Reflections on the Question, What is Labour?

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Reflections on the Question, What is Labour?

Being the subject of the inaugural Glasgow University Labour Club meeting as it enters what we hope will be a radical and inclusive term.

“Scottish socialists can not support a strategy for independence which postpones the question of meeting urgent and social needs until the day after independence – but nor can they give unconditional support to maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom – and all that that entails – without any guarantee of radical social change; the question is not one of structures nor of territorial influence, but of democracy – how working people in Scotland can increase the control they have over the decisions which shape their lives and the wealth they alone produce – and in doing so aid the struggle for a shift of power to working people elsewhere.”

– Gordon Brown, The Red Paper on Scotland, 1974

When I was an undergraduate my lecturer in Marxism, the theorist and activist Stuart White, explained to me the misdirection of our Labour Party. Labour was born as a party dedicated to far-reaching reform. However, having shoved the Liberals aside it became attached to the established institutions of the British state. A distinctive ‘Labourist’ philosophy of politics and the state emerged which is still with us today. It became the aim of progressive politics to get Labour into control of the Parliament, through conservative parliamentarianism – embracing the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and the first-past-the-post system – for only this system could credibly hope to deliver Labour, and Labour alone, control of the all-important central state.

Ever since, Labour has had to win votes in a relatively small number of constituencies, which has tended to make it veer to the centre-right, and to dilute its original connection with working people across the UK. Labour’s dominance demands a policy platform that tacks to the right and sets it against those for whom it is meant to work – thus Labour has lost touch with its original dedication and purpose.

This misdirection explains the approach of those like Brown with instincts on the left but a political nose for the right, of engaging in the kind of inequality-reducing, poverty-fighting governance that conscience demands, while presenting little of it to the public. This is weakness, it is cowardice – and it is the great irony of a Labour prime minister who wrote books about courage, that he could never in his short time in office confront those who insisted on minimal distribution and maximal exploitation, to tell them their politics were wrong and immoral.

The kernel of Brown’s weakness, and the weakness of many comrades who suddenly find themselves playing the Westminster game, was planted when Labour turned from its original radical demands to a focus on winning power in Westminster. The inward turn to Westminster was a turn against the belief in the power of working people to force change and decide for themselves. The inward turn of Labour activists’ to their own pursuits fuelled their tactic of policy by stealth rather than publicly waging war on the morality of the rich. Both inward turns are results of the initial disconnect of Labour from its original goals to shift power to working people.

If anything is exciting about Labour now, it is the chance – both because of the reconstruction of the Party following the recession in the context of falling living standards and declining work conditions, and because of the question of Scottish independence – to restore its demand and purpose from being ‘pooling and sharing resources’ in the manner described by Brown as the most important ‘modern argument for the Union’, to being about how to empower working people. People do not want compensation, they want empowerment, and Labour is the only party to meet their demand.

This takes us back to Gordon Brown:

“Labour must respond to the ‘demand for more control over our affairs’ not by asking how ‘minimalist’ or ‘maximalist’ Assembly powers can avoid separatism nor by becoming masters of the last ditch – resisting change until it becomes inevitable – but by deploying every available level of government to increase the control working people have over their own lives.”

Then, as now, Gordon Brown was cautious about constitutional change. He wrote to defend the system he knows so well, the Westminster political system by which he, like the Labour Party itself, was overwhelmed. He opposed those of us who said we could achieve more by bringing economic power to Scotland for working people to claim.

But unlike many comrades, I think Brown has always understood the significance of what those of us in Labour who favour independence are working to achieve. His Red Paper introduction addressed our ambitions head-on, with an appeal to Labour not to defend devolution or resist change, but to address the kinds of popular demands that raised the question of independence in the first place. The thesis that devolution arose through the demands of working people whereas independence is a vanity project or nationalist distraction does not do history justice, yet it is preached as orthodoxy in the Party. In hearing this tonight, comrades should at least be sceptical.

Those of us who favour independence, on the other hand, still think that devolution and then independence both are the demand of working people in the face of powerlessness, and that by bringing economic powers to Scotland we open the world of labour to more direct political and economic control by working people. It is the ability of our Labour Party, granted access to a new plane of powers, to facilitate or aid the extension of those power to those who work in Scotland that will be put to the test after independence. When comrades in Labour realise that this is our aspiration, they will, I hope, understand what drives us to work for independence.

Of course I have my days of doubting whether we can do what we think we can after independence. I also have my fears that our political and organisational strength will not be enough to withstand the inevitable force of private and corporate interests that will try to invade the newest European sovereignty. But I do know that Scottish Labour will retain its resolve and will be strengthened as, after a Yes vote next year, it works out how to ensure working people’s voices and interests are at the heart of our aims. The Labour Party and labour values can flourish with independence.

Given that these issues will continue to face the Labour Party over the coming year, it is a good time to be inquiring into the meaning and purpose of Labour – and the discussion tonight could be the start of a quite interesting term as together we prepare to advance under the banner of the Glasgow University Labour Club.

Cailean Gallagher, Friday 20th September 2013

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