“Sunny ways my friends. Sunny ways.”
So began Justin Trudeau’s victory speech following one of the most stunning wins for the Canadian Liberal Party in living memory. It was also a rare victory for a federalist party of the centre-left at a time when right wing and nationalist parties seem resurgent across most of the West.
As Trudeau flies into London tomorrow for the first time as Prime Minister, it’s still too early to reach any conclusion about what his victory might teach us in Scotland and across the UK. But there are two themes that emerged in Trudeau’s campaign that Scottish Labour, and Labour across the UK, need to understand. And they can be summed up in two words: honesty and hope.
The dividing lines for Scotland’s elections next year are becoming clearer by the day – the SNP want to re-run the referendum and the general election by telling people that the new devolution deal is bad for Scotland. As I wrote quite a few years ago, the Scottish electorate are more sophisticated than many politicians give them credit for and all parties need campaigns that address them in a similarly sophisticated way.
Trudeau won in large part because he broke out of the straightjacket that the media, and the Conservatives, were trying to place him in. His honesty about running a deficit to invest in infrastructure set him apart from his competitors and opened up a real debate about the government’s priorities.
That’s why honesty in next year’s elections about the challenges facing Scotland is essential. Pete Wishart’s intervention last week showed some arrogance from the SNP as they try to tell people across Scotland to think about the constitution and not their experience in their own communities. This is what the SNP wants the election to be about.
We can’t allow that to happen. People are looking for sensible debate on the big issues, rooted in their own experiences. People across Scotland understand that while our nurses and doctors are brilliant, the government is asking them to do too much with not nearly enough.
They realise that something must be going wrong in our police service if the Chief Constable has resigned, rank and file officers are protesting about the lack of resources, and cuts led to a catalogue of errors that left two people in a crashed car by the side of the A9.
And they know that if we want to maintain high quality public services, someone has to pay. And with the new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament we need to have a serious debate about tax and challenge the SNP to meet our commitment to raising tax on people earning over £150,000.
However, the honesty that comes from a critique of the Scottish Government’s record – while resonating with the public – is only half the battle.
The SNP are desperate to try to pigeon hole Scottish Labour as the nay-sayers. We can’t let them do that. Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways” apply as much to Scotland as it does to Canada. We need to offer people a politics based in hope – we need to ask them to be part of something better.
The SNP’s optimism only extends as far as independence. We need to show that with Labour you don’t have to wait – you can have real change now. With the Scotland Bill powers on the way, there is an opportunity to communicate a new vision for a modern Scotland. While the SNP are bogged down in arguments about the settlement not going far enough, we need to reach out to the vast majority of people who just want their politicians to get on with the job.
Kez has already started to do that with her plans to restore in full the money people are likely to lose from Tory tax credit cuts. We also need to be offering imaginative solutions where the SNP are offering none. So how will we replace benefits for carers and disabled people when they are turned off and replaced with new Scottish benefits? How can we use the new powers over the Crown Estates to give our rural communities a better deal? And what decisions would we take on tax?
But we also can’t forget about the powers that we’ve had since 1999. So we need big plans for our schools, hospitals and police. We need to restore local accountability to our police force, push ahead with our plans to close the gap between the richest and the rest after years of SNP neglect and be honest about the challenges facing our health service and how we can design a system that can cope with an ageing population.
Every one of these are big questions, but every one of them offers an opportunity for Scottish Labour to talk about ambitious answers based in hope, and to ask people to join us to build a better Scotland.
As Paul Wells noted in his comprehensive account of Canada’s election campaign, the success of the Liberal campaign was largely down to an ability to break away from the story that the Conservatives were attempting to tell about all opposition parties. As Wells says, Trudeau managed to do that by shunning established orthodoxies and making the election a true battle of ideas. With the new powers coming to Scotland, and with a public more engaged in politics than ever before, there has never been a better time for a battle of ideas.