Scottish Labour is fighting for its very survival

JAMES KELLY offers a frank assessment of the task that now confronts our party


Much has been written since Labour’s disastrous election defeat on May 5 in print and on the blogosphere. As the summer progresses and the review gathers pace, it is clear that if the party is to survive as a credible force in Scotland the review must succeed in delivering real change and not simply become a talking shop.

For my tuppence worth, we need to step up in the areas of policy and organisation if we are to rebuild and recover.

When I joined the Labour Party 30 years ago in 1981, the Labour Party’s main recruiting leaflet was single sentence titled: “So you want to change Society?  Join the Labour Party”. It was simple, struck a cord and drew many into the party. You wonder what would be the 2011 equivalent: “So you want full fiscal autonomy?” Doesn’t quite ring the same, does it?

This is at the heart of the matter with regards to policy. It seems to me that in recent elections we have struggled to define what we stand for. Indeed this was a point Iain Gray made during his leadership election campaign in 2008. The 2011 Scottish Labour election manifesto contained many good ideas but we failed to convert it into succinct set of ideas which motivated our activists to convince voters on the doorsteps. This manifested itself not only in defeat but in the seeping of thousands of previous loyal Labour supporters who for the first time crossed sides to the SNP.

In 21st century Scotland, we face many challenges: how to expand our economy and tackle the scourge of youth unemployment as the Scottish budget contracts; how to tackle the housing crisis and produce social housing fit for the 21st century; how to provide the platform for youngsters to excel in science, engineering and technology and become the starlets for Scotland in the 21st century; how to protect out communities from the blights of knife crime and antisocial behaviour; how to tackle the blight of health inequalities and increase life expectancy for all.

These are some of the issues that we face. We need a policy process which not only provides detailed answers but also pulls it together into a format which inspires voters and activists alike. The current process it too convoluted and fails this objective.

The second point is about how we rebuild the party. Many on this site have spoken about the need to be based in communites and the importance of the internet and social networking. Although these points are well made, we do need to get back to basics. One of our big problems is that in Scottish Parliament terms we have retreated to a central Scotland base. Indeed in the recent election, we were not even able to hold on there. If you take Dundee as an example, we took both Dundee seats in1999 but in 2011 we lost Dundee West by 6405 and Dundee East by 10679. A major challenge lies ahead to rebuild our support in areas like Dundee where we have clearly leaked. We need to learn again to become a national party.

We also have to face up the fact that in certain areas campaigning is lacklustre as a result of moribund local parties. In at least one of the Labour held seats that we lost, there was no organised door knocking. How can we expect to win elections without speaking to the voters. In my view, a clear responsibility in rebuilding local parties lies with elected representatives. They need to be capable of looking beyond the arena in which they represent the party.

This is a crucial time for Labour in Scotland. We should not be under any misapprehension – the challenge is stark. We are fighting for our survival and we need to get our act together if we going to succeed. Central to that is a policy process which works and produces a distinct agenda which will resonate with the public and the party. This needs to be backed up by a genuine grassroots organisation active in all parts of Scotland.

James Kelly is the Labour MSP for Rutherglen and is the party’s spokesman on justice in the Scottish Parliament. Follow him on Twitter at @JamesKLabMSP.

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14 thoughts on “Scottish Labour is fighting for its very survival

  1. Agree James, but who is going to do it? On one of the first posts on this website being set up, I commented we needed “leadership, organisation and money”. Incorporating your ideas on clear policy and policy formulation under “leadership”, it’s a similar prescription.

    And for me, leadership is the key.

    The thing that worries me is, three months after that defeat, we have not seen any significant pronouncements on any of these matters. There are meetings and reviews but, as yet, no clear idea of direction.

  2. One thing is important, and that is we do not make any quick decisions which may have dire consequences later on.

    Lets take our time,the council elections in 2012 are too close for any change to make a difference in the results,what we can only hope for is that local circumstances may help us contain the impending result and Salmond makes a bloomer.

    The leadership is important and if truth be known there is no one standing out,that is a huge problem.

    We need a makeover and its not going to take 60mins,more like years,while we may be electable when it comes to Westminster, in Scotland we have a huge task.

    We need to give the party back to the members, I am so fed up of listening to some of our politicians telling us the way to do things.

    We need more working class young people to represent the party in local government who undertstand their communities.

    Their are too many senior party members who still ,have not heard the penny drop, we lost in May big time , its time they stood aside and allowed the party to move on

  3. A good piece which I agree with in the main. The glaring lack of a suitable leader is to me the biggest obstacle that we face at the moment. These days its seems to me personalities over policies and it would seem we have neither.

  4. Labour has no rural policy at all. It used the Lib Dems as a fig leaf during its last terms in office. That option is no longer available. James is incorrect about retreat. Labour never had anything other than a central Scotland base, what has changed is the critical mass of that base has declined. That has left the party without the boots on the ground outside all but a few core areas. If Labour is to return it must appeal to all of Scotland urban and rural. Does Labour have any rural policy expertise at all? The Scottish rural voice is simply unheard by Labour, both in Holyrood and London.

    1. I agree we need to have a rural policy. Bear in mind that most of our current MSPs are list MSPs. Many of those list MSPs are only there because of votes in rural areas like mine. We need to represent people on those areas, and develop policies to attract folk in those areas – especially with the council elections coming up.

  5. “So you want full independence?”

    Now you are talking.

    Johann Lamont would suit me fine as Labour’s Scottish regional manager.

  6. The Referendum is on it’s way, it will be upon us in no time.

    So what is the alternative to Independence? most Scots want more than Status Quo and they certainly seem to favour Fuscal Autonomy.

    Why is everyone dithering, even the Wesh are pushing for more Fiscal powers.

    Answers are required before the local elections, James Kelly also flirts with hints and clues but does not come out in the open.

  7. While Johann Lamont is more than competent in her role she is no leader, no dis-respect.

    We need to be brave,we need to be forward looking,we need to be ruthless,we need to be independent not from the UK but from the national party.

    How much more simpler can that be,until we can demonstrate that Scottish Labour is not seen as a puppet of the national party then the longer it will be before we can profess to be once again the natural party of Scotland.

    Where is Keir Hardie and the ILP when you need them.

  8. ker hardy was as well as being founder of the labour party founder of the snp

    1. I think that you might just have to quote some evidence for that contention. Apart from any other consideration, he died in 1915 nineteen years before the SNP was formed. The two precursors of the SNP – the National Party of Scotland or the Scottish Party – were also founded after Hardie’s death. James Keir Hardie was involved with the Scottish Home Rule Association but, on that flimsy basis, to claim he was a founder of the SNP is stretching credulity to breaking point.

      It is illuminating that the SNP rarely mention their actual early leaders as inspirational heroes of the movement and instead claim connection to other political figures. This, no doubt, is in no small part due to the rather dubious behaviour of the likes of Douglas Young and Arthur Donaldson during WWII.

  9. James is right and I want to pick up on the point about representatives taking a lead in campaigning. For far, far too long we have had moribund, ineffective local parties which lead an absolute dearth of communication with the electorate.

    If truth be told we lost several seats in the Scottish Parliament election that were a disgrace to lose and a significant factor was the absolute lack of any understanding or wish to understand basic campaigning techniques. There are local parties that still won’t input a Marked Register, refuse to do any kind of Voter id whatsoever,deliver a leaflet, or hold any public meetings, or do anything that might involve a bit of hard work.

    Where this is happening the buck stops with the Elected Representatives for that area, they may lose their own seats but they have let down not only the Party but the community they purport to represent by failing to take the time to consider campainging for their vote – and many of them rightly punished Labour for that complacency.

    We all need to step up and get campaiging – and for the next set of elections Councillors need to take a lead. When they do they will find plenty of members and supporters willing to help them and only then will we start to turn our fortunes around.

  10. Might be a good idea to adopt some popular/populist policies? Here’s ten that might help….

    Full fiscal autonomy – and yes,that includes the oil and the VAT of whisky companies that keep their HQ in London to be ‘close to the centre of things’.

    Getting rid of the supreme court – defending the Union means defending it, not just doing whatever the PM of the day fancies. No London court should have any jurisdiction in Scots law…that is what was understood in 1707, so that is what the treaty of Union should stand for.

    A bit less cooperation with the tories at Holyrood – too often they are the tail that wags the dog and what good is it doing us?

    Some personal libertarianism – So long as it does not harm others, what people do in their own home is no business of anybody else.

    Poverty – under Blair and Brown the very poorest people actually got poorer – what sort of message does that give about Labour values?

    Fair voting – the AMS for Holyrood and FPTP for Westminster have given Labour (and the tories) an advantage in the past. We’ve seen what happened for Holyrood, if we slip below 25% for Westminster we could well lose 30 (yes, 30) MPs to the Gnats.

    Control over policy – it is impossible to make any rational impression on the people who decide policy even if you can actually make contact with them at all. They decide policy on the basis of what they think the Daily Mail will say – Brown on cannabis is the perfect example – it did not make Mail readers vote Labour, but it did make at least a million Labour voters stay at home. Banning it for medical users makes us look heartless as well as stupid.

    Defence reform – not one genuine defence expert still thinks Trident is a valuable asset; we’ll spend the money on Trident, but have no plans to pay service men and women a decent wage.

    A bit of political courage – be prepared to plough our own furrow. If this is to be a Labour party in Scotland we should be willing to embrace policies that suit Scotland, not just do as we are told.

    Active campaigning – how do we expect young people to get involved if we stand for nothing that is important to them? Having a handful of youthful careerists to cheer the leader at public events is not the same thing.

    This really is not rocket science, just common sense. Ask around and you’ll find that about 8/10 Labour people in Scotland support about 8/10 of these propositions. The rank and file like them, but the hierarchy does not…the future does not look too rosy.

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