Stewart Kirkpatrick was Head of Digital for Yes Scotland. This article was originally published on his own site at www.stewart-kirkpatrick.com. He is a former Labour member and voter.
A thought experiment for Scottish Labour: do you want to f****** win?
That big question is one that was put by a senior SNP figure with regard to the independence referendum.
Of course, Yes Scotland didn’t win. But we did increase support for independence by 20 points. And that “f****** win” focus drove our extremely successful grassroots and social media campaign (of which I was head and which delivered unprecedented levels of engagement with undecided voters). The SNP have continued with that kind of campaigning. Judging by 7 May, it seems to be working out OK for them.
But let’s talk about you. Do you want to f****** win? Because you’re not behaving like it. The one sure thing that ensures Scottish Labour’s extinction is business as usual. Newsflash: business as usual includes fratricidal in-fighting. You’ve had four leadership elections since you last won at Holyrood. Does that sound like a formula for victory?
Oh I know, inside the party it feels like a struggle between the Cavaliers and Roundheads, or the Crips and the Bloods, but, to the rest of us, it’s like one of the less exciting scuffles of the Bash Street Kids. On the deck of the Titanic. After it had sunk. Into Vesuvius.
Wake up. Blairite, Bennite, Brownie or tevers: there simply aren’t enough of you left to afford the luxury of civil war.
I’m not saying Jim Murphy is the perfect leader for you – or indeed necessarily the right one for now. I’m saying that what is needed is not a new leader but a completely new way of being Labour in Scotland. It’s the only way to survive. You have less than 12 months to do this before the Holyrood elections. Do you think the SNP might be up for that fight? Do you think they’re squabbling about who should be leader? Do you think their campaign machinery is a backwards, shoddy mess?
I’ve worked with the SNP at Yes Scotland. I’ve seen their focus, organisation and discipline. I’ve seen the talent they’ve got on their side. I’ve seen the vast numbers of enthused volunteers they have. You should be afraid. Be very afraid. Because the UK general election was not the main event for them.
The biggie for the SNP is May 2016. They’re coming for you again. Are you ready?
So on the Left, you should find a way of working with Team Jim. On the Right, ditch the “we know best” Blairite/Brownie arrogance because it’s that which has got you where you are right now.
Your problems go much deeper than mere policy issues. Your party is broken. Your activists are despairing. You have forgotten how to organise. You have forgotten how to campaign. You have lost the trust of your supporters. All these things will be for ever unless you make a radical commitment to change Labour.
I’m not in your party any more. (Here’s why I left Labour.) But I care enough for Scottish social democracy to offer some words of advice (even though I should be working on social media strategy for a client).
UDI for Scottish Labour
You need to have different policies from the English Labour Party. The desires of the swing voters they need to reach and they ones you need to reach are radically different. Nouveau Blairism may play well in the swing seats of middle England but it will kill you stone dead in Scotland. Sorry, stone deader. Get wiped out in May 2016 and the UK Labour party might start to think of Nicola Sturgeon’s party as being a bit like the SDLP. Some down there might start to ask why should they waste resources on a lost cause when there’s a party they could kinda, maybe work with. It’s not like UK Labour did its Scottish operation any favours in the general election, is it?
When did you last excite us? When did you last envision transformational change? When did you last think about what social democracy means in the globalised 21st century? When will you realise that it’s not enough to tinker around the edges (x more nurses, z more modern apprentices, y on earth should we vote for you). You can only beat the SNP by out-thinking them on the level of strategic policy depth. Attack them on their record at Holyrood by all means (especially around civil liberties and the UCRN) but you need to actually have a better product.
If there’s a weakness in the SNP’s constitutional platform, its full fiscal autonomy. In my view, it’s not a shortcut to independence but a booby-trapped, quagmired cul de sac, which combines the worst of both worlds. Come up with a better plan that goes far further than anyone could imagine – a vision of devo maximus with sums that add up in Scotland’s favour. The SNP outflanked you on the Left, why not outflank them back on devolution? Also, go where the SNP does not and promise to devolve far more powers to the local level.
Some 40% of your (former) voters support independence. If you ever want me and people like me to vote for you again, find a way to include support for independence in Scottish Labour’s culture and narrative. If your reaction is: “sod off and vote SNP” then you’re doomed because most of those voters have already done that. Wouldn’t you like them to come back? Don’t be the party of the Union. In the eyes of many of your voters, it stands for privilege, corruption and a status quo that does not benefit them in the slightest.
Balance the economy
Some people have far too much money – and some don’t pay their taxes. Many people live in poverty despite working. Others cannot find secure employment. Scotland’s economic infrastructure is poor and this is not an easy country in which to start a business. Find a way to balance the rights of employees, the responsibilities of the very wealthy, the requirements of the environment and the needs of small and medium-sized businesses, which are, after all, the engines of the economy. Seek to simplify the tax system to close loopholes and iron out anomalies. The Tories are the party of big, bureaucratic business. Why not be the environmentally-friendly, socially-just party of SMEs? Will, it be easy? No. But what’s easy is slipping the oblivion which is beckoning to your party the way it is now.
Reinvent party membership
When I was in the Labour Party, membership largely meant meeting once a month to discuss the previous meeting’s minutes, leavened by odd bouts of canvassing with a clipboard and out-of-date voter information. (From reports I heard of the No campaign’s grassroots work, it sounds like not much has changed in Labour.) Also, as a constituency delegate to conference it was very, very apparent that the members’ views were irrelevant to decision-making. (An additional illustration, my ballot for the 1994 leadership election arrived a couple of days after Tony Blair won.) Devote time to reinventing what it means to be a member of the Scottish Labour Party. Give your members meaningful and enjoyable involvement, a trick the SNP seem to manage. And for the love of Pete, bring your data systems up to date PDQ.
It’s gotta go. We can’t afford it. It’s immoral. End of.
Finally, unless Nicola Sturgeon is caught on camera singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me in a Margaret Thatcher wig, you’re almost certainly not going to be in government in Scotland until at least in 2020. That’s a long time to be in opposition but that’s the price you pay for decades of organisational incompetence.
Fix it now or die.