Play to our strengths
Enough already. Enough of the mea maxima culpas, enough fervent promises to listen.
The Scottish electorate has spoken loud and clear at three successive elections, each time louder and clearer than the last. We’ve heard them. But the more we apologise and launch broadsides at each other, the more people believe we are crap. The more we say we are listening, the more they say that we just aren’t, but if we’d only pay attention to their own personal view….
Please note, I’m not suggesting we don’t listen, nor that we aren’t honest about our failings. I am suggesting that we don’t have to ask folk to kick us again where it hurts, when they’ve just taken their most recent chance so forcefully.
Instead, I think we should knuckle down and focus on constructing what all the social attitude surveys and polls suggest the Scottish electorate wants, essentially what we want. A decent centre left platform for a more powerful Scottish parliament within a better Union. And then we focus on selling it.
Our challenge is that we are fighting over the same ideological territory as the SNP, and for the same voters. That’s why the wipe-out happened, why there are no “Labour areas’ any more, why previously massive majorities were no protection against the tide.
We do have a couple of advantages in this fight, set against the somewhat major disadvantage that no-one believes us any more.
Our first advantage is our people: our elected members at Holyrood and local level and ourselves. Look at the SNP front bench. I’d take Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney in a game of fantasy front benches, no one else. Collectively, we are heirs to an intellectual and practical centre left tradition, and in touch with centre left policy thinking across the UK and beyond. We’ve spent years bashing values and reality off each other, trying to fashion ways of improving the lives of working people when faced with the realities of power. That experience matters.
Our second advantage is that we are right on the two basics. The centre left is better placed to find good answers to the problems we face as a country than the right, and Scotland is better as part of a reformed UK than independent.
Making the most of those advantages, and dealing with our disadvantage, means a change of tone, from our elected members but also from ourselves, and a change of message and policy.
We’ve all encountered the nasty side of nationalism this campaign, face to face and online, from having SNP campaigners question our accents to outright abuse about being red Tory scum or quislings. And when we do encounter it, we tell our friends, we retweet it, and we share on Facebook, often with something approaching glee, as if we are saying ‘See, I told you they were like this’.
That doesn’t work as a campaigning tool though, because the vast majority of SNP voters aren’t like that, neither are most of their activists. We can’t forget that this side of nationalism, nor allow others to, but we need to find a different way of talking about it, perhaps allowing it to speak for itself, not sounding as if we are perpetually seeking, at worst trolling for, offence.
The bruising nature of our encounters with our opponents, particularly online, mean that many of us have become peevish and point scoring in debate. Yes, Sturgeonomics is a joke, but we’ve sneered at Full Fiscal Autonomy and the gap between the SNP’s anti austerity rhetoric and policy for months without being heard.
We need to find a new way to unpick the SNP’s contradictions and arguing for our position that’s more about genuinely winning minds, less about winning arguments as if in front of some invisible intellectual judge (who, by the way, hasn’t got a vote). We need less point scoring, less pointing and laughing, more convincing. Perhaps most of all, we need less letting ourselves get wound up by the zoomers on line. Just block and move on, they aren’t the people we need to engage with or persuade, leave them to their echo chamber.
In terms of messages on the constitution, we should be comfortable in our unionist/ federalist skins. I’ve come to believe many yes voters when they say they don’t think of themselves as nationalists. Too often, we’ve gone down the route of telling people they are nationalists and implying that it’s a moral failing, or a betrayal of our values, we need to listen to what they are actually telling us.
Some voters have always been out and out existential nationalists, and some have become such; they are probably gone from us for good. Many who voted yes don’t feel that way, and can be won back. Remember all the contortions that ‘Yes’ had to put themselves through in relation British identity to get to 45%? Remember the progressive beacon stuff? It was nonsense, but it revealed a profound discomfort amongst many on the Yes left with the idea of abandoning folk elsewhere in the UK, and this is something we should tap into.
Bringing message and policy together, we need to construct that clear left of centre offer for 2016. Most of us, and most of the electorate, voted for the Scottish Parliament for two reasons; so that we could develop our own positive ideas; and as protection from the depredations of Tory governments. But good ideas and proper protection cost money and we have to be up front about that.
We therefore need a step to the left on tax, using the new powers. Not a huge step, costing us electorally, and economically damaging Scotland because of tax competition, but a clear step. We need to be able to say that we are protecting public services from Tory cuts, and we need to be able to say how we are going to fund the promises we made ready for 2016 without the additional taxes on London’s wealthy promised by Ed Miliband.
And yes, we must talk about aspiration. It’s not just a word for Labour leadership candidates looking at middle England. We need to balance our leftwards shift on tax by learning from the SNP’s economic optimism, perhaps using some of the additional tax we collect specifically for economic investment. We might even dare to look at George Osborne and his Northern Powerhouse. That’s part of our tradition too, as every one of our successful politicians have shown, from Blair’s Modernisation, to Wilson’s White Heat of Technology and Attlee’s Festival of Britain.
We have one further advantage. Being in the mire frees us. In Scotland we can focus away from electoral maths and argue for what’s right. That should mean that we can be comfortable in our own skin, and can let the electorate see, with some gentle help from us, how our manner, message and policies contrast with those of our opponents.