Richard Angell is Director of Progress, and led their recent Seven Seats Challenge, canvassing with Labour candidates across central Scotland. Here he reflects on lessons learned and the work we need to do.
As the starting gun was fired on the general election campaign, the Progress team visited seven seats in Scotland to help some excellent Labour candidates – all standing for election or re-election for the first time – knock back the Scottish National party and knock out the Conservatives nationally.
Every Labour member of parliament returned to Westminster brings the Labour government that this country so desperately needs ever closer. More SNP MPs leaves only David Cameron rubbing his hands.
It was an exhilarating and exhausting two days as we stretched the three seat challenge (#Lab3seats) model to visit seven seats in 36 hours. It was fascinating for everyone on our tour. 1,078 contacts later, there are some lessons which I think are worth sharing.
First, Scotland feels more like a separate country, with a separate polity, than ever before. Even more so than at the time of the independence referendum. What is important to people, how much Westminster matters, and the view of England as a neighbour and ally rather than a partner, feels palpable.
Second, with the Tories two things are happening simultaneously. Interestingly, some people – in very small numbers, undoubtedly – are proudly saying they support the Tories. Until recently this would never happen in Scotland. Either people would say nothing or allude to being undecided, or they would just be unable and unwilling to share any information.
More significantly, a larger, now crucial, voter pool have become hardened anti-Tory electors. Real hatred and talk of David Cameron’s party as an ‘other’ is not hidden on the doorstep. It is with these very voters that Labour has the biggest problem – you cannot talk to this group and not hear their disapproval at the cross-party nature of the Better Together campaign.
While the situation is not as good as we would like it to be, it is not as bad as I continually read. In a crucial number of seats the hard work of candidates and their teams will be rewarded. Not least because some voters seem pleased to see Labour on their doorstep. Fascinatingly the SNP – despite one in 40 adults in Scotland being a member – does not have the insurgent ground campaign of the Labour party in England and Wales where we are hoping to win seats. So every knock from Labour is not necessarily following or followed by the SNP chapping their doors too.
Third, currently voting SNP feels to too many like an exclusively positive, even consequence-free, option. I, and my team, were surprised that some voters had never considered that voting SNP might affect Labour’s chance of replacing the Tories after 7 May. This first conversation did not necessary move people back to being Labour voters but it was real food for thought for them.
Fourth, to complete the transfer of the voter back to Labour, we have to defeat the idea that the last Labour governments – both Westminster and Holyrood – were somehow not Labour and were ‘Tory-lite’. Reminding people it was Labour – under hostile attack from the Tories – that created and increased the national minimum wage, saved the NHS, rebuilt our public services and day in, day out tried to make Britain a fairer, more equal place. There were equally successful and redistributive policies delivered by Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell’s governments.
A Labour government never goes far enough, never does enough – it cannot. The equal society we seek will never be a done deal. There will never be a day that we can shut up shop and say our work is complete. To those in our movement who suggest Labour in government fell short of their expectations I would ask that they look at what was promised and what people’s highest hopes for Labour were, and realise that these were met and many ways surmounted – and I would ask that they reflect that further such comment is only a gift to our enemies, not a way to make Labour more left wing.
Ed Miliband’s vision for Britain is vast; it will not be achieved on day one, nor totally by the final day of his first term. He and his government, however, will make improvements every single day, and all in a different way to the Tories of any era. This is not heresy but truth, and it is always the case for Labour governments.
Finally, if you are in Scotland, or can get to Scotland, get yourself to one of the 41 Labour-held seats, because your hard work will make a difference. The morale boost for our candidates alone will act as the wind beneath their wings, but the reality is you can make a real impact.
American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ This could not be more true than in Scotland this month. With the future of the Labour party, the next government and Britain’s membership of the European Union all at stake, profound statements of this kind do not seem out of place.
Scottish Labour needs all the help we can muster but, whatever the result come 8 May, we cannot avoid a conversation about how we got here. Many will try to suggest it is policy. That might have something to do with it, but this is as much about culture and a feeling that people were taken for granted.
Scottish Labour must be as present on doorsteps after this election as they are before. Ideas must flourish, not be stamped on. And a healthy civil society around the party must be encouraged and rewarded. All the more so because, while the SNP is unique to Scotland, the reasons why it has been able to get Labour on the run are not. More on that can wait until 8 May.