Well that’s the Scottish leadership election over. There was at least a real debate about ideas and strategy and Neil Findlay’s campaign ensured that we didn’t get the coronation the system usually delivers. Neil also delivered ideas of substance and generated energy amongst party members that I haven’t seen for a long time.
From Jim Murphy’s initial announcements it would appear that we are about to get some internal constitutional change.
Jim wants a ‘Clause 4’ moment, although it’s actually Clause 2 in the Scottish Labour Party rules. Yes, I know I’m a pedant. Not in this case for some New Labour policy purpose, but to bring Scottish Labour ‘closer to the centre of Scottish life’. The strategy appears to be aimed at dispelling the myths about ‘London Labour’, stoked by the actions of the UK party during Johann Lamont’s leadership.
Many in the party will welcome this strategy as long overdue. Even in government there was an unwillingness to shout about the different approaches we took in Scotland in areas like the NHS and education policy. If a Scottish solution to Scottish issues is to mean anything, then differentiation is fine.
He set out five principles for this new aims and values statement.
The new Jim starts by using the ‘s’ word. Socialism isn’t something he talks a lot about, so that’s a positive start. The new socialism is to be linked with patriotism because our, “political faith grew out of something deeper which is ingrained in our Scottish character”. This is apparently, “A belief that we stand together, look after those who need our help, and make sure that everyone gets a fair shout”. I’m not sure that these are uniquely Scottish characteristics, even if the examples are Burns poetry, highland clearances and New Lanark. Welsh Labour might take issue with us claiming Robert Owen as our own, he was after all Welsh – but we get the drift.
Then we get a bit about solidarity across the UK that is complementary to and not in conflict with the Scottish national interest. He says, “We will declare ourselves a party that represents Scotland first, in the community of the UK and the world, and where, as Scots, we work with others to achieve the potential of all”. That seems a reasonable position for a party of devolution to take.
He then asserts, “the total devolution of policy making in devolved areas”. Impossible to disagree with, as the existing Clause 15 already delivers precisely that. Recent policy disagreements with the UK party have been over reserved issues like the Bedroom Tax.
His fourth principle seeks to commit Labour to a “permanent and powerful Scottish Parliament”. Given the somewhat lukewarm commitment of a few Westminster MPs over the years, this is an eminently sensible approach and in keeping with the founding principles of Scottish Labour.
Finally, we get the big policy vision; “we will renew our historic mission for a more equal and fairer society where power, wealth and opportunity are more fairly shared amongst our fellow Scots and our fellow human beings around the world”. I might question the ‘more fairly’ as a bit weak, but again the direction of travel is fine.
As a trade union official, I am all too familiar with the new CEO arriving with a glossy new mission statement. It’s a tried and tested management strategy aimed at setting a new tone and direction. As Scottish Labour members are fed up with the ‘London Labour’ label, most will be willing to give this approach a fair wind. A draft in January for consultation will give an opportunity to turn some of the more esoteric phrases into meaningful language.
Jim ended his speech in very unNew Labour style, by taking us back into Labour history. To the 1888 founding conference of the Scottish Labour Party no less. His speechwriter should perhaps have checked with the Keir Hardie society, because the great man didn’t actually chair that conference, even though he was the driving force behind it. It was chaired by RB Cunninghame Graham who of course went on to be the first President of the SNP – so maybe he was best air brushed out on this occasion!
Jim was however a bit selective in his list of Scottish Labour policy during this period. The founding programme also included the nationalisation of the railways and other means of transit (waterways and tramways) the banks, the land, all mineral rights and the abolition of the House of Lords and all hereditary offices. Now that’s a real Clause 4 moment!
Overall, the aim of emphasising the ‘Scottish’ in the Scottish Labour Party is not a bad strategy as long as we don’t lose the socialism with the patriotism. Because it is socialism that distinguishes Labour from other social democratic parties and we should never forget that.