IT is a widely held view that Keir Starmer may have turned around Labour’s electoral fortunes, aided by Tory self-destruction, but there is confusion about what he and Labour stand for.

Labour may well form the UK Government next year but with not much evidence of any positive economic and social vision and purpose, with instead an innate conservatism that offers little different from the current dire state of affairs.

This is about more than Starmer, “red Tories”, the pursuit of Tory voters, the fear of the right-wing media and Brexit. Rather it is about what writer Irvine Welsh called at the weekend “the de facto end of social democracy.”

Some thought this an over-statement but it is an accurate description of centre-left parties across the developed world. It is a perceptive comment on UK Labour – and even the US Democrats where Joe Biden has tried to break from the Blair-Clinton “third way” and despite numerous legislative achievements has been unable to rebuild a new popular coalition.

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Scotland is not as immune as some think. The conservatism and self-protection instincts of Scottish Labour at their peak became their defining characteristics. But the SNP, 16 years into office – shaped by caution, centrism and a wariness of anything bold – does not look that different.

The wider global landscape of social democracy and centre-left parties needs acknowledgement. The above state is not just about the inadequacies or not of leaders and the frequent cries of “betrayal” – witness irate former Labour MSP Neil Findlay at the weekend calling Starmer “a liar, a fraud, a cheat and an imposter” who “betrays” Labour’s “historic mission.”

Rather centre-left parties the world over are struggling to deal with far-reaching economic, social and technological change, which has disrupted traditional notions of the working and middle class.

The decline of older industries, deindustrialisation, the changing world of work, the rise of inequality alongside new empires of wealth – while overall the UK and most developed economies have suffered low growth since the 2008 crash – has challenged the centre-left “historic mission”.

Add to the above, public spending stretched by ageing populations, widespread nervousness about increasing and widening the tax base, and the tensions and faultlines engendered by the mass movements of peoples globally facilitated by war, instability and climate change. The pressures this produces in Western democracies have so far been an insurmountable challenge to the traditional centre-left – as well as traditional centre-right.

None of the above should be a defence of Labour and Starmer, but the context needs stating. Starmer’s remarks on Thatcher brought forth much condemnation. Yet what he said in the Sunday Telegraph piece was that Attlee, Thatcher and Blair in the post-1945 era effected “meaningful change” which is a statement of the obvious.

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Starmer was playing a deliberate game. He knew that it would enrage critics on the left, and offer a flimsy rationale to reach Tory voters, and gain lots of coverage. Blair and Brown in office both behaved similarly, and Salmond when First Minister praised aspects of Thatcherism and then backtracked. This is all well-trodden territory.

Yet the near-unanimity of Scottish politics against Thatcher – who we obviously never voted for – is used to disguise the hold of conservatism across our political parties and the lack of fundamental difference between the SNP and Scottish Labour, constitution apart. If people judge Labour and Starmer harshly they should use the same calculus on others – including the SNP’s caution and centrism which has grown over successive leaders and their time in office.

Yet parts of Scotland only want to judge Labour by such standards and somehow exempt the SNP.

All of Scotland’s political parties have questions to answer about their conservatism and lack of dynamic ideas. Take Scottish Labour – enjoying an upward swing in the polls since the start of the year, with last week’s two contradictory polls (one showing an SNP lead, and one a Labour lead for Westminster) both showing that shift towards Labour and away from the SNP.

This trend is important but so far has been incremental, with no real sign of major realignment between the two parties. One reason is the huge question of what exactly do Scottish Labour stand for? Herald columnist Andy McIvor might think the crisis of the Tories and SNP offer Labour opportunity for “a credible alternative on the constitutional question”, but that will not remake Labour.

What kind of Scotland do Labour want? Do they have a critique of SNP Scotland that goes beyond detesting the SNP? After 16 years it is next to non-existent, and a missing argument which impoverishes Scottish politics and has let the SNP get away with too much.

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There is a political case for challenging the suffocating centrist politics which have dominated Scotland under devolution and beforehand, as power, economically and politically, is concentrated in too few hands, within the same old networks. Scotland is not getting fairer, better, healthier or wealthier under the SNP. In 2007 when the SNP were elected, 24% of children were in poverty; last year the figure was exactly the same.

One of the big challenges in politics for UK Labour and the SNP is how to challenge the existing failed economics which dominate Britain.

The weekend past, Starmer embraced “iron-clad fiscal rules” and the credo that “public finances must be fixed” when Labour are in office, putting it ahead of growth and prosperity.

The UK’s economy has major weaknesses as yesterday’s Resolution Foundation report underlined. The UK has more inequality between people and areas than comparable countries; and the cost of low growth means that people are on average £10,700 worse off per year than if growth had continued as it did pre-2010 before the Tories came to office.

Starmer’s prescription, aided by former Bank of England economist Rachel Reeves, is to cling to orthodox economics, treating the economy as a household which needs to balance the books: this being the real craven attitude to Thatcherism.

In so doing Labour are reverting to their fiscal and monetary policies of the 1920s pre-Keynesianism and which defined Ramsay MacDonald’s two Labour governments, the second of which was swept from power by the Depression. Add to that the retreat of Reeves and Starmer on Labour’s “Green New Deal” and commitment to public investment.

The standard response of SNP people to the above is that their party lacks “levers” in government to revitalise the economy. But “levers” need policy, ideas and economic policies. Sadly the SNP, similarly to UK Labour, contains a mixture of economic illiteracy, cowardice in posing anything original on the economy, and a refusal to address the big issue of our age – specifically political economy and the contours of British capitalism.

We should talk and demand more from Starmer and Labour. We should challenge their innate conservatism, and their adherence to zombie capitalism, the dominance of finance, and the power of the City. But we should demand similar things from all politicians.

The SNP’s absence of addressing political economy has seen the Andrew Wilson Growth Commission come and go, and major economic issues emerge such as the future of the Grangemouth oil refinery and Edinburgh Airport left unaddressed. The UK Government has no industrial strategy, but neither does the Scottish Government. And this is about more than “levers”, but about a failure of analysis and intent.

The current UK economic model is bust. That requires a different prospectus from UK Labour, the SNP and independence.

One which takes on finance capitalism, rebuilds solidarity, acknowledges global challenges, and embraces a just transition from a carbon economy.

The politics and economics of the future are there to be shaped, but will require imagination, heavy lifting and taking on powerful interests.

Do either UK Labour or the SNP have it in them to do so?

Not doing so carries the risk that the forces of right-wing populism will seize the mantle of change and take us further into an age of reaction, rampant nepotism and increasing inequality.