We need to look backwards in order to move forwards

MATTHEW LEE urges Scottish Labour to reconnect with our traditional core values


There are a plethora of reasons why Labour lost the election on 5 May: an electorate becoming more sophisticated than anyone truly realised, a mood for Scotland to be more than a nation (but not necessarily a nation state), an SNP government which exudes confidence and competence, the collapse in the Liberal – and ‘small l’ liberal – vote.

But most importantly – the utter collapse in the Labour Party’s infrastructure and the notion that the Labour Party has lost touch with the communities it seeks to represent.

Some of these factors were partly outwith Labour’s control, but there can be no excuse for others. The time has come to breathe new life into the party’s relationship with local communities, to increase confidence and support within the electorate, and to create an authentic vision for Scotland. Labour has to move forwards. But it is well worth taking a look backwards into the party’s history to find the solutions to our problems.

Among Labour’s founding principles were collectivism and community. The party and its elected members should be important community assets. But how many people are aware that Labour Party activity takes place in their area? The answer is probably only members and their families. In the past, well-run CLPs played a much wider community role than they do today. Herbert Morrison’s CLP in Lewisham ran a whole manner of community events and organisations: afternoon teas, bus trips, choirs, and more besides. At its peak, that CLP had over seven thousand members and won over 60 per cent of the vote. Simple but powerful lessons come from this one example: if the Labour Party is willing to engage and organise within communities, it will win the trust of the people and reap the rewards at election time.

I’m not going to suggest that CLPs begin to organise tea dances en masse; of course, the activities would have to be more up-to-date but the principle is the same. CLPs should encourage representatives of community organisations – credit unions, tenants associations, housing co-operatives and church groups to name only a few – to come to all members meetings. Labour needs to demonstrate to these people that our values are the same; that we believe in their communities as much as they do.

Let’s also listen to what they have to say to us. Engaging with people should be at the heart of what the party does. Reaching out to these groups will encourage new members with important ideas to join and become active. I’d suggest that Scottish Labour needs to develop a community engagement strategy, and ensure that each CLP implements it. If it worked for Lewisham in 1945 it can work for Lanarkshire in 2011.

The SNP were so successful because people have stopped believing that Scottish Labour is truly Scottish. Devolution was nothing more than a means to a politically convenient end; all the ‘best’ talent is still at Westminster. Scottish Labour is seen as a reactionary party obsessed with defending the Union. Once again, it is vital to rediscover one of our founding principles and begin genuinely to apply it. Home Rule used to be a Labour touchstone. It was one of Keir Hardie’s enduring political causes. The idea that power should reside in the hands of the many, and not diluted by dint of geography, was a fulcrum of Labour’s ideology. But too many people have forgotten that. Despite delivering a Scottish Parliament, Labour ended up in the perverse position of being wedded almost axiomatically to a doctrine of ‘no change necessary.’ Scottish Labour became afraid of devolution.

There is a mood in Scotland for a constitutional arrangement which goes beyond the current setup but stops short of independence. Scottish Labour needs to rediscover its passion for Home Rule and argue vigorously for improved powers for the Scottish Parliament and a general improvement in Scotland’s governance. ‘Devolution plus’ should be a minimum. I’d go further and suggest we have to look at a federal model. Nevertheless, being seen to argue for a new arrangement would allow the voters to appreciate that Labour has a positive vision for Scotland. Home Rule is a popular and evocative cause for a reason; it would be unwise to once again forget that.

Constitutional change will not on its own succeed at radically altering the economic conditions of the vast majority of Scotland’s people. There is little point in articulating a distinctive constitutional vision without attaching it to a clear and distinctive economic outlook. Espousing the values of rugged individualism, encouraging the role of the private sector in delivering public services, and continuing Thatcher’s free market agenda worked in the south of England in the 1990s. But those ideas are anathema to many Scots in the twenty-first century. The banking crisis exposed the inherent instability of laissez-faire economics; and at any rate, Scots tend towards a more collectivist economic model than people south of the border.

To suggest that Scottish Labour removes support for private enterprise is as unrealistic as it is unworkable, but the party does have to offer an intellectually coherent alternative to the current economic system. In times past, Labour was willing to work within the capitalist system whilst always being willing to criticise and reform it. New Labour swung the pendulum too far in the direction of support for free market capitalism. Our own voters – working class and middle class – now feel we have abandoned them in favour of the wealthy. In order to offer a vision for a fair, prosperous and equitable Scotland, Labour needs to recapture its scepticism of the traditional capitalist model. We should begin once again to extol the values of mutuals and co-operatives, and support newer social enterprise models too. Without a credible economic platform any constitutional changes will be in vain.

Modernising and re-radicalising the party is not equivalent to delivering a new dose of New Labour medicine. Yes, we have to move forward, but we can only do so by reconnecting with our core values. Disposing of ideology as an electoral expedient no longer cuts the mustard. Scottish Labour needs to reawaken and re-politicise itself. The time for New Labour’s ideas has been and gone. It is vital that we move forward but the first step on that journey is to examine from where it is we have come.

Matthew Lee is a former vice chair of Strathclyde University Labour Club and a Young Labour Representative on the Scottish Policy Forum. He was a Parliamentary Assistant for two years and remains an active member of the Co-operative Party. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewlee2.

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7 thoughts on “We need to look backwards in order to move forwards

  1. Could it be that the Labour party are actually starting to recognise what those of us who abandoned the party long ago have known for years.

    There may be hope yet.

    BTW on the point of constituency engagement, I live in one of the Glasgow constituency’s lost to the SNP & your entire local campaign consisted of a couple of mail shots

  2. Excellent article and I agree with almost all of it – well done!

  3. I would agree with the views being expressed,however one of the main reasons why Labour is in the mess it is today, is due to the introduction of “STV” in council elections.

    As a consequence of this policy we have seen SNP and Liberal councillors elected who have no interest in local communities views and who continually make decisions which are not in the best interests of the community.

    Unfortunatley come the council elections in 2012 the turn out will be considerably lower than the last Scottish Elections, one of the main reasons is that many people do not see the relevance of local government.

    It will take Labour at least until 2019 of having any hope of regaining the position they held in 1999.

    1. The flip side of that is we have the chance to win seats on local authorities where previously there was no Labour representation. We can’t abandon the rural areas of Scotland simply because a policy makes it difficult for the Central belt?

    2. I assume you meant regaining the 1999 position in terms of vote share. Achieving the same result in terms of wards or councils controlled is surely impossible under the new dispensation, and a change in the rules seems very unlikely. Even to get back to 37% of the (first preference) vote will be a tough hill to climb. If it can be done, it seems to me that it must be done largely by addressing the other point you raise: lack of interest. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have an answer for that problem.

  4. Sorry the changing of all these election dates are totaly confusing, I was referring to the Scottish Parliament, I know the next elections are in 2016 should I have said 2020.

    What I really wanted to say was that it will take at least ten years for Scottish Labour to regain the ground it has lost.

    Like the SNP have been doing since 2003 we have to “sow the seed” in the minds of the electorate that Labour is the party for Scotland, that Labour offers an alternative.

  5. Scottish Labour does indeed need to “re-politicise” itself, and this must begin with activism in local communities. At the Glasgow count I watched a number of ballot boxes return almost 80% of votes in favour of the SNP, illustrating how well the nationalists have used their muscle in local politics to embrace community issues, and build up solid bases in traditionally safe Labour areas.

    During the last Scottish Parliament, Labour offered no demonstrable opposition to the minority SNP administration which could genuinely be considered to be inspirational to the ordinary activist. Today, the opportunity to demonstrate our credentials in the chamber is almost non existent, in face of the sheer numbers of the SNP group. Thus, it is imperative that Labour broadcasts its message through grass roots campaigning – and begins this process immediately – otherwise the results of next year’s council elections could be devastating.

    I thought this was an excellent article and agree with the vast majority of its content.

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