Scottish Labour’s principles – Anas Sarwar’s pitch

Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader Anas Sarwar made a set piece speech earlier this week that has been attacked from the fringe left and the right. It is worth reading in full rather than relying on some of the commentary that doesn’t do it justice.

I am someone who is likely to consider his words with a critical eye. I didn’t support Anas as Deputy Leader largely because he was a Vice-Chair of Progress, although he has subsequently resigned that post. I am also not a great fan of professional politicians, although in fairness he did at least do a real world job. His strengths are presentational rather than ideological, so a policy speech focusing on political principles is interesting.
So what did he say? The introduction covered some common Miliband themes of social justice and inequality, broken politics, attacking the banks, energy companies and tax dodging. While not new, these are themes even the right recognises are dangerous for them. Hence Cameron is at least talking tough on tax dodging and energy prices.
His pitch for Scottish Labour’s principles of Community, Solidarity, Fairness, Equality and Social Justice won’t find many opponents within the party, although many of us would add a few more. He wisely targeted the references to universal provision, learning lessons from the less well crafted Johann Lamont speech on the subject. As I commented at the time, the reaction from some quarters to that speech was hysterical as she no more condemned universal provision than the SNP have adopted it. The legal aid debacle has demonstrated that. However, while I understand the differentiation strategy over universalism, I still believe it does more damage than good.
But for me the most interesting part of the speech was when he, at least partially, tackled the issue Johann ignored – taxation. While his focus was on geographical redistribution he also pointed to a gap in Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, which he argued had, “No progressive argument in favour of those with the broadest shoulders sharing the biggest burden. How can you talk about social justice without talking about wealth redistribution?”
So overall it wasn’t the speech that I would have written and of course it doesn’t go far enough. But it was none the less a significant move in the right, or left, direction. For a former Vice-Chair of Progress to even talk about wealth redistribution is real progress with a small ‘p’. It is a recognition that faced with the most reactionary government for a generation; this is the territory we need to be on. Anas Sarwar may not be a conviction politician, but he appears to at least recognise that Scottish Labour needs more than managerialism to motivate members and capture the support of Scottish voters.
I won’t spend much time commenting on the predictable reaction to the speech from the fringe, exemplified by Robin McAlpine’s rant at the Reid Foundation. The key is in the last line of his post, “Or stay where you are”.This reflects the fringe left view that if Labour moved to the murky middle they can capture the left vote in Scotland. That isn’t going to happen and in real world politics you have to build broad alliances to achieve change.

In that context, if I can adapt Mark Antony’s words – I come to broadly praise Anas’s speech, not to bury him.

SEC report January 2013

A very long all day session at the January SEC.

The first item on the agenda was a presentation from the Stronger Together campaign. The polling evidence has been consistent for some time showing a fairly small group of voters strongly favouring independence with a much larger group strongly against. The rest are still persuadable so still everything to play for. Differential turnout could also be important if it falls below similar polls in other countries.

The discussion focused on the importance of Labour’s campaign and the need to develop a positive case for devolution not the status quo. The trade unions explained their approach as set out in the STUC paper ‘A Just Scotland’. Constitutional change had to be for the purpose of creating a fairer Scotland.

Johann, while accepting the importance of the constitutional debate wanted to keep the focus on issues that matter to most Scots. Like the crisis in NHS Scotland, resources in schools and the cuts in local government. She had asked Anas Sarwar to lead on the Scottish Labour campaign over the referendum. She also expressed her concerns over the role of the civil service and the delay in publishing the White Paper. As the SNP has only one purpose as a political party you would have thought they had a plan for independence by now.

Margaret Curran focused on welfare reform and in particular the debate on updating of benefits. Instead of sorting out the economy the government was blaming workers and the unemployed. There had been a 380% increase in long term unemployed in last 5 years. Labour should focus on the lack of jobs not the tiny numbers of work shy. The political and economic impact of the Public Service Pensions Bill was highlighted by the trade unions.

Jim McCabe highlighted the mess the Scottish Government is making of broadband expansion. Having disclosed the budget, not surprisingly BT say the cash is not enough.
He also covered the impact of welfare reform, particularly housing benefit. Tearing people away from their community support just because they have a spare room makes no sense at all. Community support lost if move away. The solution is to build more houses, the real shovel ready project.

Catherine Stihler set out the priorities of the Irish presidency of the EU including jobs and growth. The social dimension of procurement had been included in the recent vote, but ongoing negotiation before full vote and then the Council. She also highlighted the forthcoming Cameron speech on the EU and likely European reaction.

The procedures for the MEP selection ballot were presented to the SEC. The order of sitting MEP will be by member ballot New candidates will be top of ballot first then zipping.

There was a further discussion on the selection procedures for Scottish Parliament candidates. The main outstanding issue was trigger ballots for list MSPs. Some members had argued that list MSPs should be subject to an open selection. This would have meant treating them differently from other MSPs. The SEC overwhelmingly regarded this as inequitable and would reinforce the perception that the party regarded list MSPs as somehow second class parliamentarians. Gender zipping will not apply. This is because the current gender balance is positive and to introduce zipping would work in favour of male MSPs.

The proposed new selection procedures will now be codified and be put to party conference for approval.




Red Paper seminar

The Red Paper collective meets again in Glasgow on Saturday to consider the impact of constitutional change on working people. The group, made up of labour movement activists, trade unionists and academics are hosting a seminar at the STUC to publicly discuss the content and main themes of their forthcoming book.  

The Red Paper Collective argues that Labour’s involvement in the Better Together Campaign brings it too close to the Tories and Lib-Dems and is preventing it from using the referendum to articulate a vision for greater equality and economic democracy. On the other side the Red Paper Collective criticise Yes campaigners for selling independence as the medicine to cure all ills arguing that independence will actually give little scope for genuine change.

Pauline Bryan Editor of the Red Paper said,

 The Red Paper Collective came together to revive the tradition of the first Red Paper for Scotland (1975), which explored how Scotland could have greater equality and democratic control of its economy.  The current contributors reject both independence as offered by the SNP and the restricted vision of the Better Together, Devo Plus and Devo Max campaigns.

 Leading thinkers on the left in Scotland will come together on Saturday to present their ideas for discussion and feedback.  The outcome will be to describe the society we should be aiming for and then ask, what powers we need to achieve it.   Thereafter, the ideas that emerge will then be advanced in the Scottish Trade Union and Labour Movement.

 The Red Paper is touching a nerve with Labour and trade union activists, in a way that I’m afraid the Better Together is not.  Its coalition with Tories and Lib Dems is quite simply failing to inspire people.  Labour should be using the referendum to explore and call for a vision of greater equality and economic democracy. We hope that the Red Paper Collective can help stimulate more radical thinking on the constitutional issue in the Labour and Trade Union movement.

 Another member of the group, Neil Findlay MSP said,

 The Red Paper Collective is producing some very important material and much needed evidence that I believe is helping to inform the current debate. It is vital that the Scottish people make a decision on our future based on evidence rather than assertion.

 The Red Paper Collective is first and foremost organised and based around the principle of what is best for working people. Its asking how we tackle the obvious inequities that exist in Scotland today and how we build a better tomorrow for all our people. Saturday’s event builds upon our previous work and will help us develop strategies and campaigns towards a better and much more equal Scotland.    

 The meeting is at the STUC in Glasgow, on Saturday 16thFebruary from 10am until1pm.