I have been actively following the contributions by Labour Party activists and elected members over the last week, and I agree with Neil Findlay that now is not the time to be silent. Thus, after 18 months of relentless campaigning in Dundee East, I’d like to share my reflections on the situation with respect to the Labour Party at the UK level and in Scotland.
I consider that there are two reasons why Labour has lost voters: cynicism and policy.
Cynicism: disillusionment and distrust
The Labour Party has implemented many great visions and set ambitious targets of itself and successive governments. But years of politicians over-promising and under-delivering has resulted in scunnered voters, and years of voters being taken for granted has caused serious sores to become weeping wounds.
Prior to the referendum, feedback from canvassing suggested there were three main reasons for not voting Labour in Dundee East:
- huge disapproval of Tony Blair and his influence on the party (i.e. moving to the right and capturing some of the Tories’ political space)
- Ed Miliband perceived as a career politician, who is out of touch with the real issues for people on low incomes
- poor decisions by councillors in the 1990s regarding closing schools, and, in the 1960s a few councillors were involved in corruption
From speaking to key seat candidates in England regarding feedback from canvassing, they were receiving the same feedback regarding Blair and Miliband as voters were telling the Dundee East team.
Thus, with little trust and huge disillusionment, it is difficult to persuade voters that Labour ought to be their choice. But with credible candidates that are grounded and care, and credible policies that demonstrate the party’s values, I thought the party ought to be able to overcome this hurdle.
Then, in Scotland during the referendum campaign, Scottish Labour decided to work with the Tories and Liberal Democrats. I was not comfortable about this as I had just demonstrated in Manchester at the Tory conference with many from the Dundee Bin the Bedroom Tax Group. However, I agreed to participate.
I had decided that I wanted to campaign for a no vote based on my values of solidarity and co-operation among working class people. I decided to participate in Better Together because many people who were undecided did not belong to any political party and it was important to be seen as part of a wider group rather than the Labour Party. In Dundee there were a few political activists from the Lib Dems and Tories and Better Together was a Labour-led initiative. Do I regret being involved in Better Together? No.
For me, if an issue is important, I will work with people to resolve it. With the anti-bedroom tax movement, I was often the only Labour person there. I worked with SWP, SSP, anarchists and folk belonging to no party. The objective was to alleviate this crisis. And the same was true regarding the referendum, I worked with party members from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Communists. I campaigned hard to ensure that Scotland did not break away from the rest of the UK, as I knew separation would be more difficult for ordinary folk in Dundee and across Scotland, and for those the remaining in the rest of the UK.
However, some voters were angry that Labour had worked with the Tories during the referendum. The anger against the Labour Party is the legacy of Blairism. People saw the Labour Party move to the right with its support of free markets and had difficulty distinguishing between Labour policy goals and Tory ones. Consequently, some voters particularly those of working age, who are struggling financially and have not voted for years, distrusted the Labour Party’s motivates for joining Better Together, it looked like it was self-interest rather than for the best of the country. Hence the chants of Red Tories out.
The election of the Blairite Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour leader – also seen as a champion of Better Together – was therefore a disaster waiting to happen.
So the Labour Party had lost the trust of the people that it was set up to represent. The Scottish Labour Party failed to recognise the legacy of Blair and elected an uber-Blairite as leader. The policy offer needed to overcome these hurdles had to be credible and bold. Otherwise, the political wounds of disengaged Labour voters would be patched up by the SNP and UKIP.
Lost direction: our policy offer
Ed Miliband presented good policies that many people agreed with and thought were sensible: banning zero-hour contracts, abolishing the bedroom tax, the mansion tax and a tax on bankers’ bonuses.
The leadership, however, failed to even question the “austerity agenda”. Reducing the budget deficit by cutting government spending is having disastrous consequences on the UK economy, in areas that are already deprived like the ward that I represent in Dundee and, on peoples’ lives – especially people with disabilities.
The Labour leadership had no grand plan to reverse Iain Duncan Smith’s new social insecurity system with its savage sanctions that were leaving people, who were out of work, out of money and at the mercy of local charities giving out food. The Labour spokesperson for social security seemed totally disconnected and wished to distance herself from people in poverty. How else can you explain Ms Reeves’ statement, “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.”
I believe we are a compassionate party. Our policies and priorities did not correspond to our values. We have lost our way not just in Scotland but across the UK. We need to find our way back quickly. However, I am not convinced that a separate or devolved Labour Party in Scotland is the answer. The whole Labour Party needs to get back to first principles of the labour movement and rebuild.
Recognition of where we are as a party
Jon Trickett’s excellent New Statesman article sums up the issue, “This is a defining moment for the future, and arguably the survival, of the Labour Party.” I totally agree. We, the Labour Party, are not only experiencing a crisis in Scotland; we ought to realise Scotland is just further down the path than England and Wales.
Trickett has analysed the voting data, which indicates that middle class voters are remaining with Labour but voters in poverty and real hardship are leaving the party.
Katy Clark correctly points to one of the main reasons, “[P]olicies coming out of Westminster do not relate to what people want in Scotland” and continues “[t]hey don’t relate to what people want in England, either.”
So, to return to government, the Labour Party needs to recapture the essence of the Labour movement and offer policies that are compassionate, offer hope and deliver a better future.
To regain this trust, the party must recognise the importance of having candidates that are intrinsically motivated and are willing to speak up when needed. Having politicians and candidates that are more concerned with their political career than their constituents is ruining the Labour Party. The Labour Party machine has tried to become too efficient by wanting “yes people”, who will adhere to the party line, but the voters do not trust machine politicians and can see straight through these characters.
The first step in rebuilding the party is for Jim Murphy to go.