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.