When Bob Crow and Tony Benn passed away recently, it seemed the left was united in paying tribute to these wonderful men who had dedicated their lives to change for the betterment of society. They’re the only times lately that the left has been as one.
Changes are coming in politics on these islands, whatever the result of the referendum might be. There cannot be many people left, either north or south of the border, who are in any doubt about that. This Tory government has initiated social changes, in the name of necessity, which will take a generation or more to undo. The right has realised what the right has always known … that a radical government, pursuing its own agenda ruthlessly and without regard for public opinion, and thereby unencumbered by fears of not being re-elected, can fundamentally change the country.
The left never quite gets this. The Labour government, elected in a landslide in 1997, was neither radical or left-wing, but it could have been both. Nevertheless, it too laid foundation stones which can never be removed; the national minimum wage was one. Thankfully, for us all, the Scottish Parliament was another. Those things are permanent.
So too, in England, are the changes to social services, the NHS and the welfare system. Do not believe a word Ed Miliband says about rolling back the Tory changes to health care provision. The next Labour government will find a way to claim those changes have worked better than they thought, because reversing them will be deemed too expensive. The health service in England will not be just on the slippery slope but halfway down it. The same applies to welfare. No government at Westminster, with the hysteria of middle England at full volume, is going to contemplate ever raising the welfare cap as it presently stands, no matter the crisis. They will cut as much as they think they can get away and, in the greatest need, they will change the structure of the cap to increase overall spending on it, but at the expense of dragging Job Seekers Allowance in too.
The political “centre ground” in England has shifted to the right. It has done so not because this is a strong government but because we have a weak opposition, one willing to compromise, one which started out with a strong narrative on austerity – that cutting too quick would increase the debt and drag out the recession – and, over time, allowed that to be chipped away.
I read everything I can lay my hands on. The “recovery” is built on exactly the same shaky stilts as caused the last crash; public and private debt. There is a new housing bubble inflating, and when it blows the consequences are going to be truly apocalyptic. Our political class realises this. This is partly why the welfare cap has come into play … it prevents whole sections of the country from going on housing benefit when the roof falls in. This cynical, despicable cap is not only designed to cut the legs off the working poor, or those who need welfare to survive. The very leafy shires who have called for it are precisely the people it is going to hurt most.
But that’s not part of the political narrative. The economy is teetering on the brink of a black hole, and Labour has conceded all the ground. They have allowed the Tories to claim that the recovery is underway. That the cuts are necessary. That stimulating the housing market in soft government loans was a good idea. That a welfare cap is economically responsible, instead of an act of war against the social security system. They have given up every inch of dirt they started out fighting for, and the collapse in their poll numbers reflects the way in which people of all social and economic groups in England have reacted to such cowardice.
Those numbers are only going to go one way. Down.
It is not only Better Together who seem to have devised their very own “How To Lose Huge” strategy. At the very moment when Labour needed them most, the “party of the working man” has stuck the boot into its own foot soldiers, and proved, again, that when it comes to its relationship with the unions and the public sector they are even less trustworthy than the most blatantly right-wing Tory administration.
It is a matter of time before the unions walk away from Labour entirely. The way the national party treats them is an affront to decency. The Falkirk furore was a scandal not so much as in what happened up there but in how Labour handled it, and allowed the media to portray it. What should have been a local matter blossomed into a “debate” about the evils of trade unionism in Britain, and that “debate”, like every social and political debate these days, was coached in terms the right dictated and wanted, because, as usual, Labour’s cowardice came to the fore.
Across time, almost unfailingly, the right has pursued its political agenda by dividing people, creating “out” groups who inspire the hatred of the rest. This government is so fortunate in having so many to choose from. They have co-opted the yellow bellied Lib Dems, the whores of British politics, who will literally climb into bed with anyone and try to screw everyone, and they’ve cowed Labour to such an extent that those “out” groups literally have no voice in Parliament.
They have the immigrants, who have always been a Tory “out” group, and the easiest to give a good kicking to. They have made social security claimants a new “out” group, and Labour, of course, has acquiesced in that. Public sector workers can always be turned on when the standard of living collapses across “middle income earners”, and this unscrupulous government and a subservient media machine has allowed them to be painted, as usual, as sitting on “gold plated pensions and working conditions” – all of it, an enormous fraud – and not only will Labour not stand up for them, but it was Labour, the governments of Blair and Brown, which first led the line in perpetuating these heinous lies. It was, after all, Labour Party politicians who first talked of “strivers and skivers”, and called the firemen “fascist bastards.”
Yet if there’s one group of individuals in this country who are consistently demonised over and over again it’s the union bosses and their members. To expect Labour to come to their defence was always going to be too much to ask. The party founded by the trade unions has stood idly by and allowed them to be beaten down during every major industrial showdown of the last thirty years. They have allowed union rights to be eroded to the point of almost non-existence and barely raised a murmur of protest about it. They could have rolled back Thatcherism and restored all the rights she denied them … but that would have made life hard when their own “reforms” of the public sector came into play.
No party treats the union movement with such contempt and disregard as does the one that bears its name. It is an appalling indictment on all concerned that the trade union movement now has no voice in the Palace of Westminster. Miliband’s “reform” of the links between the union and the party are a disgraceful, and cowardly, case of a political party attacking its friends to appease unappeasable enemies, to no political advantage at all, and the way Miliband has allowed the media to define his relationship with the people who put him in his post should tell you everything you need to know about how this man and his party would act in government.
Without conviction. Without vision. Without principles of any sort.
Labour always obsesses about re-election. Tories never do. Right wing governments know that one term, one radical, transformative term, is all a government needs to fulfil whatever social, political or economic agenda it wants to pursue. It can create – like the one that built the welfare state, or the Labour government of 1997 (and I give them credit for that. This was a government that sought to build things) – or it can destroy, but whatever it does will be lasting.
One of the things that excites me most about what politics in Scotland will look like should we get what we’re campaigning for in September is this idea about what the first independent government here might do. That government will almost certainly be of the centre left. It does not have to be red in tooth and claw, but it has to have an understanding of the opportunity the moment affords it.
I believe the political and social narrative of Britain could have been transformed completely if, in 1997, Labour had been more radical and used its enormous mandate to shift the centre of political gravity leftward. It could have been done. Huge steps towards it were taken, only for them to back off at the last minute. The minimum wage was one. Signing the European Social Charter was another. The campaign to eradicate child poverty. The windfall tax on the private utilities. The creation of the ten pence tax rate. These were all monumentally significant, and forcing the Conservative Party to embrace them one at a time was a triumph for social advancement.
Yet even as Blair and Brown were doing this, they had already, broadly, began to accept the “market driven services” narrative that successive Tory governments had tried, and failed, to push through. The good was being counterweighted by the bad, and the bad was going to get worse as time went on as the true cost of schemes like the Private Finance Initiative became clear. “Reforms” to pensions and terms and conditions, the extension of compulsory competitive tendering, letting private firms bid for public service contracts … all of it started eating away at the social fabric.
They were moving the debate rightward after all.
By 2005, with Iraq dominating the political discourse, Blair and Brown had stopped even pretending concern for those at the bottom.
The opportunity had been lost. 2008, and the crisis in banking, could have – and should have – been a transformative event which allowed them to recapture the initiative and accomplish that goal … and they didn’t even try.
Here, in Scotland, the political centre of gravity is already on the left. That’s how Johann Lamont can get up and call the SNP’s plan to cut corporation tax a scandal and get away with it. If Ed Miliband had the brass ones to try that in London he would be flayed. As it happens, I think Lamont has called this one wholly wrong, and I don’t believe any credible figure on the left could agree with her. Cutting corporation tax will bring jobs to an independent Scotland, and allow firms to pay higher wages and invest in their infrastructure. It would be a grossly incompetent and irresponsible Scottish government that didn’t pursue those goals. It’s precisely because I’m on the left that I do support a policy that would bring those opportunities here.
But in Scotland we have a chance to do something even more important. With the political centre where it is here, we can actually build a new social security system. We can revise the role of trade unions in our society. Companies that want to be based in Scotland, and take advantage of our beneficial tax policies, can be brought around to the argument that paying a living wage and giving their workers full union rights and recognition is a price worth paying … and that is a case many on the left are not going to make two years from now but are making already.
Trade unions, and the public sector workers they represent, are not the demons the right-wing media would have some believe, and we all know this, because we are not ignorant and un-engaged from the process. A government that treated them with respect, instead of with contempt, would, in doing so, do more to change the political narrative we’ve been living with these past three or four decades than any number of policy changes ever could or would, and that is a social, economic and political imperative, and should be Item 1 on the manifestos of all the major parties (Tories excepted) when the first independent elections are called.
My view of the public sector has not shifted one iota in all the time I’ve been involved in political discourse. Our teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, firemen, bin-men, parks workers, our cleaners and dinner ladies, those who work in the difficult jobs the Guardianista always disdain, and who’s “gold plated pensions” the chattering classes (most of them on six figure salaries) are always complaining about … these people are my heroes. Their pay freezes and 1% rises are an outrage that an independent Scottish government should end on its first day in office.
The trade unions which have fought – more often than not unsuccessfully – to reverse the shocking economic and political hammer blows these people have had to endure should be invited to come to the opening ceremony of the new Parliament and take their place there as genuine stakeholders, afforded recognition and respect instead of being regarded as the “enemy within.”
They are the one true democratic movement in British politics today, and for all they are vilified their one crime is that they actually do what they are supposed to for the people they represent. If our political parties did the same the country would be better off.
Scotland can give these people the acknowledgment they deserve. We have a tradition up here of respect for those things. More than that; in keeping with some parts of England, we have a tradition of honouring them and their people. Two of those people were laid to rest last month. One was a loss to politics as he showed what might have been. Tony Benn was a great man, and a wonderful advocate for the left. He will be missed tremendously.
Yet it’s Bob Crow’s death which hits hardest, cuts deepest, impacts farthest. The Movement needed him right now as much as it ever has, and his shoes will not be easy ones to fill.
The Londoncentric media wrote nice things about both, but refuses to do them the honour they are due by accepting the rightness of those things for which they fought.
Here in Scotland, we can do more than just pay them tribute. I can think of no greater mark of respect – for these men, and their ideas – than to make the bedrock policies of our first Scottish government the things to which they devoted their lives.
That is a true monument to them, and to the country we’re looking to build.