23 March 2008

A response to Change is What We Do: Scottish Labour, Boldness and Change

Continuing my response to excerpts of Alexander's tract.

Scottish Labour needs no lectures on how bold policies win support and can make life immeasurably better for people. But, occasionally, it is good to remind ourselves, and others, of just how much has been achieved by those who went before us. Under the SNP, a dishonest and manipulative re-writing of history has begun. It has commenced with the SNP claiming to be the mother, the father, and the midwife of the Scottish Parliament that we now have. It is manifestly untrue, but that won’t stop the Nationalists seeking to claim credit for much more.

First I've heard of this! Besides, the SNP have always found it a trifle fishy that it took the party's rise in the 1970s to put Home Rule back on the agenda. And let's not forget that Labour originally favoured Home Rule. However, it made no progress under Ramsay MacDonald, no progress under Attlee and no progress under Wilson 1. It only gathered momentum under Wilson 2 and Callaghan, once the SNP were on the scene. Labour did make the policy, and enacted it. But look what it took for that to happen. Besides, Conservatives would argue that Labour began their own rewriting of economic history since 1997 (arguing that the election of the Labour government triggered the economic revival that conservatives argue had already begun). It does seem odd that a Government which stuck to Conservative spending plans for two years should then say that it alone was responsible for post-1997 progress, and ignoring all of the difficulties, such as house price inflation and a recession in Scotland in 2002.

Sustained pressure by the Labour movement brought first rent controls and then an Act putting duties on local authorities to produce plans for building houses for working people. But it was only the election of a Labour government in 1924, and the arrival of a Clydesider, John Wheatley, as Minister of Health and Housing, that a quantum leap forward occurred. Wheatley’s Housing Act is widely acknowledged as the central legislative achievement of Ramsay MacDonald’s government. It provided central government funds to local authorities to build houses to approved standards for rent.

Ironically, in the last decade, it was a series of Labour Ministers, who went around Scotland asking tenants to vote in favour of the Councils giving up their housing stock. What would Clydesider John Wheatley think of that?

Labour’s creation of the National Health Service in 1948 is rightly credited to Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in Clement Attlee’s Labour government, and to William Beveridge, who wrote the report bearing his name advocating the NHS. But they knew it would work because, in all but name, the NHS was already in being in Scotland.

The credit for that goes to Tom Johnston, a Labour Scottish Secretary in Winston
Churchill’s wartime national government. He had the inspiration to see that civil
defence hospitals, being set up to treat the military and civilian casualties of war, were meantime mostly empty. They could be used to give free treatment, initially to civilian war workers, and then to the population generally. Compared to conditions today, health care was then truly terrible. For the few with money, there was private care. The many were dependent on voluntary hospitals run by councils and funded by charity. Waiting times of two years for hernia operations were usual. Even severe cases of appendicitis could mean a six-month wait. Johnston put the new military
hospitals into action and by 1945, he could say not only that the waiting lists had been cleared, but that he had blazed a trail for the NHS.

OK, so let's assume that Scottish Labour did provide inspiration for the NHS. Hospitals today are riddled with infection - MRSA - and waiting lists increased, and the Executive started measuring waiting times, which also increased, with some patients being kept off the official lists to keep the figures down. Just registering with an NHS dentist is a nightmare, and NHS estates are now in the hands of private contractors following PFI programmes. And again, if you have the cash, you can still sidestep the NHS and go private. Yes, the NHS was in a state in 1997, but Labour, rather than making things better, just blamed the Tories for ten years. The legacy of Johnston and Bevan is in tatters.

It was Donald Dewar who accepted the idea of the Constitutional Convention and worked to turn its ideas into a legislative reality, while Alex Salmond, far from helping, stood aside and led the SNP in opposing it every step of the way. Labour, Salmond said, could not deliver a pizza, never mind a parliament. Dewar did not only deliver, he produced such an exciting example of new democracy in action that politicians from across the world have come to Scotland to learn from it and enhance their democracy.

Labour's track record on this issue was one of total inaction until the 1970s. And then, the plans were botched, with Labour MPs frustrating the process by introducing the 40% rule to the 1979 referendum, where more people voted in favour of devolution than against it, only to be thwarted by the Cunningham Amendment. It took the rise of the SNP, the fiasco of 1979, and 18 years of Tory government for Labour to get devolution on the statute books. And let's not forget that Dewar did work hard to get the SNP on board for the referendum campaign - and succeeded! So the SNP asked its supporters to back the Constitutional Convention's ideas at the ballot box - hardly opposition every step of the way.

Once in the new parliament, Dewar continued with bold action. Wheatley’s vision of decent housing for all had, sadly, suffered during the long years of Tory rule. Neglect meant that far too many council-owned houses in too many areas were well below modern standards. I was proud to play my part in beginning the transfer of those houses to community ownership. Firmly in the traditions of John Wheatley, Dewar sought a modern means of renewing Scottish Labour’s long-held ambition of decent and affordable homes for working people.

Except that it took the housing stock out of the hands of local councils who could at least be ousted at the ballot box. And the proposal didn't impress the tenants of Edinburgh, Stirling or Alexander's local patch of Renfrewshire. And let's not forget the spiralling cost of buyin a house, to say nothing of Labour supporting the right to buy for ten years, which had the effect of reducing municipal housing stock. From Alexander's own synopsis, Labour's actions appear to run counter to Wheatley's vision, rather than applying it in a new way.

And Jack McConnell also took forward the biggest step forward in improving the health of the nation since perhaps the creation of the NHS – the ban on smoking in public places. Where we in Scotland led, the rest of Britain has followed.

Though Scotland was, in fact, following the Republic of Ireland, and Jack McConnell was following an SNP MSP, Stewart Maxwell.

None but the most blinkered Nationalist could argue that in these decades Home Rule for Scotland, though it was one of Labour’s founding goals, was a priority of the Scottish people. But at the end of the 20th century it became clear, under Tory misrule, that centralised government was not fit for Scottish purposes. A Scottish Parliament was both the priority means of providing for the many in Scotland and, in John Smith’s words, the settled will of the Scottish people.

This is rather curious as Home Rule had originally been a part of Labour's policy in its early years, particularly the 1920s. Why did it take Thatcher for Labour to realise that a Scottish Parliament was an effective means of effecting social progress in Scotland? And devolution had been the democratically expressed will of the people in 1979, though an amendment proposed by a Labour MP meant that a certain number of Scottish people had to democratically express it, and that certain number wasn't reached, the plans had to be shelved. One more thing: the 1999, 2003, and 2007 Labour campaigns have all focused on how independence would be awful. Surely if none but the most blinkered Nationalist could see Home Rule as a priority in the 1950s, then none but the most blinkered Unionist can see the preservation of the UK as a top campaign priority in 2007?

But we now have the Parliament, and many of the things we promised. And in putting those promises into action we somehow lost the connection with too many of the people who gave us their support. We now have to rebuild that connection again. We have to debate the way ahead, not for and with ourselves, but for and with the people of Scotland. And we have to have that debate, not just with the people who support us, but also with the people who do not support us, and with those who may even be hostile to us.

For in the Scotland we now have, a Scotland where there are at least five significant political parties, and many more which may seek to be significant forces in the future, no party can rely on one section of society in order to win power. Scottish politics in the 21st century is about building coalitions of support in all sections of society, and constantly refreshing and renewing those coalitions.

I do not believe that people have lost faith in Scottish Labour’s values. But they
have questioned our ability to deliver the practical policies that match those values, and to make the changes that turn those values into reality. If we are humble enough to listen, wise enough to engage in debate, and brave enough to renew, we can win back belief in our ability to deliver. And, as those who went before us did, we must be bold, be united, and be Labour.

It is difficult to disagree with those sentiments, and I will not seek to. However, I suspect that the problem may be slightly deeper than Wendy Alexander thinks: people (myself included) now wonder what Labour's values actually are. Alexander therefore has to begin at first principles and set out what Labour is for. She has it in her to do that, and talking about debate and building coalitions is all well and good, but all we've heard from Labour and Alexander to date is bitching and carping about the SNP. That's not the same thing. "Isn't Alex Salmond a bastard?" is no substitute for engagement with the people. Her paper, so far, is more of the same. This paragraph, while worthy, while entirely right, is at odds with the sentiment expressed time and again in the first two chapters. "The SNP will eat your babies" is not good enough, and in her paper, Wendy Alexander, so far, is failing to set out a positive vision for Labour.

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