Iain McNicol’s speech to special Scottish party conference

29th October, 2011 5:05 pm

Conference,

I’m proud to be the new General Secretary of the Labour Party.

And proud that after more than a century, I am the first Scot to be appointed to the post.

I know the sacrifices so many make for this movement. For you to give up yet another weekend to be here at this important conference should not go without thanks. So thank you for all that you do.

We have a job of work to do today.

This special conference is born out of a desire, shared across the party in Scotland, that change must come.

I must congratulate the work that Jim [Murphy] and Sarah [Boyack] have been doing since Ed [Miliband] asked them to lead the review we’re debating today.

They’ve thrown themselves into the task with the energy and diligence we’ve come to expect.

Let me also add my sincere thanks to the review group: David Martin, Ian Miller, David O’Neill, Pat Rafferty, Helen Stephen, and Linda Stewart.

And congratulations to Margaret [Curran] for that inspiring speech.

As we’ve just heard so far this morning, the emerging theme is that change must come, not begrudgingly, born of defeat, but confidently, born of hope.

We change because we want to, not because we have to.

Embracing change, making change our ally, and showing to the Scottish people that a party prepared to change itself is a party ready to change our country and community. That’s the task.

It’s our task today when we come to vote on the rule changes.

It’s the task for the new leadership team which will take up the challenge on 17th December.

I joined the Labour Party aged 16, after growing up under Margaret Thatcher. I grew up on a farm. Times were tough in the rural economy just as much as in manufacturing and heavy industry in Scotland.

My politics was fashioned by the harsh economic realities of those times, but my politics was also fashioned by the hope of a better day.

When we campaigned for an end to Apartheid, it was born of hope, not just anger.

When we argued for a Scottish Parliament, it was driven by hope, not grievance.

When we fought to win a Labour landslide in 1997, it was motivated by hope, not merely loathing of the Tories.

I worked as a Labour Party organiser.

I worked as a union organiser for the GMB.

I learned that anger, grievance and loathing isn’t good enough.

You have to get organised.

You need to raise funds.

You need to knock on doors.

You need to listen.

You need great candidates rooted in their communities.

You need policies which speak to working people’s aspirations and dreams.

In short, you need to offer hope.

As General Secretary, I am conscious every day that we stand on the shoulders of giants. The men and women who created this party. We hold this party in trust. Our responsibility is to hand it on to the next generation in a decent shape.

If you read the accounts of how those pioneers this movement was created at the end of the Victorian age, several insights leap off the pages. Let me share just three of them:

The first is that the Labour Party was created as a specific reaction to the failure of the Liberal Party to deliver progressive change for working people.

The failure of Liberalism meant a new party was necessary, anchored in the trade unions, but infused with new ideas of social justice and equality.

Those miners, dock-workers, weavers, iron-founders, and shipbuilders knew full well that the Liberals could never help working families.

They would not be surprised to see them today in league with the Tories, hammering the poor. They understood that a Liberal was just a Tory wearing a yellow rosette.

The second insight is the amount of effort the Labour pioneers spent on calibrating the right organisation for their new party.

Like us here today, the founders of the Labour Party in 1900 held a special conference. They debated rule changes and procedures. Not because they liked it, or lacked imagination, but because they knew organisation matters.

Keir Hardie is reputed to have said ‘socialism does not come by shouting’.

The key insight is that Hardie and the rest created a form of organisation suited to their times. The system of branches and delegates mirrored the other organisations they were involved in: the churches, the unions, the Temperance
Movement.

For most socialists back then, attending a Labour Party meeting would feel familiar and normal, because so much else was organised on similar lines.

I don’t believe we can honestly say that about today’s Labour Party structures. They don’t feel familiar to our new members, they can feel bewildering and alien.

So our structures need to reflect the way people live their lives.

I regularly interact with members via Twitter. I talk with our party staff via email. We are embracing the digital revolution in politics, and it changes us.

So of course we need to reflect these changes in the way we conduct our campaigning.

Socialism does not come by shouting.

The third insight from our founders was their great sense of optimism.

Hope radiated from them like the light from a torch.

For them, the socialist commonwealth was not a future utopia, it was an achievable goal. The march towards it meant practical improvements every step of the way. It was a message of hope, confidently and cogently expressed, on every street corner and every public hall.

I think we’ve heard some of that confidence already today. I believe it will grow as we make these changes and take our message to every community.

My son is in primary school. We live in London now, but he’s called Hamish so he’ll never forget where he came from.

The world he and his sister will inherit will be an amazing place.

His generation of young Scots will travel the world, not because of poverty and necessity like so many of their ancestors, but because of incredible opportunities.

China. India, Brazil. The rising nations of Africa.

These will be the places our young people visit, live and work, where new cities, universities and economies will be created.

He will inherit a world where digital technology surrounds him like the air we breathe.

Where his work will come from sectors that haven’t even been invented yet.

He will laugh at our old-fashioned i-Pods and i-Pads, and the idea that a computer needed a desk.

So the question for us today is this: how will the Labour Party, created a century ago by people who lit their homes with candles, fit into his world of unparalleled technological advance?

How will the Labour Party meet the needs and aspirations of this new generation, born in the 1990s and 2000s, weaned on computer games, as concerned about climate change as getting a job and a home, more likely to have heard of Steve Jobs than Jimmy Reid?

That’s not merely our challenge today, it’s our responsibility. Not merely a necessity, but an opportunity.

So in conclusion, let me say this:

We’re not really debating dry rule changes on a rainy Saturday in Glasgow.

We’re building a new, confident Labour Party, ready for the future.

Driven by social justice, in tune with modern Scotland, at home in the digital age, fizzing with energy, and infused with hope for a better day.

Now, let us get down to business.

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