A deep reservoir of optimism
April, for Eliot, may have been the cruellest month, but for Labour in Scotland May must now take that honour.
We should be in no doubt that the verdict of the electorate delivered a once-in-a-generation shellacking (once-in-a-generation according to the conventional calendar, that is, rather than Sturgeon Referendum Time) and presents our stiffest challenge in a century.
Foremost in our mind should be our primary task: to present an effective opposition to the first majority Tory government in a quarter of a century, and to the zealously triumphant SNP at Holyrood. We must not repeat the mistakes of 2010, when the introspection of an indulgent, inward-looking leadership contest allowed the Tory-led coalition to frame the narrative of government, and set the context for the whole of the last parliament.
That Labour’s leadership candidates today feel compelled to ‘admit’ overspending in the run-up to 2008 reflects an important failure; as the blogger Paul Bernal observes, the election was not lost in 2015 alone, but in the failure to defend the record of a Labour government rebuilding public services after two decades of neglect, with spending plans that the Conservative opposition pledged to match ‘pound-for-pound’.
In 2015, every day, we must hold the executive to account: for all the repeated rhetoric of the ‘long-term economic plan’, many do not feel more confident or more secure; for all the sound and fury of the nationalist reawakening, the record of the SNP in government remains a dismal failure.
Much ink will be spilt in the coming months on the question of the leadership. With Jim Murphy sacrificed on the altar of one man’s bitter grievance, and Ed Miliband retired to the stonemasons in the sky, we will see two new faces at the helm of the unenviable task to rebuild the party. Two genuinely new voices stand out: Kezia Dugdale at Holyrood and Liz Kendall in Westminster. Both will engage on substance, not sophistry; both understand the real world, not just the ivory tower of party politics; and both instinctively grasp that Labour’s rebuilding cannot be build on the sand of intellectual posturing, but on the solid foundations of the difference that we can make to people’s lives.
As important as the identity of our leaders might be, though, the real task of rebuilding will happen at the local level. Reengaging with local communities, on real issues that impact people’s lives, is the route back for Labour. Too often, we have taken our ‘core vote’ for granted, with little to offer or inspire; that must change. Daniel Johnson wrote recently on these pages of a new era of ‘Virtue Politics’ that can rebuild trust not through policy and positioning, but through the character, judgement and virtues we display. But as Daniel notes, “it is not enough to simply assert our virtues. Moral character is not judged by explanation, it is judged by exposition.”
We can only rebuild trust if we rebuild the link between Labour and its heartlands, demonstrating through our actions that we are on the side of working people; that we are on the side of people building a better life; that we are on the side of those the Tories and the SNP have left behind. Only by engaging with local communities, showing them that we can be trusted and relied upon, can we engage and persuade the Scottish people that enhanced powers for Holyrood are best wielded by Labour, and not by the SNP, and regain a voice for Labour across the UK.
But here is our reason to be cheerful. I spent the last month of the campaign with Ian Murray’s team in Edinburgh South, and the experience of those few weeks provide a deep reservoir of optimism for the future. Never before have I worked with such a principled, committed and talented team, united behind a common purpose. The tone is set from the top: Ian’s record as a local MP speaks for itself, and his team – including one campaign organiser who at 21 has more passion and drive than most of us can draw on in a lifetime – are the sort of people you’d want beside you in the trenches.
And the tone at the top feeds downwards into inspiration on the ground, in a warm and inclusive campaign that shows the best of the Labour movement. Ian’s phalanx of volunteers drew endless energy on the doorstep as constituent after constituent told us deeply personal stories of how Ian had made a impact on their lives: helping young families to secure the best start in life for their children; pressing for road and pavement resurfacing that helped older people retain their independence; and assisting the most vulnerable in navigating the minefield of welfare reform.
Stories like this are not unique. In every part of the country, Labour MPs, councillors, staff and activists are making a real difference, and it is by redoubling our efforts at the local level that we will regain our audience with the electorate.
As we navigate our way back from the brink, we must listen to our activists, and in particular to those whose candidacies were unsuccessful. It is only by listening to those lessons from the doorstep that we can reconnect with the people we aspire to represent, and make ourselves relevant once again.