“There exists in man a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave.”
Tom Paine, Common Sense
It was a bad day for Labour and its connections with working people, when the special conference voted 86% to accept the recommendations of the Collins review. Among the many flaws this vote represents in the British Labour Party is the great distance between Labour’s institutional engineering, and the real demands of the mass of people in the country. These changes will do nothing to stir a groundwell of organised working people to join the Labour party and use its power to improve the conditions of their work and the standard of their lives.
Comrades across Britain, and within Scotland, will be considering the prospects for renewing Labour as a party of power for working people. But what they all seem to deny is the prospect for a regional – or national – reformation of the party. Indeed, they see no crossover of the question of Party reform with the national question facing us in Scotland, and see no potential to use the opportunity of independence to rebuild Labour into a party that drives forward the interests of working people on a different model from the one malfunctioning at Westminster.
Why does the Scottish Labour Left deny this option? We understand their reluctance to engage on a terrain that is far from London (where capital is concentrated), and we know how they scorn the tendency of some of the pro-independent Labour Left to make partnerships with petit-bourgeois political groups like Common Weal.
The loyal Labour Left, especially the Red Paper Collective, likes to assert there is no working class groundswell associated with the campaign for independence. This Thursday one of the co-editors of their book, Class, Nation, Socialism, insisted in a socialist debate on independence that pro-independence left activists have not done the groundwork. What has the Labour tradition come to when its veterans are gratified by the lack of demand from Scotland’s workers for economic power? Where is their own aspiration for the groundswell that we know is the surest way to secure the demands of those crushed under the feet of the rich and powerful?
The lack of groundswell is not for want of effort. Many of us have thrown ourselves into the campaign, on strictly class-based terms. The same Thursday night, over 50 people went to Easterhouse with the Radical Independence Campaign to drum up support and bring politics to doorsteps where it has long been absent. These are the early stages of a coordinated class-based focus by activists in the independence campaign, attempting to build the very groundswell denied by those on the Labour left who campaign for a No vote.
We might have more doubts if British Labour were a worthy model, but the vote today to snap the union links places it almost beyond repair. Instead of building a movement, British Labour continues to malfunction on the old road to parliamentary socialism. Scottish Labour tells workers to appreciate the securities of the United Kingdom, even as the remaining social bonds and mutual support structures of working people shudder with each volley of austerity. They insist that protecting, let alone rebuilding, Labour’s welfare state is too big a challenge for Scotland, yet Labour at Westminster is committed to full-scale cuts. They lament the loss of jobs that are sure to follow a Yes vote, from the Clydeside docks to the financial towers of Edinburgh. But watch Lamont’s performance this week and ask what kind of drive for jobs she wants to lead? Their politics of pessimism are one of the most depressing marks of a withering Labour party that has lost its sense and will descend to the grave.
If we’re going down, lets all go down together – that’s the message that opened Douglas Alexander’s speech, as he called pathetically for a transfer of vague taxation power to stem the pro-independence tide. These will not give a Scottish party any meaningful powers to fight poverty, regulate work, grant social care to all who need it, raise wages and pursue full employment. There is nothing momentous in his plea to keep things as steady as possible, to balance the self-interest of MPs with the public will for a more effective Home Rule settlement.
Canavan is right, Alexander’s offer is “too little too late”. Even Alexander can sense a “mood for change” in Scotland. If there is no movement to guide this mass of sense to political ends, their plea for a better standard of life will flood through little channels that dissipate month by month. Worse still, they may be piped through the SNP’s false promises of prosperity for all without so much as a rise in taxes for the rich; this is the wooly mutualism praised by Helena Kennedy which Andrew Marr coined ‘Borgen nationalism’ in his New Statesman essay. Scottish Labour’s response has not been to divert but to resist this stream, joining with other reactionaries, provoking rightful scorn from Labour members like Bob Holman, Dennis Canavan, and this weekend Bob Thomson, ex-Chair of the Scottish Labour Party, who have committed to making the case for Yes outwith nationalist ranks.
Instead of blind reaction, Labour in Scotland should be focused on building a movement that appeals individually and collectively to those who have waited long years for nothing. It is an uplifting thought, one that has been expressed by Martin Kettle, Neal Ascherson, and many others, that this moment could have reflected the groundswell of optimism that brought New Labour to power, that lifted people from their dormant state, that gave people passion and excited them to action.
Thomas Paine, the English revolutionary, knew that groundswells force political change. It’s always the radical’s motivation to empower downtrodden masses, without self-worth, ground down by work, to arise united. It’s organised activists and idealists of the Party who stir sentiments of the downtrodden and dispossessed people whom we call the working class – creating demands not only for better wages, social security, workplace rights, and public service, but for a new movement that will carry these gains through national government.
Lets take Paine at his word, then, and assume that there is a hidden mass of common sense in Scotland’s people, which we must excite to action. Call us the radicals if you like – because we are a movement that starts from the roots, that addresses the people with ad hominem proofs, and understands that current institutions needs to be uprooted and new models planted in their place. A radical grasps the attention of those whose sense lies dormant, not stoking fear but stirring conviction. Radicals start marches, build movements, and write slogans and articles that address people’s legitimate aspirations. They also attend meetings of their Constituency Labour Party.
Most realistic radicals agree that our response to the referendum is a question of strategy, of how we build the vehicle to create a socialist hegemony in a form that people can recognize and remember, through a party that can stir a groundswell and give people a conception of the power they hold, and the mass of sense they share. Try as I might, I don’t understand why so few agree that independence brings the first, best, and perhaps last chance for our political generation to reshape and reform the Labour party in Scotland to this end.