There’s a marketing adage “sell the sizzle not the steak”. Don’t try to sell something that customers don’t want, show that you are simply the best. The 2015 general election showed that 50% of Scottish voters don’t believe Labour is the best party. And significantly our “market share” was halved. No denying the party is in crisis – its boss “fell on his sword”.
“Crisis needs change” and that’s just what the Labour Party need to do. Being so massively out of touch with the electorate, change has to be comprehensive and brutal. Stakeholders who have stayed loyal to the party deserve more than Jim Murphy taking responsibility for the depth we have fallen to – unless we are happy to get to the very bottom.
Let’s be candid. Devolution was a political blunder on a massive scale. I think history will show it to be an even greater example of disconnect with the voters than the Poll Tax. Whilst Donald Dewar may have been wet eyed about a Scottish Parliament, it represents a waste of money to the voters and it hasn’t delivered any real benefits in terms of standards of living.
Successful businesses study their competitors. The Labour Party should find out what the voters want – rather than just dish up what we think they should want. I say this in the assumption that the Party wants to get back into power rather than just be a party who puts its discarded ideology first. Obviously it is also necessary to find our competitors weaknesses.
It is always important to know our own strengths and weaknesses. When our major competitor takes 50% share of the vote yet offers a similar manifesto we have to conclude that we are out of touch with the majority of voters. Obvious but nevertheless worth pointing out. I fear that the Labour’s hierarchy feels it just needs to change the packaging to improve its image. If the Labour Party is serious about reversing its fall, UK wide, it will be wise to employ the best image advisors in Scotland it can afford – and fast. The new brand has to be in place for next May.
In the 2010 general election we had a commanding share of the Scottish vote, with our three competitors having smaller relatively equal shares. Since devolution the SNP had shown little progress in general elections, either in seats or share of the vote. However, since 1999 Labour’s success in the Holyrood elections has been in constant decline whilst the SNP has shown almost constant improvement – they had a fall in 2003. The other party of devolution, the Liberal Democrats, have also experienced a cataclysmic fall from grace with the Scottish voters. Since devolution the Tories have consistently done badly in general elections in Scotland but have held their position in Holyrood elections.
In the referendum the SNP, with a little help from their Green friends, got 45% support from those who voted. It is clear to me that around 50% of Scottish voters now believe that a combination of Westminster, Holyrood and the Labour Party hasn’t and won’t deliver what they thought devolution would deliver. Scottish standards of living still track the rest of the UK despite the claims that Scotland is a rich oil nation with high rates of inward investment and educational standards. At the same time the SNP persuade the voters that the NHS is on the point of collapse, we lack basic infrastructure and Scotland’s money is being spent in the South East of England. On top of which we have Trident dumped on us – without compensation.
It is also worth remembering that the Labour Party increased its share of the vote outside of Scotland, albeit a beneficiary from the pummelling the Liberal Democrats got.
So where do we go from here?
Scottish Labour is outnumbered in Westminster by 56 to 1. No sense therefore in Scottish Labour splitting from the national Party – that is if we want to maintain the union and get back into power. Great play was made during the election campaign on the SNP’s boast that they would hold the balance of power in Westminster – making the UK dance to Scotland’s tune. Undoubtedly SNP leaders played this well with the Scottish mood. They are culturally and ideological tuned with those Scots who have inherited group mind-sets, including in-comers who have seen Scotland as a haven from their birth country. Despite loud voices telling them not to, Labour leaders ignored the impact on a growing English dislike of Scotland. With the almost certain introduction of EVEL, SNP MP’s will be marginalised in Westminster. Good or bad? Remains to be seen.
I believe that the general election has shown that the Miliband team are hopelessly disconnected with over 70% of UK voters. It is time to change because the world has changed since Labour was launched and in its hey-day after the War. The fact is that Cameron and his Tories are more in tune with today. They are also able to take comfort from Labour being blamed by a majority of voters for austerity – voters who prefer spending cuts to higher taxes. Labour has to accept that mansion taxes, increasing top rate of tax, bashing bankers, protecting the feckless and denigrating public school boys don’t resonate favourably with an aspiring electorate, an electorate who want control their own lives in the new order. There is no going back to the days when dark determined men, dogma and fear determined the electorate’s destiny.
We cannot underestimate the task ahead of the Party if it is to win power again in either parliaments. Labour’s leadership should not see Scotland as a second front. In fact I would go as far as saying that unless we win back Scotland we will not win back Westminster. Scotland is the key and defeating the SNP has to be Labour’s primary target.
Their outstanding success in May makes the SNP more vulnerable. Their campaign was predicated on winning a large number of seats – but not 56 – and propping up a weak Labour Party led by Ed Miliband. Seductive stuff to Scots who believe in Westminster being unjust. But it didn’t turn out that way. Having virtually swept the board in Scotland they find themselves relatively toothless in Westminster.
Have no doubts the Cameron/Osborne pairing are not just “posh boys”, they are calculating politicians. For example Osborne’s recent reported reaction to Swinney’s whinging over the £177million of cuts. He offers to allow the Scottish Parliament to delay implementation until they get more tax raising powers, a move which is permissible under current funding rules. However the concession is now made to look like some sort of patronising bail-out for what is a de-minimis amount. It makes Scotland look small minded and petty, mirroring the behaviour of the 56 MP’s in the early days of the new Parliament. But not only that, it questions the standard of financial management of the Scottish Government.
The SNP are not going to win any major concessions from the Tory government. Any they do get will be at Scotland’s expense. Moreover, the Scottish Parliament will have sufficient powers under Smith to increase taxes – they do under the 2102 Act – if they do not make cuts. They will be “between a rock and a hard place”. Sure they can blame Westminster but that will wear thin, especially as they have bragged about “holding Westminster’s feet to the fire” and shaking the place up.
The Labour Party does not need to remind voters that we are for a fair society – it is the very soul of what our founders stood for. But we do need to understand what impact saying “we will continue to fight for a fairer society” has on the electorate. Does it mean that we have never had a fair society despite Labour first forming a government in 1924? Or, does it mean we did create one but we have lost it? Either way Labour strategy has opened up a void which the SNP has stepped into. And, they can say “we are now a fair society” – albeit one in which opponents are shouted down.
We may be a fair society – but the reason I am a member of the Labour Party is not because it fights for fairness but because it has compassion. I want a government which believes in balancing competitiveness with fairness; one which optimises growth without boom and bust; one which fights corruption and exploitation; not giving the impression that the benefit of a job is an entitlement; espousing aspiration rather than just ambition and above all bringing compassion back into society’s soul.
Can Labour do it? I believe it can, but only if led by men or women who can stand head and shoulders above Cameron and Sturgeon. Three Scots, Ramsey MacDonald, Kier Hardie and Arthur Henderson are credited by many as being the founding fathers of the Labour Party. We need leaders like them to stand against our opponents with a greater level of intellect but without intellectual disconnect with the electorate. For me, to a man or woman, leadership candidates for both vacancies fall far short of being able to give the electorate confidence that they are big enough for the job.