A generation out of power?
This piece will feature in the next Progress Magazine.
Every time the Labour party loses it does worse at the following election, a tradition sadly continued by Scottish Labour in both Holyrood and Westminster. We need to turn the fortunes of the party around so that the prospect of a decade out of power does not become the prospect of a generation.
In Scotland, as elsewhere, we see many urging a surge to the left to attempt to win back our core vote lost to the Scottish National Party. This may make some within the Labour movement feel better about themselves, but it essentially misunderstands where the Scottish Labour party finds itself – adrift from mainstream public opinion, which seems quite happy with the left-of-centre rhetoric of the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon in particular.
Yet it is quite revealing that the advice our new leadership will get from our opponents is much the same as from some quarters in our own party. The SNP knows perfectly well that to build an election-winning strategy, the first principles are to be confident and positive but – above all – to appeal to a wide range of people. Boxing Scottish Labour in to talking only about society’s poorest helps our opponents connect with everyone else. Some of the following may seem obvious but this feels like a time in Labour party history when we can take nothing for granted.
With that in mind, here are 10 thoughts for Scottish Labour’s new leader and deputy leader:
Never forget that Labour exists to win power – in Scotland and right across the United Kingdom. Some would have you believe that to care about voters’ views is to ‘sell out’. Yet we change nothing from our position as an opposition that shrinks in size with every election. The only winners from this are the Tories and the nationalists. There is no rule that says that there has to be a Scottish Labour party. You stand in the foothills of a mountain that can and must be climbed if we are to form a future Scottish government. This is a time to be bold.
Choose your team wisely. You have huge goodwill from virtually everyone who has ever served Scottish Labour, and many more besides. If you so wish, you can draw on some of Scotland’s finest minds. Use these facts to make sure you appoint your advisers carefully and cast your net wide. We need the best – those who are smart, sharp, creative, disciplined and ambitious for the Scottish people as well as the Scottish Labour party.
Do not just choose people who will tell you what you want to hear. Do not run your team like a court. Those already at the top of the party or those able to provide good one-liners for the appearance of the day should not be the only ones to have the leader’s ear. Tension will be key, diverse views vital, and the ability to have a clear decision made after such debate most important. Coordinate with your UK colleagues to ensure that what seems like a good idea at a House of Commons dispatch box does not become a banana-skin in Holyrood.
Listen to why we lost. Get out there and talk with people who abandoned us. Be seen to be listening and understanding where we got it wrong, accept it, apologise and do better. Do not do it in front of cameras all the time. Why not have public meetings (despite knowing a few hardcore nationalists will likely show up)? Feeling the pain will help a sense of healing. It might be tough but it will be worth it in the long run as a first step in the reconnecting we so clearly need to do.
Be authentic. Hold firm in your beliefs and make sure the public know what they are.
Build a radical Labour vision for Scotland’s future – not just for 2020 but for 2050 and beyond. We will not win by being more Scottish than our opponents; nor would we want to try because ours is the politics of social justice, not of national identity. We have talked a lot in recent years about what Scottish Labour is against – people need to know what we are for. We need to speak seriously about the future of Scotland and how we bring new opportunities to people. How we will build a people-focused economy that allows the young to have big dreams and to achieve them; and those in work to further themselves. How we will use the Scottish parliament’s new powers to attract the jobs of the future and help people across our nation live the very best life they can. And how our values of solidarity and sharing across the UK – and the European Union – underpin this vision.
Scottish Labour must retell our story for the end of the 21st century, not the beginning of this or any of the last century. A modern party rooted in values of social justice and equality, but alive to the new opportunities the world has to offer and ready to help Scotland make the very best of itself in the future.
Stay rooted in our values – but express them through policies that build a better tomorrow, not with ideas from a bygone era. Labour has to be about working people. Tackling poverty and inequality will always be fundamental to this. But it also includes young people looking for opportunities to shine or those seeking a better job, more pay and fairer conditions than they have. It includes people who pay their mortgages, want an affordable car and to spend a fortnight in the sun during the school holidays. It includes public sector workers, yes – but private sector workers and businesses too.
All of these people found something in the nationalists worth voting for, and it was not just independence. They, like many other people in Scotland, abandoned Labour for a more compelling vision from our opponents on how to better themselves. So surely the way back has to be to make it clear that we are on their side? That was missing from our general election campaign and we paid a heavy price for it.
Ruthlessly expose the failing record of Sturgeon’s government. Literacy rates are falling. NHS waiting lists are growing. Fewer young people from poor backgrounds make it to university. Job losses are mounting up in some parts of Scotland. The pay gap between women and men is widening. The Scottish government has centralised our police force and allowed it to become the most illiberal in the UK. They may talk like social democrats but they fail to deliver the goods.
Create a culture where putting forward new ideas is positively encouraged. In addition to the Twitter trolls who plague social media, SNP members protest against the BBC and other public figures who dare to dissent. This is creating an atmosphere where some in public life are worried about criticising the Scottish government for fear of losing government funding. There is a deep need for renewed freedom of thought in public debate, and freedom from intimidation in the public square.
Set expectations. There will be no quick fixes to our situation in Scotland, and, although none of us wants this, it could be a long road back. May 2016 will be tough and Scottish Labour must band together and get properly behind the new leadership team. You are in this for the long haul and the party has to be as well.
Build our movement and change the way we campaign. Doorknocking and voter ID will always be important but we need to progress and modernise techniques that were designed for the 1990s. Deepen the conversation, do not reduce it to a target. The same goes for constituency Labour party meetings – few people, especially young people, have any desire to spend their Friday night sitting in a dusty hall debating arcane procedure.
Invest in supporting Scottish constituency Labour parties to become active, year-round agents for change on issues like the living wage, with serious training and guidance. Grow Labour’s active membership in Scotland. Make it so much easier to join Labour and welcome new people properly. Develop stronger links with trade unions, businesses and civil society – this really matters. It will be time-consuming but it is necessary. Work with the Scottish Executive Committee to come up with a clear plan for how you will take this forward; and drive forward its implementation.
Above all remember what we are: a proud part of the Labour party. You must build strong relationships with the new UK leadership team, whoever they end up being. Without a recovery in the fortunes of the Scottish Labour Party, the task of having a Labour government for all of the UK becomes so much harder. It also allows the Conservatives to continue playing the nationalism card. Of course, Scottish Labour will have our own positions on devolved matters but remember that in unity, there is strength, and in general the public actually quite like that.
Melanie Ward is an anti-poverty campaigner and is the former parliamentary candidate for Glenrothes and Central Fife. Jamie Glackin is Chair of the Scottish Labour Party. Both are writing in a personal capacity.