Highlands and Islands Labour Conference


Inverness, January 2018


Gary Cormack


Notable figures and loyal members from Highland-based CLPs turned up for the third annual Highlands and Islands conference, held for the second year running in Inverness, culminating in the day’s keynote speech from new Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.

David Stewart MSP opened the day’s proceedings with a brief welcome and introduction, followed by a short speech by Dave Watson, Unison’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs on the hot topic of local government.

He highlighted cuts to local government (-6.9%) by the SNP-led government since 2007, despite an increase over this time (1.6%) in the Scottish budget, a funding gap which has seen councils try to bridge the gap by steep service cuts and increased charges.

These increased charges have been referred to by Councillor Jimmy Gray as “pretty unpalatable” and has hurt the popularity and perception of councils by many members of the public, although he acknowledges that funding cuts from central government have made these choices necessary.

Dave Watson ultimately believes that local authorities represent an easy target for MSPs due to having their concerns “far away from ministers’ desks” and representing an easy deflection as to who is responsible for local problems.

He ultimately believes that “radical solutions” are required on tax collection across all demographics to improve public services more generally.

This was followed by a speech later in the day by Cathy Peattie, chair of the Scottish Co-operative Party, on ‘Building a More Co-operative Scotland’.

She told conference that Labour supporters have a responsibility to challenge popular perceptions of cooperatives being outdated, and that the future must see more grassroots, ‘people powered’ schemes to affect substantive societal change, but that long term political will is also needed to push the idea.

Linda Stewart later spoke on issues facing the Highlands on Brexit, highlighting the need for current EU-related benefits (e.g. structural and regional development funds) to be retained in alternative format when powers are repatriated to Westminster/Holyrood, while summing up the current level of uncertainty by saying “we have tried to find out but we simply don’t know”.

Interspersed during various times of the day were contributions from the three principal CLPs in the Highland Council area.

Each presented a motion of particular relevance to their area. Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch’s CLP spoke first.

In a detailed statement, Brian Murphy proposed that the next Scottish Labour government should introduce a comprehensive Transport Strategy for the Highlands and Islands to upgrade and modernise services within road, rail and sea throughout the region to a modern standard on a par with the rest of Scotland.

He suggested the expansion of charging points for electric vehicles, ring fenced funding to improve council-run roads and the re-nationalisation of both rail and bus services.

Les Hood seconded the motion and within his speech he raised the important matter of coordinated improvements e.g. vastly improved bus services alone will come to the detriment of train services and vice versa.

Bob Grant proposed Inverness and Nairn’s motion on ‘Transport in Inverness and Nairn’.

He suggested that upfront investment to Highland transport networks is essential, as the “trickle down way” of investment, starting in the central belt before eventually reaching the more remote parts of Scotland, is not bearing fruit and is likely to result in an exodus of people and skills to areas with better transport links.

Jimmy Gray seconded the motion and encouraged Highland Labour CLPs to expand the horizons of our thinking, even raising the highly ambitious possibility of a Thurso to Inverness high speed rail network.

His wider point was that we should encourage wider debate on the possibilities for public transport.

For example he pointed out that much of Europe is moving ahead of the UK in infrastructure projects like low carbon buses.

Councillor Deirdre Mackay proposed Caithness, Sutherland and Ross CLP’s motion ‘Poverty in the Highlands’ and equated the rise in poverty to severe cuts to public services by the Scottish government, especially local government, calling on a future Labour government to reinvest in public services.

Gary Cormack seconded the motion, and urged Labour to push a huge societal rethink on the importance of paying a bit more tax, challenging irrational and panic-stricken reactions every time even modest tax rises are raised, all the while our most vulnerable suffer.

Rhoda Grant MSP then introduced Richard Leonard MSP to the audience.

The newly elected Scottish Labour leader gave a very positive, wide ranging speech, with much of the radical agenda which got him elected leader in November on display.

He challenged the simplistic “party of protest” criticisms thrown at Labour since Jeremy Corbyn became national leader (“we must never be afraid to protest”).

He also said Labour are “a party of public ownership, a party of redistribution of wealth and power, and a party of radical roots”.

More specifically he talked of taking more democratic control into industry, renationalising our rail, bus and social care services and that an ‘Industrial Reform and Common Ownership Act’ will be introduced by Scottish Labour to the Scottish Parliament in due course.

He also said Scottish Water should be reformed where it can behave less like a private entity and become more accountable.

He talked also of the long running Scottish problem of land ownership concentrated in the hands of the few and how the SNP, despite their promises, have completely failed to address this (Scottish Labour must “lead the challenge on wealth distribution”).

He added that Scottish Labour will tackle ‘in-work poverty’ in which gender pay inequality is central, and he also said evidence suggests that educational access and attainment levels are now higher in England than in Scotland.

He stressed that the party will continue to “push back against the SNP’s centralising agenda”, which has had a detrimental effect on several of Scotland’s essential services, including police, fire and ambulance services.

Perhaps most tellingly he asked “where is the SNP’s vision for the Highlands and Islands” pinpointing their lack of support to Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

He also expressed the need for a Highlands and Islands Investment Bank wing of the proposed Scottish Investment Bank, while pointing out that such a venture must represent the interests of all who work and depend on the economy, rather than a select few.

He said, “It is only Labour which has an industrial strategy which seeks full employment and which promotes co-operative ownership and community-led economics which would regenerate the Highlands, creating jobs building homes and making communities viable again”.

He also acknowledged audience concerns that such a strategy should be environmentally sustainable.

He also said that ownership of the renewable energy sector in the Highlands has seen a series of missed opportunities for potential inward investment over the last 20 years, in that much of the ownership of this sector has gone overseas, over relying on foreign labour and parts being fabricated in countries like Holland and Norway.

Leonard said Labour should remain open minded on Brexit but added that “Labour wants a constructive engagement with the European Union, barrier free”.

He said immediate responsibility for the EU’s exit terms firmly lie with the “shambolic” Tory government, who have yet to clarify how existing EU provisions will be protected on jobs and employment rights, while not yet specifying if areas like fisheries, agriculture, environmental protections, public procurement and state aid will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

He pointed out that between the years 2014-2020, £193 million was supposed to be delivered to the Highlands and Islands from the EU budget, “so you can see the importance in what comes next” for what is already a fragile economic area.

He added that Theresa May had refused to endorse the carrying over of the Working Time Directive into UK law when asked about it in December, and he also said that Labour must keep an active eye on powerful corporations who are “circling like vultures” on how they can profit from TTIP-styled arrangements.

As a rallying call, he said that Scottish Labour must clearly state a radical vision to win SNP voters back to Labour.

He is hopeful, as evidence suggests people are starting to come back, largely because of Jeremy Corbyn’s idealism.

An audience member made a salient observation that tragedies like the Grenfell fire and the demise of Carillion “make no sense” to the public and that Labour should continually bring the government to account.

Related to this, perhaps the most important thing Richard Leonard said was the following:

“It is my sense that the public are ahead of the political agenda”. If he is right, a majority Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government is much more likely than many mainstream political correspondents can bring themselves to believe.

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