This weekend’s radical package of devolution for the Scottish Labour Party was approved because we understand the need to change. In July the Review Group made recommendations to improve our campaigning in the run up to the local council elections. Aspiring council candidates will have to agree a contract locally to commit to campaigning between now and the election.
This weekend we agreed to establish a Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to put in place the resources to support that leadership, to devolve our party rule book and to change our unit of organisation from the UK to Scottish Parliament boundaries.
Labour created the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 and we are proud of that. Our energy went into making our new Scottish Parliament a success, improving the quality of our education and health services and creating jobs. But we didn’t reform our party. Now we need to make devolution within our party a reality too. While political organisation won’t set the heather alight, it has to be fit for purpose if it is to help us to connect with people and to persuade them to support us again.
The response to our proposals has been very positive. I believe that’s because we’ve reflected the views of members in our recommendations. We’ve spent the summer listening to our local activists and to our Scottish Parliament candidates and reading the submissions made by party members from across the country. We’ve analysed our performance at the election and we’ve given thought to what we need to do now to get us back on track. There’s been a healthy debate across the country and there’s clearly an appetite to discuss and set out the values and principles we stand for.
We’ve spent some time looking back to May’s result. We’ve examined our campaign and while we delivered twice the amount of voter ID and campaigning compared with the 2010 election campaign we failed to win enough support. While we picked up votes from some former Lib Dem voters, huge numbers of Lib Dem voters switched straight to the SNP. Equally, we lost traditional Labour votes.
The research carried out since the election makes it clear that we didn’t lose because people voted for independence. But people thought that the SNP “hadn’t done a bad job”, that in Alex Salmond the SNP had a strong leader and that we didn’t give them a strong enough vision of how Labour would take Scotland forward. The SNP campaign was also much better funded than ours. That means we need to do much more to use what resources we have more effectively and to generate more resources to get our message across. But while we need to learn from our election result in May we won’t win in the future by just by working out what we didn’t get right last time.
Since the Scottish Parliament elections since 1999 it’s clear that our vote has been shrinking. But it’s not just a question of numbers. We’ve been progressively pushed back across the country, losing Scottish Parliament and council seats in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee in 2003. In 2007 we were pushed back further again. The irony is that due to the list system we now have Labour representatives across the whole country for the first time. We have to seize that opportunity and start the hard work of listening to people in every part of Scotland and finding ways to connect with them.
I’ve now attended meetings across the country and would say that the mood expressed by members has changed over the last few weeks. Our earlier meetings were characterised by shock at the scale of our defeat, not just in places we’d regarded as safe Labour seats but in rural areas where we had been campaigning hard on issues such as cuts in local services.
From the feedback we’ve had, it is clear that members think our elected representatives need to work together more effectively. Whether it’s on pensions or carers allowances, or cuts in the numbers of nurses and teachers we need a Team Labour approach to make sure that we get our message across effectively.
The next stage of the review will report in October. By then we’ll have considered the reports from working groups we set up to make detailed recommendations alongside the many representations from party members. We’ve also spoken with members of the business community who have been interested in our Review. They’ve reinforced the comments by our own members about the need to get our message out consistently and effectively.
We’ve got groups looking at how we set out a clearer vision and develop our policies for the future; how we make the most of the resources we have and generate more capacity to mount strong campaigns; how we develop a better regional list strategy; how we support our existing representatives for example by way of training; and how we encourage the “Next Generation” Ed Milliband talked about in his leader’s speech a year ago. A key issue we’ll be looking at is how to build stronger relationships with trade union members who pay the levy and how we can work more effectively together. Another issue on our agenda is how we ensure that our elected representatives better reflect the make-up of society. We also need to look at how we can make it affordable for people to get involved and how we can attract quality candidates to come forward from all walks of life.
So there’s a lot to discuss. We’ve started making progress. We’re moving in the right direction. But we need to keep up the momentum and make sure we’re not just having a conversation with ourselves but with the people we aspire to represent.
Sarah Boyack is a Labour List MSP for the Lothians region. She co-chaired the Labour review with Jim Murphy MP and can be found on twitter at @SarahBoyackMSP