Time for New Labour in Scotland

JOHN McTERNAN’S been casting an eye over the the Scottish Election Study, and prescribes some radical – and familiar – ­­­­­medicine for Labour


Labour falling to its worst ever result. A landslide victory for a visionary, charismatic leader with the common touch. A stunning majority for a populist party with a clear and radical agenda – whatever you think about them, you know what they want to do with the country. Every traditional group of Labour voters abandoning them.

Heartland seat after heartland seat – where they used to weigh votes not count them – spurning the party that has represented them for generations. Labour in retreat socially and intellectually as well as electorally. How can they ever possibly recover?

No, not the May elections to the Scottish Parliament, but the 1983 election victory for Margaret Thatcher. Surveying the wreckage of the Scottish Labour Party after its devastating defeat this May, one could use exactly the same description. In the words of the great baseball player Yogi Berra: “It’s deja vu, all over again.”

But because this has happened before, Scottish Labour has a tried and tested recovery route – the one that New Labour followed. Because what is really striking is not the superficial comparisons, but just how deep the similarities are. The just released Scottish Election Study (SES) shows just how comprehensive a victory the SNP had in May. We can all name the iconic losses in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. What the SES rams home is that the SNP won a majority of Catholic voters, of working class voters and of the middle classes.

Labour’s traditional lead amongst women and young people evaporated too. In every part of the electorate a seismic shift.

But the survey dug deeper. It made two more fascinating discoveries. Voters had been drawn to the SNP because of its record of competence in government, not because of any increase in public support for independence – that remains where it has habitually been, under a third of all voters. So the SNP massively outpolled its iconic policy.

Second, the survey tested the extent to which voters have become sophisticated, willing to vote for one party at Westminster and another at Holyrood. They found that multi-level voting, as they called it, is now a firm part of the political landscape. That’s not an original observation. It’s been long suspected, and now the SES has substantiated it.

What does this all amount to? In the academic jargon it’s called de-alignment – people are losing their traditional loyalties to individual political parties. In reality, politics is now much more of a market, with parties having to attract voters with new offers each time. These promiscuous voters are not a stable coalition. This provides both problems and opportunities to politicians.

Again, Labour has been here before. The scale of the 1983 defeat, under the leadership of Michael Foot, drove Labour modernisation, first under Neil Kinnock, then John Smith and finally – and successfully – it was led by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson.

At the core of that modernisation was the understanding that no seats were safe any more, the defection of the working classes and reform minded middle classes left Labour with no choice to build a new coalition. Except in Scotland, where the 1983 result was the beginning of a false dawn that has blighted Scottish Labour thinking ever since. Because it didn’t face the same reversal in its heartlands, and indeed from 1987 was winning seats from the Tories. During the following twenty years of electoral dominance in Scotland Labour never felt the pressure to modernise. Was it smugness or the lack of an existential challenge? A bit of both probably. Whatever, the pressure is on now.

Where do they start? With tone – and Tone. From first to last, from “A new dawn has broken has it not” at the Royal Festival Hall to “This is the greatest nation in the world” in Trimdon, Tony Blair was relentlessly proud, passionate, patriotic and positive. Characteristics shared by Alex Salmond. Scottish Labour should start there. And for Blair, it was always about values. Here the Scottish Election Study is helpful again. Despite the overall exceptional ratings for the record of the SNP government, there were a couple of areas where the public marked them down – education and law and order. Both areas where Labour had strong and popular policies.

Start with education. This is core to our sense of self; we are known worldwide for the quality of our education. Except that’s just not true now. Standards in our schools have fallen below those in England and are falling ever faster behind. Scottish Labour needs to seize on this failure, not simply to critique the SNP approach but as a spur to action. Academies in England have dramatically raised performance in the worst performing schools in the most deprived areas. Why can’t kids in Wester Hailes and Castlemillk have those chances? Surely the Catholic Church, our educational charities and our philanthropists would relish the opportunity.

Or take law and order. You can’t go far wrong with tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. Labour’s knife crime policy was one of the most popular single policies of any party at the election. They should stick to it.

But they should brigade it with a prevention strategy. The restoration of the Future Jobs Fund was one leg of that, apprenticeships another. This is a key battleground. The people of Glasgow and Lanarkshire didn’t vote SNP to see the prison population in Scotland halved. Insofar as there is an SNP law and order policy it seems to be: tough on judges, tough on defence lawyers.

And then there’s health. At the core of Nicola Sturgeon’s health strategy is an opposition to hospital reorganisation. She wants to keep resources locked-up in acute care – that stands in opposition to 30 years of thinking in the NHS which has tried to move services to primary care in the community. Let her keep a provider driven service, Labour should back patients and GPs. Give them the power to shape a healthy future.

The future not the past. The many not the few. Leadership not drift. There’s life in the old songs still. The election may have been a sea-change, or a bubble. Alex Salmond may be Margaret Thatcher or David Owen. That is as much in Labour’s hands as it is in his. Who dares wins.

John McTernan was head of policy to First Minister Henry McLeish, a senior advisor to Tony Blair and special advisor to Jim Murphy MP when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. He now writes for the Telegraph and the Scotsman. Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcternan. This article was originally published in The Scotsman.


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8 thoughts on “Time for New Labour in Scotland

  1. Ah, but the problem with Labour at the Holyrood elections in May was partly down to a lack of distinctive policies. Apart from the pledge to cut waiting times for cancer patients, none of the policies that people remember were distinctive enough from the SNP’s proposed programme.

    What your piece also misses is that the SNP are, without recognising or being aware of it, proceeding with a Third Way/New Labouresque agenda. They are proposing policies that are both old left wing and old right wing – advocating cuts in corporation tax and in the same breath advocating investment in public services. The SNP are in effect parking their tanks on Labours lawn.

    I don’t know what you do about it. It is however good that you have space to think about where to go next before you elect a Holyrood leader. Preferebly (for you) someone with “the vision thing”.

  2. A very realistic assessment of the election. What the Scottish Election Study shows is the gradual erosion of Labours core vote over the years and the success of the SNP at Holyrood during the previous 4years. They wisely tip toed around the constitutional issues and promoted popular policies that would bring in the votes as they have done but all the time avoiding the “I” word. Now that the electorate understand what is going on it will be interesting to see how they react.

    The writer above has correctly identified the SNP’s Third way policies which are popular and what people clearly want, the SNP ironically enough are stealing Labours clothes.

    The solution is in the hands of the Labour Party in Scotland and you always have to learn from winners no matter who it is or what party and then add the values of the Labour Party.

  3. It seems to me that one of the problems was that you had a very uncharismatic leader in Iain Gray. Of course we have been through the fact that he fought the wrong election, blasting the Tories for the first 4 weeks of the campaign, and as Allan said, the policies were all SNP policies which Labour had derided, before assuming them; Council Tax cuts the most noticeable of these. They would kill local democracy and cost jobs…. but it’s popular, so we’ll do it.

    I don’t think it is “sophisticated” to be capable of voting for two different parties at two different elections. I thought that lots of people did it, working out for themselves that the SNP can’t do very much in London, but it can’t half run a good country in Edinburgh.

    Maybe what Scottish Labour voters wanted most of all, was someone to look after them, and let’s be fair, the Labour Party of Blair left the slums of Glasgow far behind it. If you need a new Labour in Scotland, it will have to be a new Labour that reflects the Scottish needs: Council Housing, manufacturing jobs, community centres. New labour to so many was all about Tony and Bush, Gordon and the Bankers, the City of London, fat cats. Our people got poorer while the financial sector got richer, and there was no trickle down, except the spread of credit, and the house process that went up and up until they stopped and the bottom fell out of everything.

    A new Labour for Scotland will have to be very different from Mr Mandelson’s New Labour of the South East of England.

    1. “A new Labour for Scotland will have to be very different from Mr Mandelson’s New Labour of the South East of England.”

      I agree – we need to make Labour relevant to the people of Scotland – delivering what matters to them. We need to develop a positive vision of what Scotland would look like under a Labour Government, based on our core values.

  4. “Time for New Labour in Scotland”

    – the problem is : are there any labour MSPs who follow New Labour ideology?

    1. I dont think the idea is to slavishly copy the policies of New Labour circa 1996 – for one thing they are out of date, and another they apply to the UK, not to Scotland.

      The thing is that we need a New Labour philosophy to deal with the situation we find ourselves in. The policies may – indeed should – be quite different, but the way we go about things is not. It seems to have worked for the SNP, after all!

  5. I agree with much of the comments but will add the term New Labour is not a title Scottish Labour or Labour in general should be banding about today. In conjuction to fresh policies and approach the party must recreate itself and not lose sight of the failings of New Labour, some of which voters have very clear memory, not least the illegal war with Iraq. New Labour had it’s day, had great achievements but great failings. Time for a new image and outlook. Scottish Labour for Justice and Labour Generations can say so much more.

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