Tribune, 12 March 1993

On the eve of Labour’s Scottish party conference, the Shadow Scottish Secretary talks to Paul Anderson
“There was a lot of frustration and heart-searching in Scotland after the election,” says Tom Clarke, the Shadow Scottish Secretary. “That was inevitable given the huge disappointment. There was this expectation of at very least a hung Parlia­ment and at best a Labour victory. In the end, we won 49 seats out of 72 in Scotland and lost in the UK.”
Last year’s general election was indeed a bad shock to Labour in Scotland. The party had believed that the To­ries’ representation in Scotland could he reduced from ten to four or five MPs, with Labour gains in Ayr, Dum­fries, Edinburgh Pentlands and Stirling. Instead, all four target seats stayed Conservative and, to make matters worse, the Tories defeated Labour’s sitting MP in afflu­ent Aberdeen South, Frank Doran.
Labour’s poor showing unleashed a storm inside the party. Sections of the Left joined prominent members of the Scottish TUC and the Scottish National Party to sup­port Scotland United, a pressure group calling for a ref­erendum on Scottish constitutional arrangements: others denounced them for making overtures to the SNP, Labour’s main enemy in Scotland. When Clarke, now aged 52, took over from Donald Dewar as shadow Scot­tish Secretary in July, having made it into the Shadow Cabinet for the first time, his first task was to calm frayed nerves in the Scottish Labour Party.
He did this by promising to campaign on the bread-and-butter issues (the economy, the welfare state, water privatisation) while keeping up the pressure on the con­stitutional question and shunning the SNP. It is a deli­cate balancing act, and Clarke knows that the constitu­tional question remains potentially dangerous for Labour: while he was out of action with a viral infection late last year, a demonstration for home rule largely or­ganised by Scotland United attracted 25,000 people on to the streets of Edinburgh, the biggest protest in the coun­try for more than a decade. He is nevertheless confident that the approach he promised last summer is the best option.
On the constitution, he says that he wants a revival of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the body, group­ing Labour, the Liberal Democrats, trade unions and churches (but not the SNP, which withdrew), that forged a consensus for a Scottish parliament within the UK in the run-up to the 1992 election.
“We want a reborn Convention that’s out there cam­paigning, much more representative of the whole of Scot­land,” he says, arguing against the idea of replacing it with a new forum. The Liberal Democrats, who had been lukewarm about reviving the Convention, are back on board following a meeting last week. “It was perceived, I think wrongly, that people like Malcolm Bruce, the Lib­eral Democrat MP for Gordon, did very badly in the elec­tion because the Lib Dems were too closely associated with Labour. But we had a very good meeting and the Convention’s still in business. The Liberal Democrats were outspoken and very helpful.”
As for the SNP, he says: “I don’t think there will ever be a really close working relationship between the SNP and the Labour Party. There’s a lot of contempt among the grass roots of the party for the SNP if only because it fights the party harder than anybody else.” This week, Clarke came down heavily on the SNP for negotiating a deal with the Government during the House of Commons debate on the European regional council. His hope is clearly that the SNFs apostasy will turn even the most nationalist in Labour’s ranks against the idea of SNP-Labour co-operation.
Meanwhile, “we’re trying to be very careful that issues like unemployment, health and water privatisation are kept in view” as well as constitutional issues. The Scot­tish economy is in a dire state, Clarke says. “There has been closure after closure in every field. I used to repre­sent a steel and mining area. We no longer have any steelworks or any pits.” Labour has to keep pushing its vision of a “modern industrial Scotland”, maintain the pressure over the welfare state and assert itself as “the leading organisation which has been fighting water pri­vatisation” – which, unlike in England where water privatisation passed off with barely a squeak in 1989, has sparked a major public controversy.
Clarke is confident that Labour can be at the forefront in all this campaigning, although he admits that there was a small blip in its water privatisation efforts a fort­night ago after a furore followed his being misinterpreted on Labour’s plans for bringing privatised Scottish water back into public ownership. This weekend’s Scottish par­ty conference is expected to back calls for water to be re­turned to the public sector, a prospect which Clarke is “very happy” to accept.
The spectre haunting Labour in all of this is, of course, its response to popular antipathy to the poll tax after 1989, when Labour caution was wide­ly seen as benefiting the SNP and Militant. Now as then, the SNP and Militant are doing what they can to take on Labour in its urban heartlands, with Militant, now firm­ly outside the Labour Party as an electoral rival, making significant gains in council by-elections.
Clarke clearly believes that the best way to deal with the danger of being outflanked on the left is to insist that Labour is the only party that can actually make a difference. “The party in Scotland is very keen that we keep our separate identity as the biggest party in Scot­land, the opposition, the alternative government, the only party that can deliver a Scottish Parliament.”
Militant, he says, has “done well” in taking council seats from Labour and “should be taken seriously”. “Be­cause of the attacks by the Tory Government on local government, it’s very easy to condemn local Labour coun­cils and the Militant is very good at that. Without being complacent about the genuine concerns of ordinary work­ing people, we have to make it clear that Militant cannot deliver.”
One of Labour’s problems is that it is seen as the es­tablishment in much of Scotland. Another, related, prob­lem is that it has a very small membership in Scotland by comparison with its electoral support. According to of­ficial Labour Party statistics, the average membership of a Constituency Labour Party in Scotland is 283, com­pared with 440 in the UK as a whole.
“It makes a very strong case for a mass party,” says Clarke, while stressing that there are some very active CLPs with large memberships. “I’d like to see the mod­ern Labour Party in Scotland taking over the role that the Co-op had in an earlier day, when everyone went to the Co-op and it was a real part of the local community.”
Clarke is a Catholic – his opposition to abortion has made him unpopular with feminists – and his Monklands West constituency, centred on the town of Coatbridge, consists of the Catholic part of the area covered by Mon­klands council (the Protestant part, Monklands East, is represented by John Smith).
The council, run by Labour, has been in the news recently after allegations that it has discriminated in favour of Catholics, and the local party was the subject of an inquiry by Labour’s Scottish executive, the results of which were published last week demanding reorganisa­tion of its procedures in line with party rules.
There is no suggestion that Clarke has been involved in any local skulduggery – executive members went out of their way last week to emphasise that he and Smith had given full support to the inquiry – but the Monk-lands affair has given new life to old complaints about re­ligious tribalism in Scottish politics. Clarke counters such rumblings by pointing out that more of Labour’s Scottish MPs are Protestant than are Catholic and argues that religion is no longer the force it used to be in Scottish politics.
“Historically, the party has taken most Catholic votes because most Catholics were Irish and saw themselves as underdogs,” he says. “As time has gone on, some Catholics are more reflective and don’t necessarily vote Labour as instinctively as earlier generations did. And in 1992 the party took five times the number of votes as there are Catholics. I don’t see it as a major factor in Scottish politics – although obviously I want the party to appeal to Catholic voters.”
This week, the government announced its long-awaited sop to Scottish demands for home rule -some minor administrative devolution and an in­creased role for Scottish MPs in the Scottish Grand Com­mittee.
Clarke has had a field-day with this “weak unworthy whimper of a plan”. The solutions offered by the govern­ment only make the democratic deficit worse,” he told the Commons on Tuesday. “This is a cosmetic exercise. It does not represent the aspirations of the Scottish people.” Judging by the sheepish look on the face of the Scot­tish Secretary, Ian Lang, as Clarke savaged him, the government knows that most Scots share Clarke’s low opinion. The big question is whether Labour can manage to make itself the beneficiary of such sentiment
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