Did Scottish Labour forget to do ‘the vision thing’?
ALAN SCOBBIE, proud member of London Labour (Falkirk East branch), shares his views on how Scottish Labour lost its way
First a disclaimer: Yes I’m a Londoner but I’m also a Scot first and foremost. So while this may be the views of London Labour (Falkirk East branch) please indulge me. I joined the party as a teenager but didn’t get properly active until moving to Manchester and found a welcome home in Labour Students. I’ve worked as a professional campaigner for the party student affiliate, tasting Scottish by-election defeat and triumph and more recently for a Labour MP holding a marginal against the Tories and BNP. So what I write is from a campaigns perspective but more importantly based on the experiences of my family, a family that has always been a Labour family.
I called home after the Holyrood result and found general apathy. There was sadness that our MSP had lost her seat, recognition that while she did great work for the voluntary sector and the community, a re-elected SNP Government was not a threat to my family. They understood that the election was not about independence or the Tories.
For that reason I’m not sure that all my family bothered to vote. Turnout across Scotland varied dramatically from Glasgow Provan (34.8 per cent) to Edinburgh Southern (61.6). In Falkirk East it was 49.9. I put this down to an understanding of what devolution really involves. Folk know that the Tory-led government are making cuts to public services. They know that there is less money to go around. My mum certainly knows that as the council is reorganising services that employ her. The consensus is that we are relaxed about the result as money would be tight either way.
Something is happening to the traditional Labour vote: it’s not enthusiastic enough to deliver a Holyrood majority. Scottish Labour offered a detailed manifesto but failed to do the vision thing. A few weeks ago I heard Maurice Glassman describe Salmond’s victory as a Blue Labour victory. He applauded a campaign founded on confident nationalism, an industrial policy and rooted in the great struggles of the past, citing Maxton and others. I’m no fan of our First Minister but I dare you to find anyone that thinks he doesn’t stand up for Scotland. My more tribal relatives cannot stand the man but even they acknowledge that he is a first rate leader. He is a man with a vision of Scotland taking the lead in the green economy. Developing high skilled industrial jobs is a message that resonates with a generation that witnessed deindustrialisation of the central belt. Salmond may be all talk but at least people listened. The SNP got their message heard.
My biggest gripe when talking politics with family is disconnect between Labour and its supporters. This is not a problem confined to Scotland. Not a single family member reports having their door chapped (knocked on, for you southerners) in any election for a very long time. They get the odd leaflet and know who their councillor is but that is it. I’m not confident that we look outside the contracting membership base for new councillors and more. My younger sister would be a fierce advocate for her community and yet whenever I mention politics she turns off, it’s not for her. How does the party reach out to people like her and her friends – those who volunteer, fundraise and have not uprooted to London for a career? Most of my family and friends back home are far more involved in their community than my London contemporaries, but would never consider getting involved with “politics”. My worry is that Scottish Labour is tainted by the image it presents at a local level. Whether its another scandal in Glasgow City Council or a disliked ex-council leader with out of touch views contesting Falkirk West and losing again – there is a problem with the face of Scottish Labour. A new leader won’t be enough to change that. We need the grassroots community organising that my grandparent’s generation did naturally to build the labour movement so many years ago.
I’m proud of my Scottish identity. Though I live in London I don’t feel British. I’m a Londoner. I live and work here because it’s a global city and I love my job, friends and the cultural feast on offer every day. None of that lessens the deep roots of the family back home. They can all be found within a half hour’s drive of Falkirk Royal. That sort of tight-knit family is, I feel, the norm for the majority of those I went to school with. There aren’t many of us who have ventured further afield to university and beyond. I look back to my Modern Studies class and wonder what a 17-year-old in my shoes is learning about “politics” today. Do they see Scottish Labour as the party of their grandparents and the past or do they identify more with the SNP and their confident talk of our best days ahead? For me the ties of kin and tradition are deep but its not enough to bash the Nats and patronise the public. It is time to open up and rebuild Scottish Labour as a movement rooted in people’s lives and representative of our nation’s future.
Let me finish by offering three practical suggestions. The party needs to look outside its ranks and into the wider community for candidates in next year’s local government elections. There is no reason why we cannot select a gender balanced ticket for each ward, using all-women shortlists if necessary and presenting a fresh face to the electorate. Second we have to stop fretting about MPs and “London” being involved in the Labour Party. Together we are stronger and there is no way we can out-Nat the Nats.
Finally, let’s stand for something – a positive offer that is ambitious for Scotland and consigns the shrill politics of Scottish Labour to the past. To generate our big ideas we need to shrug off the default position of “that wouldn’t work for Scotland”. There are no shibboleths (or old Royal High Schools) to shy away from. If we fail to confront this challenge then Scottish Labour will have ceded its status as Scotland’s party and we will deserve our fate.
Follow Alan on Twitter at @AlanScobbie.