Ditch dogma and focus on people and growth

Scottish Labour needs the vision, people and structures to get the policies to win the chance to have a record again argues GRAEME DOWNIE

In responding to any defeat, there are always a multitude of theories about what happened and how to respond.  For Scottish Labour, the number of responses and viewpoints seem almost impossible. At first glance, they seem to be totally different, unstructured and so numerous that it is hard to know where to start. However, I think people are talking about the same few things, just approaching it from a different angle.

As some of the other posts on LabourHame have said recently, one thing Scottish Labour has lost over the past few years has been a clear sense of what the party is for. We have become fixated on opposing and forgotten that, at the same time, we need to develop our own policies and alternatives to what the SNP are proposing, while agreeing, amending and supporting where appropriate. The SNP has its support of independence that Labour supporters often struggle to understand but we need to rediscover our own “vision thing” as a framework for these policies. For me, this process should start in two areas.

First, how do you improve the lives of people of Scotland? A very broad goal to be sure but that should be at the centre of every policy we develop and consider and of our response to any proposal from other parties. For me, this should mean tackling the root problems of social deprivation, housing, drugs and alcohol amongst many others, and rediscovering the power of local communities to become involved in helping shape their own services. These are issues which affect all social classes and require different solutions in different areas. But even making small progress in a few places could have a massive impact in improving people’s lives.

Second, we need to find new ways to make Scotland prosperous again. While I find myself agreeing with the SNP’s aim of “sustainable economic growth”, much of it seems to have been political rhetoric about renewable energy which has not delivered tangible results. Scottish Labour needs to get there first, to find ways to encourage people to set up the businesses which will provide jobs and will broaden people’s horizons, showing them the fantastic opportunities that exist in Scotland.

If we can achieve some kind of vision in these two areas, and are not dogmatic about how we achieve them, we can begin to develop the arsenal of policies needed to take on the SNP. Perhaps a vision of “People and Growth”?

For me, a key aspect of any political engagement is making sure you talk not only to your friends but also to your enemies – after all, how else are you going to understand them? Scottish Labour seemed to spend a lot of its time after the election “blaming” the Lib Dems for our defeat.  While we are undoubtedly frustrated that the Lib Dems’ participation in the UK coalition led to a decline in their support in Scotland, the failure not to take advantage was entirely of our own making, no-one else’s.

We seemed to spend time during the campaign, and since, attacking the Lib Dems for their “betrayal” in joining the UK coalition. This is never going to encourage those Lib Dem voters who disapprove of the UK Government to vote Labour in Scotland – quite the opposite.  Mounting such an offensive only reaffirms Lib Dem voters’ misconceptions of us and drives them right in to the hands of the SNP, who have realised there is an opportunity to pick up support. After David Cameron took over as leader of the Tories, right-wing blogs like Guido Fawkes spoke of the need to “love bomb” the Lib Dems. While I don’t think we need to go that far, we do need to appeal to those that might have voted with other political parties in the past, as Jeff Breslin pointed out in an earlier post.

In order to broaden our appeal to voters, Scottish Labour needs to widen where it gets its policies from. One thing that struck me on returning from working in London in 2006 was how willing to meet with different organisations the then SNP opposition were. The contrast between that, apparently open, approach and the approach Scottish Labour seemed to adopt after 2007 couldn’t have been more stark. We have to broaden the number and range of organisations we listen to as well as speak openly with those we traditionally haven’t agreed with. We need to ensure that we understand these opposing views and, if possible, bridge gaps, or at least agree to disagree. This approach can neutralise opponents during election campaigns or at least make it less vicious!

For example, I have to take issue with the decision not to have frontbench spokespeople on parliamentary committees at Holyrood. By doing this, those primarily responsible for speaking in public for Scottish Labour would have access to the knowledge and opinions of some of the top minds in Scotland and beyond which, frankly, they might not be able to garner in their position as opposition politicians. In addition, by appearing on the committees, it would be easier for our frontbenchers to see the approach of the opposition parties on a number of issues at first hand, and go some way to dispel the feeling that Scottish Labour still sees itself as an institutional party.

As I am sure we all know from our own experiences with work and elsewhere, discussions about structures with diagrams and management-speak, can distract from actual achievement. The same is true of Scottish Labour but, while the discussion should not be focussed on that, it is something that needs dealt with, quickly and decisively. The Scottish Labour party should have one leader, covering MPs, MSPs and councillors: a unified voice. Our structure should reflect where the key decisions for the people of Scotland are taken on issues such as health and education, so should be based around the Scottish Parliament. We should consider, if possible, relocating Scottish Labour HQ to Edinburgh, or at least increase our presence there to show that our focus truly is on Holyrood.

I know the ideas expressed above are only half formed, but what is clear is that Scottish Labour only has a period of about 12-18 months to refocus and begin a process of rebuilding, and all while fighting council elections in 2012. After that, the countdown to a UK election and Scottish independence referendum of some kind will truly have begun and we need to be in a position to argue why we are the ones with the right vision for Scotland.

Graeme Downie has worked in the public affairs and public relations industry and is a Labour activist in Edinburgh Eastern. Follow him on Twitter at @graemedownie.

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