MSP Neil Findlay writes in the Scottish Left Review that the debate over Scotland’s future has not excluded the Labour party. True – the Labour party has excluded itself. By allowing their hatred of the SNP to completely foreclose any healthy debate, and repeating the same lines of the UK Tory & Labour leadership, Scottish Labour have helped to reduce the debate – at the party level – to tedious and repetitive bickering. They have not engaged with the wider progressive yes movement, or offered a better vision of Scotland. The ‘real answers’ that Findlay writes of have been sorely lacking.
This is glaringly obvious in the SLR piece, in which Findlay somehow manages to refer to SLAB’s manifesto of vague promises and dodgy rhetoric as a ‘real and substantive package of practical measures’. It’s hard to see how this could possibly be accurate. How any large-scale change such as big tax changes will be achieved without full powers is not explained. The other proposals Findlay lists are, overwhelmingly, the kind of ‘sticking plaster’ solutions characteristic of a party which long ago lost sight of the bigger pictures. Obviously no one would argue against fighting union blacklisting and questioning the miners’ strike convictions. But in a list of main proposals to better society – really? Expanding the living wage is admirable too – but it does not fundamentally alter the low-pay, high-unemployment economy and labour market which has developed over years of neoliberal economic and social policy. ‘Close the low-pay loophole’? It’s not a loophole, it’s a rigid, entrenched and unfair economic system.
Similarly freezing energy prices is not the solution to our appalling privatised mess of energy provision. Why not take the infrastructure and supply back into public ownership, to prevent the inevitable monopoly control that arises with such private provision? This, critics would point out, is not in the SNP’s White Paper either. And I would have to state, for the thousandth time, that the SNP are not on the ballot box in September 2014. This is about a vote for the possibilities opened up by independence, not for some rigid and eternal white-paper-version of Scotland that will never change. I, and those I campaign with in RIC, Women for Indy and so on, are campaigning not for some saltire status quo, but for far-reaching and structural change, made possible (but not certain) by political independence. But Scottish Labour’s obsession with scoring points against the SNP makes them blind to this crucial aspect of the referendum debate.
They seem blind, too, to the profoundly neoliberal nature of its leadership and ideology. Findlay harks back to the glories of the historic Labour movement, which are indeed pretty glorious. However, his insistence that “only the Labour and trade union movement” can improve living and working conditions ignores the fact that the Labour party is no longer synonymous with the labour movement, and that this break is not new. As STUC and FBU activists described at last week’s Common Weal Festival, trade unionists are giving up on influencing Labour to push for more radical change. Labour is increasingly populated, like all the mainstream parties, by professional politicians from middle- or upper- class backgrounds, who will not and cannot represent the huge numbers of disenfranchised people. The Guardian journalist John Harris mentioned this problem in his talk for Yestival in Edinburgh recently – citing the fumble by the shadow business secretary in pronouncing Worcester as ‘Wichita’. These politicians simply do not ‘belong’ to a place, and in this age of rising identity politics and the importance of place, that matters. Who do such politicians really represent, and what do they actually believe in? At the University of Edinburgh I saw a whole cabal of greasy-pole-climbers enter student politics and come out the other side straight into party politics. Some were decent folk, but a worrying number were some of the most immoral and indifferent people I’ve ever met. ‘Slick’ would be the word that immediately comes to mind. True professionalised politics: whether they chose Tory or Labour hardly seemed to matter.
In such a situation, the ‘apathy’ of working-class people is pretty rational. The Electoral Reform Society recently carried out focus-group research in poor areas of Glasgow, and found that not voting was a considered position, not mere ‘apathy’. In another Common Weal talk, Willie Sullivan explained that the overwhelming reason they got for not voting was that the politicians on offer were ‘not like us’, and that they are dishonest. With some notable exceptions, this seems a fair assessment. Turnout and disengagement is reaching crisis levels, and disillusionment with the Labour party is central to this. For Neil Findlay to think that some vague income tax promises and noise about ‘addressing’ zero-hours contracts will be enough to turn back this tide shows that he and Scottish Labour seriously fail to understand the politics of Scotland today.
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