Taking the long way
Kieran Cowan of Mid Fife and Glenrothes CLP says Scottish Labour needs to find a constitutional position to find its way back to relevance.
In all honesty, May 5th was a mixed day for me. Only a few days before I had been at the Hydro to see arguably one of the all-time best country bands (like, seriously, if you heard them sing…) in existence, called the Dixie Chicks, and I had just come out of a Higher English exam that left me cautiously confident.
Alas, the 2016 Scottish Parliament election was one where I think no one, bar Ruth Davidson and her Scottish Tories of course, was left really ecstatic. The SNP lost their majority, the Greens didn’t achieve their hope of winning a seat in every region, the Lib Dems stood stagnant. But most cripplingly, both personally as a Labour supporter and in terms of scale of loss, the once unthinkable had happened. Labour became the third party in Scotland — and in their place now stands a right-wing, pro-cuts, pro-David Cameron official opposition to the Sturgeonmania army.
To those who are tempted to see a change in leadership, whether it be now or under the condition of a trouncing in the 2017 local elections, I would like to cornily say: Keep Kez and Carry On. A leadership challenge just might be the last thing the Labour party ever does.
And in spite of Tories wrapped in either Saltires or Union Flags emerging as the two largest parties in Holyrood, not all hope is lost. Kezia Dugdale set a new tone which has the vision and message that can be carried on throughout the next Parliamentary term, allowing Labour to push the SNP to be bolder on protecting public services. Kezia’s strategy is also positioning the party well in order to call out the Nationalists for colluding with Ruth Davidson, should the Scottish Conservatives back John Swinney’s budgets, as we assume they will, and enable the SNP to pass on the brutal austerity cuts that are hammering Local authorities and the crucial services they deliver.
More than that, it is perhaps the first time in a long time where Labour could be seen to make positive arguments for something, rather than bitterly cry out against Scottish Government policies. A clear ambition to invest in Scotland’s services and people, along with an openly shown plan for how to raise the money required, puts Labour on a clear platform to fight for ‘Kids, not Cuts’ and to push the SNP harder on tackling social inequality. Labour with Kez’s leadership is one which seems to have, finally, developed a long term plan to define itself, and carve out its own place in the new political landscape of Scotland. Since definition and purpose is one thing voters feel we lack, progress on our core messaging from Kez is exactly the kind of thing that will help rebuild our party.
But there could be a serious flaw in this vision. It is no secret that the last parliament saw the Salmond/Sturgeon Scottish Government lead the way on exploiting grievances for political gain, rather than spending time to tackle the causes behind them. Almost every response to a question at FMQs or closing statement in a debate ended with either ‘it’s Labour’s fault’ or ‘if Scotland votes for independence, we could do something about it’. After nine years of the SNP holding power, the former soundbite never lost any of its potency, which is both baffling and sad, but the latter phrase is bound to be spouted from the government seats over the next five years — especially since the official opposition is one which revels in its Unionist traditions.
Furthermore, the new opposition will be determined to fight back on any attempt made by Sturgeon to further the case for independence, and concentrate its efforts on making the ‘positive case for the Union’. Bearing all this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that the fifth Scottish Parliament will see the constitutional question at the forefront of political debate yet again, and Sturgeon’s vow to relaunch an independence campaign in the summer only strengthens this likelihood. If that were to be the case, it obviously derails Labour’s road to recovery, as failing to act on the central concern facing the country could place us in the irrelevant fringes of modern politics. If one thing is certain, Labour can only win, indeed survive, when the electorate is convinced it stands up for them, on the issues that matter to them. This must surely mean that Labour needs a strong policy on the Scotland’s place in the UK.
Reflecting on the current autopsy of Scottish Labour’s electoral corpse, and the words of wisdom from the likes of Henry McLeish and Bernard Ponsonby, it is apparent that Labour needs to be ‘ahead of the curve’ on the politics of independence. But how can one outflank the SNP? It could be rather simple, actually. Without wishing to repeat Kevin McKenna, through revisiting the strategy of Wendy Alexander, a ‘bring it on’ approach could potentially push the SNP on the back foot. Even though one referendum did not put the issue to bed, a second one most certainly would, and arguing that it is important we settle the question once and for all, Labour could feasibly put across how important it is that we move on from the politics of identity, as we attempted to do so this year, by giving the voters the final say on what they want to do.
A second referendum, sooner rather than later, and perhaps with a joint vision between UK and Scottish Labour on a federal UK after a second no-vote, would potentially result in Kezia taking ownership of this issue. Whilst some may argue that the last time we pushed for an early referendum we failed, what is different now is that the Scottish leader, not the UK one, is in charge, and this time the SNP did not set out an exact timescale or date for a referendum, but merely stated one would occur if there was a material change in circumstances.
Looking at the results delivered by voters last Thursday, one thing is absolute: the future of the Labour party is being held by a thread. But, with Kezia Dugdale’s refreshing leadership, calming and in stark contrast to that of both Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon, along with a clear policy platform for using the powers Holyrood has, the next term is filled with opportunity for Labour. And even if the next parliament refuses to get over the divisions between unionists and nationalists, it is not impossible for Labour to change the narrative and take ownership of what seems to be the core element of modern Scottish politics.
It is possible for Labour to become relevant again, to win again or, perhaps, govern again. But, as the Dixie Chicks sang in the Hydro, we’re talking the long way.