On Monday, I spotted an awkward brown stain; that stubborn kind that just refuses to go away. Gordon Brown is back and boy are we excited! I’ve said before that the re-emergence of old relics from bygone ages will be more of a vote winner than they could possibly imagine – just not for their side. Both as a Prime Minister and a perennial hate-figure, Gordon Brown will always find himself playing second fiddle to Tony Blair. But given just what a fiddle he masterminded, both as Chancellor and Prime Minister, there are many reasons we can’t be allowed to forget or forgive that legacy. For many decades a powerful force governed not just Scotland but the whole of the UK. Its name was Scottish Labour. Today they, like Gordon, could be left standing on the sidelines shouting “you’se are not doing it right” as Scotland marches off without them. What they haven’t quite realised yet is that this may happen regardless of the result in 2014.
From Brown “Boom” to Milibust
Let’s dwell on Gordon Brown for a moment and on just what a terrible human being he is. The election of Blair back in 1997 is for some reason now looked upon as the start of some sort of “boom years” in hazy retrospect. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. Inequality rose (more sharply when Gordon was PM), we were constantly at war and what was left of the real economy was supplanted by casualised service work. We’re now fed the notion that some opulent communists spent all our taxes on jewel encrusted implements used to give nose jobs to asylum seekers on the NHS. In reality, the most powerful class in society were empowered even further with little regulation and even less tax to pay. The New Labour dream was to leap past the Tories who were coming to represent those who used to run the country like farmers and small business people. Labour realised that the real power lay in promoting those who actually run the country; the corporate powers, the media, the bankers, the PR men, the speculators. New Labour was reforged into a party to represent this class with Blair as the mouthpiece and Brown as the manager. Brown was a key proponent of the neo-liberal consensus globally and always argued for the policies which would most
fuck open up the poorest economies by handing them over to the corporate interests who were oiling his wheels. When that didn’t work our man had no hesitation in promising “as much as it takes” to illegally bombard Iraq and inflict untold damage in Afghanistan.
Domestically his economic strategy was twofold. Firstly, he kept the massive, long term costs of expensive privatisation projects “off balance sheet.” This meant spending was less as the private sector paid some of the upfront cost while the taxpayer paid this back (and much, much more) over time. By 2007 it was estimated that long term liabilities relating to PFI contracts were as much as £215bn. It also didn’t count as debt for some reason. So not spending, not debt. Economics at its finest. Secondly, he became a global champion for “light touch” banking regulation. This encouraged banks to lend to those who couldn’t afford it, lend against inflated house prices and lend loads of money (at massive interest rates) to those with poor credit histories who were never going to pay it back. This created a consumer boom which helped make it look like everything was economically rosey. It couldn’t last forever and it didn’t. But back in 2007 before it all came tumbling down, Brown had this to say about what he was doing,
I believe it will be said of this age, the first decades of the 21st century, that out of the greatest restructuring of the global economy, perhaps even greater than the industrial revolution, a new world order was created
When his new world order tipped us all upside down and stole our money to pay for their crash, Gordon quickly toddled off into the sunset. He was looked upon with almost pity in some quarters, seen as a hapless sidekick merely fiddling while Rome burned. He was in fact a raving pyromaniac and much of the smoke which is choking the globe can be traced back to him and his policies. As a proponent for the union we welcome his input. The Britain he left behind is something many of us simply can’t take part in any more.
But surely there is hope for Labour after Gordon Brown? A new generation of shiny hacks are here to save us from the effects of their predecessors. Their promise? To continue to fuck everything up, to continue to hand our economy over to utter bastards, to continue to destroy public services LESS FAR and LESS FAST. The utter failure of the British state will still happen we are told, just in slow motion. The notion that we don’t have to stand idly by and watch the rich run away with the economy has escaped Miliband/Labour. There is simply no vision from Ed “less far, less fast” Miliband or from his party. Their managerial language reveals their central policy platform; managed decline of a zombie nation. Just slightly better than the Tories (or something). The total depoliticisation of Westminster means no-one actually asks about power or wealth and how they operate anymore. All Ed thinks he has to do is not make a total mess and it’s hard to make too much of a mess whilst in opposition. Time and again Labour rely on the fact that people always come back. Whether this can be relied upon in England remains unclear. In response to the rise of UKIP, London Labour has again declared that the reason they failed in government was that they just weren’t racist enough. Many Labour voters up North will not take kindly to the party further tumbling to the right to placate another group of middle English dafties. If Labour need to learn anything from what’s happened in Scotland it’s that some voters will leave and never come back.
Scottish Labour Mafia
Less than 15 years ago, Scottish Labour was a cosmic force. By far the largest party in the new Holyrood Parliament with 56 seats to the SNP’s 35, they also sent 56 of Scotland’s 72 MPs to Westminster and directly controlled 45% of all council seats in Scotland. The SNP controlled a single council, Angus, while Labour dominated the whole of west central Scotland at every level. Even after the rest of the country began to fall out of love with New Labour, the party in Scotland managed to continue to command support.
Labour at Holyrood were an odd bunch from the start. They tried desperately to seem a little bit nicer than Labour at Westminster.. They abolished free education less completely, got rid of Section 28 a bit faster and introduced free personal care for the elderly. We had 3 First Ministers in our first 2 terms with Donald Dewar being followed by Henry McLeish and later Jack McConnell. But whoever was at the helm they shared the love of the London party for privatising things. Like Brown at Westminster, they allowed more and more private involvement in the delivery of public services and ratcheted up about £22bn in long term liabilities for the Scottish Government through complex PFI contracts.
With growing discontentment at their failure to deliver the kind of social justice they had promised (or do anything much really), Scottish Labour went to war. Since this was in a devolved context they couldn’t actually bomb things. So Jack McConnell decided young people were responsible for everything wrong with society and attacked them instead. Scottish Labour dedicated most of 2003 & 2004 to talking up how much worse youth crime was getting despite no evidence for this (or rather lots of evidence it was declining). Nonetheless, endless media attention was given to Labour’s uniquely Scottish obsession with anti-social behaviour. The problem was that a nearly identical bill was being passed at Westminster. This wasn’t a Scottish answer to a Scottish problem but an identikit PR driven policy used by politicians in both the Scottish & UK Parliaments to look hard. A Scottish study in 2007 found 55% of those who had ASBOs had alcohol and substance abuse problems or mental health issues. Despite the growing inequality in Scotland Labour concluded that sending young people with drug or mental health problems to jail for short periods of time for offences which weren’t imprisonable was the single most important priority during this period. At least it distracted us from Tony Blair.
Arguably Blair was becoming Scottish Labour’s biggest liability by the time the 2003 elections rolled along. Not only was the Iraq war unpopular amongst Labour’s core support but their economic miracle was starting to unravel. Labour in Scotland were doing their utmost to distance themselves from the London party. In reality this amounted to little more than taking all the “New” Labour placards down and replacing them with “Scottish” Labour ones. Scottish ministers spoke openly about being “socialists” and how not so good Blair was. They also talked about ASBOs a lot and how crime was really, really bad and should be abolished. This time these tactics were enough. McConnell et. al. rumbled on with little clear direction for 4 more years. In contrast the SNP, having had decades in opposition to shape actual policies were on the up. The had many policies which Labour had thought of but never implemented to chose from as well as some watered down versions of popular Green and SSP ideas. No-one had really noticed but suddenly the SNP were clearly to the left of Scottish Labour and not just London Labour.
In the end it was the least well thought of First Minister who offered the clearest outline of Scottish Labour in its years in charge at Holyrood. In 2001, Henry McLeish categorised his failure to declare income he gained from sub-letting his offices as “a muddle, not a fiddle.” This could have been Labour’s mantra. They told us they were messing things up, they just asked us to believe they weren’t actually theiving.
A Change is as good as…ARMAGGEDON!
After years of devolution people were beginning to realise that Scottish Parliamentary Elections were not votes on the constitutional future of Scotland. Yet during the 2007 election campaign Labour bombarded us with a flurry of negative propaganda about “saving Britain.” The SNP fought the campaign mainly on issues the Parliament actually had power over and argued they would be best running health, education and transport. Labour decided to fight the campaign by scaring people about independence. The voters were not impressed. The SNP won a narrow victory in the election which marked a historic shift in Scotland’s political landscape. This was not because the SNP did anything particularly noteworthy during their time as a minority government. Indeed it was just how uneventful the whole thing was which challenged the dominant discourse. For years it was a well established fact that an SNP administration at Holyrood would result in instant and total Armageddon. The rather dull if competent SNP administration between 2007 and 2011 was in stark contrast to the total doom we had been promised. Despite the “global recession” Gordon Brown was blaming for everything, the SNP managed to balance the Scottish budget and privatisation of health and education was rolled back.
The Labour response was not Brown in this instance but Gray. Ian Gray was exactly as he sounded. His leadership of Labour mainly consisted of saying Alex Salmond was definitely LYING all the time about everything. Failing to oppose London led austerity and with nothing but popular SNP policies in his own manifesto he was lost as the 2011 election approached. With no plan at all, Gray resorted to simply repeating the failed 2007 campaign all over again. Forgetting the SNP were in power, Labour continued to assert that if the SNP were elected Scotland would instantly be cut adrift and end up floating somewhere in the Atlantic. Labour again pushed the constitution to the forefront and said very little about what they would do if elected to run Scotland. I knew the SNP had won outright when a Labour Party member showed me what he’d been handing out on election day. The flyers which he said they were stuffing through the letterboxes of anyone on their list of potential supporters were emblazened with the slogan “x hours to save the union.” These tactics could not have been less successful. One poll indicated that as many as 80,000 Labour voters switched to the SNP during the last 24 hours of the campaign. Fear had failed for Labour again. Speaking to Holyrood magazine, prolific boffin James Mitchell notes just how little Labour seem to get it:
What we can certainly say is that positive campaigning worked to the SNP’s advantage.
When we look back to 2007 again, it was one party being positive and the other negative. It makes it all the more intriguing as to why Labour repeated a failed strategy.
Johan Lamont is the new poster child for repeating a failed strategy. Like Ian Gray before her, she has a fixation with proving that Alex Salmond definitely got one thing wrong once is therefore a LIAR. She is also of the view that Scotland is some magical land in which everything is free and no-one does any work. In September last year, in defiance of the thousands struggling to survive, she declared:
Scotland cannot be the only something for nothing country in the world
The new platform for Scottish Labour is explicit; tax rises, services cuts, no more Mr. Social Democracy, opposition to free prescriptions, no more (almost) free education and opposition to the council tax freeze. Lamont’s strategy seems to be to openly cede the centre-left terrain to the SNP and continue negative, personalised attacks against Salmond. There has been no halt in the scare stories about how everything would definitely be worse if the SNP were a bit more in charge. The Labour message now is merely an amplified version of what it was during both the 2007 and 2011 elections. The end of the world is still coming with Alex Salmond and the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse at the helm. Scotland will no longer be part of the British Isles or Europe and we’ll be forced to trade in chips and Buckfast because we’ll have no currency. So we must stay in the Union and vote Labour. Of course there is absolutely no alternative to the austerity and cuts of the Tories and no route out of the crisis masterminded by Scottish Labour’s biggest bawbag, the returning Gordon Brown. All of this is unlikely to invigorate Labour’s core support or those they have taken for granted for so long. Those 80,000 folks who changed their minds at the last minute in 2011 did so largely in response to such scare tactics. Scottish Labour doesn’t seem to want to understand this. It’s still United with Labour, or else…
Unity was not a trait exhibited by our local Labour council prior to the last elections. The previous administration descended into what was increasingly becoming both a muddle and a fiddle. Leader Stephen Purcell was mysteriously disappeared with almost no questions asked. Whispers of other scandals which were never investigated and barely mentioned resonated around the chambers. Allegations of impropriety on all sides led to the formation of a strange breakaway party known as “Glasgow First” which consisted of some who seemed to genuinely oppose the Labour council’s cuts strategy and others who were ousted amidst allegations of muddling/fiddling (Ruth *COUGH* Black ). The Economist offered a great insight at the time which most accurately sums up what went wrong for the administration:
Faced with spending cuts, Labour accelerated a programme of devolving services, including housing and building work, to arm’s-length bodies that were meant to run things more commercially. But opponents and the media soon began questioning the contracts, and pointing out that Labour councillors were earning fat salaries on the boards of those bodies.
This was not a purge of the baddies, it was just some people jostling for their own positions to protect their own interests. The man leading the charge was Gordon Matheson. Prior to his subsequent re-election, Matheson told a hustings of 100 Orangemen that he would “hold his hands up” and admit the city council was wrong to limit the countless parades which take place each year across the city. His not so top secret plan for more folk parading around with Union Jacks in the run up to the referendum led many to question his motives. The Orange Order’s recent promise/threat to get involved in the referendum and politics in general was greeted with howls of laughter in Glasgow on all sides of the old divide and none. The aforementioned disastrous “x hours to save the Union” flyers were clearly not made to appeal to Labour‘s progressive or socialist minded supporters. Rumours the Order were chapping doors for Labour are not really rumours when party members have got drunk and told you it what happened. That’s good enough for me in this highly litigious context. Speaking of the law, Gordon Matheson is currently facing a police probe into his handling of the George Square revamp. So basically we can expect more of the same from Labour in Glasgow. If there is yet more local scandal (and why won’t there be?) we could be looking at “Glasgow Second” as yet more Labour members storm off/get the boot. Or maybe we can finally get rid of them. Just a thought.
Independence from Labour
Glasgow City Council may be the last refuge of the scoundrels. The party of Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan is long gone. We’ve been hearing for about 40 years that the unions will fix it, we should all get involved, that it’s about to get better and become socialist (again?) but it’s never happened and it won’t. Today young Labour Party members (who’re like pure Marxists and all that) can look forward to being sent to Buchanan Street with GIANT POUNDS in a desperate bid to scare people into staying in their Brown and Gray state. In many ways, the Better Together campaign is a home from home for Scottish Labour in 2013. They can be with others who share their backward, insular, militaristic austerity politics. Just a few weeks back Chair of the Co-Operative Party (part of Scottish Labour), Mary Lockhart wrote a powerful and compelling piece in the Scotsman in which she outlined her journey towards support for independence. Mary and Scottish Labour have since parted company. Some rebels, like the Labour for Independence grouping, remain but it is almost unthinkable that any of their drones in either Parliament will follow the example of principled activists like Mary Lockhart and confess to actually supporting independence.
The slow demise of Labour in Scotland is connected to the slow rise in support for independence but only in the most general sense. Most Scots now value their voting independence in a way not felt by previous generations and are using this new found independence to not vote Labour. Many lifetime Labour voters are tired and hungry for a progressive change. Many still grit their teeth, many stay at home and a few have made the unimaginable leap of not voting Labour for the first time in their lives. There is perhaps a once in a generation chance to say to these people that when Scottish Labour aren’t on the ballot party (and in 2014 they are not) they have a chance to have some real independence. They can line up with UKIP, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the tired Labour Party and vote for their rotten state. Or they can stand up where they belong; on the side of Scotland’s progressive majority who reject Johann Lamont’s idea that the problem with Scotland is too much free stuff. We can stand up and say we want to continue a real progressive legacy which Scottish Labour barely started and no longer defend anyway. We do not need to be humbled by their legacy or their history because all the good stuff belongs to us anyway. It’s Labour who’ve strayed from the people of Scotland and not the other way round. Our loyalty to Labour remains unfathomably staggering even now.
Scottish Labour presume that regardless the result of the referendum they will again enact what they see as their historic right to rule Scotland. Why we would want them running a newly independent country they don’t believe in we’re not sure. That would be a muddle. Them running an administration in the Scottish Parliament as our only defence from Tory (or Labour) austerity politics in Westminster would be a massive fiddle we can’t afford to risk.