Since the elections in May, a fair amount of ink has been spilled by journalists, MPs and party members on what the Scottish Labour party needs to do to recover. The review of the Party will hopefully take us some of the way towards having a party in Scotland that is fit to fight over the coming years, but looking again at organisation and design is only part of the job. As many others have said on this site, the far greater challenge ahead of us is in looking to our values and communicating them more clearly to people across the country.
In doing this, the problem isn’t just one of communication (Labour in Scotland has our fair share of good communicators), but our lack of capacity to deliver popular and innovative policy ideas that are going to capture people’s attention when it comes to the election. In the process of rebuilding Labour in Scotland, policy and the debates about big ideas can’t take a backseat. We need to do three things:
1. Invest in ideas
One interpretation of the defeat in May was that our failure to invest in our capacity to generate ideas – and to absorb good ideas that were coming in our direction – led to our offer in Scotland lacking credibility and resonance with voters.
Two days after Wendy Alexander took over from Jack McConnell in 2007, she tried to grasp the nettle with the launch of a ‘virtual think tank’ – Ideas Scotland – which she hoped would provide a base of fresh ideas for the party. Wendy’s departure the following year (and Ideas Scotland’s failure to attract much investment) meant that it failed. Had it succeeded and grown, we may have gone some way to building distinctive Scottish policies during our last period in opposition.
This period in opposition has to be different and we need to use it to work out what we stand for and how this can be translated into policy that will make a difference to people’s lives. Even after 12 years of devolution, Edinburgh lacks a vibrant left wing think tank community that can incubate new ideas (an article for another time), so the burden will have to fall on the party. We should be looking to invest as much in our capacity to generate new ideas that attract votes as we do in reorganising the party to deliver on the doorstep.
2. Frame the debates
We don’t generate ideas for the sake of it. We do it so that we can take the lead in the debates that matter. If we don’t, we risk being irrelevant not just for the next four years, but for the next generation. Before the 2004 US election, George Lakoff – a Liguistics Professor based at Berkeley – published “Don’t think of an Elephant”. The book showed how the Republicans had systematically set out to reframe every major debate in US politics to their advantage and asked how the Democrats could do the same.
Reeling from Barry Goldwater’s massive defeat in the 1964 Presidential election (Goldwater won only six states), the Republicans spent the next 30 years investing an estimated $2bn dollars in think tanks with the purpose of constantly generating new ideas and framing the debates around every major political argument. Lakoff shows how the effect over a generation has been that the ‘frames’ people use – the conceptual frameworks that every word and idea fits into – have been remodelled along Conservative lines.
This doesn’t mean that Republicans always won (they didn’t), but it does mean that the political space in which Democrats could manoeuvre came closer and closer to Republican territory. The risk in Scotland is that the SNP – with the weight of the Scottish Government machine behind it – could continue to outpace Labour both in policy generation and communication, reframing the debates along their lines and offering us a narrow space in which to fight them.
3. Remember the referendum
Whether we like it or not, we’re going to be hearing a lot more over the next few years about the independence referendum and we need to be framing our ideas and policies to respond to the arguments that say that Scotland is better going it alone. Our opponents will make sure that the pro-independence argument runs like a seam through everything they do and will act strategically to give their cause the greatest chance of success.
We shouldn’t be obsessed with the referendum (we can leave that to the SNP), but we need to be mindful of it and aware of the risks that it presents. The SNP currently have a greater capacity to develop new ‘frames’ and we have seen how they have managed to shift the perception of their party in people’s minds over the last 10 years. While they have a difficult road to travel, there’s no guarantee that with a more sustained and well defined argument they won’t change minds or succeed in narrowing the terms of debate. Defining quickly our position on a referendum, a future direction for Scottish self-government post-Calman and the benefits of accommodation within the union would serve us well as we seek to define a new direction for the Scottish Labour Party.
Originally from Greenock, Martin McCluskey currently lives in London and works for an international development charity. He was previously a Policy Adviser at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and had a misspent youth as President of the Oxford University Student Union. He tweets at @martinmccluskey.