They key to winning voters back is not to change our party structures but to put to the electorate the party’s positive vision of Scotland as a devolved nation within the UK, argues MIKE ROBB. 


Is it only me who is more and more frustrated by where we seem to be going?

The SNP won a huge vote of confidence from the Scottish electorate this year; confidence in their policies and confidence in their style of government.   We are kidding ourselves if we think this was because Scottish Labour somehow “got it wrong” or that we lost just because we ran a poor campaign.  We don’t have a natural right to represent the majority of Scottish voters.  The sooner we start to recognise that the better.

That’s why I am frustrated by the current focus on leadership election rules, organisation and party structures.  Most of which means absolutely nothing to most Scots and, worst still, makes our grand but inward looking arguments seem ever more irrelevant to the lives and aspirations of ordinary people.

The SNP out spent, out organised and out campaigned us, and continue to do so.   To deal with that, we need to do way more re-organise the constituency party deck chairs.  We need a policy programme that enthuses people in Scotland about what Labour will do for them.

Whether we like it or not, we are heading towards an independence referendum. We need to work out what we want to achieve from that.  Are we just winning a majority “no” vote, or are we brave enough to use the coming debate to make the case for own vision of a confident and self reliant 21st century Scotland?  Do we think devolution has gone far enough or do we want to make a Labour case for more?  If Scotland votes for independence, what will people want an Independent Scottish Labour Party to do for them?

For me, our current approach of coming up with ever more complex arguments of why independence won’t work is pointless.  Finely put arguments about the costs of UK defence, EU membership and who can best fund renewable energy investments will of course exercise the minds and blogs of the political classes.   But they won’t change the mind of a single SNP supporter and risk coming across as endlessly negative to uncommitted voters who just want to see a positive future for themselves and their families.  Ditto attacks on the personality and style of the SNP government.

Scottish Labour needs to develop its vision of a devolved, confident Scotland and make its case for a vote against independence with a positive alternative.  An integrated part of the UK and Europe but with its own distinctive social and political culture which best reflects our mutual and cooperative traditions.  Personally, I think we should be arguing the case for ‘devolution max’ with left of centre policies that work in a Scottish context and are based on much more control of the economic levers.  We need to recognise the strengths of being part of the UK, but not be afraid to argue for distinctive, Scottish politics.    Politics that the rest of the UK might look at and say “can we have some of that too  please?”

That’s all just a wee bit harder than agreeing to change CLP structures.  But it’s what we need to do and it’s what I want to hear about from our leadership candidates.

Mike Robb is a Labour Party activist from Edinburgh, now based in Inverness.  He makes a living as an IT consultancy owner, advising fast growing SMEs around the UK on IT Strategy. He tweets as @mgrobb

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27 thoughts on “Envisioning Scotland

  1. Well said Mike, you are the second Labour activist I have read in the last week that are saying much the same thing. Its not about structures or rules its about where you see Scotland going, what do we want our country to be. I think Labour are in danger of once again being too clever for their own good, I recall after the 2007 election talk of minority only lasting months, and the SG only doing populist policies. It seems that after 2011 they are in danger of not learning the lessons again. Labour to be in a position to retake power have to have ideas of what they would do if they actually did have that power. Surely the key to that is to listen to what people are saying and by that I dont just mean Labour members. There is more than enough evidence to say that significant constitutional change is a desire of the Scottish people, yet Labour seem to be shying away from this topic. I for one do not accept that the idea of devomax is some vague notion it is actually a very straightforward idea, the mechanics of it might be complex but if it is worth doing then the effort must be worth it.

  2. I think you are spot on Mike. FFA or Devo Max is the best way forward. Only then can we have a grown-up debate on economic growth, housing and other spending issues
    Just this morning, the NHS in England has announced the first hospital to be run by a private company. Private health care, payed by insurance, is the Tory future and if we are still funded by a block grant then it will be our future as well. Thats why we should raise our own taxes. We pay a percentage to Westminster for defence etc and if we feel we dont get a fair share of that spending, we have a voice.

  3. This is the most intelligent article I have read in ages.
    Mike Robb is right Scottish Labour has to decide, do we want to carry on down the road signed posted ‘more powers’ or not. If the answer is yes then it is up to Scottish Labour to define ‘how far’, not the SNP. It is political suicide for Scottish Labour to be sitting in the back of the car moaning, ‘what is devo max?’ ‘are we nearly there yet?’
    WE have to decide it for ourselves. Personally leaving defence, foreign affairs to Westminster, retaining sterling and the monarchy but all other responsibilities made in Scotland makes sense to me and will make sense to the voters. It makes sense and can be articulated, sensibly. It will hold up to scrutiny from nationalists and unionists.
    The election campign for a new Scottish leader is the chance to lay down a clear road map. The contenders must offer unambiguous choices. It will be disaster if Scottish Labour does not take this chance to set a course for the run up to the referendum.
    I’ll give you a plausible scenario. Labour and the Liberals continue to prevaricate on a second question, Salmond calls their bluff and the referendum is a clear choice between independence or the union; at this stage, just over two years away, I’d say 50/50. Quite a lot to gamble on the toss of a coin.

    1. RIchard, appreaciate your commenst and love the “back of the car” analogy. Apologies in advance if I use it in a speech sometime! I just hope our leadership candidates are ready to talk about this and n ot come out with the usual platitudes

    2. Richard, if that’s your definition of devo-max, I reckon it’s something most people in Scotland would go for. Heck, I reckin a good portion of SNP supporters would settle for.

      But would Scottish Labour go for it?

      If only there were more people like Mike in the upper echelons.

  4. Slowly but surely the penny is dropping for Labour.

    The young Labour party, like the Liberal party of old, was the ‘Home Rule’ party.

    Equating the modern idea of Devo-Max with historical Scottish Home Rule will allow the Scottish Labour once more to draw closer to the electorate and civic Scotland. Always remember that Donald Dewar was correct in saying devolution is a process.

    Stop fearing devolution. Stop saying, “this and no more”. Start saying, “we don’t fear the wishes and aspirations of the Scots, we endorse them”. Start saying once more, “the Labour party is the Home Rule party”.

    1. Mac, exactly. Going back a few generations, I’ve some ILP memebrs inthe family and Gwen’s (my wife) mother remembers her dad talking about the passion John Maxton cretaed in Glasgow in the 20s. We dont need to turn back the clock, but that idea of a Scottish Labour Party with a vision of what a self-reliant Scotland with social justice at its core coudl be like is still a powerful one. And it moves the argument away from union vs independence…..

  5. Great article.

    I don’t think the battle to preserve the Union can be won by scaremongering, only by showing the Scottish people that their interests are better served inside the UK than outside it.

    1. rebuild the Labour mmnvoeet in Scotland, against the forces of Independence and Conservatism. Well if that’s the remit, then you’ve lost before you’ve already started. The SNP has succeeded by making itself attractive to independence and non-independence supporters alike. If anti-independence is to be one of the defining features of Labour, then straight away you’ve lost 30%+ of the electorate. This just screams negativity what about rebuilding the Labour mmnvoeet in Scotland FOR something, rather than just AGAINST things?At least the review has confirmed that whoever becomes leader will have to try to get an MSP seat in the next parliament if they’re not an MSP already. However, it remains to be seen if an MP would truly have the autonomy (never mind the will) to disagree with Ed Miliband when Scottish interests are out of sync with UK interests.As for an MP becoming Depute Leader, it seems a bit pointless. I know it’s what the Lib Dems have done recently, but can anyone remember Jo Swinson doing anything of note in that role? The Salmond/Sturgeon model worked (MP as Leader, Depute as acting leader in Holyrood), but the other way round seems silly. Also, imagine this both being MPs, requiring a THIRD person to act as spokesperson in Holyrood. That would be a farce.I’ll keep my opinions of my former MP, Anas Sawar, to myself for the moment

  6. richard mackinnon

    It may not be 50/50 yet but in two years you could be correct.

    Some points to ponder though, at present Labour should be out of sight nationally in the polls, the fact that they are not brings the next Tory government closer. Boris Johnston waiting in the wings for Cameron to slip up, so the vote might be torys led by Boris or Scots lead by Scots in Scotland.

    The next two plus years of tory privatisation. Every private hospital means less NHS money so less Barnet consequential money for Scotland, same for education. Does Labour really want to support Westminster continuing to cut Scotlands pocket money while hovering up ever more of our natural resources?

    Does Labour really want to be seen as the party that is perceived to be the one that forced a straight yes or no in the referendum and blocked a second choice?

    50/50 it might not be that good.

  7. That’s the most positive and sensible article I’ve seen yet on Labour Hame. To my mind, the Labour party are giving the impression that devolution has gone far enough and that they will oppose further change. They risk looking like a party of no change, willing to side with the Tories to frustrate the will of Scottish voters (polls suggests is for greater powers); a possible re-run of the 70s NO campaign, which denied us our parliament and left us unprotected throughout the following 18 years of Tory rule. Labour ignore the public’s desire for more powers at their peril. And they should be very careful about which parties they line up beside in order to attack the SNP.

    I agree with Mike Robb that Devo-Max and a positive vision of social justice is the way forward. But sadly, I think the Labour party are now too comfortable with their hatred of the SNP and I’m not convinced they can change. I’d be surprised if Mike Robb, or Malcolm Chisholm, or Henry McLeish are listened to by the bulk of the party. If not, and Labour go down the road of no change – what then? Do you toe the line and submit to the “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” crowd? Do you go along with the policy of no change, even though you don’t believe in it? Labour seem afraid to grasp the Devo-Max issue now, in case it plays into Alex Salmond’s hands. Not offering more change could also play into his hands. What do you do – frustrate the will of voters, or be the party that recognised the desire for change and rose to the challenge?

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback, Gregor. I think your phrase about recognising the desire for change and rising to the challenge is a great one. Will the party listen? I dont know the answer to that, but I do know a lot of party members I talk to are thinking like this. Whether we can change things depends on our next leader. I await developments!

  8. Yes, good article and relevant but why do the commenters seem to think FFA (in whatever form, yet to be proposed) is somehow “better” than running Scotland’s affairs; all of them, from Scotland?

    What is it about a mutually dependent arrangement that is so appealing? Labour’s UK role, prior to 2010 was to centralise power which mattered and de-centralise that which took up time and effort with no real impact on funding. Is that the reason Labour wish to continue with an arrangement which has Scots below and behind our southern neighbours in prospects, earnings and health?

    I doubt an argument can be found for continuing the union which does not contain negativity at it’s core. It has to state the alternative is somehow worse to be for the present arrangement, doesn’t it?

    It would seem Scots are slowly beginning to realise the existing situation isn’t fit for purpose and, if it has taken the SNP in power to make them realise this, so be it. It doesn’t matter who shows the light, merely having a glimpse of it motivates people to move toward it.

    To try and hold people back and insist the light is not good but to move next to it is, will ultimately fail as it is all about centralising the power and only permitting the resposibility, not the authority.

    1. GR appreciate the feedback. Not sure what FFA is about; I must be reading the wrong blogs. Re your main point, I think we need to move away from the “union” vs “separate” debate to talking about what kind of society we want in Scotland and therefore the economic and other powers that our representiatoves in Holyrood need to deliver it. The former debate suits the SNP; the latter is where Scottish Labour needs to be.

      1. JohnJeff commends you on a rlaley great honest post, yep perhaps but much of the honesty concerns in parts pre-election dishonesty by yoursel and your party.1) If labour were so concerned about lunatic SNP policies and lies why did they agree with so many of them, or at the very least keep quiet?2) The total and complete irony of anyone from labour complaining about the media not being rigorous enough on the SNP is parrallel universe stuff. When labour themselves were so useless at exploiting SNP weakness, it is expected the usual attack dogs would do the work for them.The media, only at the end were forced some reluctantly to come on board with the SNP or at the least to stay neutral, simply because they were being led by public opinion. Left isolated, the likes of the Daily record, as hilariously funny as that was at times carried on regardless reflecting what was by and large how the media normally went about it’s business regarding the SNP. I believe those days of yore are gone, indeed the record in the following daya all but admitted they had lied to their readers all along and labour and grey were not upto the job after all.3) You correctly identified the intellectually challenged labour group at holyrood, something that was obvious to many, yet these placemen would if you had your way held the reigns of power again. Should labour have won the election, would we have witnessed such honesty as we hear now?4) The strategy used by labour, cringingly successfull as it was at the UK general election was simply vote for us because we are not the tories, and we will protect you from the tories. Apart from trying to kid on the Scottish people (as per usual) over the veracity of these claims, they have never been borne out. Considering that many labour policies are considered as natural tory, and labour were going to enact cut almost as deeply as the tories. Oh and where have labour ever protected Scotland from the tories anyhow? As for your last paragraph, it surely is that simple. However I’d argue that a higher degree of honesty is required also.

    1. Don’t know if its a case of great minds think alike or fools seldom differ but I was thinking the exact same as you regarding that article and its relevance to this piece. The point made about how the unions are in a tight stop in given the damage ( possibly fatal) blows the Tories are inflicting on them they would most likely bite the hand off of any Labour candidate willing to back Devo Max as this will stop the Tories and there cuts at the border.

      Not only could supporting Devo Max help secure victory in the Leadership campaign for one of the candidate on the back of Trade union’s support but it also save the Labour party from having to team up with the Tories in a any referendum campaign. For to join forces with the Tories, I honestly feel that even if it did stop Independence, the damage it would do to the parties standing would ensure the SNP in power in Holyrod for another 10 years.

  9. A fine article by Mike.

    Facing up to reality in –

    “We don’t have a natural right to represent the majority of Scottish voters”

    and –

    “our current approach of coming up with ever more complex arguments of why independence won’t work is pointless”.

    But then there’s this –

    “Scottish Labour needs to develop its vision of a devolved, confident Scotland and make its case for a vote against independence —”

    Why exactly does Scottish Labour NEED to make a case against independence. All those years ago when North Sea oil was discovered you would think it would have been ‘Scottish’ Labour’s bounden duty to get a good deal for their neck of the woods e.g by advocating an oil fund. Through the Thatcher years the Scottish Labour MPs had all that leverage available to them but never used it. Why not? To a certain extent it may be the case that an upsurge in support for the SNP was responsible for this lack of action on the part of the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party – they were so appalled at the idea of this upstart party making inroads to Labour’s ‘natural territory’ that they felt bound to oppose that party’s raison d’etre.

    There is a case to be made, I think, for the idea that if the SNP hadn’t had such success in 1974 then Labour may have stood up for Scotland much more than they did, perhaps even by threatening independence. As it was they got themselves into a situation where any action even remotely suggesting support for independence could not be considered and thereby neutered themselves when it came to wringing concessions from the rabidly right wing predations of the Tories.

  10. Yes.Nail on head.Why does Labour need to make a case against independence?Surely no one in Labour believes the sky will fall down upon an independent Scotland? The voters certainly dont.Its almost like Labour would sacrifice anything to keep London rule.Why? Do you really believe Scotland will be a less caring,less sharing society if we arent overseen by London?
    And if Labour continues its support for the status quo,in alliance with the Tories and Libdems,And if the No campaign is successful in the referendum and Labour goes on to “take power” at Holyrood again,they will have to try and deliver on their promises with nothing more than the Scotland bill to draw on.Its like Labour are saying “this is as good as Scotland ever can be”.Labour really needs to decide what its for.

  11. I know it is as sad for unionists as it is pleasurable for me, but all roads lead to independence because the majority of Scots favour Scottish independence so long as they do not believe it will be a disaster.

    The process may well be gradual or it may be swift, but you should bear in mind that the virulent anti-devolutionist Tam Dalyell was right when he said the creation of a Scottish Parliament was a motorway to indepence with no exits and no u-turns.

  12. Totally correct JPJ2. And they will also recognise that like the M74 extension, the SNP will finish Tam’s motorway ahead of schedule and under budget 😉

  13. Good article Mike and if this kind of thinking came to the fore I would definitely consider giving Labour a try again. I’ve voted for them many times in the past and come on this site looking for a reason to again from time to time.

    However opposed to the SNP and independence/devo max the party’s hiearchy might be, at present it looks from the outside the party would prefer Tory rule from London rather than have anything to do with the SNP.

    My great fear is by standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories during the referendum in opposing independence, the party will commit electoral suicide in Scotland. I cringe every time Labour jumps up in support of the Tory press releases the likes of the Herald, the Scotsman and Daily Record are currently publishing.

    Throwing everything behind devo max is a risk but far less of a risk than aligning with the Tories to oppose independence. Devo max may well be a Nationalist plot but surely that’s better than following the Lib Dems into electoral wipe out by becoming a Tory shield.

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