number of donkeys” but to offer people “the essentials of a civilised existence” in the whole.
Our election manifesto has come in for heavy, and at times justified, criticism on the basis that it contained too many promises for too many people, without the coherence of a single message akin to Boris Johnson’s all-too-effective ‘Get Brexit Done’ and Nicola Sturgeon’s panacea of Scottish independence. But rather than seeing this as an indictment of Labour’s transformation since 2015, perhaps we should consider if it could be a sign we have not changed enough.
The defeat we suffered in 2015 came after a Labour campaign which focused heavily on transactional politics. We promised a higher minimum wage, cheaper energy bills, and Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy even spoke out for repealing the alcohol ban at football games. Following that defeat, which sparked the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Tawney was invoked by the former MP Tony Wright, who wrote that Labour’s lack of a “creed” was “fundamental to the party’s current difficulties”.
Corbyn’s message “was able to flourish precisely because it seemed to offer something that people could believe in,” Wright said. “Unless this central issue is tackled, which involves the party finding its organising idea, individual policies will lack a coherent intellectual foundation and the next election is likely to be no more successful than the last.”
The next election, in 2017, was significantly more successful for Labour, in no small part because the party was making a far more ambitious offer to the electorate. It was underpinned by an vision for real change that seemed beyond the realm of possibility at the time it was called. Why, then, did we slide back again last December?
It was a mistake to believe that the same message could lead to further gains, not least when, three years into the Brexit process, with no clear end in sight, constitutional issues could not be sidestepped. With the media and voting public having already come to terms with the fact that a transformative socialist government was a realistic prospect, the ‘wow factor’ had worn off.
Two years before, the manifesto had shifted the debate with its boldness in offering a vision for a transformed society. But that’s not easy to repeat. A revitalised creed was needed, but instead we only appeared to offer a series of pledges based on spending commitments. And while most of these were not just desirable but crucial to turning around a decade of cuts and decline, they were not convincing without a new overarching narrative.
It has rightly been argued that the lessons Labour must learn in Scotland after this defeat are distinct from those the party must learn south of the border: the defining issue here was not so much Britain’s future relationship with the EU, but Scotland’s future relationship with the UK.
Our history, however, is equally relevant. In his PhD thesis, when discussing Labour’s constitutional difficulties in the 1920s, Gordon Brown argued that Labour had failed to clearly define a devolved Scotland’s place inside a radically transformed UK: “In particular, no one was able to show capturing power in Britain and legislating for minimum levels of welfare, for example, could be combined with a policy of devolution for Scotland.” Brown’s words still ring true. While our plans for the constitution at this election were far more radical than simple managerialism, they weren’t enough to convince voters.
We must not underestimate the nationalism of Boris Johnson. He is not some bumbling right-wing populist. Rather, his is the backward racism of Enoch Powell, sanitised at this election by a supportive press. As we seek to oppose Johnson, our resistance cannot be divided along his lines — it must be united by our shared values, whether that’s in Maryhill or in the Kensington constistuency where the community traumatised by Grenfell is now subject to a Tory MP.
Behind votes for constitutional issues, in Bolsover or in Lanarkshire, there is a popular discontent and a demand to be heard. Our challenge is to build a movement outside of parliament which can empower these people. We know that Boris Johnson and his hardline cabinet won’t listen to this demand, and so the Labour Party and progressive forces across the UK must mobilise.
The truth of the election result is that both the Tories and the SNP will, to their mutual advantage, frame the constitutional result as a struggle between Johnson’s Brexit Britain and Sturgeon’s tolerant, forward-looking Scotland. This is a false dichotomy, not only because the SNP’s economic blueprint for independence – the so-called Sustainable Growth Commission – would result in a decade of cuts.
More still, I remain convinced that the Scotland that offers the best chance for social and economic transformation is neither in independence or in the status quo: but in a new home rule settlement within a federal UK.
Prior to the election, we committed to abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with a senate of the nations and regions as a first step towards a new federal settlement. The reality now is that Scotland cannot afford to wait another five years under a Tory government. We must be prepared to make the case for more powers today.
This will mean an insurgent campaign for greater powers at Holyrood, including the post-Brexit transfer of powers currently exercised in Brussels to Scotland. Scotland should also have the power to determine a closer relationship with the European Union than that pursued by England and Wales if it chooses.
But equally important will be our renewed campaign to ensure that the Scottish government immediately starts exercising its existing powers where it currently does not, including in the SNP’s refusal to scrap the two-child benefit cap and rape clause through countervailing payments. When Scotland takes on new powers, these cannot simply be transferred from one parliament to another. Instead, we should devolve control as much as possible, seeking to empower workplaces and communities like never before.
That is why I am leading Scottish Labour through an evidence-based review of the election result and what we can learn from it, particularly in our message on the constitution. It will be chaired jointly by Professor David Conway, and former Scottish Labour chair Linda Stewart.
This review will report back to Scottish Labour’s executive in March, which will consider our next steps. We cannot jump to conclusions without a full and frank conversation with our greatest resource: our members and affiliates, as well as voters whose support and trust we have lost in recent years.
This process will run in parallel to — but entirely separate from — the UK Labour leadership election. I am fully committed to working with whomever is elected to lead the UK party to restore energy and trust in Scottish Labour, and return Labour to government in Westminster as well as Holyrood.
I would encourage all candidates for the UK leadership to contribute to the debate about the future of Scotland and of Scottish Labour, with the strong caveat that there are no easy answers, and with the unflinching commitment that Labour’s policy on Scotland’s future must at all times be made by the Scottish Labour Party and our members in Scotland.
We cannot allow our party to speak only to unionists or only to nationalists: as democratic socialists, we owe it to all those we seek to represent to tell difficult truths as well as to offer solutions. Nor can we allow Scottish Labour to return to the New Labour days where too many voters felt that all we offered was being neither the Tories nor the nationalists.
We cannot allow our party to take voters for granted: whether Remain voters in Scotland, Leave voters in the north-east of England, or the first-time voters of both 2017 and 2019 who were inspired by the message of Jeremy Corbyn.
There is no turning back from the advances in democratising our party and our movement, which must be built upon in the coming years. There is no turning back from putting forward manifestos which offer a genuine vision of social, economic and environmental transformation, rather than simply tinkering around the edges.
If we are to successfully topple this government, everyone must play their part. Our challenge is to demonstrate that power can rest with the people and not just reside in parliaments. We must empower Scotland not for its own sake.
This must be a means to organise ourselves and turn around a decade of cuts and division in order to create an equal, tolerant society free from fear and inspired by hope. The Tories seek to pedal a divisive nationalism by co-opting the alienation of working-class communities. It is only by empowering these same communities that we can fight back.
I’ve come under criticism in recent months for the weight I place on learning from our past. The Daily Record’s political editor Paul Hutcheon accuses me of being “in love with the past,” while Tom Gordon, his counterpart at the Herald, says I am “more fired up by Labour Party history than your tomorrow.” But if we do not learn the lessons of history, what chance do we have of building a better future?