A change in attitude and tone
The general election was obviously a catastrophic one for us in Scotland. More pandas in Scotland than Labour MPs is not a sentence I ever thought I’d see. However, I am afraid that this type of result has been on the cards, not since the referendum, not since the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections but since the election of the SNP government in 2007.
I’ve written before about how our oppositionist tone has damaged us deeply since 2007. I was a member of the MSP Researcher Group in 2009 and it struck me how our attitude to the SNP seemed almost to be that they were a bunch of chancers, squatting in government. A charitable reading of this is that due to the close election (and particularly the loss of one seat by 48 votes) this feeling was perhaps understandable. However as John Curtice and others pointed out, we had lost the popular vote. Furthermore, our conduct between 2007 and 2011 was reflected in the election result in 2011.
On reflection (and I realise that hindsight is a wonderful thing), us joining the Better Together campaign was a colossal strategic error. By allowing the SNP to align us with the Tories, we handed them a political gift that has kept on giving. Moreover, we seemed to think that a victory in the referendum would burst the SNP bubble.
A couple of days after the referendum, I was texting a colleague in the party suggesting that how we go about things like campaigning as a party should perhaps be re-examined following the Yes campaign’s victory in Glasgow and the fact the SNP had taken constituency seats from us in Glasgow in 2011. Their reply of “I worry about the future of the Labour party in Scotland, I really do” was sickeningly prescient. Yet it seemed to take the party as a whole until the publication of the Ashcroft polls in February to realise that our MPs at Westminster were under serious threat in May.
On that point, I hope that this month’s results quash once and for all the notion/myth that the ‘A team’ was at Westminster and the MSPs at Holyrood are the ‘B team’. Our failure to combat Alex Salmond’s strategy of presenting the Bedroom Tax as the present-day equivalent of the Poll Tax (a policy foisted on Scotland by a Tory Government with no mandate in Scotland) was the responsibility of both our MPs and MSPs.
Looking forward, our whole tone and attitude towards the SNP has to change. Too often we come across as having an almost irrational hatred of the SNP. It infuriates and frustrates me as much as anyone that somehow the SNP have managed to claim the mantle of progressive politics and social justice, even when young people’s literacy rates are declining and our NHS in some areas is being pushed to breaking point. However, our tone up until now means that even when we do have genuine, potent points to make, as we did for example on the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which is now slowly unravelling, the general public have already stopped listening to us.
A more measured approach is required for what is sure to be a long road to recovery. As Douglas Alexander so eloquently put it in his concession speech on general election night (even more so given it was a moment of both political and personal devastation for him), the Scottish people have roundly rejected the prospect of a Conservative government, but they do not feel able to put their trust in Labour.
On the same night I was shocked and dismayed to see one of our senior parliamentarians attempting to blame the SNP for the forthcoming Conservative government – both the BBC exit poll and the actual result showed this to be absolute nonsense. Language such as this, and attempting to equate the SNP with ugly nationalism and/or UKIP, needs to be consigned to history. As Nicola Sturgeon has made clear in a calm, understated away, the SNP is pro-EU and pro-immigration, therefore attempting to draw such parallels is simply not credible in the eyes of Scottish voters, as well as potentially being insulting to the huge numbers that have voted for the SNP.
I fear that there will be no single great turning point that leads to a sudden collapse in the SNP vote. Moreover, Labour cannot be seen as attempting to chase every single SNP misstep or embarrassment so, for example events such as the ill-advised tweets of the SNP candidate in Edinburgh South are not automatically a ‘huge test’ of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership.
Finally, as we approach next May’s Scottish Parliament elections and the council elections the year after, it is clear that our candidates need to be selected in a way that means that they genuinely have the support of the local party. As Catherine MacLeod wrote just hours after the general election, candidates need to be selected on ability, and on no other criteria, and certainly not on personal allegiances.