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TODAY, representatives of Scotland’s organised labour movement meet in circumstances none of us could have predicted a year ago.
Bustling conference centres and the raucous entertainment of the Morning Star’s Congress social seem a distant memory — but recent news of the development of a vaccine has planted a seed of hope that this essential meeting of minds can resume in physical form next year.
But while we all want to see a sense of normality restored to our daily lives, this Congress is a chance for Scotland’s working people to affirm that there should be no return to the old, failed normal of Scotland’s politics and economics.
Because our current — far from normal — predicament has this old, failed normal at its roots.
From the scandal of care home deaths to the Covid outbreaks in universities, to the massive job losses in service industries, it is becoming clearer by the day that Scotland was left woefully unprepared for the crises we now face.
Not that this will come as a surprise to activists in our trade union movement.
From the shop floor to the STUC general council, the years preceding the pandemic saw warning after warning of the need for an industrial strategy, the false economies of NHS cuts and the marketisation of higher education.
And in the crisis, too, it has been the trade union movement that has led the calls for a fairer deal — born out of workers’ direct lived experience of what is happening in workplaces and communities across the country.
Make no mistake, without the trade unions there would have been no job retention scheme, no action to tackle unsafe workplaces and no campaign for personal protective equipment to reach those who need it.
No-one in the Tory Party now dares utter the mantra of “ending the health and safety culture for good” which was such a feature of the Cameron years.
And in the most challenging of circumstances, trade unions have been nothing short of inspiring in staying on the front foot — demanding not only health and safety, but better pay and conditions too.
From the Unite hospitality workers fighting for a real living wage to the NHS workers not prepared to sacrifice hard-won terms for a pay rise, union campaigns have given us the hope of building a better Scotland after the pandemic.
They have offered us a glimpse of what the collective might of the working class can achieve when we stand together.
As we build this better future, we must do so conscious of the very real fear that people across Scotland are living in right now: not just for their lives, but for their livelihoods too.
We must never forget those family members and friends we have lost to Covid. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t think of them and the pain caused. It is in their memory that we need to win a better tomorrow.
And we need to understand the effects of the isolation that so many have experienced thanks to the lockdowns and shielding.
This is having, and will have for some time to come, a profound impact on the nation’s mental health.
An impact which again, makes building a better Scotland all the more important — but also one which makes it crucial that we in our movement support one another as we do it.
In Parliament, Scottish Labour has been making the case that Scotland’s working people — who have been at the forefront of fighting the pandemic — will be central to our long-term recovery.
Back in June, I made the case for a quality Jobs Guarantee Scheme, not the cheap labour model epitomised in the Tories’ Kickstart scheme.
Our Jobs for Good campaign through the summer forced the SNP to announce its own initiative — but it has yet to materialise.
The extension of the Job Retention Scheme until March has bought some time for many employees, but the uncertainty caused by the UK government’s eleventh-hour decision, as well as the Scottish government’s failure to provide adequate support, means many have lost their jobs already.
Businesses closed may never reopen. And we cannot ignore the fact that many low-paid workers — especially young people and women — are expected to live on 80 per cent of pay rates which are already well below the living wage.
We have finally won the SNP government over to the case for a national care service.
We welcome this new-found consensus, but we must remain vigilant in ensuring ministers do not simply try to rebrand the existing system without meaningful change.
Any national care service worthy of the name must put people before profit, provide national direction, support local delivery and accountability, and offer good work.
Next year’s Scottish Parliament elections present an opportunity to reset the focus of both the Parliament and the Scottish government — so we prioritise the urgent task of recovery.
As workers and their unions stand up for themselves, their workplaces and Scotland at large, Scottish Labour will stand with you.
It is the role of our movement to offer hope over fear. Rather than simply restoring the pre-crisis Scotland that planted the seeds of the crisis, together we can build a Scotland with good work, good pay and a compassionate heart.
We can plan our economy rather than abandon it to market forces.
If the pandemic has taught us anything it is surely the importance of an active state and the need to trust the people by sharing evidence.
People do not just act on individual self-interest, but on a wider community interest.
They are prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of the common good. That the values of solidarity and co-operation can prevail.
These are the enduring values of our movement: let’s put them to work.
Richard Leonard is Scottish Labour leader.
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