The first Scottish Labour conference with Richard Leonard as its leader took place in Dundee last month. Delegates were treated to speeches from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, as well as Leonard, who all put forward a bold, radical and socialist vision for Scotland.
However, of the three, it was perhaps Richard Leonard’s speech that was most interesting. A future Scottish Labour government would look to introduce a progressive taxation system, introduce a £10 minimum wage, bring the railways, buses and energy companies back into public ownership and provide money to local authorities to tackle the housing crisis.
Regrettably, many in the Independence movement have reacted to the development of a Corbyn and Leonard led Labour Party as if nothing has changed, and the Labour Party is simply the same as it was under Blair and Brown. Such a view will do nothing to win a future Independence referendum or help create much needed unity among Scottish workers in the daily battle to tackle the ongoing problems of poverty, low wages and cuts.
Corbyn’s speech called for “preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy”. This was unfortunate, because it helps feed into the lie that immigrants are somehow to blame for low wages. It also gave those on the right of Scottish Labour an opportunity to take the moral high ground and present themselves as pro-immigration and internationalists.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon even went so far as to claim that Corbyn was echoing Nigel Farage. Given Corbyn’s history of challenging racism this is plainly ridiculous.
In the past right wing Labour politicians have stoked up Islamophobia and racism under the so-called guise of tackling terrorism. It is now totally hypocritical of them to attack Corbyn on this issue. Nevertheless, Corbyn’s position on immigration must be condemned.
The Scottish Labour conference also saw an unsuccessful attempt by Kezia Dugdale and Ian Murray to commit the Labour Party in Scotland wholeheartedly to membership of the European single market. In this they are in total agreement with the Scottish government and the leadership of the SNP.
Of course, the unionist Labour politicians and the SNP remain on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to Independence. Sturgeon’s plan is to use Brexit as a way of garnering support for Independence with “Scotland in Europe” central to her strategy.
It would be wrong to see the Independence movement as united on the question of the EU. Over a third of SNP supporters voted to leave. There is also considerable disquiet in Scotland on the role played by the EU regarding Catalan Independence.
The Scottish government budget for 2018/19 caused a degree of controversy, because for the first time the SNP has tried to increase revenue through the use of tax raising powers. There are now five tax bands in Scotland, with an introductory rate of 1 percent stepping up to 46 percent for those earning over £150,000. Low earners will pay less tax, middle income earners a bit more and higher earners paying the most. This is a move towards a more progressive taxation system and highlights the difference between the SNP and the UK Tory government.
The Daily Mail hysterically responded to the Scottish tax changes as a “money grab on hard working middle income families”. The limitations of the SNP proposals can be highlighted by the fact that a 1 percent rise in interest rates will hit so called “middle income families” much harder than the new Scottish tax rates.
Extra money for spending on the NHS, education and public services should be welcomed. It is apparent, nevertheless, that the Scottish government’s tax rises will do little, if anything, to reverse the years of austerity and cuts imposed by UK and Scottish governments. Leonard, though perhaps a bit too dismissive of the SNP’s tax changes, was correct to criticise the proposals as “tinkering round the edges”.
The latest opinion polls in Scotland show that backing for Independence still at 48 percent. Support for Labour, under Leonard, has improved slightly to 25 percent putting the Tories into third place with 24 percent and the SNP sitting on 39 percent.
Leonard’s support for Stand Up to Racism is a welcome development. However, the fact that the Labour Party in Scotland has had to suspend one of its own councillors, Jim Dempsey from Dumfries and Galloway, for an outrageous racist slur against SNP transport minister Humza Yousaf, shows that racism in Scotland has far from been eliminated.
The Achilles heel for the Labour Party remains its failure to recognise that the Independence movement is motivated, by and large, by the wish of working class people in Scotland to see an end to the politics of austerity and cuts.
If Leonard is to win majority support in Scotland for a Labour Party which can bring about real change, then he needs to start reaching out to all those who want to see an end to Tory rule in Scotland, including Independence supporters. At the very minimum he should support the demand for Indy Ref 2, which should take place sooner rather than later.