By Martyn Cook, Maryhill & Springburn CLP and CfS Secretary
NO MATTER HOW WRONG THE POLLSTERS were in the 2015 General Election, it’s unlikely that the polls in Scotland will be so wildly wrong that we will face anything other than five more years of an SNP government. They have been in power since 2007 and – barring a significant and unexpected shift – will remain in power until 2021. This will be hugely damaging for workers and families in Scotland as, despite the SNP’s anti-austerity rhetoric, they have consistently failed to provide any genuine alternatives or willingness to challenge the economic orthodoxy followed by the Conservatives at Westminster.
Unlike the Westminster election where we have been left with a solitary MP, we will retain more Labour MSPs via the proportional list system. However, with the Scottish Conservatives snapping at the heels of Labour for second place, we aren’t in a great place right now to put it mildly.
The rebuilding of Scottish Labour will take time. But recent Scottish Conference and policy announcements from Kezia Dugdale have indicated that the Party is beginning to grasp the scale of the task.
As was noted in earlier editions of Labour Briefing, Scottish Labour Conference has now adopted an anti-Trident policy, as well as outright opposition to TTIP and the Trade Union Bill. Since then, we have also announced plans for enough new homes to seriously tackle the housing crisis and made a call to raise the Scottish Rate of Income Tax (SRIT) to protect local public services.
The second of these is particularly significant. When former leader Johann Lamont said in 2012 that we can’t have a “something for nothing” culture, the quote was taken out of context and used to give the impression that Scottish Labour was against benefit claimants. (And to be fair, the particular policies at both Scottish and UK levels at that time probably gave some fuel to this fire.) However, her actual point was that we can’t have decent public services and welfare provision without paying for them. And that means redistributive taxation.
Now, for the first time in years, Scottish Labour is making the case for progressive and redistributive fiscal policies to protect and fund public services. The SNP’s response to Labour’s calls to raise the SRIT has been particularly revealing. They have came up with a series of excuses for why it isn’t progressive, can’t be done or why it would damage the economy, describing it as a “tax grab”. That is not the language that a socialist, let alone an anti-austerity social democratic party (which they and their more ardent supporters claim to be) would use when it comes to increasing tax on higher earners.
On issues such as progressive taxation, public ownership of the railways, the tendering of Calmac ferries or introducing a living wage, we have put pressure on the SNP and exposed their lack of genuine left wing credentials. Collectively, these policy positions were the first steps to reorienting Labour towards voters whom it had taken for granted for too long.
The damage done to Scottish Labour’s reputation in the Independence Referendum still casts a long shadow, and it will take some time for the gloss to fall off the SNP’s machine and for the majority of voters to trust Labour. As a party we are, however, beginning to learn the lessons and starting to move in the correct direction.
Complementary to this at the UK level, there is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn will help that process further. Calling us ‘Red Tories’ was an easy way to dismiss Labour in recent times, but that lazy insult has been utterly skewered. No one could credibly claim that someone with Jeremy’s voting record is a Tory of any colour.
Out of Jeremy’s leadership campaign a new generation of young party members have come forward and organised themselves as the Scottish Labour Young Socialists. Last month’s issue of Briefing included an article on their recent success in Scottish Young Labour elections and plans for the future. The seeds are being planted for the next generation of Scottish Labour activists and elected representatives who champion explicitly socialist policies.
So while the immediate prospects for the Scottish Parliament election may be downbeat, there is a growing sense that Scottish Labour is changing. It is still an incomplete project with much distance to travel, but only the Labour Party allied with the trade union movement can offer a class based response to Tory austerity.
This article originally appeared in Labour Briefing.