Together We’re Sombre

By Scottish Labour Young Socialist activist, Aiden Anthony O’Rourke.

When I started writing this, I wanted it to be a simple piece on Scottish Labour after our conference this month, but when one thinks about politics it’s hard to shut up about it (maybe that’s just me). The fact is, all of the issues I want to discuss are related, because we can’t take one situation in one country at one certain time, isolate it from the international situation, and claim that ‘this is how it is’. Labour’s difficulty in Scotland is reflective of the labour movement across the world.

As a young student in a part time job, it can be difficult to attend political events (ask anyone in this position and they’ll tell you the same). On Sunday I managed to travel up to Perth as a new member, and first time conference goer, and whilst I have left with a positive frame of mind, I can’t help but question some of the messages we as a party were putting out. Upon entering conference, one can’t escape the ever watchful presence of the buzzwords – ‘Together we’re stronger’. It’s on twenty different televisions, it’s beamed in huge script in the main hall, it’s the repeated mantra of many a speaker, and if that wasn’t Orwellian enough, it patiently awaits you on a television screen as you visit the toilets – no, I am not joking.

The slogan, and the initiative it relates to, bears far too much resemblance to the bleak political outlook of the rest of Orwell’s famous novel than I’d like to experience. Slogans seemed to be a key feature of the day, and while I’m not against using slogans, the whole point to them is that they encapsulate something meaningful in a short resonant manner; unfortunately, in this case, they’re far too vague to do either of these things. ‘Together we’re stronger’, but who’s we? The working classes – agreed – but a critique of the elite we’d face (in or out of the UK) is vital if we’re to remain relevant. Without proper analysis, without a desire to define what makes ‘us’, Labour in Scotland can only react to the two nationalisms, or navel gaze.

At conference, it seemed once again that Scottish Labour would reject one form of nationalism in favour of another, a masterstroke if ever there were one. Alienating 45% of the country is daft, begging on a unionist basis to a core unionist vote you’ve already lost, even more so. Scottish nationalism is not the way forward, but make no mistake, British nationalism is far worse, far more toxic, and anyone who would stoke that kind of nationalism need look no further than Trump or Le Pen to see where it leads. To quote a fine young socialist, we don’t need a pound shop Ruth Davidson; in my own words, we need a Red Rosa.

The only place I can see that coming from, is in the work of our growing youth movement, through giving SYL the platform it needs within the party in order for all of our young members to be heard and inject their enthusiasm; and through the terrific work of SLYS, the embryo of our movement, who convinced myself that there was, and still remains, something within Scottish Labour worth fighting for, and who’s nurturing I have no doubt will give our party the chance to choose from many hundreds more Red Rosa’s in future struggles.

My biggest motivation for travelling all the way up to Perth was of course to see Corbyn. To see someone who you have great respect for, a good solid socialist, in the flesh for the first time was great; to see him dancing at a Northern Soul event not ten feet away from me was nothing short of wonderful. In saying that, I do have some minor criticisms of his speech. I think Corbyn has had to indulge the line of the Scottish Labour leadership, and some on the left for that matter on independence; I disagree with his comments – I was one of the few in the room that did from what I could see – there must be more nuance in our approach, an understanding of why people want independence, and how we can patiently explain amongst them – not down to them – why it is not the driving force in our movement, but that the need to empower the working class is.

Other than this, I couldn’t help but enjoy what was a wonderful speech – something I don’t think would have been the case if I were to have been present at Sadiq Khan’s speech. I don’t wish to get bogged down in debating semantics, the point is that the impression which has been left after his speech is that Scots who voted yes (I did so myself) or who would wish to be independent now are racist. I’ll happily give Khan the benefit of the doubt in that he might not have meant it that way at all, and that’s fine, but it does not do any good for those of us in Scotland tasked with bridging the increasing gap in society as a result of the referendum, far from it.

This is especially important when considering recent events. Nicola Sturgeon herself has said she has respect for Tony Blair, she’s happy to take support from the rag that is the Sun, her predecessor was best pals with Murdoch and Trump, she wants independence simply to give control back to NATO and the EU – my god comrades, she lifted slogans straight from Thatcher with the ‘don’t just hope for a better Scotland, vote for one’ line; and yet even so, where are we to capitalise upon these frighteningly easy wins, to call her out on quite frankly blatant Tory actions? Too consumed in undermining Corbyn to notice it would seem. With the Tories in power in Westminster, and now the main opposition in Holyrood, it’s clear that the trajectory of politics in our country will move right; if we are not there to drag it left, if we continue with this dreary, extreme centrism – devoid of any serious political content – we can only watch powerless in horror as we race to the bottom.

Navel gazing is bad enough; our problem is we spend far too much time gazing at the SNP’s navel, maybe we wouldn’t be third if we thought about radical policy, and stood on our own platform. To hell with what others are doing, what are WE doing? It’s time to drop the arrogance, we’re not entitled to a single vote in Scotland, but Scottish Labour’s meltdown must be taken in context: decades of betrayal and abandonment, where people still live in poverty and unceasing austerity, frustration and anger, the inability to effectively challenge the Thatcherism so eagerly continued by Blair, the shackling of the trade union movement, our primary means of defence being the bureaucratic EU rather than building a social movement and strong trade unions to defend us properly, the list goes on and on.

In short, from the hey days of 1945 until now, the events of the last two generations have played out in the last two or so years; contradictions have bubbled away beneath the surface in Scotland, but they went unseen, and here we are. Scottish Labour’s ivory tower has crumbled. As we step out, once more upon the same level as the people we’ve previously neglected, perhaps we’ll listen this time. Perhaps we’ll look up together at a brighter future, rather than look down in contempt. Perhaps we’ll realise what we can achieve with the working class at our backs, and not at our feet. Perhaps we’ll see their condition, listen to what we’re being told, and strive to empower them. This is crucial if we are to survive.

Is Scottish Labour’s condition a bad thing? From a labour supporting view, is it right to be so critical of the party? In my defence, I say self-criticism is always necessary, I say this out of love for my comrades, my colleagues, and my people – the working class, who deserve so much more from us. Mincing words will mince our direction, so let’s be honest, open, and clear. Let’s have straight talking politics.

It’s important that we discuss how Scottish Labour’s current position relates to that of the rest of the party, and the international movement. The fall in the support of social democratic parties across Europe is certainly due to the bankruptcy that neoliberalism has left our movement in. Even so, against a backdrop of people across the world turning away from traditional parties: Labour, both in membership size – and yes, very much in electoral results – remains a cut above sister parties across Europe. Don’t be fooled into thinking Corbyn is hard left or unelectable, just like the other buzzwords, this is spin and doesn’t take the full picture into account. That we are doing so well in the aftermath of Blairite negligence, Thatcherite arrogance, and years of feebly accepting the neoliberal agenda, is a testament to the strength of Jeremy’s ideas, and the kind of politics he represents. However, to move forward, it’s time to stop thinking we can simply manage capitalism as in previous years, the conditions no longer exist even for the temporary victory we achieved post WWII; it didn’t work for Syriza; it’s not working for the PSUV; and it certainly wouldn’t have improved the lives of ordinary Americans to the extent needed if Bernie were president – as welcome as socialist ideas are there. Instead, let’s talk about other ideas.

Let’s examine the views of thinkers like Gramsci, and see that our strategy can’t simply be about winning elections then going on to tinker around the edges (sure there are achievements we can win, but as the Tories are so admirably showing us, even the victory of the welfare state we created in 1945 can be rolled back) but that real change is won through the struggle for position in all aspects of civil society. To fantasise for the glorious socialist past is an illusion no different to the imagined glory of Scotland circa Bannockburn and Britain circa Waterloo. Let’s live in the present. That means understanding that there are moments which are defining opportunities that need to be prepared for.

People who call for revolution, or harp on about it as just being round the corner, show a complete lack of touch with the situation as it is. Here and now is our starting point in any analysis we make, strategy we adopt, and policy we pass. Our goal is to create a culture, from the bottom up, which can seep into every aspect of civil society, and the state. When the old kings of Europe fell, they fell because the forces which took their place already had control of the key sectors of the economy, already held power in all but name. That must be our strategy, resurrecting the sleeping giant of the international working class, showing them in action, and through experience – not with sermons from the mount – that they are the ones who create power in our society; but in order to wield it, they must organise. Workers must be active in their workplaces within the trade unions: even more importantly, for those already engaged in the trade union movement, all of our fellow workers (whatever their background, their work area or their beliefs) must be shown that they are the union, and given all the help available to fight for not just decent, but for the best possible working, and living conditions for themselves, and their families.

Next, we need to realise that political power is about more than just elections, the kinds of improvements we wish to make to society cannot be done without the support of our membership, the trade unions, the working class, and society as a whole. Within the limits of our current system, there is only so much we can do, which is why the counter culture we need to create has to take control of the narrative back from a media that supports the entitled powerful few over the struggling many.

We need to build worker power by bringing our communities together: by putting solidarity back into our work, whether that be through encouraging voluntary work to support our elderly; supporting those forced by Tory cuts to resort to foodbanks; or standing up for those of us unlucky enough not to be able to get even poverty pay zero hour contracts jobs, who face cruel benefit sanctions, serious mental health problems, homelessness, and – something which brings shame to all of us – death at the hands of a heartless, and truly nasty Tory party.

It is of utmost importance that we in Labour in Scotland appreciate the scale of our task, but that we also get to it to the best of our abilities. Only a strong united socialist labour movement can put an end to the horrors that far too many of our people face on a daily basis. A socialist labour needs to be in government in Scotland, and in the rest of Britain: building a social movement to support those who need our help most; holding political education events across the country to explain why we are in the situation we are in, what alternatives there are, and how we can most effectively pursue them; and preparing right now the next generation of socialist leaders who can carry on the mantle that we are grateful to Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn, and all those who came before them for setting out. Only radical politics will lead to radical change. Let’s get to it then.

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