JOHN McTERNAN’S been casting an eye over the the Scottish Election Study, and prescribes some radical – and familiar – ­­­­­medicine for Labour


Labour falling to its worst ever result. A landslide victory for a visionary, charismatic leader with the common touch. A stunning majority for a populist party with a clear and radical agenda – whatever you think about them, you know what they want to do with the country. Every traditional group of Labour voters abandoning them.

Heartland seat after heartland seat – where they used to weigh votes not count them – spurning the party that has represented them for generations. Labour in retreat socially and intellectually as well as electorally. How can they ever possibly recover?

No, not the May elections to the Scottish Parliament, but the 1983 election victory for Margaret Thatcher. Surveying the wreckage of the Scottish Labour Party after its devastating defeat this May, one could use exactly the same description. In the words of the great baseball player Yogi Berra: “It’s deja vu, all over again.”

But because this has happened before, Scottish Labour has a tried and tested recovery route – the one that New Labour followed. Because what is really striking is not the superficial comparisons, but just how deep the similarities are. The just released Scottish Election Study (SES) shows just how comprehensive a victory the SNP had in May. We can all name the iconic losses in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. What the SES rams home is that the SNP won a majority of Catholic voters, of working class voters and of the middle classes.

Labour’s traditional lead amongst women and young people evaporated too. In every part of the electorate a seismic shift.

But the survey dug deeper. It made two more fascinating discoveries. Voters had been drawn to the SNP because of its record of competence in government, not because of any increase in public support for independence – that remains where it has habitually been, under a third of all voters. So the SNP massively outpolled its iconic policy.

Second, the survey tested the extent to which voters have become sophisticated, willing to vote for one party at Westminster and another at Holyrood. They found that multi-level voting, as they called it, is now a firm part of the political landscape. That’s not an original observation. It’s been long suspected, and now the SES has substantiated it.

What does this all amount to? In the academic jargon it’s called de-alignment – people are losing their traditional loyalties to individual political parties. In reality, politics is now much more of a market, with parties having to attract voters with new offers each time. These promiscuous voters are not a stable coalition. This provides both problems and opportunities to politicians.

Again, Labour has been here before. The scale of the 1983 defeat, under the leadership of Michael Foot, drove Labour modernisation, first under Neil Kinnock, then John Smith and finally – and successfully – it was led by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson.

At the core of that modernisation was the understanding that no seats were safe any more, the defection of the working classes and reform minded middle classes left Labour with no choice to build a new coalition. Except in Scotland, where the 1983 result was the beginning of a false dawn that has blighted Scottish Labour thinking ever since. Because it didn’t face the same reversal in its heartlands, and indeed from 1987 was winning seats from the Tories. During the following twenty years of electoral dominance in Scotland Labour never felt the pressure to modernise. Was it smugness or the lack of an existential challenge? A bit of both probably. Whatever, the pressure is on now.

Where do they start? With tone – and Tone. From first to last, from “A new dawn has broken has it not” at the Royal Festival Hall to “This is the greatest nation in the world” in Trimdon, Tony Blair was relentlessly proud, passionate, patriotic and positive. Characteristics shared by Alex Salmond. Scottish Labour should start there. And for Blair, it was always about values. Here the Scottish Election Study is helpful again. Despite the overall exceptional ratings for the record of the SNP government, there were a couple of areas where the public marked them down – education and law and order. Both areas where Labour had strong and popular policies.

Start with education. This is core to our sense of self; we are known worldwide for the quality of our education. Except that’s just not true now. Standards in our schools have fallen below those in England and are falling ever faster behind. Scottish Labour needs to seize on this failure, not simply to critique the SNP approach but as a spur to action. Academies in England have dramatically raised performance in the worst performing schools in the most deprived areas. Why can’t kids in Wester Hailes and Castlemillk have those chances? Surely the Catholic Church, our educational charities and our philanthropists would relish the opportunity.

Or take law and order. You can’t go far wrong with tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. Labour’s knife crime policy was one of the most popular single policies of any party at the election. They should stick to it.

But they should brigade it with a prevention strategy. The restoration of the Future Jobs Fund was one leg of that, apprenticeships another. This is a key battleground. The people of Glasgow and Lanarkshire didn’t vote SNP to see the prison population in Scotland halved. Insofar as there is an SNP law and order policy it seems to be: tough on judges, tough on defence lawyers.

And then there’s health. At the core of Nicola Sturgeon’s health strategy is an opposition to hospital reorganisation. She wants to keep resources locked-up in acute care – that stands in opposition to 30 years of thinking in the NHS which has tried to move services to primary care in the community. Let her keep a provider driven service, Labour should back patients and GPs. Give them the power to shape a healthy future.

The future not the past. The many not the few. Leadership not drift. There’s life in the old songs still. The election may have been a sea-change, or a bubble. Alex Salmond may be Margaret Thatcher or David Owen. That is as much in Labour’s hands as it is in his. Who dares wins.

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.