'It's absurd to call me a red Tory': Interview with Labour's Neil Findlay

CommonSpace sat down with the Labour left-winger ahead of the election to ask how the party aims to win back socialist Scots and defy the polls

ALMOND VALLEY is one of those 'landmark' constituencies, the central-belt Labour heartland turned yellow, which seem to seal the fate of the troubled Scottish Labour party.

Taken by the SNP's Angela Constance - now education secretary - in 2007, it is contested by former list MSP and socialist Neil Findlay in the upcoming Holyrood election.

Backed by the unions and the party's left wing, Findlay lost to Blairite Jim Murphy in the race to head the party in 2014, who was himself replaced by current leader Kezia Dugdale less than a year later, after a disastrous election which saw just one Labour MP remaining north of the border.

So, facing predictions of another SNP landslide in May's Holyrood elections, how is Scottish Labour planning to reassert its left-wing credentials?

"Left wing views are now pretty mainstream in the party."

"I think a lot of people will be thoroughly perplexed and disappointed at what's on offer from the SNP. I mean, it's a rightwing tory economic policy that's being presented!", Findlay responds - confirming almost immediately the party's tendency to focus on their SNP rivals.

The deep-seated tribalism between the two parties has long characterised much of Scottish politics. Findlay continues, "If I'm on the progressive side of the spectrum, why on earth would I vote for the SNP? Point me to something that says this is a progressive policy? Just because you say it's progressive, doesn't mean it is."

Describing his party's own progressive credentials, Findlay nevertheless makes frequent comparison with the SNP. "We're putting money back into public services. Labour's tax policies are way to the left of the SNP. Scottish politics has been sitting with its arse clenched for so long on taxation, and you've now got a party saying actually we'll tax people more in order to fund public services. That's a good thing."

Findlay's black-and-white analysis of Scottish politics pitches the Left against the Nationalists, with no room for nuance.

The 'red Tory' accusation, bandied about during the referendum and ever since, particularly angers the former MSP. "It's just absurd when they say that to me. In 25 years of politics I have raised money for South African trade unions, for Cuba, for Palestinians; I've been on picket lines for railwaymen, for Timex workers, PCS strikers, Unite... I've been involved in almost every progressive campaign in Scotland.

"And you know what? I've never seen any of these people at these things. They've never been involved in community, local charities or anything. And they have the audacity to lay that on me."

But how many of Scottish Labour's big-hitting figures describe themselves as socialist? With some notable exceptions, the party's candidate list for Holyrood doesn't look like a radical shake-up, with party faithfuls such as Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar highly placed. Findlay disagrees, adding, "point me to who you'd regard as being on the left in the SNP?"

"Second to Murphy and his Irn Bru crate, I probably did more [referendum] meetings than anyone"

Regardless of individual leanings, Scottish Labour is now solidly left-wing, he argues. "All of those folk are standing on what is the most left manifesto of any of the main parties. A platform of tax increases on the higher end of the scale to increase funding for public services. That's quite tricky for some people who've signed up to the New Labour stuff in years gone by - and that's a good thing."

Citing Scottish Labour's move to oppose Trident, as well as its opposition to TTIP and fracking, Findlay insists that "left wing views are now pretty mainstream in the party."

So is the manifesto further to the left than the Greens? "On some stuff, yeah. Remember there's various strands of Green-ism. They're not all using the same rhetoric Patrick [Harvie] does."

Findlay has little time for the new socialist alliance Rise either - perhaps to be expected during an election race, but it's Rise's apparent opportunism that really rankles. "I regard a number of people in RIC [Radical Independence Campaign, which some of Rise's founders were involved in] as nationalists. I don't regard them as socialists. Many of these people, for example the ISG group that became RIC ... they were previously the most anti-independence people. For them, it was nothing more than a tactical position to recruit members. This wasn't some great high principle."

If independence isn't a firmly held belief, wouldn't that be the opposite of nationalism? "Well they're now nationalists", says Findlay. "The Rise rhetoric you hear is tinged with nationalism - the whole thing is about a second referendum. Presumably they're advising people to vote SNP first."

Rise are standing in each of Scotland's eight regions in the election, but not in the first-past-the-post constituencies; to our knowledge Rise has issued no recommendations regarding constituency votes at all. "Well, many of them will be", Findlay continues unperturbed. "They lost a lot of respect during the referendum from people who would previously have joined hands with them on umpteen campaigns because there was very little critique of the Yes campaign, which was effectively the SNP. When the white paper came out, where was the radical critique of the rubbish in that? It was quiet, very quiet."

The oft-repeated dislike of (Scottish) nationalism in all and any form is a long-standing tendency within parts of the Labour movement and party, whether it's a left-wing or right-wing variety. But was the referendum all bad news, or were there parts Findlay enjoyed?

"I regard a number of people in RIC as nationalists. I don't regard them as socialists."

"Some elements were positive. One thing I don't regret is my own personal involvement in the referendum. Second to Murphy and his Irn Bru crate, I probably did more meetings than anyone - over 65 public meetings. I enjoyed everyone single one of them. It very much sharpened up my abilities as a politician; speaking, debating, going into sometimes very hostile meetings."

"But the division created by the referendum remains. The way in which people are dealing with politics is very regretful. You're starting to see pro-yes people come out with stinging critiques of the SNP and just get dog's abuse online - that's the legacy of the referendum. People are getting disgusting comments just because they have the audacity to say they're not going to vote nationalist."

For Findlay it's social justice - class justice - that should be the question in voter's minds as they enter the ballot box. "You have to ask who is putting forward a prospectus that's going, in my view, to advance the material interests of working class people. And that's Labour."

"If I'm on the progressive side of the spectrum, why on earth would I vote for the SNP?"

This is how Scottish Labour have been framing the difficult race ahead: with redistribution and taxation the dominant election themes so far, party leader Kezia Dugdale is presenting their penny increase in income tax proposals as the anti-austerity alternative to a 'Tory-lite' SNP.

Unfortunately for the party, it just isn't working. Findlay's black-and-white analysis of Scottish politics is that of the traditional Labour left, pitching the Left against the Nationalists, with no room for nuance. When questioned whether the party would take a softer line on independence, as Dugdale appeared - if only briefly - to do recently, he responds with a look of incredulity.

But opinion polls are putting Scottish Labour's share of the vote at a fairly catastrophic 19-20 per cent -meaning Findlay's opponent, health secretary Angela Constance, would keep the Almond Valley seat. A change in tack does not seem likely however - at least in this section of the Scottish Labour party.

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Picture courtesy of Jon Davey Photography