Strong, left policies, but how committed is the leadership?

Stephen Low reports on Labour’s Scottish Conference

Scottish Labour’s first in-person Conference was a curious affair of contrasts and contradictions. Left wing policies were voted through with little to no opposition, at the same time as the Party leadership fell over themselves to shout about how pro-business they are.

Anas Sarwar gave his first speech as leader of Scottish Labour. This was a highly polished performance. It of course included a great deal of nigh-on meaningless “That’s why we must reject the old politics – the politics of the past favoured by our opponents – and choose the politics of the future” sort of thing.

He did, however, rise above this level. A great love for Scotland was proclaimed numerous times, not least for welcoming the Sarwar family since Anas’ grandfather arrived in Lossiemouth in the 1940s. This welcome hasn’t been universal though. As the son of the UK’s first Muslim MP Anas had a depressingly long list of examples of the racism experienced by both his parents and children. It was stressed that tackling racism and discrimination is a task for all of us. These points were well made, not least because the belief in Scotland that our society doesn’t have a problem with racism is a myth that is refusing to die.

There was some policy content in the speech: software development should be made a compulsory subject in schools, new rights for those making medical complaints and that residential care should be free at the point of need.

That there was more style than substance wasn’t a surprise. Anas has had a conviction for a long time that he should be leader of the Scottish Labour Party, hence his undermining of his predecessor. Any political convictions seem much more lightly held.  The purpose of the speech though was to focus attention on Anas and make him look good – and it did.

The same can’t really be said for Saturday’s keynote speech from Keir Starmer. Where Anas was upbeat and energetic, Sir Keir was lacklustre for a lot of his unoriginal – his dad was a toolmaker you know – remarks. The lacklustre sections were the best, frankly – the points where he tried and failed to be passionate were less than fun. Speaking personally, I was emotionally moved by the speech – but as the emotion was fear I can’t say it was much fun.

Sir Keir spoke of Ukraine and did so in a manner significantly more bellicose than either Boris Johnson, or Ben Wallace. I started getting alarmed when he talked about the “anxiety felt by our own service families”. They by definition only need to get anxious if the UK gets involved. In that event – which would be a war with Russia – anyone who thinks that the only people who will need to be anxious are forces families is witless in the extreme.

 Away from the set-piece persiflage though, something curious was happening. There were a whole range of motions and composites covering everything from wind farms manufacture to social care. Many of these didn’t lack for radicalism, for example, making the Community Wealth Building approach – or the Preston Model as its probably better known – policy for all Labour councils in Scotland. All of the motions and composites which reached the floor of Conference were recommended for support by the Scottish Executive.

This meant there were no seriously contested votes. That this was a worked-at situation became clear in the run up to conference. Those with motions which might attract attention, such as a Kelvin motion on including an enhanced devolution in any future Indyref, or made serious challenges to the status quo, such as UNISON’s motion that a national care service be run on a not for profit basis, came under pressure to withdraw. In both cases the right, who control the Executive, could ensure that when the motions reached the Conference, there would be a strong recommendation that they be voted down. They decided otherwise and these and other left motions sailed through.

The motivation isn’t difficult to spot. It helped present an image of Party unity and meant there was less to take attention away from Anas. Now, though, we are in the position that the leadership have connived to deliver near unanimous votes for policies for which they have little enthusiasm. The next few months will determine whether this has been done in a genuine spirit of Party unity, or a fix to get through the weekend without a row. Whichever it is – we emerge from the Conference with good policies on transport, housing and especially on a national care service that should be being worked for.  

Stephen Low is a member of Glasgow Southside CLP. He is a former member of Labour’s Scottish Executive and part of the Red Paper Collective 


Jim Mackechnie adds:

The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s fringe meeting at Scottish Conference in Glasgow attracted just over 20 people, which was better than our last effort in 2017, and in part reflected the smaller size of Conference this year. Particularly pleasing was the attendance of two new MSPs elected last year, and a number of local government candidates. The Chair of the Scottish Labour Party also came along for part of the meeting.

The event was publicised as ‘Party Democracy Matters!- Are you worried about party democracy – you should be!’ Unfortunately our intended main speaker, Katy Clark MSP had to call off a few days beforehand, so we went ahead with our other billed speakers. Ann Henderson (NEC, SEC and National Women’s Committee) highlighted democracy issues related to the SEC and the Party’s women’s structures, and Anna Dyer (former Chair of the National Constitutional Committee)  spoke about the cynical undermining of the NCC.  John Singer (Aberdeen Central CLP) detailed the confrontation within the Party surrounding the Aberdeen councillors’ coalition with the Tories. Jim Mackechnie (CLPD Scottish Organiser) summarised CLPD’s origins, objectives and activities.

At Conference no rule changes were considered as the  SEC decided at the last minute to pull back their proposals relating to local government coalitions, and the vetting of CLPs’ affiliations. This was just as well because no delegates had seen the proposals prior to the scheduled debate!

As well as giving CLPD a renewed profile, our fringe meeting enabled us to refresh our contacts list which augurs well for future initiatives.

Image: Anas Sarwar MSP. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj-kOcOKuG0&ab_channel=TheScottishParliament. Author: Scottish Parliament, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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