Labour has to face up to its failings

JOHN McTERNAN outlines his three steps to political recovery, and suggests Scottish Labour has nothing left to lose


Scottish Labour has made the big break. It will have its own leader – a symbol of a broader autonomy.

Of course, some – including this writer – will be nostalgic for the days when the official name was the Scottish Council of the Labour Party. That didn’t seem to hold back those transformative figures Tom Johnston and Willie Ross from shaping the nation for the better.

But these are different times, and those who don’t change with them are reduced to an ineffective chorus muttering at the edge of the stage, like the eccentric uncle at a family wedding. It was Chairman Mao who said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Having taken the first step, Scottish Labour needs to think hard about the remaining thousand miles. It has embarked on a process of renewal and reinvention, but it needs to understand the key stages.

The first essential is that you need to want to change – and the rule changes are a symbol of that. Tony Blair vividly dramatised the change New Labour represented by abandoning Old Labour’s Clause 4 and its commitment to widespread nationalisation. Now Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack have given Scottish Labour an equally powerful symbol. But, while this is a strong message to external observers, just as important is the story to internal interests – from union power-brokers to the activists who deliver the leaflets. For them, there needs to be an honest account of what has gone wrong.

Not a single voter went to the polls last May and thought: “You know what, I really want to vote for Scottish Labour, it’s just that they’re not a federal party with their own autonomous Scottish leader.” No, Labour’s failure was a profound one. It lost at every level. Its candidates – with a few noble exceptions – were not worthy of the voters, nor of the great traditions of the party. Its campaigning was analogue in a digital world. Its policies were actually quite good: see the SNP pilfering of the single police force and the guarantee for 16 to 18-year-olds. Scottish Labour just had no theme, no narrative, no inspiring vision to tie them together, let alone to sell them. All of this has to change, from top to bottom.

So the second step is for the new leader to use their mandate to own and control the party machine. They need a new pool of talent to be the next generation of MSPs, and they’d be well advised to look at the people Scottish Labour has foolishly rejected in the past. Take Professor Alice Brown, passed over by Labour: she has had a distinguished career in the service of the public interest as academic and ombudsman.

Imagine if she were promised, and delivered, selection as a Labour candidate. What a symbol of change and ambition that would be. I can think of two dozen others – and they know who they are – whose adoption and championing by the new Scottish Labour leader would show the voters just how serious they were.

Of course, new personnel – however good – are not enough, though they are essential. The third point is that a new purpose is required. Scottish politics is bedevilled by the constitution. Since the assembly referendum in 1979, the central question has been devolution, even though this was only meant to be the means not the ends. The only people for whom the Scottish Parliament was an end in itself were the 129 career politicians who would otherwise not have had a well-paid, well-pensioned job. Scottish Labour got trapped in process and could never break through and explain what the powers of the parliament could be used for.

Of course, in a funny kind of way no-one else has. The debate about tax-raising powers, or Devo Max or Indy Lite has always been extraordinarily focused on process not purpose – the what, rather than the why. And the SNP, for all its electoral success, is itself intent on the biggest process question of all: the independence referendum. Yet, while this is an existential purpose for the Nationalists, they somewhat sheepishly admit that the details of independence – currency, defence, international alliances, to pick a few – need some thought. This remains a massive gap, and a massive opportunity for any party who can occupy it. Last, but not least, Scottishness. Again the symbolic change is obvious. Labour needs to replace the red flag with the Saltire. Like tartan, heather, haggis and See You Jimmy wigs, the flag belongs to everyone and no-one. The sooner it is depoliticised the better. The deeper question is what is the public policy expression of Scottishness. For the current Scottish Government, it is an antagonism to the private sector, and a puritanical approach to alcohol – both are the targets of bans. Scottish Labour has a real choice here. Does it buy into the SNP view? Is Scotland so collectivist, or social democratic, that private firms should neither finance nor provide public services? Equally, do Scots care so little about individual autonomy that they want the government to price them, and nanny them, out of certain choices?

These are big calls. Does Scottish Labour accept the political dominance of the SNP and, therefore, its description of the problems facing Scotland? Does Labour develop its own analysis, and then agree that the SNP is right? Or does Labour identify principles of its own and build policy on them? Arguing, perhaps, that Scotland’s wealth has always come from the private sector and that excluding them from public sector provision is “un-Scottish”. Or, deciding that a McNanny state is anathema to freeborn Scots who should be left to drink, or not drink at their own leisure.

Scottishness as a policy driver is not a lick of blue facepaint. It is a profound and searching analysis of our character, our past, our present and our future. And a judgment based on core principles.

A lot of work, for sure. But, as they say, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. And Scottish Labour has nothing left to lose.

John McTernan was head of policy to First Minister Henry McLeish, a senior advisor to Tony Blair and special advisor to Jim Murphy MP when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. He now writes for the Telegraph and the Scotsman. Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcternan. This article was originally published in The Scotsman.

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9 thoughts on “Labour has to face up to its failings

  1. This is just your usual narrow London centric view of Scotland.

    The use of the “McNanny state” term to decry what is a huge problem Scots have with their drinking culture is particularily offensive.

    John McTernan has nothing to offer Scottish Labour.

  2. The SNP took the principled decision to support Labours smoking ban as it was in the best interest of the Scottish people despite the fact that they could have gained political advantage as well as massive campaign contributions from the tobacco industry.

    It’s to their eternal shame that Labour have consistently refused to take the same approach to the SNP’s drink policy.

  3. New people, new purpose – yep, great.

    More privitisation? Really? This is your recipe for success? Outrageously expensive PFI that we end up lending the private sector the money to invest for over priced, under delivered services?

    Uhm, no ta.

    Private provision works where there are genuinely competitive markets, I wouldn’t want to see public provision of, say, mobile phones.

    But things like public transport, care or policing are fundamentally not competitive markets due to a variety of factors (difficulty of entry and exit, information asymmetries) and trying to involve the private sector there is hugely damaging.

  4. Wow John that was actually a really good piece from you I even enjoyed it (and not in a sense I’d enjoy a Richard Littlejohn article while laughing at how deluded he is). As for the 3 steps your right on each one though it remains to be seen how much the whole party agrees with you on these, also how much your new Scottish leader will actually lead and for new bodies to come into the party surely old ones have to leave ( ) ? Though in truth only time will give us an answer on that.

    You’ve got the obligatory dig at the SNP in there and while I and the 1st 2 poster don’t like or agree with it, your entirely right to do so they are the Scottish Government and you are the main opposition after all. The problem is being anti SNP has become your party’s defining trait in Scotland, this hurts you at the ballot box because the SNP do a lot of standing up for Scotland, and while Labour do want to stand up for Scotland it seems more important to them to not agree with the SNP. A case in point being this why aren’t Labour MP’s attacking Cameron over this anti Scottish comment? At the moment you are allowing yourselves to be defined as Unionist rather than as Ken Mackintosh(not sure of spelling) stated as Devoulist and that’s partly why you took such a hammering in May. Remember for Labour to win the next Holyrod election they will need to persuade SNP voters to vote for them, that won’t be achieved by merely voicing how much you hate Alex Salmond and the SNP but by offering better policies than them.

    Finally as for the Private sector being involved in the delivery of services ( I take it this is part of the strategy for winning Scotland’s business sector back) the whole 3rd way idea sounds great in theory just not in practice the simple problem being that a private companies primary interest isn’t the standard of service provided but rather profit, hence why people in Scotland would accept this but never as an ideal choice. The obvious way to counter this is strong oversight but in that case would private firms still be cheaper (if not wants the point in using them) and would this still want to play ball? I look forward to hearing Labour’s argument on why I’m wrong on this.

  5. I think the three main questions for Scottish Labour are these:

    1. Who is it you are seeking to represent?

    This question comes first, because it will shape everything that follows. If you know your constituency, you will understand what they want in order to enrich their lives and what they want from you as their representatives.

    2. What is the vision you offer to those who you are hoping will vote for you?

    What do you think is the ‘ideal’ Scotland? What exactly is it that you hope to achieve? Ideally the answer to this question needs to be based on #1, above.

    3. How will you (Realistically!) get there?

    Note the word in brackets especially. If your main goal is a prosperous Scotland, that means seriously cutting down on red tape and unnecessary regulation, amongst other things, for example.

    Probably the main thing to remember overall is something that an awful lot of politicians seem to forget, judging by many public comments they have made: power is not an END, it is a MEANS. The actual goal of Scottish Labour is NOT to get elected – the goal is what you do once you get there.

    Have a clear, simple and realistic plan that will benefit the majority of Scots and chances are you can beat the SNP. Go back to the old ‘of course we will win, we are Labour!’ model of recent years and you are doomed.

  6. The McNanny state comments are interesting because the whole alcohol debate, to me, showed up how very far Scottish Labour has moved from its roots. Because we know that alcohol abuse is a problem across Scottish society but it is worse in poor areas, with people from deprived communities being 5 or 6 times more likely to be admitted to hospital or to die from alcohol related conditions than the average.

    And feeding that is the behaviour of major retailers in pushing high strength low cost alcohol at poor people, with apparently no thought for the consequences. It really is capitalism at its very worst.It is beyond me how a political party with a socialist heritage could make excuses for that or say that it is not for the state to intervene, it’s all just about individual choices and the market can’t be wrong.

  7. Some good advice there, from Mr McT and the commentators. I’d point out that no matter how good, sensible etc a policy may be, it’d HOW it’s applied, put into practice, that counts. The smoking ban was reasonable, no matter who thought of it, except that its application was ill thought out, much too draconian, with predictable economic effects [and unwanted social ones]. As for the treatment of alcohol, labour should support the SNP in its bid to clamp down on easy access to cheap booze. At the same time someone should take a look at a good novel called “The Scotching of the Snake”, where the Nationalist coup is undone by the leader’s prohibition ideas.

  8. I’m getting worried – I thought I had logged onto newsnet for a moment.
    I wish to debate a truly Scottish Labour party based upon the core values of my party on a LABOUR site. I would appreciate some room to debate without cybernats pouncing on every forum!

    We can have a competetive OR combatitive debate later in the public forum of elections – perhaps Inverclyde has been forgotten already.

  9. “I’m getting worried – I thought I had logged onto newsnet for a moment. I wish to debate a truly Scottish Labour party based upon the core values of my party on a LABOUR site.”

    It must’ve been an even bigger shock to read Mr. McTernan’s article.
    I got confused too, and thought for a moment I was on ConHome.

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