It’s one of the most famous lines in the history of cinema. I’ve heard it a hundred times.
Lately, to me, it’s a pretty fair summation for everything that’s gone wrong in Scottish Labour’s relationship with its own members, and its voters … many now former voters, of course.
Yesterday, Ed Miliband was here giving his speech in what, in most years, would have been natural Labour leader territory. Tony Blair was never particularly comfortable up here – too many horny handed, overall wearing northerners for his taste, and those of his inner circle – but Scotland has been “home soil” for Labour for as long as I’ve been alive, and a long time before, and even he was assured his standing ovation from conference.
Things have changed. Labour’s claim to being “the natural party of government in Scotland” has been dashed. Their conduct in the independence campaign thus far has damaged their standing with a large number of their natural supporters. Yesterday’s speech from Miliband was one of the worst I’ve ever heard a Labour leader give, and that it met with such tumultuous applause in the conference hall is a demonstration as clear as myself and others need that the disconnect between what Labour says and does and what the Scottish people want is now acute.
Those rank and file members who are not wholly disgusted with their leadership for the shabby, dishonourable way they have fought this campaign were the ones cheering on the Great Leader yesterday and, as someone who might once have been inside that hall, I can say with surety and certainty that I cannot understand those people any longer. This is a definite “failure to communicate” here. Their mind-set is not my own.
Miliband yesterday stood up there and equated the Yes campaign’s “social justice for Scotland” agenda to the campaign of cuts going on south of the border. He compared Salmond to Cameron, talked about how Scotland would be locked in a “race to the bottom.” We were promised a love bombing, and this is what we got instead. Miliband, talking our country down, talking down the very real social advances made under the Scottish Parliament, up here talking about the Promised Land which will be under Labour in London … the party that in front of a very different audience this week promised its own series of cuts to match that of the Tories.
It insults our collective intelligence on so many levels. They speak to us as though we were children, incapable of understanding things, ready to swallow whatever we are told, little heads waiting to be filled with real wisdom. Have they forgotten, or do they not care, that we live in an information age, that the truth is out there for those with a mind to look for it? There are no secrets anymore. If you want to know what Labour really intends to do when it’s next in power in London, you only have to Google it. You want to know how their proposed “new powers” for the Scottish Parliament stack up, or how little they mean next to the reality of being in control of our own country? Check it out for yourself, on any one of a hundred websites.
Besides, some of us have longer memories than that. Some us have a longer attention span than it takes to sit in a conference hall and get whipped into a frenzy by a flat, insipid speech like his.
The speech was designed to appeal to the remnants of the party who are so blinded by a visceral hatred of the SNP that they are incapable of rational thought. It was not directed at the remainder of Scotland, because the remainder of Scotland is disconnected from it, as from so much of what comes out of Labour these days.
A large, and growing, number of people in this country now have their ears closed to the shabby, downbeat, insulting gutter level sound bites and spin coming out of Better Together and its constituent parts, all of whom hate each other as passionately as they do the SNP. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking they’ve switched off completely, but in truth these are people tuned to a whole different frequency, carefully monitoring signals from elsewhere.
Their ears are cocked to the low sweet music of hope, dreaming not of what London tells us has to be, but of what might be if they believe enough in themselves and each other. See, the London narrative has no message of hope within it. It has been shorn of all that is optimistic and promises a better tomorrow, for Scotland and England alike. It asks of us all that we embrace our limitations, that we accept the political and social narrative of austerity, and cuts, and welfare reforms which tear the heart and soul out of communities and shred the social contract that bound us.
If there was a “United Kingdom”, this never-ending assault on the fabric of our communites and the basis of our shared identity began to erode it a long time ago.
Labour no longer understands this. This failure to communicate began with their failure to understand that the working class had aspirations too. When the political antennae of Labour was redirected under Blair and Brown, to the steady hum of Middle England, and to their ambitions and their “upward mobility” it forgot that its historic mission was to maintain the upward mobility of those who did not have the opportunities afforded those in the leafy shires, and in the suburbs, those crowded into the inner cities, those stuck in low paid jobs, those who needed the protections and assistance of the state. This was the start of the long decline.
The Private Finance Initiative, the continuation of privatisation, the politically motivated, but profit driven, “reform” of public services, under the illusory cloak of offering the public “choice” and the lies over tuiton fees and educational access, party funding, the failure to reform the Lords and stand up for public sector workers, and the war in Iraq, destroyed what little faith remained, especially here in Scotland where our tribal loyalty to Labour was rewarded time and again with the same deaf ear.
It was not until they failed to win an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament, needing Lib Dem support to run things, that real reforms came about, and this country started to roll back Thatcherism and Blairism with it.
Yet the policies responsible for that came from the junior partner in the coalition, and not from Labour’s own benches.
Despite that, the clarion call of much of Scottish Labour’s frontline was not that our failure to win a majority was because we had gone too far but that it was because New Labour hadn’t gone far enough. This failure to comprehend a simple fact – that voters in Scotland did not approve of those “reforms” and wanted a return to a social justice agenda – has haunted the party ever since, because years on the lessons of it have still not been learned. This is truly remarkable.
When senior Labour activists talk about Labour voters “lending their votes to the SNP” they could not be more patronising if they tried. These were never “Labour votes”, they were the public’s votes, and they are not “on loan” to anyone. Those votes will not “automatically come home” … those votes will need to be fought for, and they will not go to Labour because the party is entitled to them, or because it takes them for granted. This party will have to earn them, and in the meantime it will need to change, and change radically … and start to listen again.
The likes of Tom Harris, Jim Murphy and others should no longer be allowed to speak as if for the great mass of the working class on these islands. What galls is not so much they told its prospective voters that they were not going to get what they wanted from the Labour Party, but that the Labour Party would not even acknowledge what they were asking for. The idea that what Labour had done wrong was not change enough, not moved enough to the right, could only have emerged from a self-absorbed political organisation that had completely lost its bearings. It didn’t come from one that was engaged with ordinary voters.
The same applies to their appalling national numbers, and their slender lead over a Tory Party that is tearing the country to pieces. A radical party of the left, that offered an alternative, with the courage of its convictions, would find an army of foot soldiers and campaigners willing to fight for every vote. Instead, their commitment to Tory cuts, their cowardice in the face of the right and its anti-public sector agenda, its lack of a backbone, has alienated potential supporters, disenfranchised millions and left ordinary people with nowhere else to turn.
Not so here in Scotland, something they are coming to realise, but altogether too late. When the national press writes headlines such as “Scottish Labour move left in bid to outflank the SNP” then you know desperation has set in. Because on the day Miliband is comparing Salmond to Cameron and Osborne, you wouldn’t have to move left to outflank them if he had it right; you’d only have to shift your feet a little sideways.
The Scottish people are not as stupid as Miliband thinks, and the very notion of Labour having to “move left” out of political calculation, rather than because it’s the right thing to do, is a further scandal and a further indictment to be laid at their door.
Johann Lamont, perhaps the worst leader a mainstream political party has ever fielded on these shores, today made a thoroughly embarrassing and fraudulent speech of her own, calling out the SNP for being “dishonest and deceptive and disgraceful” in an address which said not one positive thing about Scotland or the Scottish people but instead was littered with personal attacks on the First Minister and the Scottish government.
Once again, she decried the idea behind this campaign as being a purely SNP led scheme to “drag (us) over the line”. This narrative ignores the millions of voters with no connection to the SNP, voters who’ve simply had enough of a political, social and economic system which pays us no heed except when the parties want something from us. It insults the integrity and intelligence of the thousands of men and women, of all political parties, and of all political shades, who are campaigning for a Yes because they believe in Scotland, and want this country to stand on its own two feet.
She explicitly claimed that the Yes campaign is not concerned with “trying to convince the people of Scotland”, which is either a barefaced lie to a room full of people content to ignore that fact or the delusional ranting of someone divorced from reality … in front of a room of people prepared to ignore that fact.
Scotland is not listening any longer to what these people have to say. Their credibility has been blown, and it was blown long ago, but their conduct during this referendum has driven a stake through it, and nailed on the coffin lid.
It has condemned them to more years in opposition in Scotland than Alex Salmond would ever have thought possible.
The phony offer of “more powers” has been exposed as a despicable fraud. The “leader” who a few months ago talked of hard choices, of ending a “something for nothing culture”, now wants to sound like a red in tooth and claw socialist, planning to soak the rich. None of it will ever come to pass. She knows it, and that’s why she can stand in front of her conference audience, like a performing seal, and make promises she’ll never have to keep. It is all a front, and a transparent one.
Those who are engaged with the independence campaign are not despairing about the lack of clarity from their side but about the shameful and shameless fear-mongering emanating from those who want us to vote No. The entire Labour conference has been an exercise in narrow party political cynicism, at the expense of Scotland and its future, which literally takes my breath away.
Thankfully, much of Scotland’s attention is elsewhere. Its people are daring to dream. We are not the idiots Labour thinks, no longer tribally loyal past the point of sanity. Scotland is awake, at last, and eager for something better. We know, in our hearts, and we’re starting to know in our heads, that it doesn’t have to be like this, that we can shatter the paradigm once and for all, that we can construct the county we want, and that we deserve.
Our loyalty has been taken for granted for too long. Our trust has been betrayed. This week we have seen the party we thought was on our side try to sell us a bill of goods. They were hoping we either would not notice, or would not care. In the effort, they have revealed the contempt in which they hold us – and perhaps always did.
They have shown themselves to be every bit as cynical and craven and self-interested as the party with whom they have sided during this campaign, borrowing the Tory playbook and making it their own.
No more of it. I was a lifelong Labourite, but it’s over now. I have seen the true face of the party over the last few months, and it is not one with which I want to associate myself, and it is certainly not one in which I will find the realisation of my dreams for a better country.
Even if I thought they cared about that, and not just with putting their own snouts in the trough, I do not believe they have the courage or the ambition or the vision to pull it off.
Tony Blair once stated his belief that Labour, for all its accomplishments, was a party rooted in failure. Looking at the wreckage of what he inherited, I cannot help but conclude that they have now lived up to that description. The welfare state which a great, reforming, truly socially responsible Labour Party founded was failed by his government, abandoned by Brown’s and cannot be saved by Miliband. It will probably cease to function entirely in England, come what may. Cameron, Osborne and Clegg will get the blame, but Labour will not be without a portion of the guilt.
Today, Johann Lamont, in the name of preserving some of those things, stood up and tried to get us to turn our back on them, by voting against the one thing that will allow us to keep them, and restore them to their rightful place at the centre of our society.
She wants us to abandon our last chance at remaking the social contract, and to convince us she reached for the language of “Old Labour” by invoking the class war.
In this final, desperate moment she did no more than reveal her own frightening ignorance, because that has never been what Labour was about.
Her belief that this would win over anyone not already on her side revealed the most obvious disconnect of all.
The concept of the left waging class war does not exist except in the fevered minds of the right. The social contract was one that bound us all together, not split us apart. The welfare state is meant to be universal, not there for those at the bottom, but for everyone, the ultimate shared pool for all to tap into.
To undermine the principle of universal provision is to do the work of the enemy for them, for how, they will ask, with full justification, is it acceptable for those who contribute least to get the most back, whilst those who contribute most get nothing at all? It is the perfect starting point when it comes time to make an argument for cuts.
When someone consistently ignores you, and on the few occasions when they appear to be giving you their attention they do so to patronise you, to lie to you, to try and convince you to act against your own interests, it is natural to switch off. Once you conclude that these people are not your friends, once you take a step back and examine who and what they are, it’s hard ever to imagine yourself going back.
To do it, their behaviour would have to radically change.
There’s no sign of it. This is not simply a failure to communicate. It’s a failure to even comprehend.
Scotland is tuned to a difference frequency. We hear hope, over fear. We are daring to see beyond the here and now, and the soul-sapping political and social narrative on offer from those London-centric parties. We are tired of being lied to, taken for granted, used and abused.
We may not know what is on the other side of the Rubicon, but we know full damned well that what is on this side we are better off leaving behind.
They keep on telling us that this is permanent, that this change is forever. Once again, they misunderstood the mood. That’s exactly what we’re counting on.