A deep reservoir of optimism

rob haywardRob Hayward is a strategy consultant and writer, based in Edinburgh. He says Labour must be rebuilt on the solid foundations of the difference we can make to people’s lives.


April, for Eliot, may have been the cruellest month, but for Labour in Scotland May must now take that honour.

We should be in no doubt that the verdict of the electorate delivered a once-in-a-generation shellacking (once-in-a-generation according to the conventional calendar, that is, rather than Sturgeon Referendum Time) and presents our stiffest challenge in a century.

Foremost in our mind should be our primary task: to present an effective opposition to the first majority Tory government in a quarter of a century, and to the zealously triumphant SNP at Holyrood. We must not repeat the mistakes of 2010, when the introspection of an indulgent, inward-looking leadership contest allowed the Tory-led coalition to frame the narrative of government, and set the context for the whole of the last parliament.

That Labour’s leadership candidates today feel compelled to ‘admit’ overspending in the run-up to 2008 reflects an important failure; as the blogger Paul Bernal observes, the election was not lost in 2015 alone, but in the failure to defend the record of a Labour government rebuilding public services after two decades of neglect, with spending plans that the Conservative opposition pledged to match ‘pound-for-pound’.

In 2015, every day, we must hold the executive to account: for all the repeated rhetoric of the ‘long-term economic plan’, many do not feel more confident or more secure; for all the sound and fury of the nationalist reawakening, the record of the SNP in government remains a dismal failure.

Much ink will be spilt in the coming months on the question of the leadership. With Jim Murphy sacrificed on the altar of one man’s bitter grievance, and Ed Miliband retired to the stonemasons in the sky, we will see two new faces at the helm of the unenviable task to rebuild the party. Two genuinely new voices stand out: Kezia Dugdale at Holyrood and Liz Kendall in Westminster. Both will engage on substance, not sophistry; both understand the real world, not just the ivory tower of party politics; and both instinctively grasp that Labour’s rebuilding cannot be build on the sand of intellectual posturing, but on the solid foundations of the difference that we can make to people’s lives.

As important as the identity of our leaders might be, though, the real task of rebuilding will happen at the local level. Reengaging with local communities, on real issues that impact people’s lives, is the route back for Labour. Too often, we have taken our ‘core vote’ for granted, with little to offer or inspire; that must change. Daniel Johnson wrote recently on these pages of a new era of ‘Virtue Politics’ that can rebuild trust not through policy and positioning, but through the character, judgement and virtues we display. But as Daniel notes, “it is not enough to simply assert our virtues. Moral character is not judged by explanation, it is judged by exposition.”

We can only rebuild trust if we rebuild the link between Labour and its heartlands, demonstrating through our actions that we are on the side of working people; that we are on the side of people building a better life; that we are on the side of those the Tories and the SNP have left behind. Only by engaging with local communities, showing them that we can be trusted and relied upon, can we engage and persuade the Scottish people that enhanced powers for Holyrood are best wielded by Labour, and not by the SNP, and regain a voice for Labour across the UK.

But here is our reason to be cheerful. I spent the last month of the campaign with Ian Murray’s team in Edinburgh South, and the experience of those few weeks provide a deep reservoir of optimism for the future. Never before have I worked with such a principled, committed and talented team, united behind a common purpose. The tone is set from the top: Ian’s record as a local MP speaks for itself, and his team – including one campaign organiser who at 21 has more passion and drive than most of us can draw on in a lifetime – are the sort of people you’d want beside you in the trenches.

And the tone at the top feeds downwards into inspiration on the ground, in a warm and inclusive campaign that shows the best of the Labour movement. Ian’s phalanx of volunteers drew endless energy on the doorstep as constituent after constituent told us deeply personal stories of how Ian had made a impact on their lives: helping young families to secure the best start in life for their children; pressing for road and pavement resurfacing that helped older people retain their independence; and assisting the most vulnerable in navigating the minefield of welfare reform.

Stories like this are not unique. In every part of the country, Labour MPs, councillors, staff and activists are making a real difference, and it is by redoubling our efforts at the local level that we will regain our audience with the electorate.

As we navigate our way back from the brink, we must listen to our activists, and in particular to those whose candidacies were unsuccessful. It is only by listening to those lessons from the doorstep that we can reconnect with the people we aspire to represent, and make ourselves relevant once again.

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7 thoughts on “A deep reservoir of optimism

  1. A good post from Rob. We must listen to activists as they were ones listening to voters on the doorstep. They were the ones asking why voters were moving to other parties and know what arguments brought them back.

  2. Rob, I’m somewhat confused; hopefully you can help.

    I had my hopes all built up after seeing the title and I’m afraid I’m struggling with your reasons to be cheerful thing because I don’t really find any in your article.

    You seem quite typically pessimistic for the most part, which in a sense is perfectly understandable and probably a sign that you haven’t completely taken leave of your senses, except towards the end where you dwell on the marvellousness of Ian Murray and his team.

    The problem is that Murray’s success derived not from those virtuous core Labour values so many keep whimpering on about but from his rejection of Labour policy. If you take just one example, a biggy at that, Trident, he was going around shouting that he was against its renewal. Hmmmmmmmm.

    So, you are asking us to be cheerful because the one Labour candidate who didn’t lose his seat was successful, even though you, I, and everybody knows that his success might just as easily be heralded as a success for the rejection of Labour policy?

    I’m having trouble squaring this and let me tell you striaght, Rob, my fine fellow, I don’t see many reasons to be cheerful in here. I see reasons to be afraid and concerned. If this is cheerful, I want my money back…

  3. Two comments making similar points, one constructively and one rather less so. Let me expand a little and answer your question directly, Aceldo. You suggest that Ian Murray’s success was based on his ‘rejection of Labour policy’. The example you suggest – Ian’s opposition to Trident – was not mentioned by a single voter I spoke to on the doorstep. What we did discuss, repeatedly, was the commitment of Ian and his team to making an impact on people’s lives: helping them secure school and nursery places for their children, for example, or intervening on behalf of constituents left out of pocket by the chaos of the welfare system. This commitment to opportunity, equality and helping the most vulnerable in society isn’t a ‘rejection’ of Labour values, but its epitome.

    You’re right to suggest that much of my piece reflects on past shortcomings. This isn’t pessimism, but a realistic appraisal of where we failed to connect; my optimism for the future is drawn from the fact that for every Milibandian abstraction that failed to connect, there are hundreds of Labour successes based on commitment at the local level.

    I don’t suggest, or believe, that these successes are easy to translate into a compelling national vision that will regain our right to be heard. But being afraid and concerned, as you confess to being, will not provide any kind of basis for renewal. And if optimism is delusional, I’ll confess to delusion: it’s only by finding the kernels of positivity in the wreckage that can chart a path forward — and spending the summer licking our wounds will get us nowhere.

  4. Rob, your anecdotal evidence based on experiences at an unspecified number of doorsteps, doesn’t really explain why Ian Murray kept his seat and so many others lost theirs. You could argue that all the other Labour MPs knocked on doors with the same sort of commitment to helping local people, etc., and I’m certain many did, and we must wonder why it didn’t work for them.

    No. The thing that set Ian Murray apart and was widely discussed on the media, and on the streets, was his defiance of The Labour leadership, it’s values as enshrined in policy, in terms of the Trident issue.

    Defying the Labour leadership on that issue goes beyond opinions and debate about Trident. Doing so will have signalled his independence, giving the impression of a principled stance; which we can only assume endeared him with the electorate.

    We have to wonder how many more Labour MPs would still have jobs had they had done likewise. I bet many of those who lost their jobs are thinking about that too.

    But your proposal and optimism which hinges on telling the electorate how much we care and love them, well, good luck with that. Not sure if you’ve noticed, but the electorate are deeply sceptical and cynical about proclamations along those lines. I think we need a new marketing line.

  5. We’ll agree to disagree on the Trident issue. My sense is that it played rather louder in the bubble than it did in people’s homes or in the voting booth, but I’d take the point on the issue of signalling a degree of independence.

    To suggest that my optimism hinges on ‘telling the electorate how much we acre and love them’, though, is a wilful misreading of my original piece and my subsequent comment. I think it’s pretty evident that the rebuilding of trust will be based on doing, not telling; not simply asserting that we can make a difference to people’s lives, but demonstrating it through action at the local level.

    1. Fair enough. Interesting that you talk about action at the local level — it’s really all that’s left for Labour — but I think that’s where the real gains are going to be made by the SNP next year.

      As Labour goes on yet another journey of self discovery full of existential angst and nausea, the SNP are mobilising and preparing for the battle in the local council elections. Holyrood 2016 is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

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