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democratic socialism

The Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP <em>Picture: World Economic Forum</em>

The Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP Picture: World Economic Forum

The following is the text of the Andrew John Williamson Memorial Lecture for 2011, given at Stirling University earlier this evening by the Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP. The lecture is entitled “A Better Nation? – A Personal Reflection on Scotland’s Future”.

Good evening. It is a genuine privilege to be here to deliver the Andrew John Williamson Memorial Lecture and I am delighted that Andrew’s mother Joyce is here with us this evening. And can I also say what a pleasure it is to be here at Stirling University.

As I ruminated upon a title for this evening’s lecture my first thought – given that Dunsinane lies only a few miles up the road in Perthshire – was to ask “Stands Scotland where it did?”

Yet a moment’s reflection was sufficient to answer the question posed by Shakespeare.

And there could be few better settings in which to discuss the recent developments and future course of Scottish politics than Stirling – the seat where in 1997 Michael Forsyth played the role of General Custer in the Scottish Conservatives’ last stand, but which then passed from Labour control at the 2007 Holyrood elections – not back to the Tories, but rather into the hands of the SNP, narrowly then but earlier this year with a majority of nearly 6,000 and almost 50 per cent of the total votes cast. Nowhere illustrates more starkly the changes in Scottish politics that have taken place over recent years.

Last May we witnessed the election of a majority government for the first time in the twelve year history of Scottish devolution. And if we take them at their word, the historic victory of the Scottish National Party will ensure that the issue of a referendum on independence has now come to the fore.

And, accordingly, it is to the issue of Scotland’s political future and Scottish Labour’s place therein that I want to direct my remarks this evening.

Tonight I want to explore some of the issues that I believe will inform the necessary public discourse and debate that will precede the choice Scotland makes in such a referendum.

But let me say just a word in passing specifically on the referendum. As someone who knows how to run a campaign, one of my real concerns is that the referendum debate may become simply a fight between William Wallace and the bogey man.

Because in a time of choosing, our duty is greater, and our responsibility is heavier.

This debate demands a different quality of imagination.

“Obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans” must yield to a debate not just about our identity, but about our ideals. About what kind of nation we are, and what kind of nation we want to become.

Our fellow citizens deserve a debate worthy of a momentous choice that will help write the history of this generation.

And before the heat generated by that forthcoming battle obscures the light, I want to take the opportunity afforded by tonight’s lecture to offer some personal reflections on those forces, far from the headlines, that will shape our choice.

Let me say, first, what this lecture is not. It is not an exercise in accounting. It is not an attempt to weigh the costs and expense involved in establishing the apparatus of a separate Scottish state and disentangling ourselves from the partnership that is the United Kingdom.

There will be time enough, and no doubt plenty of opportunities, for such evidence to be set before the people of Scotland in the months and years ahead.

As someone who was centrally involved in devising Labour’s “Divorce is a Expensive Business” campaign for the first elections to Holyrood in 1999, I am not unaware of the importance of such evidence, nor do I resile from the fears I still have about the damage that Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom would do, most of all, to Scotland.

But I said after the 1999 election that it was the last time I thought we could run such a campaign, and yet it is surely now clear that in the decade that followed, too little was done by my party to tell a different story of possibility about Scotland.

In 1999 we identified what would have been the wrong path for Scotland, but thereafter we didn’t do enough to describe the right path by which to achieve a better nation.

We all know Labour needed to show humility after our election defeats. But we also have an obligation to think – and to re-engage. My work observing and participating in democratic politics both at home and abroad over the last decade has taught me many things.

And one of them is that, in policy, statistics matter, but in politics, stories matter too.

Because stories help shape what is hidden in plain sight all around us – what we judge has meaning, and what we judge doesn’t. And it is through stories that we provoke the feelings of hope that are at the heart of participating in a progressive society – the care, concern, and compassion that has always underpinned the will to act.

Why do I make that claim? Because our emotions are the very foundation of reason – because they tell each of us what to value. Despite Plato’s description of reason and emotion as two horses pulling in the opposite direction, the truth is that how we feel about what we know is the deepest way in which we add meaning and significance to whatever information we have at our disposal – it is how what we know becomes real and rooted in who we are.

This should have come as no surprise to a graduate of the University of Edinburgh such as myself.

Because the writings of David Hume remind us that reason is often weak and sentiments are strong.

Perhaps I should just have listened more intently to my father’s sermons. For the Church, not just here in Scotland but around the globe, has understood for 2,000 years that we live our lives by parables.

It was the Church that recognised 450 years ago that education was the basis of each of us fulfilling our potential or writing our own story and so set out to put a school in every parish – an act of public service that shaped our nations identity and led to an Enlightenment period that was to spill out over Europe and beyond that challenged the very way we see the world.

So it is perhaps appropriate that I begin my exploration of these issues this evening by quoting the words of the Austrian philosopher, priest and social critic, Ivan Illich.

In an interview about one of his works, he stated: “Neither revolution not reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step forward. If you want to change society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

Ponder those words: “You have to tell an alternative story.”

Of course the stories we tell about ourselves, our communities and our nation are thankfully not the exclusive domain of politicians: writers, musicians, poets and artists help shape our sense of self and also our sense of our nation’s story.

The case I want to make tonight is that we need and deserve a better story about Scotland and its possibilities: one which does more justice to our sense of potential than either of the narratives that have come to dominate our political discourse in recent times.

And I want to suggest this evening that we need a broader, more inclusive, more generous story if we are to be a better nation, and that to be a better nation does not demand that we become a separate nation.

At the moment, we risk years of debate defined by polarising positions not shared by most of us in Scotland. On one hand there is a story about Scotland’s future distorted by the continued need to assert our differentness to the point of denying what we hold in common in these islands.

On the other hand is a story that draws too much from our past which has allowed the misconception to develop that any acknowledgement of Britishness somehow seeks to diminish the pride we feel in the distinctiveness of Scotland.

Neither account, it seems to me, is adequate for who we are as Scots, what we believe, or what we have it in ourselves to become in the years ahead.

And I would argue there is a real urgency in developing that better story, so that in the years ahead we don’t squander our energies on proving our difference, rather than improving our nation.

Let me draw on my personal experience to explain what I mean.

In the Scotland in which I grew up, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, our national story was widely shared. The distinction between patriotism and nationalism was widely understood and accepted. Those of us who shouted proudly – if often forlornly – for Scotland in Hampden or Murrayfield felt no compulsion to embrace political nationalism.

The villain of the narrative was the insensitive, arrogant and selfish politics embodied by Margaret Thatcher, the legacy of which still condemns the Conservative party in the eyes of most Scots, more than 20 years since she stood down as prime minister.

The narrative was reflective of Scotland undergoing the forced removal and restructuring of the industries and communities, from Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to Ravenscraig, from Linwood to Methil and the coalfields that had shaped Scotland’s sense of itself for decades.

So as a student when I joined my compatriots in protest against Thatcherism outside New College when she came to deliver her infamous “Sermon on the Mound” in 1988, or in support of the Scottish parliament in George Square, and the Meadows in 1992, we were reflecting what John Smith described so well as “the settled will of the Scottish people”.

At that time if felt like a struggle for Scotland’s soul. As William Mcllvanney described it in his 1987 lecture at the SNP conference: “We have never, until now, had a government so determined to unpick the very fabric of Scottish life and make it over into something quite different. We have never had a government so glibly convinced of its own rightness that it demands that one of the oldest nations in Europe should give itself a shake and change utterly its sense of self.

“If we allow her [Mrs Thatcher] to continue she will remove from the word Scottish any meaning other than geographical.

“We are now so threatened by a government implacably hostile to the ideas that have nourished Scotland’s deepest sense of itself that we must have to protect ourselves. We will either defend our identity or lose it – there is no other choice.”

And the heroes of this story, for me, and many other Scots, were the generation of Labour politicians who gave voice not only to our concerns but also to our hopes: Dewar, Smith, Brown and Cook.

They held out the possibility of a better Scottish nation – by their commitment to constitutional change certainly, but even more by their shared commitment to social and economic change and solidarity with the poor, even when that was not an easy path.

As Democratic Socialists, they never saw a contradiction in working for a better Scotland and a better Britain.

And they were a generation true to their word. For despite the taunts that the Labour Party “couldn’t deliver a pizza, never mind a parliament” in fact, we did deliver Scotland’s parliament.

While the Nationalists stood aside from the Constitutional Convention – something they now seek to airbrush out of their history – I am forever proud that one of the first acts of the incoming Labour government was to set out what became the Scotland Act giving birth to Scotland’s first democratic parliament.

But Labour in government delivered not just a Scottish parliament but also the Human Rights Act; a reformed House of Lords; civil partnerships; new maternity and paternity rights; new rights to join a trade union. But not just that: a minimum wage, record levels of investment in our schools and hospitals, record levels of employment, a decade of economic growth; the Minimum Income Guarantee and the Working Families’ Tax Credit.

Now of course, I am proud of the many good things achieved by the Labour government in which I was honoured to serve. And I am also proud of much that the Scottish Labour Party achieved in government at Holyrood from 1999 to 2007 – not just establishing Smart, Successful Scotland, or the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, but in my own community building the new schools that have literally transformed the learning environment for our local children.

But these achievements, important thought they are, were not sufficient to mask an underlying difficulty with the story Scottish Labour was telling about itself and about Scotland. We rewrote the statute book but we did not, alas, rewrite the story.

And that familiar, unchanged story we told came under sustained pressure in recent years for a variety of reasons.

First, the familiar villain of Thatcherism, in time, moved into history. I still remember 22 November 1990 – the day Margaret Thatcher resigned. It was the week before the by-election of my predecessor as MP for Paisley and I was campaigning around the town with Donald Dewar.

And when the momentous news of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation was announced by Donald through a megaphone to the children of St Fergus’ Primary School, who were out on their playtime, the whole playground started jumping for joy.

That’s the measure of the grip Thatcher held on our collective imagination by the early 90s. But there is an additional point: the post-war industrial Scotland Thatcher did so much to dismantle also began to move into history.

As Scottish Labour we were, at times, slow to identify ourselves with the underlying but profound changes in the Scottish economy. Labour’s politics, formed in the 70s and 80s, were those of struggle against decline.

Too late in the years before 2007 did we recognise that our policies in government, while not fully eradicating poverty, had created a more diverse and modern economy – reliant on banks, yes, but strong in bioscience, leading Europe in energy, from oil and gas to renewables, and with modern manufacturing and computer games software thriving.

The SNP saw that economic strength and sought to annex the sense of confidence it generated to their definition of Scotland and its destiny.

But these changes also meant that some of the old Labour “hymns” were increasingly unfamiliar to an audience increasingly without personal knowledge of the tunes.

The attachment to and insistence upon these old hymns reflected the fact that the Scottish Party, largely by reason of the unique national element in our politics, never really felt it needed to be “New” Labour.

Indeed it is arguable that the process of “modernisation” might not, in fact, have been required to defeat the Tories in Scotland, but this comfort in old orthodoxies contributed to the party’s disorientation and vulnerability when we came under attack from a different direction, and from a more nimble opponent.

More broadly, the resurgent Scottish pride and confidence, in part resulting from a decade of economic growth from 1997 to 2007, at times left Scottish Labour looking uneasy.

Why? In part the coincidence of traditional symbols of and repositories for working class identity – such as trade union membership and large scale industrial workplaces – were declining, while simultaneously there remained a strength of national pride, reaffirmed in everything from the music of the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, sung on the terraces at Hampden, to Eddi Reader’s musical reinterpretation of Burns’ poetry and song.

The repository of emotion for many Scots moved from class-based institutions to national institutions. And while the love and respect for the BBC, the NHS, the armed forces and the royal family have stayed strong, other distinctively Scottish institutions grew in the Scottish people’s affections.

Finally, unpopular aspects of both old and New Labour combined to reduce our support. Old Labour was still associated with a sense that “Labour runs everything” from Westminster to the local council, and regrettably that stewardship was not always viewed as moving with the times.

New Labour, on the other hand, despite all its achievements, came to be associated with the conflict in Iraq in 2003, the revulsion at the MP’s expenses scandal, and the wearinesss of ideas born of successive periods of government in Westminster and Holyrood.

The combined impact of these perceived weaknesses caused many to turn away from our party.

So, by 2011, how has that story played out? It played out in Scottish Labour warning of the risks of Thatcherism decades after she had left office, and in a campaign that suggested knife crime, important though tackling it is, was the key concern of an electorate that, in truth, had many other concerns.

This was a story that sought to draw what little emotional power it could muster not from Scotland’s future, but from Scotland’s past.

And in a decisive rejection at the ballot box, in the language of the terraces, we were well and truly “gubbed”. The party which, on the day the Scottish parliament was first elected, could claim without contradiction to be the only true National Party of Scotland, within 12 years found itself supported by only one in eight Scottish voters.

And what of the winners of that election?

The harsh truth for Labour is that the Nationalist’s victory in May did not derive exclusively from their approach to national identity. It reflected differences in personnel, resources and campaigning approaches. It also reflected that those who voted for them had judged them fairly competent and broadly aligned with their values, in their stewardship of government over the previous four years.

Just as importantly, Labour, in opposition was seen as too often concerned only with opposition for its own sake. Too many Scots judged us to have complained in unspecified ways about the SNP’s failure to deliver, without articulating a clear enough alternative story and account of Scotland’s possibilities.

That weakness – for which we share a collective responsibility – allowed the SNP to deflect criticism of their record over the preceding four years in two ways: first to attribute the failures of the Scottish government to the existence and impact of the British government; and, second, to attribute their failures to their status as a minority government.

There is however, one positive I do take from last May’s result, which you might think a strange thing for a Labour politician to say.

I do not believe that, at root, Scotland was voting for independence. In that I believe I am joined by Alex Salmond who surely wouldn’t be putting off a referendum if he thought that was the case.

But what I believe Scots were saying is that they want Scotland to be a better nation. They feel pride in Scotland and want new possibilities for its people. And they didn’t feel last May that Labour was offering that better way forward.

But this analysis of our defeat sits alongside the fact that the SNP have always had a different national narrative based on the desirability and indeed inevitability of separation from the rest of Britain. And the SNP’s victory in May means that this narrative will now be central to the debate about Scottish politics for the immediate years to come.

Of course, over time, that narrative has changed, and evolved but always with the same destination – independence – and always the same villain: Britain.

So in the 1960s, with the advent of the modern SNP, the case for separation was made on the basis of our relative economic deprivation. Then in the 1970s the case for separation was made on the basis that “It’s Scotland’s oil”. Most recently, or at least prior to the banking crisis of 2008, the case has been advanced on the ability of Scotland to join “the Arc of Prosperity” of Ireland, Iceland and Norway.

In fact, this narrative always struggled to capture more than a minority of Scottish support.

That is not to dispute the scale of their victory last May: Labour lost big and consequently the Nationalists won big. It is to suggest that by 2007, the Nationalists were the beneficiaries of the weakening in support for Labour, and the diminishing of the emotive power of the key events and individuals that had previously sustained Labour’s story and indeed support.

Over recent years, Nationalists have sought to construct a new and less narrowly drawn narrative suggesting that they alone truly have the interests of Scotland at heart and that they alone are powered by a desire for a better nation.

That is why, with what I would describe as “Mandelsonian” discipline, they parrot the line about “London Labour”. It is spin designed to disqualify and delegitimise a broad swathe of Scottish opinion that does not share their agenda.

The strength of that less narrowly drawn narrative advanced in recent years has been its ability to tap into the strong sense of Scottish patriotism. Buoyed by years of economic growth, and the establishment of a Scottish parliament, the SNP have worked hard to try and capture the sense of possibility that in a previous generation was held by the Labour Party. The SNP saw the economic strength and sought to annex the sense of confidence to their definition of Scotland and its destiny.

In parallel, this new Nationalist narrative has sought to suggest a sense of inevitability about separation. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this was in James Robertson’s book And the Land Lay Still, the winner of the 2010 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year – and, incidentally, reportedly Alex Salmond’s favourite book of last year. Yet while an enjoyable read and impressive work, it offers a partial rather than a convincing account of Scotland’s political struggles over recent decades.

As Ian Smart, a former president of the Law Society of Scotland put it recently in a trenchant critique: “Mr Robertson’s book purports to be a history of Scotland since the 1950s albeit through the mechanism of fiction. It portrays a country ill at ease with itself; denied its proper place in the world through the devices of the English and unable to recognise its true destiny until these issues are resolved…

“For me the political history of Scotland, during the period of which he writes, was about so much more than Scotland. The central character of the book goes to Edinburgh University in 1972 yet the only mention of Vietnam is to compare its struggle to that of Scotland (truly!);

“Allende’s overthrow is worthy of a single (and background) pub exchange; the struggle against apartheid which, while I was contemporaneously at university, albeit in Glasgow, united students of any sort of progressive opinion doesn’t rate a single mention.

“To read this book, insofar as it purports to be a fictional political history of Scotland, you’d have thought that all that was going on consisted of people sitting about bemoaning the constitution. It most certainly was not.”

Yet the other part of the Nationalists’ narrative is its exclusivity: according to this narrative at its most unattractive, only nationalists are true Scots, or its softer version – all true Scottish patriots are inevitably Scottish nationalists.

For decades, mainstream Scottish opinion has accepted and reflected the truth that you can be a patriot without being a nationalist. It is the nationalists who have struggled with this sense that Scotland’s story does not exclude but includes the shared and interwoven stories of these islands.

Why else would Alex Salmond have once said that he wanted Scotland to be good neighbours to England rather than surly lodgers?

What he fails to understand is that the United Kingdom is the house that Scotland built with our neighbours – and you can’t be a lodger in your own house.

The Scottish people have always had the power to determine our own destiny. And there has always been more than one way to use that power.

In fact, the notion of Scottish patriotism has changed significantly over time. At the 19th century height of Empire, an Empire in which – as Tom Devine reminds us – the Scots were not impotent anti-imperialists but instead, for good or ill, active participants, you could have thought that only unionists were true patriots.

This was an analysis challenged, not by the emergence of Scottish national sentiment but rather by the rise of the Labour movement and the radical claim for equality; equality first for working people but then, in time, for women and for people of all races. This was the beginning of the challenge to the old unionism based only on the deferential attitude to ancient institutions: monarchy, army, parliament. An old unionism that proved inadequate to meet the challenges of modernity.

For myself, I remain of the view that the United Kingdom, this oldest of political unions, embodies a quintessentially modern idea – and one I like and believe in: that diversity can be a strength and not a weakness.

I like the idea that on these small rainy islands of the North Atlantic we share risks and rewards in a multicultural, multiethnic and multinational union. A shared space of ideas, identities and industries.

And I also continue to believe that across Britain we gain from common services and would be diminished without them; that we achieve more working together than working apart; that unity, out of diversity, gives us strength; that solidarity, the shared endeavour of working and cooperating together, not separation is the idea of the future and the idealism worth celebrating .

So, in truth, I am uncomfortable with and unattracted to a politics that draws a substantial part of its emotional power from a constant assertion of “difference”. And I bridle at the suggestion of separateness as the essential attribute of our national story.

It takes only a few moments to read the hate filled outpourings of the so called “Cyber-Nats” on the threads of the Scotsman and other websites to appreciate this point: With their claims of treason, attacks on “London Labour” and general intolerance to everybody and anybody who does not share their outlook. To my mind, these nationalists challenge the very suggestion of a more pluralist, open, discursive politics if ever their party were to prevail in its primary purpose.

Instead, they remind me of Alasdair Gray’s evocative description in his greatest novel, Lanark, of “our own wee hard men [who] hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves.”

But I do recognise that the power and the weakness of this Nationalist narrative comes from its duality: on one hand caressing an unhealthy sense of victimhood through its constant assertion that Britain is what is holding Scotland back, and on the other hand asserting pride and possibility for Scotland.

Why do I find such a narrative unsatisfying even while I have to acknowledge its appeal to some sections of the electorate?

I don’t believe that rightly asserting our own distinct identity – indeed identities – is an alternative to finding points of shared values and interdependence.

But it is also that this determination to assert difference doesn’t accord with some of my own deepest convictions – and not simply that many years ago in Edinburgh I happened to meet and fall in love with an English woman who is now my wife. I would never want my children to choose whether they were citizens of Scotland or England.

It’s not the choice of futures I’d wish to put before them. It is not the choice that so many Scots or so many English people, would want their children; their nephews and nieces, even their sisters or brothers in law to have to make.

And it’s not that I hark back to some lost British patriotism of the 1950s. I am too young to remember those days and in temperament, and in personal politics, I am more interested in the future than harking back to a past whose values and prejudices few of us would share today.

There are other and deeper reasons than my admiration of Britain and what it represents that has always made me distrustful of nationalism.

As a democratic socialist, ideals have shaped my sense of politics more than identity. I am, and always have been, much more interested in abolishing poverty than abolishing Britain. A fundamental belief in human equality is the core of my politics, more than a fundamental belief in national difference.

My work around the world as international development secretary and now shadow foreign secretary has taught me something else – that one of the most fundamental struggles of modernity is between, on the one hand, those who believe our differences are more important than what unites us and, on the other, those of us who’s preference and moral lodestar is our common humanity.

That is the fundamental tenet of my politics, and helps explain why I am distrustful of a politics that draws its energy from gleeful assertions of difference rather than expressions of cooperation.

My theme this evening is that our story matters – as individuals, as families, as communities and as nations. So let me share with you part of my own family’s story.

My parents married in Glasgow in 1959. Four days later they flew from Prestwick to New York, where my father had gained a scholarship for postgraduate study at Union Theological Seminary.

The following Easter, in 1960, they joined a group of fellow students in travelling from New York to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend a conference.

There they queued to hear a young Baptist preacher – and were spat at by white passers-by for their trouble.

The conference was the inaugural conference of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The young Baptist preacher was Martin Luther King.

After this encounter, the theology of Martin Luther King had a huge impact on my parents and, in time, on the values they sought to pass on to their children – and that I seek to pass on to mine.

Now the reason I share this story is that what King described as our “inter-connectedness” still shapes how I see the world.

Let his own, far more eloquent, words speak for themselves: ‎”As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live thirty years I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good check-up at the Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand our boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”

In that concern with our common humanity I don’t simply draw inspiration from religious teaching but also from modern science. In recent years some of the most talented scientists on earth have achieved the mapping of the human genome.

Of course this has opened new possibilities for both science and medicine. But it has also revealed something I think is vital to our understanding of politics. The sequencing of the human genome has confirmed that all human beings are genetically more than 99.9 per cent the same.

As Bill Clinton put it, “while our differences matter, our common humanity matters more.”

Yet here in Scotland, our political discourse is increasingly defined by difference: Each and every day the SNP government and its spokespeople seek to challenge and undermine the cultural and political claim of those of us who do not share their determination to divide Britain, asserting that our differences matter more than that which we hold in common. Paradoxically, this process is promoted as entirely positive about Scotland’s future – but any disagreement is roundly condemned as “negative”.

The SNP have now pledged a referendum within this parliament to let Scotland decide. I do not fear the people’s verdict, but in the meantime my party has a great deal of work to do in the coming months and years. That work must begin by recognising that in the years ahead, Scottish Labour’s political purpose has to be built around the future possibilities for Scotland, not the past wrongs done to Scotland.

So what would that politics of possibility, that story of a better nation sound like?

It would start, to my mind, with a determination to uphold our common humanity, the common weal – and give expression to the feelings of care, concern and commitment which we seek in others and seek to uphold in ourselves – rather than assert and reinforce our difference.

For a democratic socialist like me it would begin from a belief in equality – and it would uphold the timeless truth that we achieve more together than we can achieve alone.

It would be a story that starts with the condition of Scotland: a nation of great strengths but also very real problems.

It would be a story that set at its heart the idea of building One Scotland. A nation in which greater equality was not just our aim, and our metric, but was, in fact, our achievement.

And surely today one of the clearest tests of our commitment to Scotland’s future is what we do for our children.

In 2011, the terrible truth remains: one in five of Scotland’s children live in poverty.

According to Children First, a quarter of Scotland’s children are missing out on basics such as proper winter clothing, after school activities and good, nutritious food – the basics we take for granted for our own children.

Worklessness is a problem but so are low wages – with around 25,000 children in Scotland being in severe poverty despite at least one adult in the home going out to work.

Of course this is not a problem confined to Scotland – a report by UNICEF in 2007 examined the effects of many decades of growing child poverty across the UK, and painted a stark picture of the deprivation, poor relationships with parents, and vulnerability to the risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex suffered by too many children growing up today.

Labour in office did make a difference – using tax credits to lift millions of children out of poverty, and legislating for new rights like longer maternity leave and flexible working.

Some of that work is being undone by a Tory-led Coalition government in London, but it has also been left to wither on the vine by the SNP government in Edinburgh.

Perhaps the deepest and most abiding inequality that scars Scotland is the most basic – the stark differences in life expectancy. A boy born in parts of Paisley today will, on average, live five fewer years than a boy born here in Stirling. Closing that gap is one of the hardest, but most essential tasks we face.

Half of this difference in mortality is simply from the effects of smoking. Labour’s smoking ban was the start, but we could learn from other countries. Learning how to use what we know from neuroscience about how habits and addictions are made and broken.

But it’s not just smoking. Drink plays a major part too. I sense that Labour’s past rejection of the SNP’s proposals, however well justified in terms of the weakness of the specific policy, was judged by some voters as reflecting an unwillingness to tackle heavy drinking and rise to the challenge of making a better Scotland.

In itself, minimum alcohol pricing is no simple solution to a complex and deeply culturally rooted problem. Anyone observing the agile responses of supermarkets and wine emporia knows that. But while we can challenge the policy, or better improve the policy, as an MP for a constituency where each week I see some of the consequences of the abuse of alcohol, I understand the urging of the public health clinicians that government act to tackle these problems.

Because despite the fact that many Scots today live long, full and prosperous lives, not least in some part because of the achievements of previous Labour governments, too many still do not.

In a nation still afflicted by substandard housing, stubborn worklessness, and a relative decline in education standards, building “One Scotland” is no easy task. And it is made harder by the economic circumstances now confronting us.

The present stalling of economic growth in Britain, the Eurozone crisis, the debt ceiling debacle in the Unites States, each reflect a deeper and generational shift in productive and economic power from West to East that has only been accelerated by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

So the challenge facing social democratic politicians in the years ahead, not just here in Scotland, or across the UK, but in countless countries, is how to advance social justice when there is not much money around.

That endeavour demands a new statecraft for this new decade – reimagining policies in relation to economic growth, the welfare state and our public services.

To acknowledge this is not to try to write a manifesto. It is to acknowledge the urgency of a new approach. It is an analysis that identifies a more empowered people and a more equal society as defining missions of a better nation notwithstanding – indeed in part because of – the tough times ahead.

This is what I suggest deserves to be at the centre of Scottish Labour’s renewed story. A radical claim on the future. One that says the test is not how much more power a parliament has, or how much more autonomy can be achieved. Instead, what counts – in employment, in housing, in health and in education – is are our combined actions tackling the barriers and inequality that still hold back too many of our people. The barriers and inequality that still stand in the way of being the kind of Scotland we could be. Are we, by our will and by our work, creating One Scotland?

For all of our present weakness I believe the political party best able to tell this story is Scottish Labour.

I make this claim for the following reason. Our core as a party has been and remains defined by our commitment to two central beliefs: a belief in social justice, and a commitment to home rule within the United Kingdom.

So the task of rebuilding Scottish Labour is not an invitation to reject our longest-held beliefs, but to reaffirm them.

Of course that reaffirmation of political purpose, however important, is not enough. Scottish Labour also needs to embrace radical proposals to throw open its doors, and draw our future candidates from Labour “people” and not just Labour members, by which I mean people from all walks of life who share our values and who are willing us to be better, so that they can once again be proud to support us.

But, as I have sought to suggest this evening, we will only attract these people if we are clearer about the contribution we can make to the next chapter of Scotland’s story.

It is a challenge to which, I believe, we can rise. Just as years ago, New Labour had to dispel the myth that if you were ambitious, had done well, and had got on in life, you inevitably supported the Conservative Party, so now and in the years ahead Scottish Labour must dispel the myth that if you feel proudly and patriotically Scottish, and are ambitious for Scotland and its potential, you inevitably support the SNP.

Scottish Labour’s political purpose has to be about the future possibilities for Scotland, not the past wrongs, real and imagined, done to Scotland.

With this approach, I believe the history of Scotland, written by this generation, can and will be remembered not by the “The End of an Auld Sang” but positively and vibrantly by “The beginning of a New Story”.

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<em>Picture: Swim Parallel</em>

Picture: Swim Parallel

Labour in Scotland is facing intense criticism for making a series of grandiose, expensive promises at a time when budgets are going down.

The SNP described Labour’s plans as a £1.7 billion wish list. The Lib Dems complained that Labour had announced a raft of policies without saying how they would pay for them while the Tories claimed Labour hadn’t changed or learned any lessons from its time in opposition.

Labour leaders, however, insisted their plans would be fully costed by the time their manifesto was produced next April.

So, who is right?

Here is a list of the policies which will cost money to implement. They are all taken from Labour’s conference policy document, published last weekend.

This is not the manifesto but this document will form the basis of the manifesto. It is up to Labour leaders to work out what they will keep and what they will drop.

But, at a time when the Scottish block grant is going down, rather than up, are they affordable? If not, how far would taxes have to rise to pay for them?

The policies which can be costed have been identified, the costs are generally annual costs because the promises are almost all recurring costs, except one-off investments like the Glasgow Airport Rail Link:

  • Reinstate Glasgow Airport Rail Link (£188 million)
  • Introduce a Scottish Living Wage of £7 an hour minimum wage (£20 million a year = £80 million over the four years of the parliament)
  • Extend concessionary travel to off peak rail (£25 million)
  • Re-invest in Project Scotland (£6.5 million a year)
  • Aiding the development of new air routes (£7 million)
  • Extend boiler scrappage scheme to Scotland (£11 million)
  • Double the Saltire Prize (£10 million)
  • Increased support for poorest students (£89 million)
  • Year’s free newspaper subscription for all 18 year olds (£15 million)
  • Abolish PFI hospital car parks (£34.5 million)
  • Right to an apprenticeship for every suitably qualified 16-18 year old (£26 million)
  • Introduce ‘recycling on the go’ separated bins in high streets (£6.7 million)
  • Greater investment in forests (£40 million)
  • Modernise Glasgow subway
  • Support first-time buyers
  • Job support, to help small businesses take on apprentices
  • Establish an Economic Forum to promote growth
  • Reform and enhance the Scottish Investment Bank
  • Spend more on cycling and walking
  • Support a high-speed rail connection from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh
  • Invest in a major expansion of home insulation
  • Invest heavily in renewables, particularly off-shore
  • Invest in flood management
  • Eradicate illiteracy and innumeracy
  • Bring forward early retirement for older teachers
  • Average class sizes of 20 in Maths and English at S1 and S2
  • Introduce two hours of quality PE per week in all schools by 2014
  • Offer free music tuition with a musical instrument to primary school children
  • Provide reduced ticket prices for theatrical productions in Scotland
  • Halve the time from one month to two weeks to see a cancer specialist and get results
  • Cut waiting times
  • Offer free swimming lessons for school children, free access to swimming pools
  • Introduce alcohol treatment and testing orders
  • End child poverty by 2020, fuel poverty by 2016 and homelessness by 2012
  • Create a victims’ commissioner to champion victims’ rights
  • Facilitate the re-start of public building
  • Look at completely nationalising ScotRail
  • Increase investment in social housing

I-am-a-memberFor years, party bosses have been throwing around their membership figures like political status symbols.

Remember when Alex Salmond unveiled the SNP’s 10,000th member at a party conference a few years ago? Or in June this year when Scottish Labour leaders trumpeted the addition of any extra 2,000 members since the election?

These things may not matter to normal members of the public, but they matter to our political leaders – big time.
No party wants to admit its membership is going down – that suggests failure. Likewise, all parties want to give the impression that they are popular and on the way up.

That is why the latest spat between Labour and the SNP got so nasty so quickly.

This is what happened. After last weekend’s Labour leadership election, Labour published the voting breakdown, showing which parts of the Labour Party had voted for each candidate.

This breakdown included a list of all the constituency parties, showing how the members in each one had voted.
It was then that the Nationalists spotted something unusual. In Scotland, 13,135 ballot papers were sent out to party members across all the Scottish constituencies.

This was the same Scottish Labour Party which had claimed, in June this year, that it had more than 20,000 members – 20,133 to be precise.

What was going on? Either 7,000 Labour members had been disenfranchised and had not been sent ballot papers or that 20,000 figure was a serious exaggeration and the Scottish Labour Party does not have that number of members at all.
Either way, the SNP sniffed a story: lying or disenfranchisement, the Nationalists thought.

It was then that Scottish Labour fought back. We do have 20,000 members, they said, but 7,000 of them are not eligible to vote in the leadership election.

This was certainly a shock and it begged the question: who can possibly be a Labour Party member yet not be eligible to vote in the leadership election?

The answer lies in Scotland’s network of Labour clubs or, more specifically, Labour Social Clubs which exist in some parts of Scotland still, mostly in the former industrial and mining areas of Ayrshire, the Lothians and Fife.

It seems that there are 7,000 members of Labour social clubs around the country. They pay a subscription to join the club and part of that goes to the Scottish Labour Party.

Those clubs are then affiliated to the Scottish Labour Party but not – and here is the rub – to the UK Labour Party. As a result, they have no right to vote in the leadership election.

This is distinctly murky, to say the least. Are they proper members or are they not?
These are people who have joined a social club. They do so because they want to join the club, not because they want to join a political party. If they wanted to be that active in politics they would join their local constituency party.

They join the social club and then find they are contributing to the Scottish Labour Party. Yet, despite this, they don’t get a say in the election of the Labour leader.

The world of party membership figures has always been a bit suspect but this Labour approach takes it to new extremes.
There has to be clarity and openness about this, otherwise it is meaningless.

Political parties should have to declare their membership figures. That should include all those who have joined up, signed up and paid up consciously and willingly to be members of that party: not those who joined by default because they fancied a game of darts and a couple of cheap pints on a Friday night.

Those figures would then be clear and available to all to see and scrutinise. That way we could see which parties were going up, which were going down and which were trying to fudge the issue by including those who weren’t really members at all.

If all those social club members were real, proper bona fide members of the Labour Party then surely they would have been given a vote in the leadership election?

But they weren’t, which suggests that even Labour bosses agreed that they weren’t real members at all.
There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest that a sizeable number of these social club members may be proper Labour Party members as well. If that is the case, then they have been counted twice, once as Labour Party members and once as social club members.

That means that the Scottish Labour Party’s membership total is some way below the 20,000 that its leaders claim, and possibly way, way below it.

If all membership figures were compiled, collated and published openly and properly, there would be no room for double counting and no reason for political opponents to question the figures.

This may not seem like a big point in the scale of things but, by doing this sort of double counting and including members who are not really members at all, Labour is doing politics a disservice.

It is simple adding to the impression that politicians fudge, mislead and are never wholly accurate or truthful – which just puts everybody off.

There is also the small matter of which party is the biggest in Scotland. Labour has claimed for some time that it is clearly the biggest in Scotland. Look, Labour leaders say, we have 20,000 members, far more than the SNP.
The SNP membership is 15,945 (at least that seems to be clear, open and unarguable). If those social club members are stripped away from the Labour figure, Labour’s Scottish membership falls to around 13,000.
Suddenly it is no longer the biggest party in Scotland, and that matters.

So let’s get this right. Let’s stop fudging the figures, because that is what is being done. Let’s stop the double counting and let’s publish all the membership figures (including the Tories who never reveal how many members they have in Scotland) and let’s have a bit of clarity into this argument.

Does it matter? Yes it does. If politicians can’t be open and honest about as simple a thing as this, then what can they be honest about?

Scottish woodland sceneBy John Knox

Spare a thought for the losers, cast out into the wilderness of political oblivion by our cruel mistress Democracy. I came home from two constituency counts on Friday morning with the fallen faces of the losers burnt into my memory like masks in a Greek tragedy. And in the afternoon I went off to work in the community woodland near my home thinking of them wandering back to their neck of the woods exhausted, despondent, vowing never to get involved in politics again.

It must be a huge emotional effort to climb onto the stage of public life, expose yourself to opposition and ridicule and then “watch the things you gave your life to broken”.

Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrat candidate in Dunfermline and West Fife, walked stiffly into his count in the Glen Pavillion towards the end of the churning democratic process. By then he obviously knew the worst but he tried to smile, his wife shed a tear, he shook hands with all around him, even a Labour party worker standing by.

“Look after the people of Fife,” he told the victor, Thomas Docherty, in his speech from the platform. “It’s been a privilege to serve them for the past four years.” He then went through the gruelling ordeal of the media interviews explaining why he thought he had lost. He even had a funny story about coming face to face with a python on the election trail.

In Alloa Town Hall a couple of hours later, the SNP’s Annabelle Ewing was on the platform explaining how the TV debates had “locked the SNP out of the election”. But she congratulated Gordon Banks on retaining the Ochil and South Perthshire seat for Labour. Again she could not help looking hollowed out.

Even the candidates who had no realistic chance of winning, stood there on both platforms, shoulders hunched, long-faced, with expressions that said: “Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.”

It takes a special sort of courage to put your ideas and ideals out in the open where everyone can see them. And it involves an awful lot of work, getting selected, leading a local campaign, raising funds, inspiring a team of helpers, distributing leaflets, knocking on doors. All against a background of suspicion or even hostility from a grumpy public.
There were at least five times as many losers as winners. Even among high-profile candidates, some deserved to lose, like the scandal-hit Jacqui Smith in Redditch or Peter Robinson in Belfast.

But most lost out through circumstances not of their own making. They fell victim to the geological forces working beneath them, like Conservative Peter Duncan in Dumfries and Galloway and Liberal Democrat Fred Mackintosh in Edinburgh South. As Rudyard Kipling said, they not only watched the things they gave to life to broken, they must now stoop and build them up again with worn-out tools.

My work in the woods that post-election afternoon was to clear away young trees burnt in a forest fire started by some mindless vandal. As we stooped over the stumps and pulled up the stakes and plastic protectors, melted in the heat, the grass was beginning to re-grow around the trees. Some of the trees themselves were struggling back into life. It’s what all living things do. No matter how badly damaged or disappointed we are, we somehow rise to try again.

When I got back from the woods, there was a letter waiting for me from the Scottish aid charity Mary’s Meals. The founder, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, told us about his latest trip to Haiti where he came across a team of men rebuilding a school from the rubble left by the earthquake. And under temporary shelters, they were again providing the children with a lunchtime meal. Rebuilding is in our DNA.

The biggest loser of all, of course, is the two-party system we have been living with for the last 36 years. Now the politicians have to make a balanced parliament work. Britain joins the rest of Europe in moving to this new from of government. It’s rather like the move from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Instead of a five-year dictatorship by one party and one prime minister we move to a system of a parliamentary prime minister. His powers are limited by what he can persuade the parliament to vote for, issue by issue.

Shocking though this may seem – to the financial markets – it’s already happening in Scotland. This may be a wild place, but it is not a wilderness.

10 Downing Street: <em>Picture: Robert Sharp</em>

10 Downing Street: Picture: Robert Sharp

The world’s media showed little interest in the run-up to the British election, but it is certainly doing so now. Reactions range from an American perception that the “special relationship” is over, to a Canadian call for proportional representation, to a Spanish interpretation of David Cameron’s “we’re all in this together” slogan: “We are all”, says El País, “in the same boat, hanging from the same tree”.

Andrew McLeod looks at what what they’ve been saying about us…

Der Spiegel

“Although this election will have a momentous and lasting impact on British politics, the outcome will likely bring little change for the rest of Europe.
Even if David Cameron succeeds in forming a government and moves into 10 Downing Street, it will have no dramatic impact on the European Union. From Margaret Thatcher onwards, the UK’s relationship to Europe has always been dominated by British pragmatism, despite all the nationalistic rhetoric. There is little danger that the British will become an even larger stumbling block within the EU than they traditionally have been.

“Despite all the professed love for the good old British pound and imperial measures, the EU can count on the Conservatives’ common sense to prevail in European politics. National interests will keep any serious anti-European excesses in check. The British know that economically difficult times lie ahead, during which they might need the assistance of their European partners.

“But the next British government, irrespective of its makeup, has an unenviable task ahead of it. None of the parties wanted to talk about it during the election campaign, but the cost-cutting programme which the new government will have to impose on the country is going to hurt. In order to get the UK’s runaway government debt under control, a good part of what the Labour government had achieved in relation to schools, hospitals, and public services will fall victim to cutbacks.

“To balance the budget and fix the public finances, the future prime minister will have to prescribe even tougher cuts than those that former prime minister Margaret Thatcher imposed after her election victory in 1979. The cuts that she introduced then are, even to this day, the Conservatives’ heaviest political baggage.”

Washington Post
“Britain’s geographical and economic periphery proved quite resistant to the tides that swept across wealthier and trendier parts of the country. Labour gained ground in Scotland, where it was already dominant. It suffered losses in Wales but still won nearly two-thirds of the Welsh seats. In the northeast and northwest of England, Labour also took some hits but largely held its own.

“The outcome in Britain underscores a problem roiling so many democracies. The economic change brought about by globalisation and technological advances is not creating the happy, unified world of progress its promoters keep promising. Instead, it is splitting regions within nations that are fully part of the global market from those being left behind.

“This is a particular problem for centre-left parties. They need to bring together progressive voters of the middle and upper middle classes – they were the moving force behind Cleggmania when the Liberal Democrat leader was surging – and older working-class voters who are the base of the social democratic left everywhere.

“When sufficient numbers in these two groups of voters ally, the moderate Left wins. This is how Barack Obama did it in 2008 and how Labour won elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The Left fails when this alliance falls apart or is divided. That’s what happened this time in Britain.

“[David] Cameron’s genius was to accept that the future of conservatism lies in winning over moderately progressive voters in the classes doing reasonably well in this new economic world… Cameron understands – as many Republicans in the United States seem not to – that conservatism needs to sand off its rough edges and present itself as a stabilising, unifying force.

“But no matter how the next government is shaped or how it fares, it is Clegg’s voters who are the big prize over the long run. The renewed competition for their hearts began the moment the polls closed.”

New York Daily News
“Whatever the outcome of the British elections, the ‘special relationship’ with the US will remain, well, special – but definitely not so subservient from the UK side.

“Britain’s next prime minister, whoever he is, is well aware the Labour Party’s decline after 13 years of rule is tied to the belief London has been too much in lockstep with a succession of American presidents.

“Labour has never recovered from the perception that former prime minister Tony Blair was so tight with Washington he was ridiculed as President George W Bush’s ‘poodle’. The next PM won’t repeat the mistake of cozying up with Barack Obama.”

El País
“These (British) elections have the feel of the end of an era, especially for Labour. The electorate has put an end to 13 years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the loss of authority brought about by a desire to see Labour MPs back on the opposition benches. This has brought to a complete end the latest experiment in European social democracy. There have been many labels for this tendency, which in some respects has encompassed even the more moderate Right: the Third Way, New Labour, the New Progressives, the New Democrats, the New Centre (Neue Mitte), and three personalities like Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schroeder and, above all, Tony Blair, the most conspicuous and oddest of them all, who hooked up his agenda and even his ideology to that of the ‘neocons’ and George W Bush. Nothing of that is left after the defeat of Gordon Brown, the last, mediocre apprentice of the most fascinating ideology of the Nineties.

“The trouble is, nothing has been born as a result of the death of the previous era. David Cameron has been around for five years, and in his shadow, perhaps prematurely, there is Nick Clegg, but neither has paved the way towards anything that looks even remotely new. Nor has anything new happened on the continent.

“The difficulty of trying to govern, the feeling of disorientation, the crisis of the electoral system, together with the distrust and disgruntlement of its citizens, is not exclusively symptomatic of Britain. The only positive thing you can say about it, however, is that the British, like it or not, are in the same boat as other Europeans, and hanging from the same tree.”

Huffington Post
“It was an election that confounded political certainties: What appears a Conservative victory is a defeat for reforming leader Cameron. The Liberal Democrats’ poor showing still leaves them kingmakers. And the battered Brown could stay prime minister despite Labour’s worst showing in decades.

“For Cameron, a bicycle-riding graduate of Eton and Oxford who staked his leadership on returning the Conservatives to power after 13 years, the result is less than a triumph. The Tories fell short of a majority that only a few months ago was considered inevitable, and Cameron’s right-wing opponents within the party may prevent him offering concessions to the Europhile, civil libertarian Liberal Democrats.”

Toronto Globe and Mail

“The results, however they may ultimately be counted, have cast the Westminster voting system [also used by Canada] into deep disrepute, creating a shocking imbalance between the votes cast and the results produced. The outcome can only be considered a clear defeat for all three major parties.

“Mr Cameron all but stopped mentioning his ‘big society’ message of volunteerism, local democracy and worker ownership, returning to a more conventional right-wing voice of tax cuts and attacks on government spending – again, rallying his supporters.

“This, in effect, marked the end of a 15-year experiment in ‘third way’ politics, leading to a new, mysterious period in British politics in which there is no clear middle ground. “

Ed Balls. <em>Picture: David John Earls</em>

Ed Balls. Picture: David John Earls

Three senior Labour figures have suggested that it is alright for Labour voters to back the Liberal Democrats – if the aim is to keep the Conservatives out of office.

In an extraordinary development, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary and former Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell, all appeared to sanction the use of tactical voting to ensure David Cameron does not secure a majority.

In what was being seen as a sign of increasing Labour desperation, the three senior Labour figures appeared to suggest that voters might not back the Labour candidate in constituencies where Labour had no chance of winning.

Mr Balls told the New Statesman that he always wanted Labour to win but there was “an issue” in seats where the Liberal Democrats were the main challengers to the Tories.

The Daily Mirror, which has shown consistent support for Labour for the past six decades, called on readers to vote tactically to keep the Tories out today, providing a list of constituencies where, it claimed, Labour voters should back the Liberal Democrats.

Ms Jowell said that was a “good thing” but stressed that it was ultimately up to voters to make up their own minds.

Mr Hain said: “I want every Labour candidate to win but many are not going to be in a position to win. I think it’s important people act intelligently in this election.”

There was confusion over the Labour position, though, when Gordon Brown came out strongly against tactical voting. “I want people to vote Labour and I want a majority Labour government,” he said.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said the comments by the Labour figures backed up what he had been saying all campaign – that a vote for the Lib Dems would return Mr Brown to Downing Street.

Nick Clegg described the Labour comments as “desperate”.

The comments do suggest confusion in Labour ranks and resignation that the party now has no chance of winning a majority – whatever Mr Brown might say in public.

To suggest that Labour voters might think about deserting Labour candidates is an extreme step, even for a party which is staring at an election defeat. That is why the comments were so hesitant: the Labour figures wanted to give the option of tactical voting without actually calling for it.

But the overall message is not a good one for Labour, with the three figures conveying an impression of meltdown in Labour headquarters.

Where he goes, we follow

Where he goes, we follow

Where the Americans lead, we seem to follow – and nowhere is this more true than in fighting elections.

It is less than 18 months since Barack Obama was elected and everybody over here, contesting this General Election, seems to want to copy all the electoral innovations pioneered by the Democrats over there in securing the White House in 2008.

Scottish Labour is already crowing about its “Virtual Phone Bank”. This is based on the simple premise that it is better to have many people making a few phone calls than a few people making a lot.

The idea seems to be that any supporter with a laptop can be given a list of voters to call in marginal seats. Scottish Labour has set a target for one in six of its members to sign up to make ten calls a day this month. If they hit it, they will get through to one million Scots.

Scottish Labour’s campaign manager, Frank Roy, said: “The new technology allows us to mobilise our members and learn from the latest international techniques in election campaigning. It doesn’t change the fundamentals of what we do, but allows us to do it better and faster.”

And Labour MSP John Park said: “The Glenrothes by-election coincided with the US presidential election and we observed a lot of what the Democrats were doing.
“The way the Democrats mobilised a massive base of activists inspired us to refine and improve our approach. By the time of the Glasgow North East by-election, we were ready to pilot many of those techniques in much more sophisticated and organised ways. This election will be the first word-of-mouth election.”

Mr Obama was, of course, the first Blackberry President – his advisers had to prise the device away from him when he took office – and the Democrats used the web to raise half a billion dollars from 6.5 million donors.

The British electoral scene is different, because it is not so driven by individual donations, but all the parties think they can use the web to their advantage.

The first and easiest route for parties to take is to use email. Not only is this quicker than traditional mailshots but it is cheaper too. The Tories are understood to have half a million email addresses and are expected to start deluging their supporters with emails very soon.

The problem for all the parties, though, is that most people are now so used to unsolicited emails and internet ads that they don’t pay any notice to them anymore. The best way to get to people is through recommendations, which is why social networking sites are so important.

The parties which can best harness the trusted recommendation aspect of social networking will be the ones that win in this internet form of campaigning.

Labour roseWith the General Election now only two months away, most activists are already out on the streets pushing their candidate’s name to all who will listen.

Not so the Labour activists in East Lothian. With exactly eight weeks left until the anticipated polling day of 6 May, not only do they not know who their candidate is going to be but they have no idea when they will know, either.

This is because election planning in East Lothian is being held up by torturous process of Labour Party bureaucracy. Indeed, the wheels of the central Labour Party machine have turned so incredibly slowly that it is a wonder that the whole institution doesn’t grind to a halt.

On 22 January this year – seven weeks ago – local Labour Party activists decided they wanted to de-select Anne Moffat as their candidate for the General Election.

You would have thought, with an election pending, that might have concentrated minds at Labour HQ in London. But no. It has taken seven weeks for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party to reach a decision on that vote.

The NEC decided yesterday that, if the whole of the local Labour Party wants to de-select Ms Moffat, then she will be de-selected and a new candidate selected in her place but the NEC wants to find out how the whole local party feels about the issue, not just a group of activists.

So now there has to be a meeting to which all 700 Labour members in the constituency will be invited to find out if they support the move by some activists to force Ms Moffat out. If they do, then Ms Moffat will be replaced as the Labour candidate for this year’s election.

Except that she might not be de-selected, at least not straight away, because she might decide to appeal against the decision – as is her right – in which case a final decision will be delayed until that happens.

These rules have obviously been put in place for good reason. Labour managers are determined to ensure that due process is followed whenever a candidate is de-selected. They would hate to be taken to court for not taking the right steps to make sure everything is done properly and legally.

But don’t they realise there is an election on the way? Even given the fairest of winds, the East Lothian Labour Party is unlikely to know the identity of its candidate for ten days at least and it could be almost a month before their official candidate is selected.

What this means for the activists on the ground is confusion, at best, and chaos at worst. If they can’t go out and promote the name of their candidate to the electorate until the campaign actually gets off the ground, then they are starting at a huge disadvantage.

And the reason they are in this position is because of the extraordinary tardiness with which this was dealt with by Labour HQ.

Anyone with even the vaguest interest in politics in East Lothian knew there was something amiss in the local Labour Party three years ago.

That was when details of Ms Moffat’s travel expenses first emerged, that she had billed the taxpayer for 24,000 miles worth of claims despite also claiming an air fare a week between London and Edinburgh and 82 train fares.

Ms Moffat also provoked anger in the constituency when she sacked three staff. Then, when the complaints against her became public, she accused her critics of “bullying” her because she was a woman.

A grassroots campaign against Ms Moffat gathered pace through 2008 and 2009 and the crisis in the constituency erupted when the local party was suspended in 2008. At that stage, Ms Moffat had the support of only two of the six branches in the constituency and was only hanging on as a result of the support of union affiliates. Anyone could see there were major problems there but it took until late January this year for activists to actually vote to de-select Ms Moffat.

Even after that, it has taken until now – the middle of March, eight weeks before an election – for the NEC to make its ruling on that vote.

If Labour managers actually wanted to give their activists a chance to win the East Lothian constituency this year, they would have tackled this issue as a matter of urgency. Instead, they gave the impression of opting to ignore it in the hope that it went away.

As they now know, it hasn’t gone away, far from it actually and, as a result, whoever gets to fight the constituency for the Labour Party in May will do so with one hand tied behind their back.

There will be winners out of this though, the activists in the local Liberal Democrat, Conservative and SNP branches who have watched Labour’s travails with mounting glee. They couldn’t have planned this better if they tried.

There may have been a feeling that East Lothian didn’t really matter, that Labour was defending a 7,000 majority there so it would be all right come election day. But if Labour loses the election by one seat and East Lothian falls to the Liberal Democrats, then Labour managers will only have themselves to blame.

Michael Foot, the former Labour leader, has died at the age of 96.

Mr Foot was in charge of the party when it fought the 1983 general election against Margaret Thatcher. Mr Foot was only leader of the Labour Party for three years – between 1980 and 1983 – but he took charge during a time of great upheaval within the party.

In 1980, Labour had just been beaten by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, Jim Callaghan, the former Prime Minister, stood down as leader and Mr Foot went for the leadership.

He beat Denis Healey to the leadership on a platform of being a compromise candidate, hoping to unite a party which was being divided by a left-wing revolt based around Tony Benn.

Mr Foot led the party into the 1983 General Election but, by this time, Labour was having to cope with a ‘perfect storm’ of events which led to a crushing defeat at the polls.

In 1981, four senior Labour right-wingers – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – broke away to form the SDP, taking a number of activists and supporters with them.

Then, in 1982, the Falklands War was won, giving the Thatcher government a massive boost in popularity.

With Labour still divided and with a manifesto which Gerald Kaufman later described as “the longest suicide note in history” (it included nuclear disarmament and tax rises), Labour was trounced in the 1983 election, leading to Mr Foot’s resignation as leader.

He was replaced by Neil Kinnock.

Mr Foot’s public image was often one of a rather shabby intellectual and he was lambasted by the tabloid papers for wearing a “donkey jacket” to the annual Remembrance Day commemoration at the Cenotaph – it was actually a duffel coat. But this was more a reflection of the way he was treated by the press than of his character.

Mr Foot was, without doubt, one of the brightest, most intellectual and most sincere of party leaders the Labour Party – or indeed any major party – has had.

He wrote several books, including well-received biographies of Aneurin Bevan and H.G. Wells.

A poll of Labour activists described him as the worst post-war Labour leader but it has also been argued that no-one else could have held the Labour Party during the early 1980s, such was the extent of the division, the backbiting and the infighting within the party at this team.

A lifelong Plymouth Argyle fan, the club gave him a shirt with the number 90 on the back when he turned 90 in 2003. The club also registered him as a player, making him officially the oldest registered professional player in the history of football.

A committed republican, Mr Foot refused honours from the Queen on several occasions, including a knighthood and a peerage.

In Government, he served as Secretary of State for Employment under Harold Wilson and as Leader of the House of Commons under Mr Callaghan.

Memories of Michael Foot

By Hugh Kerr
I first met Michael as a very young socialist at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool in 1961. We were both upstairs in the visitors section. It was my first Labour Conference and I was an observer for the Young Socialists.

Michael was an MP and should have been on the floor of the conference but had just been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party for voting against the defence estimates – not least because they contained funding for nuclear weapons, something Michael never supported.

Michael was very helpful to me throughout the week in explaining the arcane procedure of Labour Conferences (in those days they were more democratic!) and the many Labour characters of the time. Later that week I heard him electrify the Tribune rally and I realised that this was one of the great orators of our time.

I met and saw Michael at many meetings and rallies over the years often at CND rallies and when in opposition he was a great orator however the burden of government or being in authority somewhat smothered his voice and character. In particular he didn’t take easily to the modern craft of spin and presentation. I remember an election rally in 1983 in Harlow – my political base for many years – where Michael gave a spirited sppech but made a fatal error in a new town which Harlow was by calling it a council estate!

I last saw Michael at a memorial rally for his nephew Paul Foot the great journalist and socialist – an old comrade of mine in the International Socialists. Michael by then was 92 and though frail was still sharp.

He said: “Paul and I disagreed all his life. He was a revolutionary socialist and I was a democratic socialist. What is more he was always borrowing my books and never brought them back!”

I by then had been expelled from Labour ironically by the man Michael had helped to become Labour leader: one Tony Blair, who Michael campaigned for in 1982.

Hugh Kerr was a Labour MEP until expelled for opposing Tony Blair and New Labour he is now a freelance journalist based in Edinburgh.

After we revealed last week that some senior Tory strategists were now planning for an April election, Caledonian Mercury is delighted to report that Ladbrokes is cutting its odds of an April poll.

To be fair, the bookmaker cut its odds after Gordon Brown refused to reveal an election date at his Coventry rally yesterday, not just because of our speculation but it does suggest that there is still considerable confusion over the actual date.

May 6 does, however, remain the overwhelming favourite but Ladbrokes has pushed out a March vote to 12/1 (from 8/1), whilst an April trip to the ballot box is in to 6/1 (from 10/1).

Ladbrokes spokesman, Nick Weinberg, said: “There was plenty of speculation that the PM would use his trip to Coventry to unveil the date. Punters are now turning their attention to April.”

A hung parliament is a 5/2 chance, whilst the Conservatives are 1/12 to win most seats.

One interesting other development, however, concerns Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary. According to Ross Lydall, the former Westminster Editor of The Scotsman, who now writes a blog for the London Evening Standard, Mr Murphy has taken out a lease on a Glasgow property for five weeks.

Those five weeks conclude on May 8, suggesting that Mr Murphy is planning a campaign office for a May 6 election. This is what Mr Lydall said: “I am told that … Mr Murphy has taken a five-week lease on a property in Crossarthurlie Street, Barrhead in his marginal East Renfrewshire constituency. The five-week lease begins in April and expires on May 8.”

As far as other election odds are concerned, this is the latest betting according to Ladbrokes.

Most seats
Conservatives 1/12
Labour 6/1
Liberal Democrats 100/1

Who wins overall
Conservative Overall Majority 2/5
Labour Overall Majority 12/1
Liberal Democrat Overall Majority 200/1
No Overall Majority 5/2

Month of next General Election
March 2010 12/1
April 2010 6/1
May 2010 1/4
June 2010 12/1

Cabinet Casualties
(Applies to cabinet members at the time of the election. Based on the twenty three full cabinet members as detailed at http://www.parliament.uk/mpslordsandoffices/government_and_opposition/hmg.cfm)
0 Cabinet ministers to lose their seats at the next election 6/4
1 Cabinet minister to lose their seat at the next election 5/1
2 Cabinet ministers to lose their seats at the next election 7/1
3 Cabinet ministers to lose their seats at the next election 8/1
4 Cabinet ministers to lose their seats at the next election 8/1
5 or more Cabinet ministers to lose their seats at the next election 2/1