by Paul Kavanagh
Labour is in my blood. I was born and brought up in Glasgow in a working class family of Irish Catholic origins. My parents were born into the slums of the East End but thanks to Labour their families moved in the early 1950s to the glistening new housing scheme of Cranhill, where for the first time they had homes with an indoor toilet and a bath. It was a big change from single-ends in Brigton and Dennistoun.
Thanks to the aspirations the party inspired my parents sought to better their lives, they became the first in their families to own their own home, my dad became active in his trade union, my mother went to college to study to become a teacher. Countless similar experiences in Scottish working class families allowed our parents to teach us that the world was at our feet, that the only limit was our imagination.
Labour was our party. They were the party we looked to to protect us from the excesses and inequalities of 1960s sectarianism. Because of the Labour party we slept at night free from the nightmare of poverty and illness which blighted our parents’ and grandparents’ existence and destroyed the lives of untold thousands.
But perhaps most importantly of all, the Labour party was a product of our own community. A party born out of the rent strikes in the Glasgow slums, the violence of sectarian strife, the fight for workers’ rights in the great industries that dominated and defined our physical and mental landscapes. Labour was our party because they were us and we were them.
But bigger forces were at play. Even by the 1960s the signs of decay were starting to show. The social housing turned into the soulless schemes, the great industries withered and died and the welfare safety net turned into a lobster creel trapping communities in poverty. But the greatest decay of all was in the Labour party itself.
When the Scottish Labour party was founded it was a Scottish party committed to self-determination for the people of Scotland. For a socialist, sovereignty rests with the people, or you can’t be a socialist at all. But in the early decades of the 20th century Scotland was not a welcoming place for many of its citizens. In the eyes of much of the Scottish establishment of those days some of us could never be Scottish. 100 years ago for an Irish Catholic in the West of Scotland to support Scottish independence was like a black person in the southern USA coming out in support of the Confederacy. But Labour fought equally for all Scots excluded by poverty, poor education and class prejudice, destined to be fodder for the factories and footsoldiers in the wars of that bellicose century.
So the Labour party abandoned its belief in the sovereignty of the Scottish people, a belief key to the hopes and dreams of the first generations of Scottish socialist activists, and instead concentrated on the more immediate and pressing concerns of jobs, housing, health and poverty. It made common cause with the parties fighting the same fight in the slums of the industrial cities and towns of England and Wales.
When you’ve been brought up with the tales of poverty and social exclusion that define the family histories of working class people in the West of Scotland, it’s not hard to understand why the party made that decision back in the early decades of the 20th century. It seemed logical and common sense. And so the myth of the British Labour Parliamentary Road to Socialism was born.
But it meant that the Labour party made a pact with the Westminster Devil. The party made its small gains by working from the inside, according to the rules set down by Westminster, and in doing so it became a creature of the system it once sought to uproot. The small concessions Labour wrought from the British establishment were a small price for that establishment to pay.
The Labour party repaid the debt by becoming the most enthusiastic supporters of the establishment they’d once aimed to destroy. The Parliamentary Road to Socialism became a road to nowhere. Now all that mattered was to keep the show on the road, to keep the patronage and privileges flowing to fill the party’s fuel tanks. Labour became corrupt, venal, remote and undemocratic, enthusiastically helping themselves to handouts and filling their boots and suits with public cash and preference.
Westminster gave the Labour party the means to entrench its control. It gave them status, a career path, personal wealth and success. It gave them control of the milk-cow of local authorities to use as a basis for patronage within the party and for personal enrichment. In the rotating doorway of the two party politics that dominated the post WW2 era it gave them a regular dose of the heady power of the Westminster machine too. From the point of view of the Labour party Westminster worked. And since Labour was the people’s party it must be working for the rest of us too. It was only common sense.
And the British establishment could sleep easy in their beds knowing that the nightmare of radical change had been suborned again.
Labour wants us to believe that all political parties are equally crap, they want us to be cynical and noninvolved, because then Labour wins by default. The Labour party lost sight of the difference between what was good for the people and what was good for the party. It wanted us to lose sight of it too.
But we haven’t lost sight of the difference. We can see that Labour party isn’t Labour any more. It hasn’t been the people’s party for a very long time. We didn’t leave Labour, Labour left us.
Labour made the decision 100 years ago to abandon its Scottish roots because of the dictates of logic and a bigger picture, and moved to London like a Scotsman on the make. Now ordinary working class Scots in the old industrial belt must look at the logic of the bigger picture and recognise that the Labour party is no longer worthy of the name we gave it and no longer the vehicle for the aspirations we placed in it.
The only hope for the Labour party, and for Scotland, is for the party to learn that its addiction to the sovereignty of Westminster is a betrayal. There’s an essential contradiction lying at the very heart of the party. How can you be the party of the people and yet believe that the people are not sovereign?
That’s why Gordon Brown couldn’t find Labour’s moral compass. A moral compass is not to be found at Westminster. He was looking in the wrong place. It’s why Iain Gray’s promise that Labour is on a moral quest in this election is a hollow promise. The morals the party speaks of do not rest with the Labour party. They rest with us, with ordinary working class Scottish men and women.
But the Labour party has only just embarked upon its voyage into the oceanic wilderness of self-discovery. Like an unrepentant alcoholic it refuses to acknowledge it has a problem, and still believes we will welcome it back into the harbour of forgiveness and give it yet another chance. It still believes its disabling addiction to Westminster is the real source of its strength. And when elections come round it chaps on our doors and pleads its case with promises of jam, like junkies wanting to be allowed back home to live with their parents so they can raid mammy’s purse to pay for the next wrap of smack.
Labour tells us independence is a distraction. But Labour can’t tell the difference between public need and private greed. Glasgow Labour Council can’t tell the difference between what’s good for Glasgow and what’s good for Glasgow Labour councillors. How can Labour tell us what’s distracting or not? So when they tell us something is a distraction the obvious question is what would it distract the Labour party from.
Independence would distract the Labour party from its drug of choice. Like Amy Winehouse who doesn’t want to go to rehab, Labour sings that it doesn’t want to go to independence. Independence is the biggest fear of those who are dependent. For Labour it would mean that the bandwagon on the British Parliamentary Road to Nowhere comes to a shuddering halt for good. It means going cold turkey. It means that the Labour party gemme’s a bogey. No wonder they call it a distraction. But for ordinary Scottish people it’s not a distraction, it’s restarting a new game with rules that work for all of us, not to allow a select few to enrich themselves at our expense.
It’s hard when you have to turn down one of your own. Even when you know it’s for the best, even when you fear that your child is incorrigible, it still hurts. But that’s the only way we will ever see a real Scottish Labour party again, a party that represents the hopes and aspirations of the marginalised and excluded in Scottish society. We have to cut off Labour’s addiction. We have to stop enabling them, or they will destroy us.
Junkies and alcoholics will promise anything. But they cannot be believed. We need evidence not words. When Labour announces that the Scottish Labour party is separate from the British party, when Scottish Labour puts the needs of the Scottish people above the sovereignty of Westminster, and above all when that Scottish Labour party campaigns for a yes vote in an independence referendum, then perhaps we can believe they’ve really changed and have freed themselves from their toxic dependence on Westminster. But there’s no sign yet that they even recognise they have a problem. Our junkie wean is still in denial. It needs to learn some home truths. It needs Weegie tough love.
We must send the Labour party to rehab and vote for the party best placed to bring about radical change to the system that has produced Labour’s addiction to Westminster heroin. A party that promises to shut the supply off at source and for good. And there’s only one major party that promises to do that.
I’m voting SNP, at least until we have independence. And then just maybe we might find a Scottish Labour party that’s worth the name.