The bearded Bolshevik bites the dust

The trouble with being a socialist in Scotland is that your history is always going to be better than your future. It is hard to live up to a past that encompasses Keir Hardie, Jimmy Maxton, John Maclean, John Wheatley, Red Clydeside and the struggles of the miners, the steelmen and the shipyard workers.

As Gordon Brown said in his biography Maxton, the 1922 general election, when Labour won 30 Scottish seats and "Glasgow blazed red" with ten of the city's 15 seats, was "the Scottish Labour movement's finest hour".

Since then, Scotland may boast a wide base of collectivism in council housing, schools, water supply and public works - but that is steadily being dismantled and the decaying bastions of collectivism are not being renewed. The council housing stock is about to be transferred and, despite the growing number of sub- standard homes and persistent homelessness, Labour authorities in the west- central belt are selling off "surplus" housing land, including greenbelt sites, to private developers. The country's biggest public projects, including the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and a new stretch of England-bound motorway, are private finance initiatives.

In deference to the lingering belief that Scotland is more left-wing than elsewhere, the leadership is always careful to push "old Labour" buttons when it crosses the border. It will do so at the weekend's Scottish Labour Party conference at Inverness - although, with the party in pre-election, don't-scare-the-voters mode, the S-word will be taboo.

The only S-exhibition, naked and unashamed, will take place at the fringe meeting of the Campaign for Socialism, which insists: "CFS knows that most ordinary members of the Scottish Lab- our Party are hostile to new Labour solutions."

A mere ten CFS members could, indeed, nudge Scottish Labour leftwards - because they happen to be MSPs.

In particular, they could sabotage the new-Labour-led Scottish Executive's controversial scheme for the transfer of Scotland's council housing stock into the control of housing associations. They argue that there must be a right to high-quality public sector housing, which must be retained in council ownership except where a stock transfer has been initiated by tenants.

They also spurn "the marriage of new Labour to capitalism" and the strategy of skilling up the Scottish workforce to attract foreign investment in the service-dominated economy. Instead, they call on the Scottish government to extend social ownership, and the co-operative movement to help fight food poverty, create jobs and provide goods and services.

Nor do they dismiss the use of the Scottish Parliament's limited power to raise extra taxes to help attack inequality (through measures for economic regeneration) and provide better public services.

But if Scots really were as socialist as the CFS would like to think, the Scottish National Party would now be wearing Labour's left-wing clothes and Tommy Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party would be doing better than it is.

John McAllion, MSP, whose leftishness cost him a front-bench position, contends that socialism can still be an electoral asset in Scotland: "A more left-wing Scottish Labour Party would immediately see off the Scottish National Party.

"The SNP strategy is no longer about independence: it's about trying to brand us as the 'new Tories'. They are trying to occupy the ground we used to hold in Scotland before 'modernisation'."

The CFS was stung by John Lloyd's failure to mention the campaign in his recent New Statesman article on a resurgence of the left. The CFS secretary, Vince Mills, complained to his members: "He does so, rather oddly I thought, on the basis of what he perceives as opportunities for the left outside the Labour Party - Livingstone in London, Sheridan in Scotland. Sadly, he ignores the possibility for real left development inside the Labour Party itself . . . "

In fact, Sheridan's party could do no better than a fourth-place 5 per cent of the poll in December's Falkirk West by- election, a seat many believed had been bequeathed to the SSP by the resignation of the Labour maverick Dennis Canavan. In the latest Herald-System Three opinion poll, the Scottish Socialists have edged up a percentage point, but only to 3 per cent on the first vote for the Scottish Parliament and 6 per cent on the second vote.

The CFS presence at the Scottish Labour conference is a straightforward trawl for those in the party who still believe an alternative to Blairism has a chance. Otherwise, as Mills jibes: "Get a suntan, a suit and try to work out some clever soundbites for a passing journalist."

It is all somehow reminiscent of that 1922 election and the Tory poster of a bearded Bolshevik with the legend: "He Wants You to Vote Socialist - Don't." Scots did then, but they don't seem to be bothered now.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.