political-trevor057Professor Trevor Davies says Labour’s challenge, in Scotland and the UK, is to be better at doing the business of politics.


Like most of us, I’m still trying to think through the reasons for the political cataclysm that engulfed Labour in May – in Scotland and to a lesser extent in the rest of the UK.  And one conclusion strikes me – the others, SNP, Tories, Greens, were simply better than us.  They were, and are, better politicians, better at doing the business of politics.  We were and are lousy at it.

George Osborne, averagely smart as he is, is a terrible Chancellor.  He has floored the growing economy he inherited, failed to put the public finances back in shape and fixed into place shocking inequality.  Yet all he had to do was set a simple trap in Parliament over part of the social security system and we march straight into it, arms flailing.

He has no plan for the economy, only the laughable rhetoric of ‘long-term economic plan’ (rhetoric of which I suspect we will now hear nothing more).  The goal was and still is wide open for us, the public crying out for a feasible alternative to austerity, economists around the world offering that alternative, but we stand effectively silent.

Of course, in Osborne, we are confronted by a good politician who, though his actions were inconsistent and ineffective, presented the same consistent, effective message over the years – “Labour are to blame, we’re putting it right”.  And that simple act of politics left us speechless.

It’s the same with the SNP, though they’ve done it differently. They’ve done very little over their nine years in government; by doing little they’ve not upset anyone, exuded competence and used that inaction to underpin the claim that ‘London’ was holding Scotland back. They’ve been consistently ineffective and yet have presented the same consistent message over even more years – “Labour let Scotland down, we’re going to break free”.  And again we were speechless, except to say well, actually, we’re in favour of Scotland too, in fact, even ‘patriotic’.

Of course we’ve had times in our history when we have been rather good at politics – professionally excellent.  We knew how to speak to the electorate with words they could understand and which spoke to their hopes and fears.  We straddled the needs of working class and middle class voters, as Labour has done from its foundation, building bridges between their values.  We were better than our opponents, we found the words to shape the hope people wanted and we won elections.  Attlee won two and was in power for six years. Wilson and Blair each won three, Wilson governing for eight years in total and Blair for ten years.

Unfortunately, in Labour we are often uncomfortable with political success, especially the more recent examples of it.  There is a strand in our thinking and culture which equates being good at the practice of politics with unwarranted slickness and unprincipled cleverness. It’s as if simply being ‘right’ should be enough to bring success, as if our ‘values’ by themselves were sufficient to gather support and as if by simply standing for office ‘our voters’ would turn out and do their duty by us.

And in our politicians there have been times when even the less perspicacious might discern a resistance to thinking and acting as though they intend to win, and to learning and re-learning the necessary skills in the practice of politics that might just enable them to win.

It’s time for Labour to learn to be better at politics.  It’s about learning and using the skills of framing and re-framing so that we are not caught out by “Labour maxed out the credit card” and “Labour’s talking Scotland down”. It’s about learning how to make strategy for the next five and ten years out of acute understandings about our identity, our positioning and our objectives and creating the party culture and governance to stick with it. It’s about learning that shopping lists of policies for every problem under the sun don’t win elections but paying proper attention to the few big questions in voters minds do. And it’s about learning and practising the art of public narrative: finding, telling and re-telling those emotionally compelling stories of journeys made and journeys still to come which engage people with who we are and invite them to join us in what we want to do.

That learning and those skills are for our leaders, yes.  But they are also of all of us too.  What a long way there is to go – back to the place where winning is what we do.

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21 thoughts on “They were better than us

  1. London is holding Scotland back! London removes resources and revenues from Scotland and redistributes them mostly throughout London and the SE of England! FFS! That’s what Devolution is all about giving Scotland back some of its own resources! Where Labour has fallen is in their attitude with regards to how much should be returned and how much should remain with London!
    Labour said they would devolve the least out of all the pro union parties! In 1999 we got Devo absolute nearly invisible! Labour couldn’t have devolved the Parliament with any less power or resource than it did!
    Your shame is in your indulgence to tokenism in place of real progress be it in the constitution welfare benefits or education! All mouth and no trousers is why Labour is down and will remain down.

    1. I’m afraid you are factually wrong in what you say.

      But I do admire the exclamation marks! Eight of them in eleven lines! The internet equivalent of green ink!

  2. Aren’t you the one, Professor Davies, who, after the referendum, went online here to note that people inside Scottish Labour had to be reminded that they were Labour first and Scottish only second? There’s the dumb politics and one of the reasons for Labour’s epic decline in Scotland.

    1. Oh a true blue eh red Tory then? I kind of got that reading the rubbish above.

    2. Well remembered John. You have nailed it. The author of this article thinks he has all the answers, but what he refuses to even contemplate is that he is the problem. It is that arrogant dangerous nonsense of ‘Party first country second’ that is the reason for the downfall of Scottish Labour. It is a lesson successful parties have understood for ages.

      1. Yes – I wouild always put principle and conscience before country. And my principles and conscience sit with Labour values. “My country right or wrong” is an insidious, dangerous and destructive idea. i’m sorry you seem to hold it.

        1. What are Labour values? Are they the values of Corbyn? Are they the values of Kendall? Are they the apparent non values of Burnham and Cooper? Are they, god help us, the values of John McTernan?

          I certainly never wrote “My country right or wrong.” and Richard Mackinnon didn’t either. I’m merely referring to your somewhat peculiar position. One of the reasons the SNP was better at politics than Labour was that it realised what the political/electoral reality in Scotland was/is. That is that there is now a discrete Scottish political system and parties must take account of that fact to succeed. Publicly stating that people inside SLAB must be Labour first and Scottish only second strikes me as merely giving a big ribbon wrapped gift to the SNP. Not smart politics which is what I thought you were calling for on the part of SLAB.

        2. First, I never said ‘my country right or wrong’
          With regard to your use of language Professor Davies: principle, conscience, values? These are only words. All politicians use them. Labour politicians especially so. Remember Gordon and his moral compass pointing him towards a debt mountain.
          If you think, that these virtues reside only with one political party and no others, that your strength of conviction in that party and its ‘principles’ is so strong you would put your support for The Party before your country, then you are no longer looking at politics objectively. I think your language has elevated your belief in The Labour Party to a religious level. The reverence you show to The Labour Party is reminiscent of early Reformation preachers. There belief that they were the chosen elect was as with your belief in Labour, Professor Davies unquestionable. There is another similarity. Fundamentalist preachers can still be found in a few island communities in the Outer Hebrides as can a dwindling band of Labour’s unco guid in the old heartlands.

          1. Now that really is very silly.

            If you put country before your political values, principles and conscience – that is ‘country before party’, whichever party – then in fact you are saying ‘my country right or wrong’. Obviously

  3. So Professor Davies reckons George Osborne is of average intelligence and the SNP have succeeded these last 9years by doing nothing much. Well, ok, lets give Professor Davies the benefit of my growing doubt and read on.
    He then says ‘Labour are often uncomfortable with political success’? Try as I am to conjure up an example I’m afraid to admit it, its not jumping out at me.
    But then Professor Davies’s explains all; his solution, that what Labour has to ‘learn to do better ‘politics’. Not to gat caught out by “Labour maxed out the credit card” or ”Labour talking down Scotland”. Well this is where I do depart with The Professor.
    Unfortunately I am not an academic but even so I must with all due respect challenge Professor Davies on this particular point in his article, why, because Labour cannot counter the claim regarding the ‘credit card’ or ‘talking down Scotland’ , that is exactly what they did.
    So here is may question to Professor Davies, is that your explanation for Scottish Labour’s wipe out in Scotland in May? That the electorate were wrong? That it was simply because of a flawed perception by the voters of SNP trickery, doing nothing and selling it something and Labour failing to get their message over.

    1. No. But one good reason why Labour lost in May is that both the Tories and SNP are much better at politics than Labour has been recently and therefore persuaded the electorate of their case. Labour didn’t persuade them. Seems blindingly obvious to me.

      Of course – I entirely disgree with you that Labour “maxed out the credit card” or “talks Scotland down”. Those are clever and forceful and false stories generated by Tories and SNP. They have no basis in fact (that doesn’t matter to their effectiveness) and Labour didn’t counter them at the time so they stuck. Sorry you’ve been taken in by them.

      1. I’ve not been taken in. I believe Gordon Brown financed an illegal war. That he tried to buy a permanent electoral majority by throwing borrowed money at the public services and of course as a nationalist I believe Labour talked down Scotland in the run up to the referendum. More than that I know that Labour’s leaders prevented Scotland from becoming an independent country. For that I will not forget or forgive them. How can I be so sure of this?
        Because if Johan Lamont had said what she said about the branch office before September 18 rather than keeping schtum until it was over we would have easily got over 50 percent and now be charting Scotland’s future as an independent nation.
        So thanks for your concerns, but there is no need to feel sorry about me.

  4. Agree with a lot of this, especially the failure to confront myths and present a coherent alternative narrative. One small error – Wilson won four General Elections!

    1. Thanks Dave. It depends what you mean by ‘win’ I suppose. He won in 1964 and then again in 1966. The Feb 1974 (three day week) election resulted in hung Parliament – Heath tried to form a government and failed. Wilson formed a minority and won properly in later that year. So perhaps both 3 and 4 ‘wins’ are equally right.

  5. I cannot understand the two Scottish Labour Party leadership contenders as they will a have no power over what happens in Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party is all but a name the power lies with the Labour Party which is a UK wide entity. All this talk of them both saying we will have a voice is worthless without the power to to put into action what they have said. The solution is a breakaway new truly Independent Scottish Labour Party. It will happen anyway when Scotland’s people vote Yes in a future referendum.

    1. I think if you look carefully at Labour’s constitution you will see you are talking complete nonsense. The Scottish Labour Party is able independently to make policy on all matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It’s normal practice in Labour at all levels and has been for ages. For instance, Edinburgh Labour makes all policy decisions for its manifesto as does Glasgow and other local parties for theirs. (Unlike the SNP where local councillors have to check every decision with the central command.)

  6. Trevor could the new Scottish Labour Party leader convene an extraordinary meeting of the Scottish Labour Party and announce that the Scottish Labour Party will no longer send any of its current or past Scottish Labour Party members or MPs to the House of Lords. This would bring the issue of the House of Lords reform or closure to the forefront do you agree?Do you think that the establishment including the Scottish Labour Party will shut down the club that many of their current or past Labour Party members or MPs are hoping to get into someday? Could you ask the Scottish Labour Party leadership contenders what they intend to do regarding the House of Lords ie the Scottish Labour Party position/policy.

  7. Yes – it could do that if it decided to.

    The merits of what you suggest are another question. But Scottish Labour could certainly do that if it wished

    The last UK Labour manifesto wanted a constutional convention, the abolition of the House of Lords and in it’s place a ‘Senate of the Nations and Regions’.

    And no – I’m not going to ask that question on your behalf. I think you could do that yourself.

  8. Trevor thanks for the information any change takes time and I will be very sad to see that if and when David Cameron parachutes in his new Tory Lords that the Labour Party the UK entity will also parachute in some of the recently unelected Scottish Labour Party MPs likewise into the club. I have looked at my Chrystal Ball and a few names have came to the forefront ones to watch are Gordon Brown, Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, Margaret Curran maybe I should pop into the betting shop and lay some cash on it although it is a bet I would like to lose.

  9. Looks like some people are in tune with my line of thinking the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn agree that if Jeremy becomes leader of the UK Labour Party UK entity it will no longer send its current or past party members or MPs to the House of Lords. It looks as if somebody has passed on my idea to Jeremy from this site what a result.

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