The lost cause of English Labour?

I’ve been thinking about the issues to be discusses at next saturday’s Convention of the Left meeting on the break-up of the UK

UK PM Gordon Brown is of course Mr Britishness, so it is odd when the policies of his cabinet are refered to as those of the English Labour party.

In Wales, Labour is sharing power with Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party. In Scotland, Labour went into opposition after losing the Scottish parliamentary elections to the SNP.

There’s a good chance that at the next election, Labour will lose in England. Loses in Scotland and Wales have come at the hands of a nationalists able to articulate a progressive alternative and come up with policies which people can feel the benefit of – policies which go against the neoliberal agenda (but crucially, do not break with it).

Demands from the party’s base for a windfall tax on the energy companies to help the poorest cope with rising prices have been ignored by the leadership – making a revival in England that much harder.

Brown is leader of the UK Labour party – the absence of a specifically English leadership means he’s also Labour’s leader in England (which is an oddity, since his constituency is in Scotland where many areas of public policy are controlled by the devolved government).

Both the PM and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling (MP for Edinburgh South West in Scotland) have been defending their policy of wage cuts in the public sector to delegates at the TUC conference this week.

The Scottish Labour leadership are likely to continue supporting public sector strikes against this policy – re-opening a rift between Labour’s centres of power. Scottish Labour are in opposition, and the SNP government is doing its best to live up to the Tartan Tories jibe, as The Scotsman reports:

They agreed the financial settlement with local government and they could find the money to increase the offer to workers if they had the political will.

But if the dispute escalates, there is likely to be a change in the Scottish Government’s position. Ministers will stop being so neutral and instead they will put more and more blame on the UK government.

Holyrood’s position will then become that the problem is not low wages but high prices and if the UK government did something about high prices, there would be less pressure from unions to raise salaries.

If the dispute drags on, then Scottish ministers will use this argument more and, in doing so, try to distance themselves from the pay row even more.

In 1978-9, the government was blamed for the strikes. Alex Salmond is determined if an administration has to take responsibility, it won’t be his.

The question is, will it work? If the dispute escalates, then government – any government – will be blamed, however much Mr Salmond will try to deflect this. Therefore, it is in his interests to sort this out as soon as possible.

Labour, though, is in a difficult position. In London, the government is trying to keep down wage inflation and will not provide any more money for public-sector wages.

In Scotland, the party is going through a leadership campaign where two of the candidates have been backed by unions involved in the strike action.

What this means is that, when Labour in Scotland does get its new leader this weekend, the party here will almost certainly be in favour of strike action while the party in England is not.

Brown is de facto leader of English Labour. He’s unelected. Harriet Harman, de facto Deputy leader, was elected by the party’s members and affiliates.

She’s been speaking to the TUC about class – a prelude to a campaign for the top job, perhaps – but she’s got nothing better than a report she’s commissioned.

Brown’s supposed rethinking of New Labour was quickly rubbished by his office – this was in an article he probably didn’t write and certainly isn’t worth reading.

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