JOHN McTERNAN outlines his three steps to political recovery, and suggests Scottish Labour has nothing left to lose


Scottish Labour has made the big break. It will have its own leader – a symbol of a broader autonomy.

Of course, some – including this writer – will be nostalgic for the days when the official name was the Scottish Council of the Labour Party. That didn’t seem to hold back those transformative figures Tom Johnston and Willie Ross from shaping the nation for the better.

But these are different times, and those who don’t change with them are reduced to an ineffective chorus muttering at the edge of the stage, like the eccentric uncle at a family wedding. It was Chairman Mao who said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Having taken the first step, Scottish Labour needs to think hard about the remaining thousand miles. It has embarked on a process of renewal and reinvention, but it needs to understand the key stages.

The first essential is that you need to want to change – and the rule changes are a symbol of that. Tony Blair vividly dramatised the change New Labour represented by abandoning Old Labour’s Clause 4 and its commitment to widespread nationalisation. Now Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack have given Scottish Labour an equally powerful symbol. But, while this is a strong message to external observers, just as important is the story to internal interests – from union power-brokers to the activists who deliver the leaflets. For them, there needs to be an honest account of what has gone wrong.

Not a single voter went to the polls last May and thought: “You know what, I really want to vote for Scottish Labour, it’s just that they’re not a federal party with their own autonomous Scottish leader.” No, Labour’s failure was a profound one. It lost at every level. Its candidates – with a few noble exceptions – were not worthy of the voters, nor of the great traditions of the party. Its campaigning was analogue in a digital world. Its policies were actually quite good: see the SNP pilfering of the single police force and the guarantee for 16 to 18-year-olds. Scottish Labour just had no theme, no narrative, no inspiring vision to tie them together, let alone to sell them. All of this has to change, from top to bottom.

So the second step is for the new leader to use their mandate to own and control the party machine. They need a new pool of talent to be the next generation of MSPs, and they’d be well advised to look at the people Scottish Labour has foolishly rejected in the past. Take Professor Alice Brown, passed over by Labour: she has had a distinguished career in the service of the public interest as academic and ombudsman.

Imagine if she were promised, and delivered, selection as a Labour candidate. What a symbol of change and ambition that would be. I can think of two dozen others – and they know who they are – whose adoption and championing by the new Scottish Labour leader would show the voters just how serious they were.

Of course, new personnel – however good – are not enough, though they are essential. The third point is that a new purpose is required. Scottish politics is bedevilled by the constitution. Since the assembly referendum in 1979, the central question has been devolution, even though this was only meant to be the means not the ends. The only people for whom the Scottish Parliament was an end in itself were the 129 career politicians who would otherwise not have had a well-paid, well-pensioned job. Scottish Labour got trapped in process and could never break through and explain what the powers of the parliament could be used for.

Of course, in a funny kind of way no-one else has. The debate about tax-raising powers, or Devo Max or Indy Lite has always been extraordinarily focused on process not purpose – the what, rather than the why. And the SNP, for all its electoral success, is itself intent on the biggest process question of all: the independence referendum. Yet, while this is an existential purpose for the Nationalists, they somewhat sheepishly admit that the details of independence – currency, defence, international alliances, to pick a few – need some thought. This remains a massive gap, and a massive opportunity for any party who can occupy it. Last, but not least, Scottishness. Again the symbolic change is obvious. Labour needs to replace the red flag with the Saltire. Like tartan, heather, haggis and See You Jimmy wigs, the flag belongs to everyone and no-one. The sooner it is depoliticised the better. The deeper question is what is the public policy expression of Scottishness. For the current Scottish Government, it is an antagonism to the private sector, and a puritanical approach to alcohol – both are the targets of bans. Scottish Labour has a real choice here. Does it buy into the SNP view? Is Scotland so collectivist, or social democratic, that private firms should neither finance nor provide public services? Equally, do Scots care so little about individual autonomy that they want the government to price them, and nanny them, out of certain choices?

These are big calls. Does Scottish Labour accept the political dominance of the SNP and, therefore, its description of the problems facing Scotland? Does Labour develop its own analysis, and then agree that the SNP is right? Or does Labour identify principles of its own and build policy on them? Arguing, perhaps, that Scotland’s wealth has always come from the private sector and that excluding them from public sector provision is “un-Scottish”. Or, deciding that a McNanny state is anathema to freeborn Scots who should be left to drink, or not drink at their own leisure.

Scottishness as a policy driver is not a lick of blue facepaint. It is a profound and searching analysis of our character, our past, our present and our future. And a judgment based on core principles.

A lot of work, for sure. But, as they say, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. And Scottish Labour has nothing left to lose.

John McTernan was head of policy to First Minister Henry McLeish, a senior advisor to Tony Blair and special advisor to Jim Murphy MP when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. He now writes for the Telegraph and the Scotsman. Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcternan. This article was originally published in The Scotsman.