When Henry McLeish preaches that we should ask “big questions like what kind of Scotland do we want to live in”, he sets himself apart from a Labour tradition that starts from everyday questions of work and life. When Patrick Harvie laments the discord between parties at Holyrood, his interludes drift through political divides leaving partisans unruffled. When Pat Kane insists Green-Left social planners will reform Scotland by creating high-skilled engineering work to solve global energy problems, many will be curious how the planners intend to access the economy’s commanding heights and guide this high-level reform, even once a Yes vote brings certain powers to Scotland’s government.
Are we surprised that demands find no echo when they are made outside the material world of people and parties and movements? Is it any wonder that ideas fail to grip the masses when our language is of justice and nations, consensus and neoliberalism?
Odes to prosperity and fairness, and theories of conflict resolution based on reaching common ground, are the political pastimes of a class with nice lives and accumulated resources, people who use their education or creativity to teach or plan or develop the prospects of others, people once interested in left ideas who found a place to settle and a public-serving job to satisfy their conscience. Members of this elite are not oppressed but like the gentry of old Scotland they skip around the world and delve inside the their own minds and others’ to try and cure their boredom and frustration. Fuelled by mindfulness and trips to the country, they believe in consensual solutions to everything. When they come together in their Hegelian huddle to proclaim a Common Weal, the masses just see an incredible muddle.
The point of these remarks is to suggest that the pro-independent Scottish Left is too idealistic, too set on consensus, determined that employers and employees can work in harmony. It’s an unrealistic vision for ordinary people who see an economy ruled by a rich elite that shirks taxes and places blame on the backs of the poor. Leftist mapmakers need to remember that workers see how much power the employer holds – enough to ignore the interests of employees, enough to sack you or reduce your hours at the drop of a hands-free telephone device. The bosses will not give up power without a fight, which is precisely what the merry bands of social consensualists are so determined to avoid.
Consensual politics are the preserve of a certain class, alien to those who struggle through work and everyday life, and they are an ineffective politics for the oppressed, who may nevertheless assume them to be acceptable and settle for passive consent. Meanwhile those who see through this Left, chiefly in the labour movement, and who understand that consensus is not a route to workers’ betterment, find themselves ignored because they lack the connections, eloquence, and other accumulated resources this class has in abundance.
Sometimes confidence in Left intellectuals on the part of the masses can lead to a kind of passive reform, but only if the Left is both seriously equipped and willing to challenge the enemies it is bound to face. This Left is neither, and even with power it could not help working people attain what they need. Its insistent consensualism is tantamount to deception – or, worse, it’s a sub-conscious method of bringing about the kind of harmony that would allow a privileged class to enjoy the moral contentment and stature of a progressive liberal elite. Like our political class, this elite would ask nothing of those it is meant to fight for, but will assure people that things will improve, with blithe and sickly optimism that is ultimately counterproductive; for the optimism of a political elite that delivers nothing will inspire in the masses more pessimism than hope, and perhaps even a kind of learned helplessness. Unless something is done, this risks being the legacy of the pro-independent Left.
So what is the alternative? The kind of dogged pessimism characteristic of parts of the labour movement does at least start from the attitudes of those it seeks to represent. Miliband is ready to admit his policy to equalise the wages of agency and regular workers is just a method to prevent the race to the bottom. Likewise Brown’s warnings about the instability of the minimum wage after independence strikes a sober chord for those who rely on New Labour’s main achievement. And while the Record is right that Labour’s vote against free school meals leaves a bad taste, some people do see honour in Lamont’s priority of policies that help the poor over those that benefit the whole population.
The Labour Party in Scotland has been battered by a flood of nationalistic optimism, and may remain submerged by the waves we expect this year. Lacking tough defences, our Party has also seemed too pessimistic about the prospects of effective social or economic change in Scotland, which is no way to stir support from those who seek a better life. But it may be that Labour’s stasis, its realistic pessimism, could pay off when the nationalist beacon starts to die, and people look around at the state they’re in.
When they do, Labour has the advantage that it starts from the work people do, the wages they earn, the decisions they make about their lives and their children’s lives, the condition of public services, access to jobs, level of education, ability to travel, and so on. Where the SNP starts with the wealth of Scotland and looks downwards – aspiring that all of our wealth trickles down and out and through the hands of Scotland’s people – Labour starts with the worth of the people and their challenges, and looks up to see what government can do. It fights against homelessness, hunger and hardship, knowing that in the face of all these, the dreams of the nationalists are no solution. It believes social justice means a better life for the mass of ordinary people in a world where work doesn’t pay, being female is a burden, and those in illness or want are neglected.
It should be no wonder that Labour, which has lost favour among the political class, retains a solid and growing support-base among ordinary working people. These supporters may be frustrated by the party’s pessimism but stick to Labour because of their realism and determination. As long as Scottish Labour is passive, they will wait; but they will be the activists if Labour grasps the full powers that a Yes vote could bring in the years to come. It is why we, who support independence from within the party, believe Labour not only has within it the instincts and politics to stir a people to change, but that, after we have won, our Party will be the one to achieve social justice in an independent Scotland.