PAULINE BRYAN reviews Neil Findlay’s book on his leadership bid for the Scottish Labour Party and the independence referendum
NEIL FINDLAY had the foresight to start a diary in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum. What he couldn’t have predicted were the events to follow in which he was to play a significant part.
The book gives a real sense of who Findlay is, a man rooted in his family and community, a campaigner.
With all the unforeseen events that occupied him over past few years, he continued with his many core campaigns: justice for miners and black listed workers, public procurement politically, regulating lobbying and speaking in Holyrood for women damaged by mesh implants.
The book is made up of his diary entries as written on the day and untouched by hindsight. This gives a real sense of the pace of events as they occurred and exposes the poor level of political insight and sometimes stupidity of the Scottish Labour leadership.
Many people appear in the book and usually Findlay is fair and generous in his praise but he does have a sharp turn of phrase when he suspects their motives.
His description of former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy as not having a principled bone in his body was perhaps his harshest comment.
In January and March 2014 he met separately with the two current candidates for leader of the Scottish Party. He describes Richard Leonard as “a really clever and articulate man” and Anas Sarwar as “well mannered, ambitious and extremely well connected” he does, go on to say “we get on well.”
The period of the referendum is captured in its full confusion. Labour’s fundamental mistake of working alongside the Tories in Better Together, Johann Lamont’s lamentable speech where she spoke of “something for nothing” and Jim Murphy’s soap box tour made it harder for socialists arguing against independence to get a fair hearing.
The vitriol directed at Labour campaigners (including Denis Skinner being called a “red Tory”) on the one hand and the sense of grievance for Yes campaigners has left deep scars in Scottish politics.
In the days after the referendum events moved rapidly. Findlay wrote a seminal article for the Morning Star outlining a policy programme for Labour. It prefigured the type of Scottish Labour manifesto on which we will hopefully fight the next Scottish election. But at that time the party was in melt down.
Two days later Johann Lamont resigned in the most spectacular way, writing a damning article in the Daily Record. The very next day Findlay attended the Campaign for Socialism conference, where the mood was determined to fight.
It was well known that Murphy had been planning for this event and was ready to take over Scottish Labour and mould it in his “unprincipled” image. So eventually, against all his natural instincts, Findlay stood as a candidate.
The campaign was important in that it helped to re-build a left in the Labour Party that had lost so many comrades through despair and disgust during the Blair years and latterly during the referendum.
With Findlay as a figurehead, people got involved again and found a voice. It was all good practice for the elections to come, particularly the co-operation between trade unions and rank and file party members.
The result of the election, however, showed us the true state of our party at that time. Not only did we have a group of MSPs and MPs who were on the right of the party, but this was probably a fair reflection of our membership.
Findlay and Katy Clark fought great campaigns. They were head and shoulders above their opponents, but the membership were still trapped in a Blairite view of the world that made them think Murphy was an acceptable figurehead for the Labour Party.
The impact of the 2015 general election which reduced Labour to one single MP was like an earthquake rocking the core of the party. It was, however, not enough to shift the deep rooted conservativism of the party leadership.
The MSPs looked ahead to their own election one year but could not take on board the fundamental changes they would have to make to win back trust from their previous supporters, let alone win new supporters.
So when Jeremy Corbyn started his campaign for the leadership of the British party, only a handful recognised that this could be a life saver for the party in Scotland.
The momentum around both campaigns was not on the level of some parts of England, but in Scottish terms after the tremendous setbacks of the past few years it was a lifeline for the left. It rebuilt friendships and enthusiasm.
By the 2017 election, we saw the beginnings of a renewed Scottish Labour Party and a renewed activist base who, regardless of what their MPs and MSPs thought, were committing themselves to a radical Labour Party.
As Findlay says at the end of his book: “You can’t be a pessimist and a socialist.”
Pauline Bryan is convener of the Red Paper Collective.
Socialism & Hope: A journey through turbulent times by Neil Findlay with Jeff Holmes was published by Luath Press Ltd and is available now for £12.99.