Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Reports of the Death of the Left have been greatly exaggerated

The death of Jimmy Reid recently has prompted a number of press commentators  - eg from Iain MacWhirter, Gerry Hassan and BBCScotland’s Ask Kay programme - that the death of Reid in some way signified the ‘death of the left’ in Scotland. 
These comments largely indicate the wishful thinking of the commentators, rather than any serious suggestion that the left in Scotland has in some way ceased to command Scottish politics, and they are flawed in a variety of ways.
Firstly they make the common mistake of people in the media of individualising a collective. The left - as Reid would have agreed - is far more than one individual or even one political party. An argument could indeed be made that it isn’t even a coherent whole. Whatever influence it has on the body politic, comes as a result of support or not in a range of campaigns and political activities - including but not restricted to votes in elections.
Secondly, they make the mistake (as indeed do many on the left) of somehow magnifying an image of a ‘Red Scotland’ (or at least a ‘Red Clydeside’) that contains some exaggeration. While it is true that Scotland has a larger proportion of trade union members, and higher levels of support for public services than apply across the UK as a whole, the overall political view of our families and friends is not that hugely different  - on a right/left split - than in many other parts of the UK, eg Wales, Liverpool, the North of England et al. Reid himself is an example of that, in 1974 - at the hight of his activity and powers - he failed to overcome sectarian smears in his own constituency and came third in the February Election that year.
It is probably truer to describe the activity of the left as coalescing around specific campaigns - and when this happens successfully, it draws in many people who do not think of themselves as on the left. The UCS work in, for example was supported by many Tory Party branches in Scotland.
However, there is a kind of truth in the doom-sayers and self-fulfilling prophesisers pronouncements. Ignoring the problems of galvanising that kind of ‘mass movement’, and the difficulty in building support for progressive causes won’t make the problems go away.
That is why it is heartening that - as we face the worst attacks on our services and our living standards ever - unions and campaigning groups are seeking to re-address the lack of political understanding amongst their activists and members. It is true that it could have done with an earlier start, but the UNISON pilot Unions and politics course, the success of unions and branches in connecting with community-based campaigns and a regular although not well publicised series of actions in the private sector - like the defence of decent pensions in the INEOS dispute - suggest that the death of the left has been greatly exaggerated.
And finally, the record of the STUC in leading from the front in many key political campaigns (Constitutional Convention anyone?) means their plans to build co-ordinated resistance to the ConDem attacks should be followed with some hope.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Feet of Clegg

Lord Wallace of Tankerness, Jim Wallace to you and me (and I suspect, to him), last week, sounded a loud call to the Scottish Liberal Democrat troops - if that is not too collective a name for Liberal Democrats - to keep united and campaign strongly for the Scottish Elections coming up in nine months time. There was more than a hint of desperation about his call, and that isn’t surprising given the party’s reported opinion poll slump since Nick Clegg hitched their wagon to the Tory Cuts machine.
It is instructive to remember that a mere 3.5 months ago, those same opinion polls were showing Liberal Democrats in second (and even first) place, following Mr Clegg’s reported ‘surge’ after the TV debates. As some of us suspected, the 34 per cents etc. were always going to be somewhat wide of the mark, (but don’t be surprised if the media still report this ‘surge’ as if it did in fact happen), but the 14% average that we now see is poor even if you accept the top figure was inflated.
However a more pressing worry for the LibDems in Scotland is that the support of many of their party leaders for ‘market forces’ and cutting the public sector is now becoming apparent. The ‘economic Liberals’ were always there, but managed to shelter behind the more cuddly ‘social Liberal’ image. Now they are in charge, they are flinging themselves enthusiastically behind Messrs Cameron and Osborne in the ‘New Tory’ attempt to destroy our services. This will not play well in Scotland.
Another concern is that MSP candidates cannot rely on the General Election mantra ‘vote for us, or you’ll get the Tories’. Quite apart from the fact that everyone who fell for that now knows that their vote DID get them the Tories, the Scottish Parliament seats held by the SLD are mostly not threatened by Tories. Out of 11 FPTP seats, (another irony is that the SLD have done rather well from FPTP in Scotland) in only one, Fife NE, are the Tories second. 
A third worry for Jim Wallace, Tavish Scott and other prominent (but very quiet) SLD leaders is their UK leader’s admission (in Nick Robinson’s BBC programme on the coalition negotiations) that he knew that huge, immediate cuts to services would be needed during the election campaign. The trouble is not that he changed his mind, but that he kept quiet about it and continued to campaign AGAINST Tory ‘immediate cuts’ economic policies, only to embrace them enthusiastically once a whiff of power beckoned. Isn’t that the sort of tactic of the old cynical party politician? his supporters will be inclined to ask. We thought we were voting for a new way in politics!
So, as Labour and the SNP battle it out to defend Scotland against the Tory cuts, where does this leave the Scottish Liberal Democrats? Attacking the cuts in Scotland while supporting them in Westminster will be a very difficult double bluff to pull off - even for such past masters of the tactic. It may well be that after 5 May 2011, Scottish Liberal Democrats (even the economic Liberals) may find out that their golden leader who has delivered them a hand on the wheel of power, has feet of Clegg.