Get The Tanks off the Lawn!

Jim Mackechnie reports on the Scottish Labour Party conference of 30 October and 1 November 2015

At the recent Scottish Labour Party Conference, delegates gave clear notice to the SNP that it was time to get their tanks off our socialist lawn. Conference moved towards embracing the radical wind of change that Jeremy Corbyn’s election has engendered in the Party and a raft of proposals was agreed that starts us on course to re-capture the left territory we vacated during the New Labour days - territory which was subsequently gleefully occupied by the SNP. It was welcoming to note that the new leadership team of Kezia Dugdale and Alex Rowley seemed relaxed about the new direction the Party was charting. Rowley, in the closing speech of Conference, extolled ‘waking up in the morning thinking about how to create a socialist society’

The return to our socialist roots was flagged up by a Conference session on Keir Hardie’s life and work. In a masterly introduction Richard Leonard, Political Officer of the GMB and a founder member of the Keir Hardie Society, focused not only on Hardies’s contribution to the labour movement, but also on his political principles and their relevance to today. This very much set the tone.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Leaders speech also homed in on Keir Hardie when he quoted him as saying that our movement would not rest till ‘the sunshine of socialism and human freedom break forth upon our land’. The ‘sunshine of socialism’ became very much a theme of the Conference. The quotation was revisited in other parts of his speech, and, later on, by many other delegates. Indeed to those of us who had waited in vain for previous leaders’ speeches to include even one token mention of the ’s’ word , Corbyn utilised it no less than eleven times! A pledge to reverse the tax credit cuts; support for local authorities prepared to defy the check off and facility time provisions of the Trade Union Bill; and the need to fight for the retention of jobs in the steel industry, indicated that the Party was starting to re-discover its working class roots, as did historical references to the Scottish contingent of the International Brigade in Spain ; to the blacking in East Kilbride of aircraft engines destined for Pinochet’s Chile ; and to Scotland’s role in the anti-apartheid movement. If we embed all of this in our politics the SNP can no longer charge us with betraying our heritage.

Kezia Dugdale, not known for her leftist views, gave some indication that she was prepared to travel with the prevailing wind. Her pledge to use new tax and welfare powers coming to Holyrood to fully compensate for Osborne’s tax credit cuts drew a standing ovation. Increasing the top rate of income tax , and freezing the higher rate threshold will raise the necessary cash. As this is a straight forward policy of taxing the rich to help the poor, it represents a clear and popular challenge to the leftist positioning of the SNP who have shunned the path of wealth re-distribution.

Media interest focused on the Trident debate. It was one of four prioritised by delegates, coming top of the ballot in both the CLP and affiliates section. In a fine and fair debate the discussion centred on trade union concerns about the threat to jobs that non-renewal would create. The carefully worded composite saying that ‘prior to any decision to cancel Trident firm commitments should be made to retaining defence workers jobs’, was sufficient to attract UNITE’s support. The GMB remained implacably opposed, saying that diversification would never deliver well paid secure jobs and that it was ‘pie in the sky’. In his summing up speech the delegate from Glasgow Southside CLP remarked he would rather have pie in the sky than a mushroom cloud. In the end, Conference voted 70% to 30% in favour of ‘not seeking a replacement for Trident and abandoning plans to spend billions on a new generation of nuclear weapons.’ More work will be needed to re-assure the workers likely to be affected, but no longer can the SNP say Scottish Labour supports the retention of weapons of mass destruction.

In another debate, delegates pledged to defy the provisions of the Trade Union Bill. Some wryly observed that, as a consequence, they might have to address Conference next year from their prison cell in Barlinnie. Conference also expressed wholehearted opposition to TIPP, an issue on which the SNP is ambivalent for fear of offending their corporate backers

In their leadership election campaigns both Rowley and Dugdale said they wanted to return power to the Party’s grassroots members. Rowley even proposed scrapping the policy forums and getting CLPs to feed directly into Conference. Happily the management of Conference took on much of this sentiment. Contemporary motions (many of which were extremely light on contemporaneity!) submitted by CLPs, but that had not been prioritised, were nonetheless scheduled for debate. They were taken in common debate alongside the relevant sections of the Scottish Policy Forum Report. Rowley said he had calculated that this meant 64 motions had been considered. Delegates were largely chosen at random to come to the rostrum, so allowing a diversity of views to get an airing. The time given to Shadow Spokespersons, in contrast to rank and file delegates, was very limited. And the excruciating sofa discussions of the past were thankfully nowhere to be seen. So there have been significant steps in giving Conference back to the rank and file. The defenders of a manipulated Conference should note that we produced composites, we had debates where a range of views expressed, and we had votes that ‘divided’ the delegates - and the sky did not fall in!

Indeed, was that not the sunshine of socialism that we saw breaking through?

This article was first published in the Dec15-Jan 16 issue of the original

Labour Briefing