The combination of the Tory press and, in Scotland, a clever SNP campaign have combined to establish a widespread negative narrative about the Labour party. I’m as disappointed in aspects of the Labour party’s record as anyone else, but I still recognise it as the only party capable of delivering improvements in the lives of the majority of people across the UK in accordance with progressive ideals of how different people, with different values and interests, can best live together, can best balance the democratic ideals of liberty and equality, personal interest and social social solidarity. The record in office from 1997-2010 was badly damaged by Iraq, although inteventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo were largely positive. However when they left office, the UK was a much more humane, tolerant, richer and more progressive place than it had been in 1997. Here are just some of the achievements on a UK-wide basis:
- peace in Northern Ireland – now taken-for-granted, but possibly Tony Blair’s greatest achievement – his political gifts were vital to the success of the process
- devolution for Scotland, with a parliament built on a consensual cross party model involving proportional representation, pre-legislative scrutiny and a range of other constitutional innovations (as well as devolution to Wales and experiments (albeit not so successful) in devolution within England)
- a host of legislation and inclusive practices that improved democracy (Human Rights Act, Disability Discrimination Act, Racial and Religious Hatred Act, Equalities Act, black and Muslim ministers in government …)
- a massive regeneration of our schools and hospitals across the UK for the first time in a generation, with getting on for 5000 new school buildings and well over 100 new hospitals
- Pension Credit, winter fuel allowance, free bus travel and free TV licences for pensioners
- Improved employment conditions: minimum wage, rights for part=time workers, Social Chapter, higher maternity pay, paternity leave
- Substantial reductions in crime and domestic violence
- Overseas aid tripled and the debt of the poorest countries cancelled
- Child poverty reduced by half across the UK
- Improved recruitment, training and conditions of service for teachers; Education Maintenance allowance for 16-18 year olds staying in full time education; record numbers of FE places; doubling of apprenticeships; Child Trust fund for every newborn child; enhanced early years provision.
In addition to its role in many of the above, in Scotland, the Lab/Lib coalition government made some great contributions to Scottish democracy – proportional representation in local government elections, progress with land reform, the smoking ban, distinctive Scottish governance arrangements for the NHS, abolition of up-front tuition fees in Universities, free personal care,The Housing Act of 2001 (introduced a single secure tenancy across council and housing association tenancies, set in place the homelessness changes which led to the ending of the distinction between priority and non-priority need homeless applicants and substantially reduced Right to Buy discounts resulting in sales dropping sharply), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2004 helped many living with anti-social neighbours, the national debate on school education (securing the continuation of comprehensive schooling), landlord registration, substantial infrastructural investment, beginning of a rebuilding of the social housing stock.
It’s not a perfect record, but it’s not a bad record.
It certainly does not fit with the SNP narrative of a Labour-Tory coalition, cleverly pursued by Nicola Sturgeon in saying SNP MPs would not vote for a ‘Labour austerity budget’, as if somehow Labour are in anyway shape or form motivated by similar values to the Conservative party even if Labour were preparing an ‘austerity budget’ – which they are not! As the IFS analysis showed, there are few differences in overall public spending between Labour and SNP budget proposals and those that there are suggest ‘austerity’ would last slightly longer under the SNP’s proposals – but using the phrase ‘Labour’s austerity budget’ allies Labour with austerity and with the Conservatives. That’s politics.
Nor does the record fit with the Conservative narrative that Labour ‘wrecked Britain’s finances’. What wrecked Britain’s finances was the collapse of RBS and HBOS, who had bought heavily into overleveraged toxic financial products and institutions, originating in the USA. Had Gordon Brown not used the borrowing power of the UK government (with consequent implications for public finances over the next few years) to bail out the banks, the UK really could have ended up like Ireland, Iceland or Greece. Of course there were massive costs associated with that, but these costs were much less than would have been the case had the banks been allowed to go to the wall ….. and by the way there were no Conservative MPs in the years between 1997 and 2008 arguing for greater regulation of the banks.. if they spoke about it all, it was to argue that Labour were regulating too much and the big business should be further freed from government controls. Nor have I heard any UK politicians arguing that we should have let the banks go to the wall.
I recognise that many of those involved in leading the SNP are competent centrist politicians who play the political game very well. They have cleverly played Holyrood against Westminster in order to advance the politics of Scottish identity. Where the arguments are all about a possible Scottish future, there is little media scrutiny of how they are handling the Scottish present so they have been a Teflon administration in Holyrood, with all the attention on what they could do (if only they had ‘independence’, ‘full fiscal autonomy’ blah blah), not on what they could have done if they had chosen to use many of the powers they already have in Holyrood to mediate the impact of austerity. I find the divisiveness of the ‘Scotland first’ agenda profoundly unsettling. Why should Scotland have a stronger voice in Westminster than any other part of the United Kingdom? Such rhetoric inevitably sets up division and conflict between people representing different parts of the United Kingdom.
My agenda is ‘how can we, the disparate people who live in the UK, with all our different values and interests, work better together to (a) have better more fulfilled lives and (b) contribute more positively towards the future of our planet and all its people?’ I don’t see how setting up divisive conflict based on where you live can help, ‘we want a stronger voice than you’, rather than ‘let’s work together to do our best together’. As I said before, under the present electoral system*, the UK Labour Party, for all its many faults, offers the best chance for building a UK-wide infrastructure of fairness, balancing the individual liberties necessary in a plural democracy with the social solidarity which helps all of us to live better lives.
And that’s my last word on the election. I’ll be posting later this week on the contribution of science to human wellbeing, whoever is in government!
* hopefully if Labour get in and run the constitutional convention proposed in the manifesto, there will be further improvements.