“But I think the time is right for the party to take a look at our future direction. I’m putting myself forward for the leadership because I believe we need a fresh approach — there’s no point saying that more of the same will do.”
Since launching her bid for the leadership last month, Cathy has set out her ideas for a new policy agenda for Labour in Scotland, focusing on issues such as childcare and support for people to return to education and employment, investing in quality public services and calling for a windfall tax for those struggling with increasing energy costs.
“My priority is to come up with policies that will deliver for families across the country,” she says.
As an active co-operator and long-time Co-op Party member, Cathy supports the Peoples’ Rail campaign and calls for this model to be utilised in Scotland. “When the Scot Rail franchise comes up for renewal, I’m calling for that to be on a not-for-profit model. I think the time is right for co-operative values to take centre stage in Scottish politics,” she says.
“I genuinely believe the co-operative solution and the Co-op model offers something that’s new and fresh and different. There are issues in people’s lives where they will want to make the not-for-profit choice and we need to offer them that. It’s about translating what could perhaps be seen as traditional Labour values into a 21st century context.”
But the 21st century political landscape in Scotland, where Labour have enjoyed generations of loyal support, has changed radically, highlighted by the party’s loss at the recent Glasgow East by-election.
“I think there’s a certain mood in Scotland just now,” says the MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. “In some areas people have lost faith that Labour is the party that will be on their side, that Labour is the party that will stand up for them and will stand up for Scotland in a constructive way. The message from Glasgow East is that we need to listen to what people are saying; not just passively listening, but really hearing what people are telling us — and then acting on it.”
As Deputy Leader for the past eight years, Cathy has served under Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell and, more recently, Wendy Alexander. Despite Ms Alexander’s controversial “Bring it on!” challenge in favour of an early referendum on Scottish independence, the only female candidate in the leadership race is resolute in her anti-independence stance.
“I’m absolutely passionate about being Scottish and I care very much about Scotland as a nation but I think independence is just unnecessary,” she says.
“We can be a confident nation; we can be comfortable in ourselves and we can stand up for being Scottish without going through the whole process of breaking up the UK. I think the majority of people in Scotland share this feeling and I think they want to see Labour concentrating on giving a better quality of life to people, not on breaking up the UK.
“Although I don’t support independence, I have always backed a strong devolution settlement for Scotland to allow us to do what’s right for our people here.”
With some Scottish Labour voices calling for greater autonomy from Westminster, Cathy believes there is a middle ground to be forged: working with Labour in Westminster, but standing up for Scottish issues when required.
“Yes there will be times when people want a Scottish Labour leader who takes a different view from those south of the border, but they don’t want to see that done in a destructive or disunited way. They want us to work together.”
But can a Labour leader in Scotland operate effectively while facing in two directions — north and south — at the same time? “I think it’s one of the tallest orders that the leader of Labour MSPs will have to face,” she admits. “Whoever wins will have to unite the party and the wider Labour movement in a way that will allow a different policy direction in Scotland when that’s the right thing to do.
“Sometimes we’ll have to be fairly bold about that and say no, we don’t think the way the wider UK Government is proposing to do things is necessarily the way forward. But this, in essence, is what devolution is all about. It’s not about picking fights with Westminster, it’s about trying to find common solutions to problems.”
Scottish MPs, MSPs and MEPs plus party members and affiliated trade unions and societies are entitled to vote in the leadership election, which should give the new leader a stronger mandate than ever before. But whoever takes over faces a formidable opponent in the SNP’s Alex Salmond and needs to win back the confidence of the electorate.
“I do believe the party can do it,” says Cathy. “One of the things that always inspires me is when I look around local communities and I see people who just get on and do things. They’re not looking for a reward, they see something that needs done they get out there and do it.
“I think that kind of ethos of getting things done is probably one of the reasons why many of us joined the Labour Party in the first place.
“If we can harness that enthusiasm as well as the policy ideas then there’s no reason why we can’t do this.
“But we have to be single-minded about it and that means putting aside artificial divisions within the party. We need to draw on everybody’s talents to move forward. This is not just about party politics. There are people in communities across Scotland that need the Labour Party to be on their side, need the Labour Party to stand up for them.
“I believe the fundamental values of co-operation — members’ involvement, democracy, people working together — are exactly what we need in Scotland as we take forward a range of policies, not just to tackle problems but also to build on people’s aspirations. Labour needs to win the battle of ideas with the nationalists. Identifying the problems is not enough, Labour needs a leader who can drive us to find the solutions that Scotland needs.”
• There are two candidates for the vacant post of deputy leader, Bill Butler (MSP for Glasgow Anniesland) and Johann Lamont (MSP for Glasgow Pollock). Both are Co-op-sponsored MSPs. The result of the leadership and deputy leadership contests will be announced on September 13th.