At university in the 1970’s, I was a member of Broad Left. This was an alliance of the Labour Party and various left-of-centre groups who, together, were very active and successful.
Student politics and ages ago, you may think, but student activity was quite influential in British politics back then. Some leading lights of the labour movement rose through the ranks of Broad Left, like Charles Clarke, Sue Slipman, Trevor Phillips and David Aaronovitch.
But perhaps the real significance of the alliance was how it helped Labour.
What did the Labour Party, by far the biggest grouping on its own, stand to gain from aligning itself with smaller radical organisations and individuals? The answer was clear then, even if it isn’t clear now. Ideas. The thoughts, projects, theories and philosophies of others helped the Labour Party to think.
For Labour, at that time, ideas were welcome. Ideas were necessary to secure power. And the party knew it couldn’t just think for itself. It needed to get involved with others – not just to add votes but to create policy, appeal to the electorate and renew itself.
Somehow, Labour managed to get through 18 years in opposition with sufficient of its thoughts intact to deliver some clear, groundbreaking policies. When it finally overtook the Tory government in 1997, we saw peace in Northern Ireland, civil partnerships and devolution for Scotland and Wales.
The rest is recent history, but unfortunately now, in 2014, it should be painfully obvious to all but the most tribal of its members – and leaders – that Labour has become almost incapable of thinking for itself, to such an extent that it avoids most radical and progressive ideas because they might spoil the party’s image.
The problem with this aversion to fresh ideas, from outside and in, is that without the ability to think freely, Labour’s support dwindles.
This has been vividly displayed in Scotland over the past few years. When after the 2007 elections, Labour was unable to continue governing at Holyrood, should this not have given it pause for reflection and change? And beyond that, shouldn’t the SNP 2011 landslide – in a system expected to avoid that very result – have provoked the most profound re-think and change of direction?
Instead we’ve become used to unswerving adherence to the party line and hectoring. We often hear politicians say “we’ll take no lessons from …”. Yet isn’t that exactly what Labour needs to do: learn from others in order to renew and reconnect?
Of course Labour continues to produce some new policies that hit the spot in terms of popular support – the price freeze on power companies, for instance. Yet these odd flashes don’t seem to connect to any deeper coherent set of principles. Instead, the fundamental drift of Labour ideology has been away from the radical and the challenging towards the status quo and the powerful. So, at Westminster, Labour has found itself playing ‘me too’ with some of the most regressive thinking on welfare, supporting the ideas of privatising public resources and cutting benefits while private wealth soars.
And now, in Scotland, there is the grotesque sight of Labour joining an alliance with the Conservatives – the Conservatives! – in order to block radical proposals for constitutional and social change. Wouldn’t, in more open-minded times, Labour be leading the charge to reform the system in favour of the people?
It seems such a waste that Labour’s great allegiance to social justice, fairness and democracy cannot be used positively to help build a better Scotland. It looks as if a significant number of Labour supporters are starting to see how this could happen by voting Yes in September.
If the once great movement that was Labour is struggling due to a lack of new ideas, it doesn’t have to look far to find them. If you want fresh thinking about how to improve society, the Yes campaign – especially all its fertile offshoots – is awash with it.
Campaigning for Yes, I’ve heard some really refreshing, inventive and inspired discussions from a wide range of people, passionately imagining a better Scotland.
The response of Labour’s high heijuns is to dismiss this unprecedented rainbow alliance as ‘separatists’. That doesn’t only insult everyone’s intelligence, it also risks cutting Labour off from some of the best ideas and brightest people in future.
How brilliant it would be if Labour could join in. All I’d say to Labour supporters, wondering if Yes might be better than No, is: Come away from the dark side, and join us. Come on in! The water may be bracing but it’s full of possibilities. There could be so much to gain by voting Yes – just think about it!