Voters will listen to Labour again, but only if we’re willing to listen to them first, says PAUL McKAY
We’ve had more than two months to reflect on Scottish Labour’s performance at the Holyrood elections, which shook everyone to the core. In the aftermath, it’s clear that we need a dramatic change in attitude to our local campaigning.
While many constituencies in England have adopted community organising as an essential part of campaigning, Scotland has failed to keep pace. This shift needs to happen now, not just in marginal seats, but across Scotland, so that our neighbours, relatives and work colleagues know that we are the only party which can stand up for them and their communities, fighting for what really matters.
We’ve done that in the past – look at our proud record. We are a pioneering party – the party which created the NHS, an institution which is deeply rooted in the affections of people across the United Kingdom and which is now faced with the menace of privatisation brought by the Tories in England. It is summed up neatly by the late John Smith: “When Labour found the National Health Service we lifted a great burden from the shoulders of ordinary families who were set free from the financial perils of ill health.”
We are the party which delivered the Scottish Parliament. And through the parliament, we legislated for radical land reform which tilted the balance of power away from land owners, especially in the Highlands and Islands towards crofters, tenants and communities. All these achievements were shaped by our values of fairness, equality and opportunity. We need to take this record along with our values to the doorsteps of people in our constituencies and ensure that we become community champions.
Scottish Labour is the party that talks to voters on the doorstep more than any other political party. However, we have failed to engage and have the conversations about our proud records in government at both Westminster and Holyrood. One of the first attitudinal switches that’s required is to wean ourselves from our infatuation with voter ID.
We need to realise that campaigning is not just about collating the voting intentions of constituents. There’s so much more than this. It’s about re-engaging and reconnecting to communities across Scotland. Having pounded the streets in my constituency since September in the run-up to May, it’s clear to me that as a party we have become obsessed with the “who will you be voting for?” question. This is with the added benefit of hindsight. Door after door, we ask the same question and note those voting intentions. The stats are then collated and we analyse and calculate who’s voting and where – but this doesn’t actually tell us what people want from their government, or what changes they want to see both locally and nationally.
While collecting this data is undoubtedly helpful, and is a crucial component in understanding our vote, voter ID is certainly not a panacea for a successful campaign. In my constituency we became far too reliant on it and admittedly I did too. In fact, it gives us very little insight into the issues that really affect communities in our constituencies. That is why I believe we’ve now got to take the time to stop and listen to the worries, hopes and aspirations of voters.
Identifying and targeting our Labour vote is essential. However this must emanate through our discussion on the doorstep, finding out about them. Do they have a family? Do their priorities lie in education, health, leisure, or the environment? By having this dialogue, we will be able to better identify a potential voter and the better accuracy we have in voter ID, the further we can engage at a later stage. What happens in practice, if we ask the question and we get the answer we want to hear – “I vote Labour” – we then rush onto the next door, ironically neglecting that core vote which is vital. This then only erodes over months and years. We must take the time to talk with the electorate, supporters and non-supporters alike.
By doing this, we will distinguish ourselves from the SNP, who undoubtedly have a slick PR machine but are not actually doing the hard work on the ground. I know from my experience in Edinburgh that the SNP had a candidate elected to the Scottish Parliament in one constituency who did next to no campaigning in the seat. Night after night while Labour campaigners were on the street, they were nowhere to be seen or heard of. Most astonishingly, this candidate continued to work full-time during the short campaign. This is where Scottish Labour can be the difference.
Members should be out on the door step, not just to ask the same old tired questions, but campaigning to build relationships with voters. By doing this, we will show the electorate that we don’t just come to your door at election time but are listening all year round, in touch with every community in Scotland.
I’m sure that in many constituencies across Scotland, there are core groups of party members who are out on the doorstep night after night in the run-up to polling day. While these members do a sterling job, their work alone will not secure a win for our candidates. That is why we need to utilise the talents of all members in our CLPs – young and old, male and female. We need to ensure that campaigns are inclusive, using the expertise and talents of every member and making them aware how their contribution, however big or small, is vital.
It’s not only about their contribution to the party however; it’s crucial that all members ask themselves, “What do I get out of it?” – making new friends and reacquainting with old ones, developing a better understanding of our political system or appreciating the problems facing their local community more. For this to happen, support in training and development is needed from the top-levels of the party and I hope that this is taken into consideration during the party review.
If we don’t adapt as a campaigning party in Scotland then we will lose the arguments. While the SNP will have the media clout to hit the electorate with their message, however facile that is, we will fade further and further into political oblivion – a party which appears to be past its best in Scotland. However, if the Scottish Labour Party becomes rooted in the communities we seek to represent, then we can take action on the real issues facing people in Scotland. We’ll have the opportunity to make our case to the voters, making sure that they know that it is Scottish Labour which can bring about the change that will make our communities thrive.
Paul McKay is vice chair (campaigns) of Edinburgh South CLP. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulJMcKay.