Frank McAveety is a Labour councillor in Glasgow, having previously been MSP for Glasgow Shettleston. This piece was previously published in The Herald.
We Scots are often fond of telling stories and remembering battles of the past. In an election campaign that resulted in the crushing of Labour representation at Westminster – reduced to a single representative – it felt like a horrendous combination of the collateral damage of the Battle of the Somme and the leadership destruction of the Battle of Flodden.
As Labour activists sought to find some rest and consolation through shared discussion we even had a melodrama of our own, as our Scottish leader was bunkered away from public contact while his advisers rushed about searching for the remnants of the Fifth Army to prepare for a counter-offensive.
As all strategists should know, the numbers never lie. Since 1959 Labour had never fallen below 38 MP’s elected from Scotland in a general election. To have only one remaining is the most catastrophic of defeats and, even for those of us who were victims of a similar tsunami in 2011, the scale of carnage in 2015 was more than anyone could have envisaged.
Put bluntly it seems that Scottish Labour are not seen as a credible depository for the voters hopes and aspirations. Yet it is not a recent phenomenon. The first voter message was sent in 2007 and with hindsight the 2010 General Election was the ‘blip’ and not the pattern. Too often Labour closed our ears to the message being sent and too often we have utilised the wrong messengers.
Even in the final hours the manner of going has been about settling old scores based on the sterile language of Labour infighting from the 1990’s. Can we make it clear that the result in Scotland, no matter the alpha male battle between them, was not the fault of Jim Murphy or Len McCluskey. It was all to do with Scottish voters keen to pursue progressive ideas based on a respect for the sharing of sovereignty. They just didn’t trust Scottish Labour with that task.
The demand of voters is for a greater voice in transferring decisions to a much more accountable level and the expectation is for politicians to understand the desire to provide more opportunity for all and to ensure greater fairness and less inequality.
For Labour the recovery from the ravages of such recent battles seems enormous. The only way back is to go local and to work alongside local communities. The only way back is through a reinvigorated local government which stops managing gradual decline and raises demands from both governments of how to resource changes that benefit local communities.
Labour has to talk to people again but in a language not shaped by political jargon but shaped by real experience. We even have to say sorry for letting people down. I admit freely that Scottish Labour’s final PPB brought a tear to my eye. It was an emotional film titled “A Nation and a Movement” and it reminded many of us that we were standing on the shoulders of giants but it was about the past and not about the future.
The future has been defined by the experience of the Referendum and the key lesson of that campaign was that the flourishing of ideas combined with a sense of voter engagement has generated political drive. But that energy, creativity and ambition should not be the sole preserve of the SNP or to the benefit of those who only want independence.
Scottish Labour’s urgent task is to find ways to tap into that energy and creativity. Voters in Scotland are rejecting the style of politics that have come from the Westminster ways of doing things and our movement that was built against the odds in challenging power and privilege had allowed ourselves to be constrained by the straitjacket of electoral arithmetic and fiscal orthodoxy.
We were best when we were part of people’s lives.
We were best when we offered solutions that chimed with people’s experiences.
We were best when we had stories to tell that reflected people’s hopes and aspirations.
I was in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament in 2004 when Liz Lochead read the words of the late Scottish Makar, Edwin Morgan, from his poem “Open The Doors” when he reflected on what people wanted from their elected politicians and he presciently said:
“We, the people, cannot tell you yet, but you will know about it when we do tell you.”
Well Scottish Labour has been ‘tellt’ and it is time for us to listen. We should spend time engaging and talking to voters on what they want from Scottish Labour. We should reach out beyond the crude binary restriction of seeing voters as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and reject any sense of entitlement from our political offer.
The Scottish electorate are a sophisticated and sometimes curmudgeonly bunch. It explains that curious phenomenon of an emphatic NO in the Referendum and a resounding affirmation for the SNP in the recent General Election.
As the Scottish lament for the losses at Flodden reminds Labour of what now “…lies cauld in the clay” there is still a need for a decent, relevant and progressive Labour Party. It may take time and be a difficult task but against the odds it can be done as there is still a cause to be won.