Setting the record straight over Unite’s position in Scotland

1st June, 2015 12:53 pm

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In a few weeks’ time, Jim Murphy will submit his ideas on how to revive Labour’s fortunes in Scotland. He will then leave the office of leader of the party in Scotland and a debate on his recommendations will rightly ensue.

These discussions will, I am sure, be conducted in an honest, clear-headed and comradely way, which is why ahead of this I am setting the record straight about Unite’s position in Scotland once and for all.

Firstly, the characterisation of our union as “sitting on our hands” during the referendum and general election could not be further from the truth. We warned time and again, stretching back to 2001, that unless the party takes a different approach in Scotland it would face the wrath of the voters. It gives me zero satisfaction that our worst predictions have been more than exceeded.

Of course, September’s referendum was the catalyst for the tsunami that swept Scotland on May 7th. But far from Unite doing nothing, we tried desperately hard to persuade Labour to approach the referendum differently.

We argued strongly (literally pleading) to have a second question – offering Devo Max – on the ballot paper, only to be dismissed out of hand, with Scottish Labour displaying the arrogance of which it is so oft accused.

Even with the devolution commission, where Labour had the chance to present a new offer to the voters beyond the referendum, we could not get a hearing. We argued for the party to strengthen its offer to Scotland. It wouldn’t, leaving Labour with the weakest extra powers offer of any of the main parties.

We fiercely opposed Labour joining with the Tories and Lib-Dems in Better Together for the simple reason that it would be disastrous in the eyes of our members. This is not “sniping”, as some may term it; it was being able to predict the sorry consequences, told on door step after door step during the election campaign, because we could draw from the most robust polling machine of all, our members.

The second myth that needs busting surrounds Unite’s opposition to Jim Murphy’s leadership. Our disagreement was always purely on political grounds – not a crime in the Labour Party, at least not yet – for no matter his talents as a campaigner or his dedication to Scotland, Jim has been a powerful advocate for many years of the very ideology that caused the slow alienation of the Scottish working class from the party. Those drifting away included numbers of Unite’s members, the very people who ought to be Labour’s core support – so when they tell their union that they do not recognise Labour in the party before them, that they are losing heart with Labour, then we must listen.

Yes, we backed another candidate for leader – Neil Findlay – but once elected, Unite made it clear that we fully backed Jim and genuinely hoped our worries would be proved baseless.

Which is why I want to make something else absolutely clear. While the media and some in the Labour Party attack Len McCluskey for speaking out, he is reflecting exactly what the members of Unite in Scotland believe and is doing what is expected of him by our members. That hasn’t stopped him and Unite committing fully to Labour’s cause. And that is why, and despite the difficult political reality for Unite in Scotland with so many members adrift from Labour, in the run up to general election polling day our general secretary addressed halls in the heartlands soon to fall to the SNP and urged union people to do everything they could until the dying minutes on May 7 to bring voters home to Labour – because it is the only party founded to deliver the betterment of the working class.

The “blame” for the “loss” of Scotland lies with many and was years in the making. The writing has been on the wall for years but let’s save our frustrations for those who would not listen, not the unions who appealed to Scottish Labour to respond to the disillusion among our voters.

Just reflect for a moment if we and others had been listened to. DevoMax would have won comfortably in the referendum with Labour at the head of that campaign, able then to go into the general election with the people’s faith intact. The irony was that DevoMax-plus was given in desperation at the end by the Westminster elite. The SNP tide built still further, Labour’s positioning left them defenceless and Cameron pounced, playing the anti-Scottish card that propelled the voters’ late move to his party.

There would have been no need for ‘Better Together’, no terrible taint left on Scottish Labour. The electricity and momentum of the ‘YES’ campaign would have been subdued. The SNP may have gained some seats on May 7th, but Labour would have held on to many. Maybe we would now be talking about Prime Minister Miliband.

‘Ifs’ and ‘maybe’s’. The task before us now is a very real one – to win back the trust of Scotland’s people. So put up the `Under New Management’ sign, thank Jim for his work, and get down to rebuilding our battered party – together.

Pat Rafferty is Scottish Secretary of Unite the Union

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