Leon Church is a civil engineer who lives in Port Glasgow, and after a lifetime of Labour support, recently joined the party. He sets out what he sees as Scottish Labour’s failings and the hard road ahead.
I am writing because I am a life-long Labour supporter who is concerned to see the demise of our party. The political rules in the UK have been revised and the purpose of this letter is to advise of the changes and how they affect Scottish Labour with a view to modernise and become electable again. I hope to follow up this letter with a second part for the UK Labour Party.
The key issues to identify and address for me are:
- Why are our opponents winning?
- Why are Labour losing?
- How do we get back to winning?
- Summary for the future and looking ahead.
Opinion is divided and these are complex issues; more qualified persons than me have attempted to address them. With a great deal of humility, here are my own views.
Firstly, our opponents are winning because the general public think they have the best leadership team, a competent record (no matter if the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality), and can produce a clear and coherent vision for modern Scotland. Our opponents win in poor, middle class and affluent areas. They triangulate arguments and are pragmatic. They tack right when attacking Labour, tack left when attacking the conservatives. This has aided them in securing the centre ground. They have had no competent opposition. These are the facts, but I won’t dwell on them too much because their results speak for themselves. It is important to keep these reasons in mind though as we modernise our party.
Following the general election result Labour were almost wholly rejected by Scotland. If Ian Murray had not survived in Edinburgh South it would’ve been a wipe out. Labour with no seats in Scotland. The Conservatives would’ve had more seats than Labour in Scotland, such is the scale of the defeat. Shocking. This is where we must begin again.
We have been losing in Scotland because we have been an ineffectual opposition, with no attractive polices to entice the broad spectrum of the electorate, and no vision for ourselves, the people or the country. For too long we have been perceived as “can’t”, “won’t” and “shouldn’t.”
Here are a few recent examples:
- On fracking, our opponents put forward what I thought was a sensible policy – a moratorium. Instead we tacked left and talked about double/ triple locks. We should’ve responded “Okay, there could potentially be a lot of jobs to the economy here, lets see what the scientific results are and come to a cross party agreement to encourage jobs and protect people and the environment”. A responsible and measured tone with encouragement.
- On targeted tax cuts for small and medium sized businesses to invest in research and development, we immediately counter and accuse opponents with “there will be tax cuts for big business”. I understand the tactical political point in doing so, however that is not what our opponents are saying is it? We let ourselves be portrayed as tacking again to the left and not being reasonable at all.
- On more power and responsibility for the Scottish Parliament we too often have seemed like a grudging participant – tacking to the right/ being conservative. Not by our actions, but by our tone and language. The Calman Commission was a good example. This was a worthwhile task. Yet the public already perceived us a roadblock, so when the Commission published its paper the public didn’t take any notice. A similar thing happened with the Smith Comission. After all, who’s going to believe a roadblock will hand over meaningful responsibility?
The knee jerk policy, tone, tack and language all must improve. The party of can’t, won’t, shouldn’t should become again the party of can, will and must.
Getting back to winning is a must. The party has been through a trauma. We have to stabilise and move forward slowly as a party.
All our Labour leaders, politicians and councillors should have truthful conversations with the public. We should invite member activists, party supporters and – most importantly of all – the general public to meetings, gatherings and one-to-one discussions. This should be a conversation and discussion with the general public, not a debate. We’re there to listen and ask questions with humility.
It will be brutal. It is a masochistic strategy that may help to rebuild trust. We’re there to find out what voters want from us. Our talent spotters should be spotting talent in amongst the crowds, taking them aside and encourage them to join us.
Furthermore, we should not be shy of agreeing with our opponents when they propose sensible policies (remember my previous example of fracking policy). We should be contributing to those policies and making them our own and better and go further. Our contribution must be ideas of social fairness combined with ambitious economic pragmatism. Again language and tone are important here, include a real hand of partnership with people and business.
Next, since independence was soundly rejected our opponents have moved position onto “more powers” – their default position. However, Labour was there first and let it slip.
Labour should have been guarding against independence by proposing more power and responsibility to be devolved. I’m a lifelong Labour supporter (and reject independence purely as a matter of philosophy, never mind the economic madness of it), but on the other hand I always expected Labour to argue for more responsibility in a measured way to protect both Scotland and the UK by highlighting the logic of interdependence and the reality of cooperation. “Scottish solutions to solve Scottish problems”, remember that phrase? Let’s not forget the Scottish Parliament is very young and most of the public expected further devolution of some sort whilst at the same time maintaining the security of the UK.
Douglas Alexander’s message of “better, faster, safer change” is still true. This message reasonates with the public and is the first time in a long time I have heard Labour talk in this way (again language and tone are important). Reading Donald Dewar’s speeches again, these are the same views which he held. We need to rediscover and own that message for modern Scotland, before our opponents do.
Finally, looking very far ahead – a vision for the future. We can be inspirational leaders here. Education and social mobility should be the catalyst that will unleash new lateral thinking. There is plenty of scope and our opponent’s record is extremely poor; there are plenty of questions to ask them while we pursue our vision and advertise our solutions for it.
The pursuit of education to improve social mobility and therefore everyone’s quality of life should be our message. It can be simultaneously aspirational for individuals and the whole country. This mission can enable us to initiate, contribute, guide and lead with positive policies on citizenship, health, the economy, welfare and more responsibility for the scottish parliament in a modern cohesive way. A Labour connect.
The future of Scottish politics is at Holyrood for the foreseeable future. The sooner Scottish Labour realise that the better for our comrades, kin, Scotland and the UK.