Being asked to draw up a manifesto for political opponents is the equivalent of entering into a fantasy football contest without being able to pick your favourite players and hoping to lose. The opportunities to make mischief are obvious. But I’ve decided give it a ‘square go’.
The current context for determining or guessing what will be in the 2016 Scottish Labour manifesto is more of a challenge than previously, given the party’s state of flux both north and south of the border. In times gone by, it would have been fairly easy to work out – a limited, retail politics based offer that would pass muster with London HQ and Scottish MPs.
There would have been an appearance of involving members and activists in drafting and agreeing policy forum documents. These would invariably be altered or ignored, depending on content and sign off from the ministers and advisers when in government in Scotland, and latterly from an ever decreasing circle of power brokers. However, as always, the dead hand of central command control would ensure nothing too different or radical was produced to disrupt the ‘new’ Labour message.
After this year’s events, who knows what forces are now working to produce the 2016 manifesto? Despite all the announcements about a revived, refreshed, listening party and another declaration of autonomy for Scottish Labour, the opportunity to create a distinct ‘Independent Scottish Labour Party’ has not been taken – not least because many comrades on the party’s left are suspiciously hostile to anything that smacks of pandering or moving towards independence in any shape or form.
If a truly separate sister party was created in Scotland, this would have presented opportunities to present distinct Scottish messages, and step away from Labour’s daily civil war that is much in evidence at Westminster. The behaviour I witness from some Progress MPs to their fellow party members is less than comradely. Discipline, message and respect for democratic mandates are alien concepts to those daily airing their views by attacking their leadership in mainstream and social media.
Preparing a Scottish Labour manifesto is a peculiarly difficult task because the daily mantra of ‘SNP bad’ seems a habit that cannot be broken. For years, Scottish Labour has defined itself vis-à-vis the SNP, and couching this in relentless negativity gives the impression Scottish Labour has nothing positive to say. It would be truly refreshing if Scottish Labour could manage to present its vision for the future without mentioning the SNP.
Given Robert Cunninghame Graham founded both Labour and SNP, the term competitive cousins should apply for the real class enemy in Scotland is the party which punishes the poor and protects wealth and privilege. So the starting point has to be exposing the brutal reality behind the Tories’ claim to be the party of ‘working people’.
Trident: For many years, Scottish Labour’s position has been to oppose nuclear weapons. This was comprehensively ignored by ‘new’ Labour ministers but the recent Scottish conference decision delivered the correct outcome, reflecting grassroots opinion. Although not a devolved issue, it should be highlighted, being presented as part of a comprehensive review of manufacturing in Scotland to plan for and create jobs. This should include commitments to work closely with unions to ensure jobs are protected and diversification is enacted. It can also demonstrate other areas that can be spent on defence, strengthening naval defence, and publicly insist Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships can be dealt with through the same procurement process as Ministry of Defence ships, and avoid the wasted opportunity whereby RFA ships being built in Korea when they can be built in Scotland. A skilled workforce isn’t just required for shipbuilding but for supply chains in all manufacturing, building and infrastructure projects. Using union expertise to draw up policy and plans for implementation should be a priority.
Austerity: This is a political choice resulting in the sustained dismantling of the welfare state, dispensing with safety nets. It emanates from a false narrative about what is and isn’t ‘affordable’, where public spending is presented as an evil rather than a necessity. There’s more than something objectionable about Holyrood being forced to administer a sticking plaster on social security at the expense of funding to grow our economy and plan for the future.
Inviting Scottish governments to use regressive flat rate taxation – hitting the working poor disproportionately – if they wish to preserve services and benefits is a Tory trap that Labour shouldn’t endorse. Rather than being drawn into the ‘further powers’ argument which has zero resonance with most voters (as the referendum has polarised opinion into those who want the status quo and no more discussion about devolution and those who believe only the full range of powers that come with independence will work), set out a vision and framework for support for the vulnerable and plans to grow the economy through trans-national solidarity that has a positive focus on what can be done under the existing conditions. This will require a coherence of message and vision which the Westminster PLP shows no signs of endorsing (although ironically having only one Scottish MP in Scotland might help in this).
Clarity at local government level might be helpful as the choices Labour-led or coalition administrations make will impact on next year’s elections. The public rarely differentiate between different levels of government and any poor choices about priorities at council level will undermine the 2016 Holyrood campaign. Scottish Labour lacks a coherent message about local government other than – you guessed it – ‘SNP bad’. When you’re so far down in the electoral gutter you might as well be bold and lay out a vision for restructuring of local government and taxation as a way of tackling austerity and protecting public services.
Taxation: There must be a willingness to work together across the party divide to have a cross-party approach to what progressive taxation policies should look like and how to implement them – not least because of the lack of public trust on this issue. There is also a lack of public trust about how finances are spent and scrutinised. That the major committees of the Scottish Parliament are chaired by the government party members is something Scottish Labour could challenge in the name of improving scrutiny. In fact, why not propose a comprehensive review of Holyrood procedures similar to the Westminster Wright Committee which resulted in departmental and select committee chairs being directly elected by a secret ballot of the House (using the alternative vote). Pledging to improve transparency and openness in scrutiny of public finances (and reminding people it was Labour that legislated for Freedom of Information) would be an obvious course of action.
Human rights: Actually there’s not much to be added or suggested here, as credit where credit is due – there is a clear Labour position on opposing the Tory proposals for repealing the Human Rights Act, along with a campaign the Labour Campaign for Human Rights (http://lchr.org.uk/) . What I suggest is the Scottish dimension here more front and centre and Labour should reach out to work with the SNP on this, especially Joanna Cherry MP who is leading on this.
Trade Union Bill: Many of these issues are human rights issues, and the purpose is undermining any organised opposition to austerity as well as further undermining the rights of working people to secure decent pay and working conditions. There should be a clear statement any Labour administration at national or local level would refuse to implement the restrictions the Bill will impose on employers that interfere with their ability to conduct negotiations and manage workplace relations sensibly. Although various motions have been passed at council level, it will be important to ensure this translates into action when the Bill becomes an Act. I say this because my union experience suggests the biggest obstacle for Scottish Labour credibility for many workers is experience of it as an employer.
Any Holyrood manifesto will have other issues to the fore (health, housing, education, transport) and local issues and perennial environmental issues. For some, pensions, crime and migration will feature large. However, the issues of austerity, taxation and human rights provide the context and funding for tackling those particular issues. How widely manifestos are read is a moot point, but they provide the context and vision guiding campaigns and should be more than shopping lists of pledges and partisan attacks on other parties. For some years, Scottish Labour has produced some of the most negative and dismal campaign material in electoral history. Maybe, it’s time to try something different.
Chris Stephens is Glasgow South West MP and SNP Westminster spokesperson on Trade Unions and Workers’ Rights