Time to do something completely different
Since the election defeat, three big themes have emerged in our discussions: a leadership election; some rulebook changes; and the question of whether we should move left or right.
These are the tramlines we got onto after being defeated in 2007 and 2011. It didn’t work then and it seems even less likely to work now.
We are in uncharted waters. We need to do something new and surprising or our party may never recover.
The result on 8 May was years in the making; the product of our party looking inwards over many years and losing touch with the people we are supposed to be for: a million small decisions mounting up. The way we organise party meetings. The procedures for welcoming new members. How we discuss difficult policy issues. The way in which we administer selections. How we deal with criticism. Over about 15 years we stopped listening to the people of Scotland, not at once, but gradually, bit by bit.
In the urgency of the referendum campaign we needed Jim Murphy’s energy and determination to cut through. He said at the time we should never share a platform with the Tories. He was right. And he went out there for 100 days taking abuse and worse on his crate. When we needed a leader five months out from the general election, it was Jim Murphy’s drive that was required to push us on, leaving no stone unturned. But still it was not enough and now we need a different kind of leader for a different kind of task.
Jim was right to fall on his sword on Saturday. But that means he cannot now be the person to shape and dictate what the party does next. His paper on OMOV will be welcome but it is very much a paper sparked by our internal debates. It plays to historic arguments within ourselves, not the lives of the people outside. The principle – that power should be spread across our party – is absolutely correct. We must address it, but only as part of much bigger thinking about what our party is and what it is for.
We must be honest about what has contributed to the extraordinary rise of support for the SNP. They have spoken to the despair felt by people excluded from the mainstream. They have encouraged the hope and imagination of people with an idea for their communities or the world. On a practical, organisational, human level the nationalists have reached out and befriended people. In government, the SNP have said yes when they can. And when they can’t, they have externalised the problem and blamed someone else, as nationalism always does.
For that is their weakness and our opportunity, if we are brave enough to take it. Their politics is not about delivery. Alex Salmond claimed in his election leaflet that the SNP led the way on the pensioners’ bus pass and free personal care. Those were Labour achievements. We are always at our best when we are delivering change. The NHS, the Minimum Wage, equal rights regardless of sex, disability, age or sexuality, the smoking ban. We all have our own list. Our greatest achievements have been about transforming lives.
Pope Francis said the other day: “It is better to have a Church that is wounded but out in the streets than a Church that is sick because it is closed in on itself.”
We need to get out in the streets and communities of Scotland and rejoin the people we come from. We are supposed to be the People’s Party and we should look to the people to help transform us. In Scotland’s new political landscape, what do they need us to be? We need to ask them.
We do not have long to do it but we need to get it right. And we should avoid personalising it around a leadership campaign. We need to be focused on ideas not personalities.
We have someone already prepared to be acting leader for a time. Instead of asking her to oversee another leadership election from an ever-smaller pool of candidates, could we not ask her to oversee a summer of transformation? Could she not bring us together with people from outside ourselves to decide who we are and what we are about? People of all parties and none, but who are interested in a better future for Scotland. People who want to make a progressive democratic choice between conservative unionism and nationalism.
Who knows what ideas might emerge? Who knows what we might become? And who knows what potential leadership candidates might come forward? We decided ten days ago that our leader did not necessarily have to be currently elected. If needs be we could decide that again and have a leadership election in the autumn, to see who was the best leader for our newly reformed movement.
The nationalist juggernaut feels unstoppable at the moment but 55 per cent of Scotland is fundamentally opposed to its single unifying objective. We know that many of those voting SNP did so because they believed the rhetoric about ‘an end to austerity’, ‘making a Labour government better’, and ‘delivering progressive change’. Voters who are already disappointed by the election result, or who become so as constitutional questions hold the country back from changing lives, need someone to speak for them. If it is not us, it will be someone else.
We have a short window of opportunity to tear things up and start again. Or we can choose to keep talking to ourselves about the way we do our own things. Only one route seems to offer hope for the future, but we must move fast. We need to shape up, reach out and get ready. It is time for something completely different.