Opinion: Scottish Labour has lost its fighting spirit – and its soul

Dennis Canavan
Dennis Canavan
By Dennis Canavan

In the 1960s, prime minister Harold Wilson famously declared that the Labour Party was a moral crusade or it was nothing. Such language would nowadays be considered politically incorrect or even sectarian, but Wilson did not use the term crusade in its literal meaning of a holy war against Islam.

He meant that, if the Labour Party ever lost its fighting spirit or its campaigning zeal for social justice, it would be finished. Where is that fighting spirit today – and for what cause is Labour fighting?

At the start of the current Scottish parliament election campaign, the Labour leadership apparently thought that the key to success was to bash the Tories and to present Scottish Labour as the best defender of the Scottish people against the cuts imposed by the Tory-led coalition at Westminster.

After four weeks, that strategy has clearly failed, with most polls showing Labour trailing behind the SNP, despite having started the campaign with a ten-point lead.

Labour’s response has been to switch from one form of negative campaigning to another. Instead of bashing the Tories, the strategy now is to bash the Nats. It is an action-replay of the tired old formula which Labour has used at every previous Scottish parliament election.

It worked to some extent in 1999 and 2003, but the electorate saw through it in 2007. Nevertheless, by unashamedly raising the spectre of separatism, the Labour Party yet again hopes to terrify enough Scots into voting against the SNP. The Scottish Tories used to describe themselves as “Conservative and Unionist” – but, in some respects, the Labour Party is now more unionist than the Tories.

Quite apart from the arguments for and against independence, it is insulting the people of Scotland for any political party to tell them that they are so collectively incompetent that they are incapable of running their own affairs.

It is also a sign that Labour are so bereft of any “big ideas” of their own that they concentrate so much on trying to rubbish the “big idea” of their main opponents, despite the fact that the policy of the SNP is for the constitutional future of Scotland to be decided not by any political party but by the people of Scotland in a referendum.

It is very tiresome listening to Labour politicians telling us that they do not support a referendum on independence because the majority of Scots do not want independence. If they are so confident of that, then why are they so afraid to let the people decide? A referendum would have at least cleared the air and allowed this election to be fought on Labour’s alternative “big ideas”.

But that might have made it even more apparent that Labour does not have any ideas, big or small, apart from a few populist ideas pinched from the SNP plus the reactionary idea of clapping more and more people into prison.

Gone are the days when socialism or social justice was the driving force behind the Labour Party manifesto. A radical and irreversible redistribution of wealth and power in favour of working people is no longer on the agenda, despite the crisis created by irresponsible bankers, with resultant mass unemployment and the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Spending billions of pounds on weapons of war and mass destruction is a higher priority for Labour than the eradication of poverty at national and international level.

The Scottish Labour Party is not only lacking leadership. It lost its moral compass when it swallowed the Blairite propaganda that it had to ditch its socialist principles and cosy up to the bankers and other big business interests in order to win elections in the deep south. That led to Labour losing its soul, and Scottish Labour is unlikely to recover unless and until it is free to determine policies and priorities which reflect the aspirations of the Scottish electorate.

In the meantime, let’s hope that, for the remainder of this election campaign, fear and negativity will be overcome by a vision of a better future for the people of Scotland.

Dennis Canavan is a former Labour MP and Independent MSP.

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