“I would like to wish you and your loved ones a Happy Christmas and healthy and prosperous New Year,” wrote GMB Scottish Regional Secretary Gary Smith in his end-of-the-year message to GMB activists in Scotland.
But Gary’s thumbnail sketch of why Labour lost the general election would suggest that not everyone was on his list for season’s greetings:
“It is a source of personal frustration that the party of Labour were not in touch with the real-world experiences of working-class Scotland. Those who orchestrated the Labour Party’s abject defeat should own it – they were well warned by GMB Scotland.”
Smith was once a member of the now defunct Militant tendency, a political current which confused socialism with male-macho posturing, empty verbosity, appeals to working-class conservatism, and the wholesale dismissal of its political opponents as “middle-class liberals”.
Such characteristics were never of any use in building a socialist movement. But in his subsequent reincarnation as a trade union bureaucrat, Smith has certainly found a use for them.
Smith is clearly not someone who stands in the tradition of Wilhelm Liebknecht (“Not a penny, not a man for this system”): He is a devotee of Trident renewal.
In the run-up to the 2015 Scottish Labour conference Smith wrote that Trident renewal was “not an academic debate for the coffee shops of north London.” Defence diversification was “pie-in-the-sky” and would only lead to “low-skilled, low-paid jobs with zero hours contracts.”
Defence workers were “as vital to our national security as the armed forces.” Their skills were “vital to our defences as an island nation.” Without those skills, “the Royal Navy could not defend the nation.”
Smith returned to the same theme in subsequent years:
Scottish Labour was “completely out of touch with the concerns of many of our members.” It did not know what it stood for. And its adoption of an anti-Trident position was “a very big mistake (which) alienated a lot of small ‘c’ conservative voters.” (June, 2016)
“Too often” Scottish Labour “sound like a party of middle-class protest. We look at the party’s position on Trident, on building defence ships, on energy. They just don’t sound credible and they don’t sound in touch with working-class people or communities.” (November, 2016)
But opposing weapons of mass destruction was not Scottish Labour’s only crime against the working class. So too was its desire to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.
Scottish Labour needed to “get real” over fracking (which, unlike Smith, it opposes). Debates in the Scottish Parliament resembled “a student politics pub debate”. Pro-fracking statements by union-busting Ineos were welcomed by Smith as “a sobering intervention”. (June, 2016)
The following year Smith discovered another “sensible intervention” by an employers’ federation (UKOOG - UK Onshore Oil and Gas). Abandoning domestic gas production was “pie-in-the-sky politics and the main losers will be hard-working Scots and the poorest in our society.” (May, 2017)
Labour opposition to fracking was simply “not ethical” and “an abdication of our environmental and moral responsibilities.” It would force the UK to turn for gas supplies to foreign dictatorships – “henchman, hangmen and headchoppers”. (September, 2016)
(It’s odd that the Saudi Arabian government are henchmen, hangmen and headchoppers if they might provide gas otherwise produced by GMB members. But when they buy arms produced by GMB members, they are simply our nation’s business partners.)
Intoxicated by his own rhetoric, Smith was soon positively euphoric about the virtues of fracking. It would “make it easier for us to fight the scourge of rising fuel poverty, and far easier for us not to have to go cap in hand to dictators around the world.” (June, 2017)
On the eve of Scottish Labour’s 2019 conference Smith denounced Scottish Labour for “trying to chase a green vote. It’s a middle-class guilt thing. We are rooted in the real world and not in some aspirational ‘jobs in Brigadoon with Scotch mist in the pay packet’ type stuff.” (March 2019)
Six months later he took the position that developing alternatives to fossil fuels in Scotland was subject to a veto by Donald Trump, the Chinese Communist Party, Hindu nationalists and climate-change-denying Australian Tories:
“Climate change is a global challenge, and the reality is that if countries like China, India, USA and Australia keep burning coal, then what we do in Scotland and the rest of the UK will have a negligible impact.” (October 2019)
The smug self-complacency of the ethos of “their problem, not ours” is equally apparent in Smith’s general election analysis: “they were well warned by GMB Scotland.” But Smith’s pithy commentary on Scottish Labour’s election defeat is problematic in four respects.
Firstly, if Scottish Labour lost votes because of its out-of-touch-with-the-working-class hostility to Trident renewal and fracking, why was the general election in Scotland won by a party (the SNP) which … opposes Trident renewal and fracking?
(In fact, the SNP opposes Trident renewal much more vigorously than Scottish Labour. The Scottish Labour manifesto stated that defence was a reserved matter and that “UK Labour continues to support the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.”)
Secondly, Smith modestly omits any mention of his own contribution to Scottish Labour’s defeat. Since Corbyn’s election in 2015 Smith has been a darling of the Tory press for his voice-of-the-ordinary-working-man attacks on Labour at both Scottish and UK level.
Thirdly, Smith also omits to mention that the GMB Scottish Region sat out the election campaign. Whereas Unite members were bombarded with e-mails, phone calls, text messages and hard-copy election material, GMB activists received … nothing.
Fourthly, Smith provides no explanation for the contradiction between his dismissal of out-of-touch Scottish Labour and the GMB’s support for a Labour manifesto which represented the same policies:
“We need real change, not tinkering around the edges of a system that was built by millionaires, in the interests of millionaires. … There’s a real choice at this election. Labour’s manifesto would change the lives of millions of people for the better.”
With monotonous regularity Smith has denounced Scottish Labour in recent years for being out of touch with the real-world Scottish working class. But could it be that the person really out of touch with the latter is a privileged trade union bureaucrat?
Or is the working class really made up of horny-handed sons of toil who consume shale gas for breakfast, save the nation from invasion at lunchtime, build another battleship by teatime, and spend their evenings laying waste to north London coffee shops?