Earning back trust
Readers of LabourHame will be no doubt relieved that I have chosen to remain relatively silent following our general election drubbing. There were a few reasons for this. Like all activists, I was shattered. Beyond tired in fact. And I know I was not alone.
In the immediate aftermath of the General Election I pleaded with colleagues on the SEC to allow the party the coming days to grieve, to rest and then to allow us to return ready for the serious analysis that had to take place. It may be Jesuitical in origin but the principle that serious decisions are best not taken in times of desolation, is, I believe, a profound one.
But a week is a long time in politics and nobody was allowed that space.
I had serious reservations about asking Jim to step down. I thought it was important that the party didn’t immediately lurch straight into a leadership contest that would allow the party to look inward again, perhaps making the party feel better about itself but not addressing the existential questions that we now face.
But we are where we are and, in the end, Jim took the decision to announce his departure at the next SEC. I think for him, personally, that he’s come to the right decision. And as politicians go, may I say that Jim Murphy brought an energy to the Scottish Labour machine that I haven’t seen before. Politics can indeed be brutal. Jim is a tough guy though. He’ll be alright.
As every pollster will tell you, success in elections rely primarily on two things – the economy and trust. I happen to agree with those in the wider UK party who say that we didn’t really have any offer at all for people who have mortgages, or even those attempting to get on the housing ladder. We had little to say to folk whose pensions and savings had taken a hit due to years of low interest rates. We had plenty to say about those whose lives are difficult on zero hours contracts and were right to do so. But if we have no offer for the vast majority of tax-payers, including public sector workers, then we will always have a rough ride at the polls. I feel that Labour nationally would have fared better if we had offered a credible plan to insulate the country against any future crash – preventing government from being dragged into a cycle of austerity, not out of choice but of necessity.
Trust is absolutely critical, and is the principal problem that we face in Scottish Labour. People say that they want a Scottish Labour Party firmly on the left. But when we offered it, they voted for another party who said much the same as we did. Why? Because they trusted the SNP more than Scottish Labour.
And though it pains me to say this, Nicola Sturgeon and many in her party, including some of the new intake of MPs, strike me as being authentic people. Whilst achieving independence may be their core driver, I think it is foolish to suggest that social justice is not a very close second. And despite her government’s very shaky record, the fact remains that the sky hasn’t fallen in. The SNP have successfully met the electorate where they are (which is left of centre for those still in doubt) and capitalised hugely on the post-referendum coalescence that formed around them.
And this clearly presents Scottish Labour with a number of problems. First, the issue of the status of the party within the wider UK context is a trap into which many are waiting for us to fall. Remember that word authentic? Well if we believe genuinely in solidarity and the pooling and sharing of resources this means that Scottish Labour cannot be a separate entity from the wider UK party.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t operate under a more federated structure which I happen to believe would be fairer to other parts of the UK as well. But if we suddenly became a nationalist party then it would rightly be seen as populism of the very worst kind. And totally inauthentic.
So where do we go in the future? Well in the next few months I believe its important that Scottish Labour builds the groundwork for us to meet the challenges that have actually been staring us in the face for a long time. Fundamental reform has to come from the grassroots of the party itself – from the activists, trade unionists and supporters. It should not be left to the party leadership to carry the full responsibility and drive the changes that are required. And people who stand for election have to be, first and foremost, Labour activists with a passion for Labour values.
Scottish Labour was born in our industrial communities. Most of that industry has now gone. But new technologies and sectors are alive and well in Scotland. And at the heart of these new economies and communities are people.
When Scottish Labour are back in those workplaces and communities, listening more than talking, then others may see us as the authentic route to social justice, to equality and to that fairer society that everyone wants. But get ready for the long haul.