Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Where now for Scottish Labour?

There is no doubting that the Holyrood election was a significant moment in Scottish history, a day when the last lingering doubts that the SNP are a fringe party and Scotland is a Labour country were put to bed.  Well actually it was more the case that they were taken out the back and unceremoniously shot, such was the devastation inflicted upon Labour by the Nats.  Sure we can try to pretend that it was all the Lib Dems’ fault for selling out and then voting for the SNP, but ultimately it was the rejection of an inane, inappropriate and ineffective campaign by the wider electorate.

The Scottish Labour campaign failed on every level.  A focus on the Conservatives was utterly out of tune with the growing understanding amongst voters that elections to Holyrood and Westminster are completely different beasts (a mistake, interestingly, that the SNP made last year).  There was an over the top attempt to out-promise the SNP on spending pledges, regardless of the looming spectre of savage cuts to the Scottish budget.  And the few policies which didn’t seem to be identical to those in the Nationalist manifesto, such as the pseudo-macho posturing on knife crime, were ill thought out and turn offs to those choosing where to cast their vote.

Ultimately, it was a monumental failure by a supposedly professional political party.  We demonstrated that we had learnt nothing from 2007; that we had failed to adapt to the Scottish political environment as it now exists; and that our presumption that we would simply be handed back power by a grateful electorate following the brief flirtation with the Nats was woefully misplaced.

Personalities definitely played their part in the debacle, with Iain Gray horrendously mismatched against the big beast of Alex Salmond.  It ironically didn’t need to be that way – Salmond’s greatest strengths (humour, confidence, vision) are also his biggest weaknesses (smugness, arrogance, undeliverable promises) and the voters could easily punish him for that if they didn’t believe he was the best man for the job (and regardless of the actual fact that voters do not directly choose the FM, the election definitely had this as a motivation).  But Scotland did believe that he was the best First Minister available, with polling consistently showing that Labour voters thought Salmond would do a better job than Gray.

However, more so than personalities, I feel that the hammering meted out at this election boiled down to two key facts – the misnomer of Scottish Labour and the geographical exclusivity that the party has allowed itself to become restricted to.

We talk of Scottish Labour and yet, in reality, there is no such thing.  As the party who prides ourselves on having delivered devolution, we have demonstrably failed to devolve our own party structures, leaving the SNP free to use the term ‘London Labour’ with such great success that our own MSPs now apply it.  Iain Gray was not my leader as an ordinary member of the Labour Party, his leadership extremely limited to the pool of MSPs.  Not the councillors across the country, not the MPs either when they were in Government or in Opposition, not the MEPs and not the membership, the supposed pool of future representatives.  This is a very important point, explored by Ross Martin and others.  I know that colleagues are wary of devolving Scottish Labour too far, of creating a body which conflicts with the UK wide party, but we are already past this stage.  For example, Labour at Holyrood firmly opposed the minimum pricing legislation of the minority SNP administration at the same time as Labour at Westminster was considering it.  The very reason we have devolution is as recognition that there are legislative, cultural and historical differences between Scotland and England which require different approaches.  If the country requires different approaches from its legislative bodies, then it definitely requires different approaches from its political parties.

The next Leader of the Scottish Labour Party should indeed be the leader of all Scottish Labour.  He or she should be seen as having the ability to take the party forward in Scotland, working closely with our colleagues in Westminster, local government and the European Parliament as a coherent but distinct team.  Councillors do not look to Westminster to drive their decisions, and our MEPs are actually members of a separate political grouping which sets its own agenda, yet we have retained an impression that our MSPs are to remain subservient to Westminster.  This does not benefit us in either context, and effectively concedes the debate to the SNP, allowing them to dismiss the party as uninterested and uncommitted to Scotland.

We are not alone in finding this a struggle – the Scottish Lib Dems had the impossible task of trying to explain that as a federal party they were not directly supportive of the Coalition Government at Westminster, whilst the Scottish Conservatives have long struggled with the fact that they are, well, Conservatives, with all the history and connotation that that brings.  However, our responsibility is to find a new approach for Scottish Labour, to create a party which remains connected to the broader UK movement but which can also demonstrate our relevance to the electorate in Scotland.  This requires distinctive policy and an ambition to use the Scottish Parliament as a vehicle for reshaping Scotland.  The SNP propose big visions of changing the country – we can argue that the vision is not correct or indeed deliverable, however it is still a vision.  It is not simple management of the status quo, but rather a belief that Scotland can achieve great things.  This motivates and inspires, particularly at a time of challenge and particularly in contrast to a negative campaign of “Vote SNP, get Armageddon”.  A positive, ambitious vision for Scotland should be the fundamental drive of Scottish Labour – if we are not dreamers then we are nothing as a political party.  The Scottish Parliament offers us opportunities for the kind of policy which is far harder to achieve at Westminster, particularly given the political arithmetic of the first past the post system, however we are not successful in explaining to voters that we understand the opportunity, and responsibility, of this resource.  We have the opportunity to be proudly Scottish, British, European and Internationalist, and should trust in the positive appeal of that message.

Tying into this challenge is the geographical exclusivity of the Labour Party in Scotland, which was shown to be a fatal flaw at this year’s election.  We talk proudly, and complacently, of our heartlands in the Central Belt and Western Scotland, the areas in which it is claimed, previously with a degree of truth, that you could stand a monkey in a red rosette and they would win.  Part of the reason that these areas are heartlands is due to their contrast with the rest of Scotland.  The Labour Party is virtually a fringe party across the expanse of the Highlands and Islands, the North East and the Borders.  We are seen as out of touch and irrelevant to rural communities, to the farming and fishing industries, to the non-Glasgow populace in Scotland.  We lack the traditional support of the Lib Dems and Conservatives amongst these constituencies and the ability of the SNP to be a very broad church, the drive of independence bringing together disparate political stances.  Furthermore, our safety in the industrial belt left us not needing to reach out to these areas, particularly in an electoral environment which was believed to make majority government virtually impossible.

2011 turned out to be the perfect storm, as the SNP made massive inroads into the Central Belt heartlands at the same time as the Lib Dem vote vanished into the abyss.  We lacked any sort of ability to mount a challenge for the falling Lib Dem seats, and would have lost the overwhelming majority of them in a ‘good’ election.  Every Lib Dem seat which they lost turned to the SNP, an instant gain for the Nats of monumental proportions.  This was further heightened by the sheer scale of their vote in the NE and other areas, where they managed to take MSPs off the list as well as in the constituencies.

At the same time they cut a bloody swathe through ‘safe’ Labour seats, removing MSPs in a raft without Labour being able to replace them elsewhere.  Every city in Scotland is now predominantly, if not wholly, SNP reflecting their success in appealing to the electorate in its widest sense.  As we had seen at previous elections, Labour’s geographic exclusivity left the party with nowhere to go when the SNP made inroads, with no fall back seats to challenge the SNP in or to gain from the other parties.  The conditions were all in place for this defeat, we just failed to address them at any stage of the process.

It is an overused cliché for political parties in the UK to look to the US for answers, however there is something that Scottish Labour should learn from – the Democratic Party’s 50 State Campaign.  This shift in approach, led by Howard Dean, moved the Democrats’ focus from simply their safe blue states of the East and West Coasts, to finding ways to connect with the forgotten voters in the Republican red states of the South and Centre.  This was a challenge and a controversial step, with some of the elite of the party worrying about the impact on policy of listening to the electorate of those states, however it also brought great success at every level of politics in the US.

Scottish Labour needs to devolve its structure and to develop a 50 State approach for Scotland, one which shows that we have relevance to the voter in Sutherland or Aberdeenshire as much as we do to those in Springburn or Dumbarton.  We need to discover a new generation of Scottish Labour representatives, those working and living with the reality of a devolved Scotland, who see Holyrood as a key means by which to change Scotland.  The beauty of the Labour movement is, and always should be, that we appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate, particularly in Scotland.  I think that the frequent descriptions of Scotland as a centre-left country oversimplify the situation dramatically, ignoring the strong traditional small ‘c’ conservative tradition in Scotland, however it is true that the political, cultural and electoral environment offer opportunities which are hard to achieve at Westminster.  We should not simply be the party of the working class communities of the urban conurbations, who in any case are starting to reject the expectation that we are their only choice.  We should also be the party which represents our rural communities as they struggle with the challenges of employment and population dispersal; of our aspirational communities looking to harness the power of Scotland’s education system and traditional entrepreneurial spirit to break free from poverty; of ethnic minority communities as they contribute to developing new ideas of Scottishness, broad and beautiful in their multifaceted nature.

Regaining success in Scotland cannot simply be a case of winning back the Glasgow seats, Clydebank, Airdrie and other seats we consider rightfully ‘ours’, of merely patching over the cracks and waiting for the inevitable drift of voters back to their true home with us.  If we wait for that to happen, we will be finished as a party, our credibility and commitment washed away in arrogance and complacency.  We have to create a party which matters, which is optimistic yet realistic, which believes Scotland can be a better place and that we possess the abilities and resources to do so.  I believe we need to be a party which is willing to challenge the consensus, to question the unquestioned truths of how Scotland functions as a society, and yet which is willing to work with other parties for the common good, to demonstrate that our first priority is the progress of Scotland and the people we represent.

We ironically have a unique opportunity to do that now.  Our body of MSPs has been wiped out, leaving space for new candidates and ideas to put themselves forward.  The review which is taking place, alongside the election of a new Leader, is welcome but we have to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of believing that the status quo is good enough.  We have to change and we have to reconnect with the electorate – we ignored the signs in 2007 and have been punished for it.  2011 was not just a blip, it was the third national election (Holyrood 2007 and 2011 and the European Parliamentary elections in 2009) that we have lost out of four, with the UK General Election being our only success.  The pattern is now for the SNP to win – they out finance, out resource, out campaign and out think us.  We are no longer the favourites, the big players of Scottish politics – in Glasgow we face the reality that by next year we could be in opposition at every level of government.  We are now the underdogs, and we need to start fighting back with that mindset.

Scottish politics has changed forever – it is now time for the Scottish Labour Party to catch up.

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