What did we do right?
Yvonne Spence lives in Edinburgh South, which now has the distinction of being the only remaining Labour-held Westminster seat in Scotland. Here she explores why that might be.
It might be tempting for Scottish Labour to melt into self-recriminations of “Where did we go wrong?” That would be a mistake.
While it’s right to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them, endlessly trying to figure out what went wrong only produces self-loathing. It doesn’t help anyone to know what to do now. That’s true on a personal level, and I’m fairly confident it’s true at a political level.
Besides, we already know what went wrong. On election day I spent two hours outside a polling station, wearing a red coat and a Labour rosette. Many SNP voters were keen to tell me how Labour MPs were arrogant and took Scottish voters for granted, that Labour betrayed its people by campaigning with the Conservatives in during the referendum; the negative campaign of Better Together was an embarrassment to Scotland; Blair was a war-mongering sell-out who betrayed the working-class.
If I heard all that in two hours, most activists and MPs have heard it a hundred times by now. If they somehow escaped it in person, they have read it in the press. Or they have spoken and written about it themselves, trying to pinpoint Labour’s failings. The single Labour MP in Scotland survived in spite of these recriminations, not because of them.
Compassion is a word that I use a lot. (After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I instigated a worldwide blogging initiative to encourage more of it.) Compassion is a word the Labour party also uses a lot. This I like. But compassion, if it’s real, begins with self-compassion.
Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. It is not attacking someone else and blaming them for your problems. It is not pretending things are great when they aren’t. It is recognising that you are suffering and extending the same hand of kindness to yourself that you would extend to someone else.
Labour needs to extend that hand of kindness to itself now. It also needs, and fast, to look at what it got right and to build from there.
I’m old enough to have lived through the Thatcher years and to have felt the euphoria when New Labour won in 1997. I’m also old enough to have been one of the many voters who walked away from Labour in the following years. I shared the disappointment many of those new SNP voters described. I understood their pain. Yet, I was there on Election Day with my red coat and Labour rosette.
What brought me back? Partly you can thank the referendum.
After I stopped voting Labour, I switched to Green. I consider climate change to be the second biggest threat our world faces. (The biggest isn’t ISIS, though ISIS is a symptom of it.)
In spite of being educated to MA level, I was a lazy voter, an uninformed voter. Until the referendum lead-up, I had never read a Green Party manifesto. The first time I checked their website was after hearing that the Green Party was in favour of independence. As far as I was concerned, nationalism had nothing to do with environmental issues, but since the Greens were promoting a yes vote, it shook me out of political inertia. A few weeks before the referendum I went from being a definite No to an anxious Undecided – and spent hours trawling the internet for facts. I found plenty of opinions, but facts weren’t easy to come by, on either side.
Eventually, I concluded (wrongly) there was no clear evidence to indicate whether we would be financially better or worse off, and no clear evidence the NHS would be destroyed. I also discovered that not all Greens agreed with the party’s stance and that Robin Harper was voting no.
I’ve lived in London and the south of England; there I’ve seen deprivation as deep as any in Scotland; my second daughter was born prematurely and would have died without the English NHS; my in-laws were slowly dying of cancer and heart disease in England. A Guardian editorial summed up my feelings: nationalism is not the answer to social injustice. The gulf between my values and the Green party’s solution was too deep, and I was left with no clue which party would now get my vote.
I’ll be honest – the leaflets Labour put through my door during the referendum did not inspire me. The charges of scaremongering seemed true – but the Yes campaign’s side were every bit as bad. The only positive bit of campaigning I saw came from the LibDems. Because of this, I explored their policies, and liked many of them. You may remember I said that ISIS is a symptom of the biggest threat our planet faces? That threat is poor mental health. With good mental health would we be hell-bent on self-destruction? I liked that the LibDems considered themselves Serious About Mental Health. I was less keen that they had supported the Bedroom Tax.
Late last year, someone I follow on Twitter posted a link to a Facebook Q & A with Ed Miliband. I clicked over. He couldn’t answer a fraction of the questions in the allotted time, and I noticed that those he did were overwhelmingly on either social care or mental health issues.
I began to pay more attention to Miliband, and liked what I saw. He seemed a rare kind of politician – honest, compassionate, aware. The more I read about him, the more I liked.
About the same time, I received a letter from my MP, Ian Murray. This letter was like none other I had ever received from an MP. He wasn’t asking me to do anything for him. He wasn’t bragging about his successes. He was asking if we needed help with anything. More than that: he offered to meet us in our home if we couldn’t come to him. A few days later, I went into Murray’s office, not to ask for help, but to offer it.
In that last few days, I’ve read articles about why Ian Murray survived when everyone else fell. They’ve suggested it was because of tactical voting to keep out Neil Hay after his slurs against 65% of his target constituents came to light. That may have been part of it, but Hay was certainly not the only SNP candidate to slur constituents, so it wasn’t the main reason. I’ve also read that it was because of Ian Murray’s support for Hearts Football Club, and particularly for how he led a fan buy-out to save the club from administration.
I asked my neighbours. They said, “He’s very active in the community.” Again, I’m sure there are many MPs you could have said the same about. However, Ian Murray has held more surgeries than any other MP, and has helped over 12,000 people. When I talked to his office staff shortly after the Ashcroft poll showing the SNP ahead they said, “We’re out talking to people all the time. This is nothing new to us. With a small majority, we could never take people’s votes for granted.”
All of those factors played a part I’m sure, but there was something else.
The polling station where I stood on Election Day was in one of Edinburgh South’s poorer areas and many of the people who shuffled past looked ill. Person after person nodded to the SNP activist standing next to me as they went in. On coming out, one man, who didn’t say how he’d voted, told me he had cancer. His rented flat leaked. The landlord hadn’t fixed it properly. He felt worn out from the struggle. Another man, on a mobility scooter, who had voted SNP, stayed for ages telling me all that was wrong with Labour, how let down he felt. These men, and many of the others, wanted to be looked after, cared for.
I’m going to take you back now to the referendum. While the Better Together were arguing economics, the Yes Campaign was promising a new future. Most of my friends voted yes, and many cited that it gave them, “the chance to make a difference.” At the time I replied, “But we don’t need independence to make a difference. We can do that now.” The answer was always, no, we couldn’t. No as long as we were controlled by Westminster.
What the SNP promised then, and still promise now, is something that every single one of us wants. We all have conflicting desires of wanting to control and to be looked after – they are part of being human. Better Together, and by default the Labour Party, seemed to be offering to look after us – while controlling us. The SNP seemed to be saying they’d look after us, while offering us control. Of course, in reality, it’s extremely unlikely that the SNP leadership would delegate power to ordinary people – it has centralised police and fire services and its MPs have signed a gagging clause forbidding them from criticising the parliamentary group or deviating from party policy. Nevertheless, the impression remains.
When Ian Murray organised the supporters’ buy-out at Hearts his leadership helped people feel taken care of and he gave them the opportunity to feel in control. This, I believe is at the heart (sorry!) of why he is the “last man standing.” I’ve only spoken to Ian once, when I bumped into him out on the doorsteps as I was about to do some leafleting. I asked how the campaign was going. Ian talked about poor souls with conspiracy theories and our conversation turned to mental health. When I said I thought that helping people resolve mental health issues is what’s most needed in our society, Ian agreed. He said that, with just a little bit of mental health support, many of the people he sees would gain the confidence to resolve their problems for themselves.
In an interview with Andrew Neill, Labour leadership candidate, Liz Kendall, said that Labour is about “helping people to help themselves.” This is exactly what Ian Murray is doing.
How can other Labour politicians – MSPs, councillors and prospective candidates – emulate his success? Not by rushing out trying to “help people help themselves” in exchange for votes. It should and can only be done with honesty and integrity. If you help constituents only to get something in return you are in the wrong job. If you want to be politician to get power, it’s time to join a different party or get a different career.
If you genuinely care and want to help people, stick around and show them. Don’t wait till a month before the election to do this and don’t wait for people to seek you out. That man I met on Thursday – the one with cancer and the leaking roof –wanted help, but it hadn’t occurred to him he could ask an MP or MSP to help him. You need to let him know that. You need to let everyone of your constituents know that. Some will forget. Some will vote for someone else no matter what you do.
Ian Murray has made it crystal clear that he is there for every constituent no matter how they voted. So must you.