Scotland Special 2: Scottish Labour searches for a new tune

Gerry Hassan reports on Douglas Alexander’s exploration of his party’s dilemmas north of the border

Scottish Labour has at last awoken from its slumber. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander’s recent speech at Stirling University was an important moment for the party and wider body politic. Alexander expressly admitted that the traditional Labour approach is over, conceding that ‘the old Labour hymns’ have become “increasingly unfamiliar to an audience increasingly without personal knowledge of the tunes”.

He recognised the need for ‘an alternative story’, ‘a renewed story’ and ‘a new statecraft for this new decade’. Old Labour had ran its course, he said, while partly conceding the cul-de-sac New Labour boxed itself into. Much of Alexander’s speech is cathartic, cleansing, talking to the party in the way the outside world sees it. But after a good start, I would say a good opening two thirds, it falls away in the final third. It is critique, not an inspiring call to action.

What exactly does Alexander propose is Labour’s new story? Even allowing for the fact he can only flesh out a future agenda, he is suitably vague, invoking the idea of ‘One Scotland’ and ‘belief in equality’. He rightly identifies the scandal of one in five Scots children living in poverty and a quarter of Scots children regularly going without some of the basics in life.

Worklessness, low pay, our scandalous health inequalities are all cited, but what about talking about Labour’s shortcomings in relation to each of these for all its good intentions? Better still, why not start talking about responsibility and the quality of relationships we have, of the missing ingredients of humanity and empathy from many lives in this nation.

Then there is the toxicity of New Labour which Alexander can only partly understand. He mentions as its main inadequacies, Iraq, MP expenses and its long hold on power, and that’s it. Nothing about New Labour’s love affair with the rich, the way it did politics to people, how it gave corporate power huge inroads into public services (paving the way for Lansley’s English NHS bill), the corroding of public standards and much more. Yes, it did good on lots of fronts, but at the cost of humiliating the British social democratic tradition.

Douglas calls himself a ‘democratic socialist’ but what does that mean after a decade plus at the helm of New Labour? It is little more than an article of faith, a comfort language at odds with the record and action. Democratic socialism was never just about amelioration, but transformation. Instead, New Labour presided over cosying up to power and turning a blind eye to the huge concentrations of wealth and influence built up in business, media and public life.

Then there is the issue of the SNP. Bar the independence question, most of the agenda identified by Alexander can be claimed by the Nationalists as well. Alexander tries to concede that the SNP have fought a good politics, claimed ambitious, aspirational Scotland as their own, but while doing that he can’t help but take swipes at them.

The SNP according to Alexander represent a narrow politics of separatism, going on about identity and difference, and of seeing Britain as the main problem. This is all a bit weary, predictable and we have heard it hundreds of times before from Labour people.

Douglas when trotting out the line that he is more interested in ‘abolishing poverty than abolishing Britain’, sounds like one of those many Alexander-Gordon Brown pamphlets, eulogising the union of ‘social justice, not separatism’. In one of the most unequal countries in the rich world!

There is a start of something in Alexander’s speech but both he and Labour need to go much further if they are to have relevance. We need a coherent, dynamic, outward looking opposition to the Nationalists. Despite Labour’s current state, they are more likely than the Tories or Lib Dems to have the possibility of providing it.

Here are some suggestions for action. First, what is Scottish Labour for? What is it in the business to do? Second, all this talk about social justice; what exactly is it, what would it look like, and how do you plan to take us there?

Third, learn to accept the Nationalists as a mainstream party. They are not an illegal guerrilla army who have come down from the mountains and usurped your divine right to rule. Stop party colleagues (Ian Davidson, Brian Donohue being just two examples) who act like this is true. And challenge the wider Labour Westminster ‘entitlement culture’ which allows Scots Labour MPs to view the Scottish Parliament as some errand child challenging the natural order.

Most importantly, you are absolutely on the right lines about the importance of story. I have written about this over the last decade: story and hope matters, and hopeful stories matter even more.

Labour’s old story is dead; you desperately need a new one. Here are a few pointers. Not only is the story of Scottish Labour over, so is the deeper, potent story of British Labour, of a society getting fairer, better, more civilised, where the future was a people’s one.

This was an enlightened account which many of us grew up being told on our parents’ knees. It had a political version as a story and an everyday popular account. It said that education gave you more choices in life, that knowledge was power, and the future progressive.

The world does not look like that anymore, and most parents don’t bring their children up with such a comforting, hopeful set of stories about the world we live in and the world of the future.

Scottish Labour has to find an account of society, politics and the future which somehow deals with the absence of this bigger Labour vision. That might be beyond the Scottish party on its own, but beginning to address the threadbare nature of old stories is a start. Recognising the need to articulate a vision of the future which aids people through these anxious times, and is yet shaped by hope, generosity and a belief in people, does seem a tall order, unless this purpose is accepted more widely by Alexander’s colleagues and beyond.

Alexander has taken a leap in accepting that the old approaches of scare mongering and negativity no longer work and that something needs to change. A Scottish Labour story of hope, challenging vested interests and power, and recognising the Labour state as part of the problem, would be a breath of fresh air in Scottish public life. And provide the beginnings of a coherent counter-vision to the Nationalists.

Gerry Hassan is a freelance commentator on Scottish politics and culture who blogs here. This piece was originally published in the Scotsman.

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