DANNY PHILLIPS gives the new Scottish Labour leadership team some advice on the way forward. This article first appeared on Progress Online.


I was asked to write some advice to Johann Lamont MSP and Anas Sarwar MP, our new leaders of the Scottish Labour party.

To be honest it’s not been an easy article to write. In fact the more I thought about it the more I am convinced getting elected as leader and deputy was the easy bit.

Let’s face it: the task ahead is a big one. Lest we forget, Labour suffered a crushing defeat in the 2011 Scottish parliament election, the worst share of the constituency vote since 1918.

And, conversely, the SNP won an outright majority under a PR system designed to ensure such a victory could never happen. The SNP can genuinely call themselves the party of Scotland and they are still riding high. The latest polls put them twice as popular as Labour.

The only positive is that Scottish Labour has woken up to the scale of the task.

We can say for sure that Scottish Labour will not regain its confidence by finding a narrative or getting a political strategy or repositioning itself against the SNP.

Scottish Labour could easily be out of power for a decade. The idea that changing a leader and rethinking our position on ‘minimum alcohol pricing’ or ‘devo-max’ will be enough to change our electoral fortunes is pie in the sky.

Scottish Labour has to find its mission.

Labour does best when hungry to make real improvements to the lives of ordinary people. Whether it was setting up the NHS, the Open University, large-scale school and college building programmes, universal early years education, civil partnerships, the minimum wage, mass council housing or devolution and constitutional change.

Scottish Labour can take inspiration from this but must now think beyond 2015, identify the next challenges facing Scotland, and think big.

They have made a promising start, with ambitious plans to tackle the growing crisis in youth unemployment. The fact that so many young people leave school with no future prospects is an utter disgrace.

This is a perfect example of where Scottish Labour can lead the politics of our next generation. Like we have done before.

Scotland doesn’t need a policy – it needs a national crusade to tackle youth unemployment. Scottish Labour should lead with a bold and radical vision to end it. For good.

Promise every young person the right to training, an apprenticeship, free education from age three up to age 25; say every company with over 100 employees will be forced to take on school leavers;  say we will persuade the armed forces and professional football clubs to play their part; promise to break open access to higher and further education once and for all; encourage young people to go on gap years, to create, play sport or volunteer; and give them as many chances as they need to find their right path.

A promise like this will change lives, excite the party and may give Scottish Labour a fighting chance at the next election.

Labour can then go to the people of Scotland, hand on heart, and ask them not to vote Labour, but to vote Labour to abolish youth unemployment. We can tell them, hand on heart, that Labour do not believe in Scotland. We believe in a better Scotland.

And of course, it will also mean our opponents would have to explain what they will do for Scotland’s young people. And while they are doing that, Scottish Labour can consider what to do about inequality.

Of course, changing Scotland for the better starts with changing ourselves. And, let’s face it, we have a big job to make our party fit for purpose. We must get rid of all the indulgences, the fractiousness and the briefing – and seek to build a unity of purpose around our vision for a more equal, ambitious, Scotland. And this can only be achieved with the cooperation of all our elected representatives working with members, the trade unions, affiliates and all those well beyond who call themselves Labour.

And this message is also for Labour UK. Hopefully they too will wake up to the scale of the task. In a few years we will face one of the most important political events in my lifetime: the independence referendum.

If Labour loses, who knows what will happen next? If Salmond loses, who knows what will happen next?

So my advice is simple. Identify the challenges for the next generation. Reject populism and build a programme for government based on our history and values.

But most importantly, relax. There is no point getting upset about it all. We brought this on ourselves. And people don’t vote for people they don’t like. And people don’t like grumpy sore losers.

In fact, there is much to look forward to. Look on the bright side. These are exciting times to be in Scottish politics. Be positive. Set out plans to change our country. Then trust the people of Scotland.


Danny Phillips is a freelance writer and researcher. He also acted as a special adviser to the First Minister 2003-2007, wrote the 2007 manifesto Building Scotland, and chaired the 2011 Labour review policy group.

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25 thoughts on “Scottish Labour has to find its mission

  1. ‘the party of Scotland’ probably not maybe the Parliament for scotland after all we are not yet a one party state. Unless you believe in the winner takes all view of Democracy that is.

    seems to me the largest non vote cast(or not) in the Scottish parliamentary elections was for ‘none of the above’

  2. Danny, just one point:

    “the independence referendum.

    If Labour loses, who knows what will happen next? If Salmond loses, who knows what will happen next?”

    It is completely wrong to present the referendum as Labour v Salmond. I think you know that the Scottish electorate knows better than that. The referendum is not a party or personality contest and it is not for the parties to consider that they have won or lost. We will expect them to get on with governing under the constitutional arrangement which we vote for, and all parties had better do some thinking about what this could mean.

    1. I agree, it is up to all Scottish politicians to think hard about what constitutional change is best for Scotland and push for it.
      The current sytem is unfair, do Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales get money allocated by the same basic process? No!

      The new way must allow each region to collect it’s own revenues and if we share some reserved issues then our contribution must be based on GDP.

      If we can’t agree then it is Independence

  3. As a former Labour Party member, who couldn’t bring myself to vote to change clause 4, I left the Labour party over the issue of independence. Why is it that every policy position is up for review except the attitude to Scottish independence? I would much prefer to vote for a pro-independence Labour Party than a pro-independence SNP, but unfortunately the Labour party would prefer to see Scotland ruled by Conservatives than become an independent socialist country.

    1. Thats the same with me Mr Buchan.
      Labour cannot budge on this, so I have had to look elsewhere.
      The attitude from the Labour party on this is one of total thrawness.

  4. One small point socialist,scotland is a country not a region,and only independence will truly suffice.

  5. Danny, I’m afraid that your early acknowledegment of how difficult it is to offer advice to the new Scottish Labour leadership is the most pertinent part of your post.

    Since the election defeat a feeling of gloom has hung heavy around the party in Scotland and I’m afraid the lacklustre leadership contest, and it’s lacklustre results, have done little to dispel this. Johann Lamont may be an able politician but just as the spelling of her forename falls just short of what you’d expect when you hear it spoken, her chances of putting a dent into the smuggernaught that is Alex Salmond seem similarly lacking.

    The key to ressurecting Scottish Labour’s fortunes is not finding a mission. – that should be the easy part. The important thing is for Labour to find personnel capable of implementing this mission. This demands public figures who are both credible and charasmatic supported by an effective support system. Like it or not the representation of policy is as important as the policy itself and Salmond’s skills as a parliamentarian put him into a league far above anything that Labour have to offer.

    Nowhere is this more obvious than in the enormously important issue of the independence referendum. It is fair to say that the majority of Scots enjoy devolution but do not favour independence. This should be easy pickings for the Scottish Labour party – it was Labour who introduced devolution in the first place! However the SNP has managed to continually shape the debate over independence because Salmond and his team have established themselves as assured and credible politicians. On the other side Scottish Labour, under the silmutaneously pugnacious and ineffective Iain Gray (killing fields of Cambodia anyone?) and throughout the months since the election in May, has been left floundering while support for independence creeps slowly up.

    I fear that we shall a similar situation to that in Westminster where a weak opposition leader proves a real barrier to the success of a party that I still believe offers the people of Scotland the best chance for positive change in the future. Scottish Labour needs a leader with real teeth to take on Salmond and I’m afraid that right now Scottish Labour doesn’t have it.

  6. Some thoughtful comments here. I’m a bit puzzled by Alec’s articulate offering in so far as it appears to suggest that ascertainng what public opinion is on issues and them promoting it is the way to go.
    That’s what Tories and chancers do (though the Tories get its media fifth column to form public opinion for it).
    Shouldn’t the Labour Party be having a fully open and inclusive discussion about what is bext for Scotland and framing its policy on that determination.

    1. Dave – I am puzzled by your inference. I think it’s fairly clear that I did not suggest Scottish Labour adopt a populist standpoint in relation to the independence/devolution question. Rather that Labour, through it’s standing as the party who founded the Scottish Parliament, and it’s demonstrable commitment to the process of devolution, should naturally be the voice most reflective of the people’s will and so the most authoritative. Only it isn’t. This I attribute to a failure in leadership that looks unlikely to be addressed anytime soon.

      You are correct in writing that Scottish Labour must have a discussion over what is best for Scotland – that really goes without saying – but at the same time the party must effectively engage in the debate over independence that is happening right now in Scotland. Make no mistake, the phony war is over and currently the only voices being heard in the argument are those of Salmond and his cohort – with the occasional faint word or two drifting north from the coalition in Westminster.

  7. “Let’s face it: the task ahead is a big one. Lest we forget, Labour suffered a crushing defeat in the 2010 Scottish parliament election, the worst share of the constituency vote since 1918.”

    Obviously forgotten it was 2011

  8. Alec
    I don’t think it is “fair to say” that the majority of Scots favour devolution and oppose independence,

    In almost every recent poll the percentage favouring independence is ahead of the percentage opposing independence.
    You should not make the mistake, deliberately indulged in by much of the media, of considering the 25% – 35% who offer no opinion or are unconcerned about independence as “opposed” to it.
    By the same judgement on those polls I could be shouting that only a minority support the union.

  9. You will all be looking forward in the New Year to the invigorating prospect of sharing anti Independence platforms with Michael Forsyth, the man who did Scotland the signal service of loosing every Tory seat in it.

    You should all be asking youselves as we approach the New Year in 2012 would we rather share platforms and march alongside those Scots who want to take responibility for Scotland’s own affairs by achieving the self respect that is the normal condition of any mature community or would you rather go down with the sinking ship (complete with its feral capitalists, patronising and arrogant Eton toffs, blinkered litttle Englanders and nuclear warheads).

    A happy Christmas and a good (and hopefully enlightened) New Year to all at Labour Hame and genuine thanks to Labour Hame for putting up with me and more importanly taking a few tentative steps the Labour Party in Scotland has to take to properly debate the only issue of any political significance facing Scotland today. From little acorns………

  10. And that, Mr. Buchan, is the tragedy of Labour in Scotland. It’s the main reason I left Labour in the mid eighties.

    Putting Scotland first? I think not.

  11. When will certain Labour supporters remember that almost every SNP supporter was once a Labour voter? Just what do these people, (certain Labour supporters), think ad hominem jibes such as, “Cybernats”, will manage to do?

    Perhaps they have not heard about Hazel Whyte’s rendition of, “The Cybernat Song”?

    All such donnert name calling will do is to swell the ranks of the Scottish National Party. let us talk politics by all means, however, ad hominem jibes belong in the scuilyaird wher even the scuil baim, rector or dominie micht tak the bairn-lik scholar tae task. If you cannot respect your political opponent then you will never win a political debate. ‘Nuff said.

  12. Some very good advice for Labour but one of the reasons Youth unemployment is so high was because of the disastrous economic plans of the previous Labour government.

    To force company’s with over 100 employees to take on a young person is very well but we need “guarantees” that they will not just be flung back unto the scrapheap afterwards.

    The SNP are now seen as Scotland’s natural party of choice, just like Labour previously, and the more the Labour takes a negative approach to the SNP then the weaker Labour will become.

    Another problem Labour have…They need to remember that rebuilding the party is not a quick fix, it’s going to take a very long time yet somehow some in the party are looking towards the council elections as the pivotal turning point.

    In Scotland Labour are out of power for 5 years, even this is not long enough for them to turn around the party’s fortunes. And who knows, by that time the SNP will have had probably changed the constitution.

    1. Perhaps you should look back 8 years to when John Swinney’s SNP lost 8 seats in the 2003 Scottish elections, had a wound-opening leadership election and were dismissed as an irrelevance in devolved Scotland. Salmond’s victory in 2007 shows how quickly party fortunes can turn. Your suggestion that Labour cannot change even within 5 years is nothing more than wishful thinking.

      1. Dinosaurs couldn’t change because it was in their DNA and Labour needs a climatic effect to alter its genetic code for its survival which it seems unwilling to do.

  13. That’s a good point Duncan but what I would point is in that defeat the SNP actually increased the number of constituency seats and the losses were on the list. Another factor is charisma, a lot of the SNPs popularity is through their leader Alex Salmond.

    I don’t see anyone in the Labour ranks at Holyrood who can even come close to Salmond. I just think Labour need a big hitter in Holyrood and I don’t see anyone. Most of the talent Labour have left snub Holyrood and somehow think the Scots parliament is below them. Come the next Scottish elections (if the Union is still in situ then at best Labour will gain some ground from the SNP.

    10 years is my guess Labour will see power in Scotland again and their defeat in May left them with only 15 FPTP seats with a combined majority of only 22,000.
    The task is big!!!

  14. Duncan
    Despite the set back you refer to the SNP continued to grow over that period. The newspaper assault on the SNP is no longer having any significant effect and the arguments that stalled the SNP in the earlier parts of the 21St Century are exposed now as tosh and drivel and don’t work anymore.
    The unionists are out of time and no number of changes of leadership can cause an army marching the wrong way to win.
    We may yet stumble. That is the nature of the game. But we are not going away until Scotland is independent which is now a historical inevitability.
    We are suggesting kindly that Scottish Labour are welcome alongside us. Or they follow the Tories and the LibDems into Scottish political oblivion.
    Below is a piece I have nicked from Joan McAlpine’s excellent article in todays Hootsmon

    “The same feeling swept across the country in May when we took a confident step forward. If there has been any disappointment for myself in 2011 it is the failure of the opposition leaders and the UK government to respond to this new confidence.
    Instead they have worked together to defend a British state settlement that disempowers Scotland’s people. This is because their own party political survival and their elite status depends on maintaining the status quo. History is littered with people who preferred death to change.
    To a great extent they have already made themselves peripheral and Scotland continues on its journey without them. The momentum of 2011 will continue to build as the referendum campaign grows and a new anorak army swells with young new recruits of all political colours. So 2011 is not a year to look back on with nostalgia. It is a beginning.”

  15. What you neglect to register Duncan is that the SNP were not in power eight years ago or at any time previously so any similarity to the wipe out of Labour this year and previous electoral changes is superficial

  16. Duncan, I wonder if you think that Labour has changed since it lost power in 2007. I do not. While Joe Lamont and Douglas Alexander talk of future change, it will take a big shift mentally for the Westminster lot to come round to any serious discussion on constitutional reform that threatened their cosy life in London. Devo Max or any Federal solution would alter westminster as well as Hollyrood. There would not be a reason for Scottish MPs in what would be an English Parliament, although a UK Senate (whatever) would need to be formed, which in turn would turf out the Scottish Lords. So I cannot see any change in Labour in the future. Too many vested interests.

  17. Danny is right to point to some of the significant achievements of Labour’s past and to urge that the Labour Party to-day must engage in a campaign to support people in struggle.
    He is also correct to indentify youth unemployment as an area worthy of such a campaign.
    However what is sadly lacking is an understanding of the aspects of the capitalist economy which is creating this, and other problems for the people.

    It must be obvious that this particular problem which he highlights is not only happening in the UK it is happening everywhere in the Capitalist world, that should make it obvious to Danny that there is a foundamental “cause” within the capitalist production system which is creating this.

    It makes no sense to ignore the “cause” of a problem and just consentrate on it’s symptoms The neo-classical economic theories being practiced by the present Con-Dem Government will, and is, making this problem worse, and Labour’s UK economic strategy is to copy them, only with slightly “different” cuts.
    This will make the current bad situation worse.

    If Labour in Scotland is serious about this very real problem they should support the SNP Government’s Keynesian economic approach and support the demand which most Scots want, for more economic power in Scotland in order to impliment such a policy, and this in turn will effectively address employment including youth employment.

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