Scottish Labour’s next leader needs to construct the broadest coalition of support ever, says TOM HARRIS
I should perhaps take it as a compliment that within hours of telling Good Morning Scotland that I was considering standing to replace Iain Gray as Scottish Labour leader, the SNP issued a press release suggesting that I was my own third choice for leader.
Quiet amusing, actually.
Aware that I was in danger of being portrayed as less than enthusiastic about winning the leadership election (whenever it comes), I was unequivocal on Newsnight Scotland last night. “Do you really want this job?” asked Gordon Brewer.
“I really do,” I replied.
And I do. But I hope you will understand why I’m not yet ready formally to announce I’m a candidate. There are two very good reasons for this. The first is that the review of the party currently underway might conclude that MPs shouldn’t be eligible for consideration. The second is that I might not have enough support to justify a bid.
Opposition parties don’t win elections by converting voters to their way of thinking. Labour isn’t going to be a contender in 2016 by telling the electorate that they were wrong to choose Alex Salmond in 2011 and they’d better not disappoint us this time round. The voters are never wrong – that’s a difficult and painful truth which Labour must accept before we can move forward.
“Reconnecting” (awful word!) with our “base” isn’t going to do it either. As we saw in 2007 and 2011, the “base” is nowhere near wide enough to provide the support we need to win. Yes, we need to attract those former Labour voters who abandoned us last time. But we need to do more than that. There are many ex-Tories out there who long ago stopped voting for the Scottish Conservatives and who now support the SNP as the best vehicle for stopping us. If Labour in the UK could attract disenchanted Tories in 1997 and 2001, why can’t Scottish Labour do the same now?
Former Tories, former LibDems and former nationalists – there should be no no-go areas for a renewed Scottish Labour Party. For a party that aspires to government, there is no alternative to formulating a message and a vision that appeals across the political spectrum.
Neither should there be any more reliance on geography; there are people living in rural and remote communities in every corner of the country who have never voted Labour because we’ve never made an effort to recruit them. Why bother when you can rely on our so-called “heartlands”? And losing our heartlands last time round should not be the only motivation for adopting a “50 states” strategy; we should have done it many years ago – another example of our complacency.
The Labour Party was created to give working people a voice. We need to remind ourselves of that mission, and not assume that those who work hard to improve their own standard of living and whose taxes pay for the services on which we all rely, are any less deserving of our advocacy than any other section of society.
Above all – above party, above personal ambition and above the UK – there is Scotland.
Government is only a means to an end. For Scottish Labour that end is the fight against poverty and inequality of opportunity, the protection of workers’ rights, the creation of wealth, of jobs and of prosperity. For the nationalists, government is little more than a box-ticking exercise, an inconvenient activity they must endure in order to achieve their own end: a constitutional upheaval that will bring no obvious or guaranteed benefits for our people.
Whatever principles we as party members hold dear, whatever ambitions we have for ourselves and our nation, they are nothing more than a comfort blanket unless we achieve government and the means to turn those principles into action. And we, the Labour Party, cannot achieve government without the support of a broad coalition of support from all sections of Scottish society.
By May 5, 2016, we will need to have persuaded the country that voting Labour will not only be in the best interests of Scotland, but also in the best interests of themselves and their families.
Before we vote for Labour’s next candidate to be First Minister, we must put ourselves in the shoes, not of a Labour member, but in the shoes of one of the many Scots who have turned their backs on Labour, or who have never even considered voting for us. Because if we can win them over, we will be invited once more to share the privilege of government at Holyrood.
Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South. He Tweets as @TomHarrisMP.