What now for Labour in Scotland?
Melanie Ward (@melanie_ward) is an anti-poverty campaigner and Labour activist who was the Scottish Labour and Co-op candidate for Glenrothes and Central Fife in the 2015 General Election.
We in the Labour family are hurting. For so many reasons.
For some of us, there is personal sadness that this was not our time to serve. For me, that sadness is outweighed by the fact that the people of Scotland clearly do not currently see Labour as the vehicle to express the values of social justice and equality which we feel to our core – or believe that that asserting Scottish identity is more important. It is outweighed still further by horror at what five more years of a Tory government will likely do to the most vulnerable in our communities.
Our defeat in Scotland is of historic proportions. Anyone who already claims to know all the answers as to where we go next, or who seeks to apportion blame on individuals should be disregarded.
Many of us will feel grave concern at the rise of nationalism in both Scotland and England. Voters in Scotland often expressed the view on the doorstep that the need to ‘stand up for Scotland’ was motivating their vote. This simple message may not carry with it any clear proposals for change but it has engendered a feeling of being part of a movement for something positive. Voters in England expressed the need to ‘stop Scotland’ from dictating the agenda. Tory sources have apparently told journalists that they would have been trounced if it were not for the SNP. Setting people against each other because of a border in the land is a basic tenet of nationalism. It is not left wing. And I believe that a serious discussion as to how we tackle it must be central focus of debates as to who will be the next Leader of the UK Labour Party.
Blaming the SNP for their success will do us no good if we are to rebuild. This was Labour’s failure in Scotland and it is a failure built up over years. I believe it is incumbent on all of us in the Labour movement to take responsibility to be part of the solution. We must not sit and wait for new leaders to fix everything. There is much to be done, and nothing to stop us getting on with it (perhaps after a brief rest). In this spirit, I offer a few initial thoughts on what next:
- Replaying old records from the past would be a road to nowhere. We must choose now whether we want Scottish Labour to win again, or we are happy to be a voice of ideologically pure protest. For me, the answer is simple. We exist to help change lives and we can never do that from the sidelines of mainstream politics. Nor is a return to New Labour the answer – it was a hugely successful election-winning creation of its time but it too is of the past. A desire to win again must guide us as we look forwards and tackle the challenges of the future.
- We must reconnect with our communities. This applies in some parts of the country more than others but voters think that we have been complacent and they are right. At one time, those who volunteered in local projects to bring community change would have been part of Labour and seen our Party as their natural ally. No longer. We can change this but it requires us to get out and be active. Our councilors have a massively important role to play. Community campaigning must be at the heart of this – championing issues that will make a real difference to people, and inviting them to join us. Some of the young people in my area who have recently joined Labour are already doing this but many more members must follow their lead – and take a lead. This will help us to build our movement.
- As a trade unionist, I believe this is a crucial time for unions to recruit. The next five years will be really tough for working people. I was so struck by some of my recent campaign visits to care homes, for example. On a number of occasions care home workers would stop me in the corridor for whispered conversations about Labour’s plans for a higher minimum wage and the living wage, and how these would help them. They were scraping by on the minimum wage but doing a difficult and stressful job looking after very vulnerable older people. Especially in the face of a Tory government, union organisation could help these workers achieve fair pay for the vital work they do.
- We must continue to talk about Labour’s achievements – not as the answer to our problems now or because we think people should somehow be grateful, but as a way of reminding the public that politics can and does change lives for the better. Time and time again on the doorstep, I reminded people who expressed the view that politics changes nothing that there was no minimum wage before a Labour government. It was Labour who brought in free bus passes for older people, winter fuel payments and free TV licenses. A community activist expressed surprise to me when she learned that Labour had first introduced the tax credits that today continue to make such a difference to her family.
- Further change in Scottish Labour’s constitution may or may not be necessary as a means of helping us to get more done. But if we think our main problem is our constitution, we are kidding ourselves. There is nothing to stop us from bringing immediate change ourselves; even if on a relatively small scale. We have long collectively joked about CLP meetings as necessities that must be endured and which switch off new members. We don’t need constitutional change to fix that, we can just get on with making meetings interesting – inviting campaign groups and speakers from our communities and from the Labour movement. It’s not rocket science, we just need to do it.
This is a time when we need all the ideas we can get on how to rebuild. I hope that others will similarly put forwards suggestions on some of the things that Labour in Scotland should do next.