A rejection of party, not values
Mark Davidson is a Labour member in East Lothian. He thinks the election result was a rejection of the Scottish Labour Party, but not the values on which it was built, and argues that our response should be constructive opposition.
The past few weeks have been difficult for supporters of Scottish Labour. The election result has woken them up to the need for substantial change within the party and the need to listen and respond to what the electorate are saying.
For me the most important message coming from both the independence referendum and the general election is not a rejection of the values Scottish Labour was built on. Instead, it is the belief that another party better represents those values. In many ways this is the most painful message Scottish Labour could have received.
Those who joined the party because of its commitment to social justice, tackling inequality, and working alongside others to solve society’s problems must accept that the electorate no longer sees Scottish Labour as having the best solutions to those problems. Unless we face that reality head-on we can never hope to get people to trust us once again.
How then do we win back people’s trust? The first thing we must do is reject the notion people are supporting the SNP because they are nationalists. For many within the Labour party nationalism is seen as something divisive that goes against the basic principles that underpins the party: that we are stronger together than we are apart. There is nothing wrong with this principle and we should stick to it.
However, in 2010 Labour and the Lib Dems got 60% of the Scottish vote between them, the SNP 20%. On May 7th roughly half of the people who voted for the Lib Dems or Labour in 2010 voted SNP. I do not believe they have done so because of the nationalism of the SNP, but rather in spite of it. Instead, I believe it is because of the mistakes of the Labour party over issues like Iraq and tuition fees, and the perception that we were not offering something different enough to the Conservatives that caused so many people to change their vote.
To win back trust, we must not default to attacks on the SNP based on their nationalist underpinnings, but rather hold them up to the same standard we should hold ourselves to as a party of the centre-left.
The key to this is always seeking co-operation over social justice issues like the living wage, the bedroom tax, the human rights act and so on. The Conservatives have a majority in the UK Parliament, but only a small one. If the UK Labour party and the SNP try to work together in Westminster both parties can make the lives of working people so much better than if the two are constantly trying to score points off one another.
This same attitude should be brought to Holyrood. Again there should be an expectation of shared values over devolved issues like the NHS, education and policing. When there is not it is important we point out the standards and values we have as a party and why issues like college places and council tax freezes are hurting the most vulnerable in society. In doing so, Scottish Labour should always hope that the SNP change their policy sooner rather than later.
The SNP are likely to retain their majority in 2016, and the only way for Scottish Labour to make a difference to the lives of Scottish people between now and then is by being the type of opposition that brings out the best in the government. It is through that approach that we can start to win back the trust of the Scottish electorate.
There is no easy way back. There is no one leader who will turn things around quickly, no constitution nor a change in party structure that will convince people we’ve changed. Instead it is by upholding the values of the Labour movement, values I still think the vast majority of Scots believe in, that we can start to matter again.