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A Labour activist: we'll only be credible when we fight for the people in spite of SNP

CAILEAN GALLAGHER, a member of the Labour Party and a researcher for Yes Scotland, gives a personal view ahead of this weekend's Scottish Labour conference in Perth

Scottish Labour lacks momentum as it gathers for its conference this weekend. This year, and every year since its defeat in 2007, the party has lacked soul and dynamism.

In her Sunday Times interview last weekend, Johann Lamont admitted there is a sense the party doesn't care, while Ian Davidson criticised the party's "traditional assumption that the working class have nowhere else to go".

Instead of laying out a strategy for progress, the Scottish Labour leadership has responded to the impending referendum by insisting Scotland is on pause.

Lamont surely cannot mean there is no political engagement, because debate and activity are livelier in Scotland than for at least a generation. Instead she seems to mean there is a pause in progress towards solving 'real life' problems that affect ordinary working folk who rely on free public services, have to hunt for suitable jobs, and struggle in and out of work to make ends meet.

So Labour members can expect to hear a familiar tune at conference: Scots may appreciate the 'something for nothing' handouts from the SNP government, and may be tempted by the exit-route from Westminster austerity, but only Labour can really serve ordinary people's needs by pooling and sharing resources across the whole of the United Kingdom.

When Lamont says that Scotland is on pause, she embodies the moral egotism of a Labour party that still thinks it, and only it, can represent the interests of Scottish working people; and that only when we return a No vote in six months' time will Scotland be back on track.

Where then is the plan to get Scottish Labour working after September? This week's announcement could have been a programme to drive the interests of working people, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

But Lamont's underwhelming response to the constitutional debate she thinks is stalling Scotland was to offer a constitutional package from the Devolution Commission. It seeks to prevent the Union being 'unpicked', protect Westminster's ability to distribute across the UK, and allow limited tax-varying power for Scotland.

Lamont's Commission could have called for radical devolution along the lines drawn up by the STUC, with powers "to tackle economic inequality through tax and borrowing powers, labour market interventions, social security policy, and through discreet regulation and enforcement in a number of areas where core policy would remain reserved".

This would have allowed her to present a more far-reaching vision, in real economic terms, than anything proposed by the SNP, and taken Scottish Labour some way to presenting a 'No' vote as the surest route to giving people real power over their working lives: something like Home Rule.

Alas, the Devolution Commission report was less about powers for a purpose and more about a power struggle in the party. After months of delay, the launch itself was reportedly postponed because the document was not stapled properly, so fell apart when it was picked up.

The flimsy plans on tax and welfare do not build on the interim report of a year ago, but take the party of Home Rule backwards. Like the broken watch that Anas Sarwar wears to illustrate that even a stopped clock is sometimes right, every so often people have glanced at the Devolution Commission, seen it stuck at the same point as last time, and shrugged, unsure of what to make of it. After this report they might decide to ignore it altogether.

In his perceptive Sunday Times article, Davidson recognises the empty agenda of the Commission and of this weekend's conference in Perth. "The work of the devolution commission", he wrote, "will not provide the game changer that we need".

Its shallow pooling and sharing narrative emerged from Better Together, but now dominates Scottish Labour's message. It is a very different principle from Scottish Labour's better tradition, promoted by the Red Paper collective as well as MPs like Ian Davidson and Katie Clarke and trade unionists like Dave Watson and Richard Leonard, of representing working people's interests above all else, and determining to take the working class somewhere.

These socialists in Scottish Labour believe that to reconnect with working people and the poorest voters, Scottish Labour needs a programme for social and economic justice, not a set of plans to tinker with social policy. But on Lamont's terms for devolution, it should be outwith the scope of a Scottish government to create jobs for the unemployed, regulate wages and contracts for the low-paid, or provide security of income and housing for the poorest families.

Scotland needs significant new powers before it can change welfare, work, and the ownership of wealth; the powers Labour needs for its traditional purpose.

So it seems surprising that so many socialists insist Labour should not even consider the best interests of working people if Scotland votes Yes to bring these powers to Scotland. They share in the general pessimist consensus that after a Yes vote, the SNP would consolidate their governance and oversee a low-tax, low-wage economy, with austerity plans to close the deficit.

They echo Gordon Brown's fear of a 'race to the bottom', a 'dog eat dog' scenario where working people are the scraps, and even reflect Jim Murphy's threat that "the working and lower middle class people of Scotland will pay the price for the SNP's obsession with independence", thanks mostly to "disruptive change" of rising mortgage rates.

Their adamant refusal to consider any brighter prospects of independence is exactly where socialists in Labour go wrong. Scottish Labour, as representatives of the working class, should plan for the independent Scotland that at least half of working class Scots intend to support.

The party should think about how powers in Scotland can be wielded so as to work for working people: by tackling the cost of living crisis, prioritising services and spending for those in need, and legislating for employment security, higher wages, and workplace justice.

Of course Labour will try to project gloom about the prospects of independence, but they should also entertain the prospect of a political struggle that would arise in an independent Scotland between the interests of business, supported by the SNP, and those of working people represented by Labour.

Scottish Labour becomes credible again when it stands for people's interests in spite of the SNP and makes socialism the priority despite the momentum of nationalism. By putting the collective interests of working people ahead of the 'all of us first' nationalism of the SNP, the Scottish Labour party will prove it is bigger than the current political situation in Scotland - and it will begin to overcome it.

More people may then believe in Labour's opposition to independence - but they will also be reassured that, if they choose to vote Yes, Labour will be there to stop those very dangers that Murphy and Brown forewarn.

Labour politicians: our complacency opened the door for indyref

An SNP unwilling to use economic powers in the interests of working people would appear weak against a Labour Party upholding its commitment to use extra powers for the purpose of social justice. Scottish Labour would find itself back at the head of a powerful movement, to represent the interests of working people in Scotland and, after a Yes vote in 2014, will find themselves fighting for the 2016 elections.

When this comes, Labour's prospects in an independent Scotland would be very strong indeed. The SNP have been a bulwark against the Westminster regime, so the welfare state and the NHS remain in better shape than in the rest of the UK - but as the party of work and welfare, a Labour party with a strong agenda will be the natural choice for Scottish voters.

In short, Labour at Westminster have not been prepared to use the powers they held, while Labour at Holyrood refuse to take the powers they would undoubtedly use to improve the living standards of working people. If they embraced the powers that independence brings, Scottish Labour would probably form the first government of an independent Scotland.

The failure of British Labour is the essential context of Scotland's referendum. Ian Davidson also wrote last weekend that people are being influenced in their referendum decision by the Labour party and its record - they are voting No despite Labour, are voting Yes to spite Labour.

Meanwhile the polls say that over half of working class people now support an independent Scotland, including a quarter of Labour voters. Why has the march of Scottish Labour halted, and why have working people in Scotland lost faith in the 'party of social justice'?

The reasons are beyond the scope of any single article, but here are a few. First, the interests of working people, including their working conditions and wages, are left out of the narrow debate on immigration, Europe and the deficit that is framed by Westminster's key constituencies.

Second, because constitutional change would bring the potential for economic advances far exceeding those on offer from the British Labour party, as even the SNP's moderate economic plans have shown.

Third, because the fundamental social protection of Britain, the welfare state, is falling apart - and a Yes vote seems like a vote to protect it.

In a lecture in Glasgow last week, Tariq Ali offered a back story for the halt of Scottish Labour. He said the Scottish working class, which was much more politicised than that in England before the second world war, was originally committed to Home Rule.

Their plan was 'confiscated' by the great reforming Attlee government which changed the face of Britain, and gave institutional form to the British labour movement. Today, the most significant gain delivered by Labour at Westminster, the 1945 welfare state, is in its dying days, signifying the end of the social contract that has been eroding since Thatcher.

Ali argued that attachment to the Labour welfare state runs deep; but there is a tradition that runs even deeper in Scotland, which is about bringing significant economic powers into the hands of working people. The Scottish working class have gradually been building up a demand for these powers, since the social contract was broken in the 1980s.

They support an independent Scotland to spite the failure of Labour to protect and defend their interests. And they want it not because of, but in spite of, the SNP's moderate plans for a UK-in-miniature. What working people in Scotland want is a strong Labour government willing to use the full economic powers of an independent Scotland in their interest.

In 1978 the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote an essay called The Forward March of Labour Halted? It argued that the labour movement in Britain had been stuck for a generation, the mass of working people had lost faith in the Labour party, and at a time of crisis when Labour should have been ready to take a clear alternative, the very future of the party was in doubt.

The two crises of the London-centred financial crash and the Scottish prospect of independence present a comparable moment for Scottish Labour. In the face of economic insecurity, people may vote for the independence that Labour has worked so hard to resist - including over half of working class people.

On the other hand, if they vote No, Scottish Labour's prospects of election in 2016 look slim because they are presenting no clear future for working people in Scotland. What is the solution?

Hobsbawm's historic suggestion was for the party to consider how to represent the working class, whose make-up is in continual flux. This means today, as it used to, the great majority of 'ordinary working people' who have jobs, contracts and wages, who sometimes require income support, rely on universal public services, and make the country work.

These are the people most affected by the economic crisis, and their interests are fairly obvious: income security, a decent job, good public services, and social help to attain a good living standard.

Hobsbawm also suggested that the party address the situation as they find it - not what they would want to do, but what they could do, in the interests of the class. Scottish Labour would want to go back to a time when working people in Scotland are content within the United Kingdom - that is the whole premise of the Devolution Commission, to strengthen the current constitutional settlement.

They would like to help the struggle for the keys at Westminster, with the role for Scottish Labour to cultivate the kailyard out the back. But those days are past now, for the people of Scotland seem determined, politically at least, to be a nation again. The sooner Scottish Labour get their head around this, the better able they will be to imagine what Labour could do in an independent Scotland.

When they do, a programme will come naturally, for Scottish Labour has what the SNP can only aspire to: a sensitivity to the real impact of economic conditions especially during crisis, and deep, thoughtful and enduring commitments to social justice, to tackling poverty and holding back the heavy hand of power, to believing in the dignity of work and the justice of a fair reward, and to building up a welfare state that provides social security for everyone.

Ian Davidson was right to say most people are influenced in their referendum decision by the Labour party and its record. For Labour was once the marching band for all of the labour movement, working to produce a consciousness among working people, that society could be organised in their interests. Its song was called socialism.

This year, Scottish Labour, the original Home Rule party, the party founded by Keir Hardie over a century ago, has one last chance to end the never-ending doldrums of devolution politics, and prepare for a new march to socialism Scotland, whatever the outcome of the September's referendum.

Cailean Gallagher is an active Labour Party member and will be attending conference this weekend. He also works as a political researcher for Yes Scotland. HeraldScotland has not paid a fee for this article.

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