A Former Trade Minister on the Condition of British Labour

Les Huckfield (right) on a march in 1979

This week I met Les Huckfield, Labour trade minister in the 1970s, who today (Sunday 6th July) declared his support for a Yes vote. From our wide-ranging discussion, his comments on the condition of Labour struck me as prescient for those on the radical socialist wing of the party who believe in a No vote.

Some people will not vote for independence because they have ‘touching faith’ in a British Labour government, said Les. But most Scots do not understand what’s happening in England, where the rate of worker exploitation and social degradation is much more advanced and more severe than it is in Scotland. Many party supporters do not see that Labour has developed weak ambitions that will leave the party unprepared to heal a nation in chronic decline. In short, even if Miliband wins in 2015, society will not be protected.

Politically, Ed Miliband is the best that Labour can hope for; a more left-wing candidate than other competitors like Balls or Burnham. He understands that the changing labour market runs under every part of policy. He will confront zero-hours abuses, yet he is not committed to basic and modest proposals advanced by the unions, like renationalizing the railway, bringing parts of the English NHS back into public control, or resisting Juncker’s plans for unlimited marketisation of services and production across Europe, through the TITP. His public sector pay-freezes and spending plans are as bad as the Tory government’s.

Structurally, Labour no longer represents its members, and constituency parties have almost no power to deliver their own suggestions into the policy agenda. Ed Miliband’s changes to the trade union link were fatally misunderstood by activists as being a revision rather than a rupture of the relationship, and thus faced inadequate resistance. After the next election there will be great difficulty for Labour members to keep any democratic control they have left in Labour, or to exert any influence over things like reselections, or to demand feedback from MP’s experience in Parliament or surgeries. Within the unions, Left control will diminish almost as quickly as unions lose their influence over the party.

As for Labour’s aspirations, they have recently been laid out in a series of documents with very cautious, pro-establishment measures which propose a degree of service and investment devolution on strict, centrally-directed terms: power for cities to spend greatly reduced budgets on dwindling services; benefit changes that place the biggest burden on those who have never worked, and look to solve the labour market problems by ‘building relationships’ locally. Adonis’ report suggests Labour keeps hold of the coalition’s tight strings on regional funding, with access on less democratic terms than before. Meanwhile the overall aspirations as set out in the IPPR’s Condition of Britain report are bleak and timid – what we have in Scotland now is better than the full set of policies it proposes.

The message from this former Labour minister was simply this: the UK won’t be OK with Labour, and the faith in a Miliband government, touching as it is, risks leading a movement and tradition in Scotland that is finally able to make its own demands back into the endless echo-chambers of a Westminster Party which stopped listening to its members or considering its doctrine a very long time ago.

Hard as it is for a committed Labour member to admit, Les Huckfield has a point.

Cailean Gallagher


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