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Labour Conference: Unsated thirst for a just Scotland

After the referendum, the movement can play a central role in fighting for more devolution, democracy and justice, says GRAHAME SMITH

After two years, during which the independence referendum has been the all-consuming context for political and economic decision-making in Scotland, the people have spoken.

While the result was a decisive vote for Scotland to remain in the UK, with 45 per cent voting Yes support for an independent Scotland is now at an all-time high.

In the weeks ahead the vote will be the subject of much analysis. From the information currently available it would appear that, in general terms, by large majorities the young voted Yes and the elderly voted No, the poor votes Yes and the rich No (the three local authority areas voting Yes are the three with the highest unemployment rates in Scotland). 

A substantial number of “traditional” Labour supporters voted Yes, as did a fair number of Labour activists, while the votes of union members may well have been fairly evenly split.

In all likelihood, taken together, a majority of current and potential union members voted Yes. 

All of this has considerable implications for the trade union and labour movement across Britain. That said, it is important to avoid reaching knee-jerk conclusions based on such generalisations. 

The one thing that can be said with complete certainty is that the referendum was a triumph for democracy.

The phenomenal turnout came on the back of months of discussion and debate in workplaces, in communities and within families. 

There was a thirst for information and engagement the like of which I have not previously witnessed. 

I am immensely proud of the role the STUC played through our A Just Scotland initiative in responding to that demand. 

The binary way in which much of the media reported the referendum meant that, by deciding not to promote a Yes or No position, the contribution made by the STUC and by affiliates representing the majority of union members received marginal coverage, particularly in the latter part of the campaign. 

However, I know that the STUC’s contribution was hugely valued by unions and their members and was commended by a range of serious commentators for its balance and the rigour of its analysis. 

A quick look at our three papers on A Just Scotland will easily reveal how accurate we were from the outset in highlighting the critical issues — the lack of credibility of the Scottish government’s position on currency, the need for the unionist parties to address the demand for further devolution and commit to retaining the Barnett formula, and the central importance of fairness and social justice to a large swathe of the electorate. All were defining issues.         

We also played our part in igniting the vast civic movement for real and progressive change that has grown in Scotland over the last two years. 

More trade unionists and their families registered and turned out to vote than ever before. Many of those voting, some for the first time and on both sides, voted for the constitutional settlement they felt would create a fairer and more just Scotland. Our politicians must pay heed. 

They must also pay heed to the clear demand for significant new powers for the Scottish Parliament and for more direct engagement with people and communities over the decisions which affect their lives, including within the workplace.

It is essential that the forthcoming discussions on further powers are not left to the politicians alone and deliver a substantial and meaningful package. 

The voice of civil society, so important in the creation of the Scottish Parliament, must be heard. The STUC and others must be at the table.


Unfortunately, the signs are ominous. The appointment of an unelected politician to lead the process is hardly a sign of inclusiveness or of respect for democratic participation. 

While Scots are clearly impatient for change, the timetable which Gordon Brown invented is hardly conducive to intensive civil and community involvement.  

Furthermore, the package of proposals, from the little detail we know of it, and the conditions on Scottish representation at Westminster that some clearly wish to attach, are unlikely to satisfy.

The motion lodged in the House of Commons on Friday calls for consultation with the Scottish people on the proposals of all three main Westminster parties.  

Are we simply to be handed down minimalist proposals developed in a pre-referendum context which we can either take or leave? 

The STUC published its views on enhanced devolution prior to the referendum. It would be odd if we did not recognise that 45 per cent of the public voted for all of Westminster’s powers to transfer to the Scottish Parliament and reconsider our position.

Constitutional change is about powers but it is also about purpose. For us and for a vast number of those who voted Yes and No, that purpose is a fairer, more socially just Scotland. 

To date, the focus on further devolution has been on fiscal and welfare powers. However, the important levers are those over wages and the labour market. 

It would, therefore, be appropriate for us the look again at the case, for example, for the devolution of powers over employment and trade union rights, including union recognition and collective bargaining and other forms of workplace democracy, and over the minimum wage.  

The constitutional debate in Scotland can no longer be held in isolation from a debate about decentralisation across and within Britain as a whole, or crucially, within our own movement. There is much to be won for working people through union leadership of the debate on enhanced regional government in England and further devolution in Wales and Northern Ireland.   

The structure of the trade union movement including the arrangements of our trade union centres must reflect the post-referendum reality. 

We need an early and mature debate about the relationship between unions and the trade union centres in all jurisdictions of the UK — a debate which arguably should have taken place well before now. 

On October 15 the STUC will be hosting a major conference to discuss our movement’s policy priorities in the light of Thursday’s result. 

On the Saturday following, October 18, we invite all of those who want a fairer Scotland and a Scottish Parliament with the power to deliver it to join us in marching to a rally in George Square in Glasgow.

We must hold our politicians to the pledges they made and tell them loud and clear — the time for a Just Scotland is now.  

Grahame Smith is general secretary of the STUC.


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