Grahame Smith says resolving constitutional matters can unlock progress on social and economic issues
After such a momentous election result, almost everybody will have an opinion on why it turned out as it did. Was it simply a Brexit election? Was there a Corbyn factor? Was Labour too radical and its spending promises too unconvincing? Was the demand for indyref2 a determining factor in Scotland? In time, psephology will seek to answer these questions. So soon after an election, and before such analysis is available, those first out the traps with opinions tend to be either defeated candidates, leadership contenders or their supporters, or opportunists keen to exploit the situation for their own political ends. So, treat what I am about to say with that in mind.
I hoped we could have more than a ‘leave’/’remain’ or ‘yes’/’no’ election. Alas, there was too much at stake. As unions, our job was to try to ensure parties focused on the everyday issues that affect our members and present progressive programmes that appealed to working people backed by evidence and not populist soundbites. If we were successful, I was convinced that voters would reward those who offered progressive visions for our society.
It appears, in Labour’s English heartlands at least, I was spectacularly wrong. Any hope that voters would be open to considering the wider issues at stake simply failed to materialise. After years of Brexit-dominated politics, positive messages on tackling poverty and inequality and the radical polices required to deal with the climate emergency, automation of work and decline in our economic and social infrastructure were, it seems, ignored.
We know, from opinion poll evidence commissioned by the TUC, that many longstanding union polices included in Labour’s manifesto were popular with the public. Not only that, they are considered the norm elsewhere. The French would think it odd not to have a publicly-owned and run railway. Similarly, the Germans would think it odd not to actively support manufacturing, recognise unions’ central role or require companies to pay fair taxes. The Scandinavians would think it strange not to have high levels of union membership or to pay higher taxes for better public services and the Norwegians not to have a state-owned energy company.
Blair might have been right when he said the British public wouldn’t vote for such policies. That’s hardly a surprise when, for forty years, they have been deemed extreme and continually denigrated by a vocal faction within the party advocating them.
Alongside progressive polices, a further victim of the election would appear to be the value placed by voters on properly researched evidence or on politicians that tell the truth. Either people were so focussed on the demand for Brexit that they simply weren’t listening or, and considerably more worrying, they heard but simply didn’t care. It also seems significant numbers prefer a ‘strong man’ Prime Minister than the more collegiate, collaborative and less confrontational one Corbyn offered. If that view prevails, it will inevitably influence the election of the next Labour leader and the nature of Westminster politics for the next decade.
Of course, drawing sweeping conclusions from the result is a dangerous game given Britain’s electoral system. While the Tories won by a huge majority in terms of seats, they didn’t win the majority of votes. And, they didn’t win in every age group and in every nation or region.
As in 1987, when the Tories last won such a majority, Scottish voters chose a different path. Then Labour won overwhelmingly. Then as now, voters in Scotland, held differing constitutional perspectives. Then, but not now, Labour had a compelling offer on the constitution – a devolved Scottish Parliament. It was an offer that was well-established and understood to such an extent that Scotland’s constitutional future was not the deciding factor in that or the two subsequent elections. Voters were open to consider how the parties would address their everyday issues like health, education and jobs, and they backed Labour.
In the decades since, the constitutional debate has moved on. For the 2014 referendum, the STUC presented a detailed case for enhanced devolution. The ‘Vow’, cooked up by Gordon Brown and taken forward through the Smith Commission, may have contributed to the ‘no’ outcome but it hasn’t quelled demand for further constitutional change or support for the SNP (largely at Labour’s expense).
The First Minister has made it clear that she will now push for indyref2 This has left Labour in a quandary: it cannot hold, as it has, the overall election result gives the Tories a Brexit mandate, and simultaneously maintain the result in Scotland cannot be viewed as a mandate for indyref2.
The democratic wishes of the people of Scotland need to be acknowledged. The Scottish Labour movement should support indyref2. But it should also confront the question of what independence actually means in a modern geo-political and economic context.
No country exists independently. Whether Scotland’s currency is the £, € or its own, the ability of its government to act independently will be constrained by the nature of its trading relationships and the strictures of a Central Bank in either London or Frankfurt. Membership of the international community comes with obligations to abide by on a wide range of minimum rights.
While the question on the ballot paper may remain: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, the real question is what powers, or what elements of Scotland’s sovereignty, are Scottish voters willing to share and with whom? The Labour movement has nothing to fear and much to gain from constructive engagement on this. As in 1987, it needs a compelling offer on the constitutional question, without which it will struggle to get the public to respond to the many positive policies it advocates and constitutional rather than class politics will continue to dominate.
Grahame Smith is the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC)
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