Fight the cuts with Labour! Kick out the Tartan Tories! Save nursery places, and services for the elderly and children with disabilities! Andy Kerr, the former Labour health minister, told the Scottish Labour conference that the SNP are the new “Thatcherites” turning the clock back to the 1980’s. Wendy Alexander described herself as a “socialist” dedicated to “the redistribution of wealth”. Wonder why she never said that when she was in office for eight years?
Never mind, it’s time to dust off the old songs. “The workers united will never be defeated…Salmond! Salmond! Salmond!; Out! Out! Out!” Wendy is swapping powerpoint for the picket lines, standing shoulder to shoulder with workers of Scotland to demand modern apprenticeships. Raising the spirit of Red Clydeside. She’s even taken to wearing a bright red jacket for TV interviews.
”Best when we are boldest; best when we are Labour” she says in her personal manifesto. Before he entered Number Ten, Gordon Brown used these words to suggest to the party that he intended to make a break with the neo-liberalism of the Blair years. But it was all window dressing. In office Gordon Brown has been, if anything, further right than Tony Blair. The PM is now a leading exponent of the hyper-market Anglo-Saxon economic model – which was why he was so keen to embrace Nicolas “Mr Nuclear” Sarkozy, the latest recruit to the anti-welfare club.
Wendy Alexander is one of Brown’s closest political allies, and owes her job as leader almost entirely to his patronage. So does anyone buy this new Red Wendy, the peoples’ tribune? Well, perhaps surprisingly, one group that seems prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt is Compass, the respected ‘inside left’ pressure group that has been campaigning for a return to social democratic values in the Labour Party.
Compass’s main man in Scotland, Willie Sullivan, has co-written an intelligent analysis of Scottish politics, post May 2007, which argues that the leopardess really can change her spots. Sullivan laments Labour’s lost decade under Tony Blair. “Labour forgot”, he says, “what the Left has always tried to do – critique capitalism and make markets the servants of society”. He thinks the line was just about held in Scotland. “In many cases the Scottish Labour Executive avoided the worst excesses of this ‘choice agenda’ but forgot to tell the Scottish people.” But why did it forget? Wasn’t it because it knew it couldn’t talk of this in earshot of Gordon Brown?
Sullivan attacks the SNP as a “party of the Right”, incapable of promoting social democratic values because “It’s economic policy is set by an ex-bank economist and a financial analyst.” Well, Wendy Alexander fits that description as well, but Andy Kerr doesn’t call her a Thatcherite. Sullivan goes on to say that the SNP is on the way to becoming the new Scottish Tory party. “ If anything they will eventually become more market liberal than New Labour could ever be in Scotland..but they [the SNP] have played a clever political game”.
Well this is all too clever for me. Look, it was the SNP government, elected in May, that finally ended private sector involvement in the Scottish health service, after Scottish Labour put it there under Jack McConnell. This minority SNP administration has also abolished prescription charges, saved local accident and emergency units, backdated the NHS pay award, abolished student fees, cut class sizes, begun a pilot for free school meals, given equal rights to the childen of asylum seekers, rejected nuclear power, doubled the International Aid budget, ended ring-fencing of council spending and condemned the Iraq war. This “right wing” party seems to have done more to further social democratic values in ten months than Labour managed in ten years.
The argument that the SNP is a Tory party manque is based on the cuts in business rates and the cuts in local authority social service spending, following the concordat with COSLA. Well, in that case, Gordon Brown is surely a true blue Tory too he has consistently cut UK business taxes during his time in office, at the same time as crafting a personal tax regime which allows the rich to pay less than their domestic cleaners.
Gordon Brown’s conference speech attacking the SNP for cuts in services was a breathtaking exercise in fiscal hypocrisy. It was the UK Labour government’s own comprehensive spending review last autumn which set the course for council cuts by turning off the spigots of public spending in Scotland. The Scottish Executive headline budget is to grow by less than 1.8% (1.4% with the reduced health baseline) over three years, the lowest increase since 2000 and considerably less than the UK level of 2.1%. Labour-led executives enjoyed annual spending increases of up to 11% (2003/4).
We are entering, by the Treasury’s own admission, the most rapid contraction in Scottish spending in modern history. Cuts and constraints are inevitable. Attacking the Scottish government for this is like King Herod ordering the massacre of the first born and then blaming the Jews for irresponsible child care.
As for rebuilding manufacturing, creating the ‘good society’ and and challenging the dominance of the market – well, Labour has abandoned the productive economy in favour of financial services, the economy of debt. Gordon Brown has encouraged the growth of a low-regulation, light-tough and often corrupt financial regime which has turned the City of London into the Liechtenstein of global capitalism. He has enforced the “flexible labour market”, used immigration to cut wages, introduced PFI into public spending, promoted economic distortions like buy-to-let and allowed property speculators to make housing unaffordable for 90% of first time buyers. An entire generation is in hock to banks, with debts that will cripple them for the rest of their lives.
Brown’s first acts on becoming leader were to cut inheritance tax for the wealthy and restore tax breaks for private equity. He is prepared to pour £25 billion in public funds into a bankrupt Northern Rock at the same time as cracking down on incapacity benefit and allowing his ministers to say that the unemployed should be denied council houses.
Gordon Brown isn’t remotely interested in “critiquing capitalism” let alone “making markets the servants of society”.
And nor is Wendy Alexander. The idea that either of them are latter day social democrats who can trace their descent from Red Clydeside is utterly preposterous. Her politics is management science, her economic philosophy is choice, and her morality is feminist individualism. And like Tony Blair she is destined for a future in investment banking.
All Wendy is doing by raising the scarlet standard high is trying to consolidate to the Labour ‘base’ in Scotland – the core vote that still believes in social democratic values. It is a cynical exercise in focus-group politics. A risible attempt to portray Labour as the party of the people, of equality and collective security.
The SNP isn’t a party which has come from the left. It doesn’t have the same folk memory of industrial politics. But somehow it has managed to promote a political agenda which closer to the social democratic soul of Scotland than the party of the new plutocracy that calls itself Labour. Thatcherite it ain’t.