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A COUPLE of months into the pandemic there appeared to be a whole new mood transferring from the people to Parliament.
I tried to capture it in a speech to the Holyrood chamber in May 2020 where I spoke of a “popular mood for change.”
It was a strong conviction that there could be no going back to the way things were. No return to homelessness and rough sleeping and no return to the unequal society and the imbalanced economy.
We were after all during those weeks and months of lockdown living according to the values of unity not division, of co-operation not competitiveness. It was a very different world from the one that we left behind.
But more than a year later, as I look around it seems that the easy route, the well-trodden path back to business as usual is proving irresistible to governments.
There will be those who insist that the new coalition agreement in Scotland between the Nationalists and the Green nationalists suggests a different future.
But as Scotland’s auditor-general shrewdly observed recently there is a “major implementation gap” between the Scottish government’s declared aims and life out in the real world.
The list of examples is long. Take the SNP’s flagship policy of closing the attainment gap in schools between kids in the most deprived neighbourhoods and those in the wealthiest.
We have seen a widening of the gap in almost a third of all Scotland’s local authority areas. Then there’s the fall — yes, that’s right the fall — in life expectancy in Scotland in 2019, that’s even before the pandemic.
Scotland continues to have the worst drug death rate in Europe. And if you live in one of the most deprived communities of Scotland you are 18 times more likely to have a drug-related death than if you live in one of the least deprived.
The SNP extravagantly promised there would be 130,000 jobs in low-carbon and renewable energy by 2020. In fact there are less than a fifth of that number, with fabrication yards lying idle, wind energy manufacturing facilities mothballed and highly skilled workers languishing on the dole.
I am under no illusion that these shocking inequalities will not close, this social fabric is never going to knit back together, a jobs-first just transition will not happen, without a fundamental shift in whose interests our economy is run.
And that will only happen if we start to win the argument that the really decisive transfer of power needed is not from one Parliament and one set of politicians to another, but a transfer from those who own the wealth to those who create it.
We need to offer a compelling vision of a better future based on economic not merely political democracy — a brighter future with much less reliance on the market to allocate resources and much more on democratic planning from the bottom up.
In over 20 years of devolution there has never really been an industrial strategy for Scotland. There have, of course, been industrial interventions: in the early days to rescue the last deep coalmine and to save shipyards on the Upper Clyde, and in recent times to provide a lifeline to steel and aluminium production and to keep afloat shipbuilding on the Lower Clyde.
But there has been no framework, no forward plan, nothing proactive, everything reactive. This has got to change.
Trade unions brought in by the Scottish government under the umbrella of the STUC during the pandemic need a permanent place at the table where Scotland’s economic future can be charted.
That will mean an economic strategy with far less emphasis on inward investment from multinational corporations and far more on building a sustainable economy from the root up.
That has got to include more action to boost co-operative and other forms of common ownership: including in-sourcing public services from transport to social care.
I am currently trying to devise a member’s Bill to present to the Scottish Parliament which would give workers a new statutory right to take over the enterprise they work for if it is put up for sale, the subject of a takeover or indeed facing closure. A modest proposal but one which could accelerate worker ownership and so industrial democracy.
Small and medium-sized firms constitute an important part of the Scottish economy, but we cannot ignore the huge influence of big business.
Companies employing 250 people or more account for a half of all private-sector jobs and two-thirds of business turnover.
Significantly, a rising number of them are foreign owned so that over one third of all Scotland’s business turnover is in overseas-owned firms and so much of the profits overseas bound. Which is why the time has come for an industrial strategy which is aligned to our net-zero carbon goals, investment-led, jobs-first, people-centred, manufacturing-driven, based on democratic economic planning.
In the Labour Party we must end the retreat from political principle and class politics. We must build up the self-confidence of working people and rekindle that sense of our interdependency and common humanity.
Those values of co-operation and solidarity which have sustained us through the pandemic may have been lost sight of by governments, but they have not been forgotten by the governed.
Richard Leonard is Labour MSP for Central Scotland.
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