yvonne spenceYvonne Spence lives in Edinburgh South, which now has the distinction of being the only remaining Labour-held Westminster seat in Scotland. Here she explores why that might be.


It might be tempting for Scottish Labour to melt into self-recriminations of “Where did we go wrong?” That would be a mistake.

While it’s right to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them, endlessly trying to figure out what went wrong only produces self-loathing. It doesn’t help anyone to know what to do now. That’s true on a personal level, and I’m fairly confident it’s true at a political level.

Besides, we already know what went wrong. On election day I spent two hours outside a polling station, wearing a red coat and a Labour rosette. Many SNP voters were keen to tell me how Labour MPs were arrogant and took Scottish voters for granted, that Labour betrayed its people by campaigning with the Conservatives in during the referendum; the negative campaign of Better Together was an embarrassment to Scotland; Blair was a war-mongering sell-out who betrayed the working-class.

If I heard all that in two hours, most activists and MPs have heard it a hundred times by now. If they somehow escaped it in person, they have read it in the press. Or they have spoken and written about it themselves, trying to pinpoint Labour’s failings. The single Labour MP in Scotland survived in spite of these recriminations, not because of them.

Compassion is a word that I use a lot. (After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I instigated a worldwide blogging initiative to encourage more of it.) Compassion is a word the Labour party also uses a lot. This I like. But compassion, if it’s real, begins with self-compassion.

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. It is not attacking someone else and blaming them for your problems. It is not pretending things are great when they aren’t. It is recognising that you are suffering and extending the same hand of kindness to yourself that you would extend to someone else.

Labour needs to extend that hand of kindness to itself now. It also needs, and fast, to look at what it got right and to build from there.

I’m old enough to have lived through the Thatcher years and to have felt the euphoria when New Labour won in 1997. I’m also old enough to have been one of the many voters who walked away from Labour in the following years. I shared the disappointment many of those new SNP voters described. I understood their pain. Yet, I was there on Election Day with my red coat and Labour rosette.

What brought me back? Partly you can thank the referendum.

After I stopped voting Labour, I switched to Green. I consider climate change to be the second biggest threat our world faces. (The biggest isn’t ISIS, though ISIS is a symptom of it.)

In spite of being educated to MA level, I was a lazy voter, an uninformed voter. Until the referendum lead-up, I had never read a Green Party manifesto. The first time I checked their website was after hearing that the Green Party was in favour of independence. As far as I was concerned, nationalism had nothing to do with environmental issues, but since the Greens were promoting a yes vote, it shook me out of political inertia. A few weeks before the referendum I went from being a definite No to an anxious Undecided – and spent hours trawling the internet for facts. I found plenty of opinions, but facts weren’t easy to come by, on either side.

Eventually, I concluded (wrongly) there was no clear evidence to indicate whether we would be financially better or worse off, and no clear evidence the NHS would be destroyed. I also discovered that not all Greens agreed with the party’s stance and that Robin Harper was voting no.

I’ve lived in London and the south of England; there I’ve seen deprivation as deep as any in Scotland; my second daughter was born prematurely and would have died without the English NHS; my in-laws were slowly dying of cancer and heart disease in England. A Guardian editorial summed up my feelings: nationalism is not the answer to social injustice. The gulf between my values and the Green party’s solution was too deep, and I was left with no clue which party would now get my vote.

I’ll be honest – the leaflets Labour put through my door during the referendum did not inspire me. The charges of scaremongering seemed true – but the Yes campaign’s side were every bit as bad. The only positive bit of campaigning I saw came from the LibDems. Because of this, I explored their policies, and liked many of them. You may remember I said that ISIS is a symptom of the biggest threat our planet faces? That threat is poor mental health. With good mental health would we be hell-bent on self-destruction? I liked that the LibDems considered themselves Serious About Mental Health. I was less keen that they had supported the Bedroom Tax.

Late last year, someone I follow on Twitter posted a link to a Facebook Q & A with Ed Miliband. I clicked over. He couldn’t answer a fraction of the questions in the allotted time, and I noticed that those he did were overwhelmingly on either social care or mental health issues.

I began to pay more attention to Miliband, and liked what I saw. He seemed a rare kind of politician – honest, compassionate, aware. The more I read about him, the more I liked.

About the same time, I received a letter from my MP, Ian Murray. This letter was like none other I had ever received from an MP. He wasn’t asking me to do anything for him. He wasn’t bragging about his successes. He was asking if we needed help with anything. More than that: he offered to meet us in our home if we couldn’t come to him. A few days later, I went into Murray’s office, not to ask for help, but to offer it.

In that last few days, I’ve read articles about why Ian Murray survived when everyone else fell. They’ve suggested it was because of tactical voting to keep out Neil Hay after his slurs against 65% of his target constituents came to light. That may have been part of it, but Hay was certainly not the only SNP candidate to slur constituents, so it wasn’t the main reason. I’ve also read that it was because of Ian Murray’s support for Hearts Football Club, and particularly for how he led a fan buy-out to save the club from administration.

I asked my neighbours. They said, “He’s very active in the community.” Again, I’m sure there are many MPs you could have said the same about. However, Ian Murray has held more surgeries than any other MP, and has helped over 12,000 people. When I talked to his office staff shortly after the Ashcroft poll showing the SNP ahead they said, “We’re out talking to people all the time. This is nothing new to us. With a small majority, we could never take people’s votes for granted.”

All of those factors played a part I’m sure, but there was something else.

The polling station where I stood on Election Day was in one of Edinburgh South’s poorer areas and many of the people who shuffled past looked ill. Person after person nodded to the SNP activist standing next to me as they went in. On coming out, one man, who didn’t say how he’d voted, told me he had cancer. His rented flat leaked. The landlord hadn’t fixed it properly. He felt worn out from the struggle. Another man, on a mobility scooter, who had voted SNP, stayed for ages telling me all that was wrong with Labour, how let down he felt. These men, and many of the others, wanted to be looked after, cared for.

I’m going to take you back now to the referendum. While the Better Together were arguing economics, the Yes Campaign was promising a new future. Most of my friends voted yes, and many cited that it gave them, “the chance to make a difference.” At the time I replied, “But we don’t need independence to make a difference. We can do that now.” The answer was always, no, we couldn’t. No as long as we were controlled by Westminster.

What the SNP promised then, and still promise now, is something that every single one of us wants. We all have conflicting desires of wanting to control and to be looked after – they are part of being human. Better Together, and by default the Labour Party, seemed to be offering to look after us – while controlling us. The SNP seemed to be saying they’d look after us, while offering us control. Of course, in reality, it’s extremely unlikely that the SNP leadership would delegate power to ordinary people – it has centralised police and fire services and its MPs have signed a gagging clause forbidding them from criticising the parliamentary group or deviating from party policy. Nevertheless, the impression remains.

When Ian Murray organised the supporters’ buy-out at Hearts his leadership helped people feel taken care of and he gave them the opportunity to feel in control. This, I believe is at the heart (sorry!) of why he is the “last man standing.” I’ve only spoken to Ian once, when I bumped into him out on the doorsteps as I was about to do some leafleting. I asked how the campaign was going. Ian talked about poor souls with conspiracy theories and our conversation turned to mental health. When I said I thought that helping people resolve mental health issues is what’s most needed in our society, Ian agreed. He said that, with just a little bit of mental health support, many of the people he sees would gain the confidence to resolve their problems for themselves.

In an interview with Andrew Neill, Labour leadership candidate, Liz Kendall, said that Labour is about “helping people to help themselves.” This is exactly what Ian Murray is doing.

How can other Labour politicians – MSPs, councillors and prospective candidates – emulate his success? Not by rushing out trying to “help people help themselves” in exchange for votes. It should and can only be done with honesty and integrity. If you help constituents only to get something in return you are in the wrong job. If you want to be politician to get power, it’s time to join a different party or get a different career.

If you genuinely care and want to help people, stick around and show them. Don’t wait till a month before the election to do this and don’t wait for people to seek you out. That man I met on Thursday – the one with cancer and the leaking roof –wanted help, but it hadn’t occurred to him he could ask an MP or MSP to help him. You need to let him know that. You need to let everyone of your constituents know that. Some will forget. Some will vote for someone else no matter what you do.

Ian Murray has made it crystal clear that he is there for every constituent no matter how they voted. So must you.

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15 thoughts on “What did we do right?

  1. Yvonne is correct – Ian owes his his victory to five years of hard work, not intense campaigning in the run-up to the vote. On the doorstep I did not have to tell voters what he had done in their community, they told me.

  2. A nice and honest feeling article.

    FYI – Im currently SNP – but with no real allegiance to any party.

    I personally feel that the Labour argument during the referendum & the GE2015 (in Scotland) wasnt hugely wrong. It was the way it was portrayed. It’s too negative, it’s too much of ‘we can’t’.

    IMO, a simple change in language to a more positive spin will help greatly.

    e.g. it looks like a large portion of Scottish voters want more powers, ranging from those in the Smith commission to FFA. It is perceived (wrongly maybe) that Labour are simply against these powers because they feel they will be to the detriment of Scotland. This feeds the ‘talking Scotland down’ argument.

    If you want to win those voters back, then you need to back more powers AND make the argument on how to introduce them without negatively affecting Scotland.

    It’s a very simple change in tact. It also lets the voters know that you are listening whilst looking out for their interests too and maintaining the union.

    Although, I expect you have been hearing this argument for at least 5 years and it doesn’t appear to have got through – so who knows 🙂

    oh – and try to go 5 full sentences without mentioning the SNP 🙂

  3. Thank you for this lovely thoughtful piece Yvonne. Your description of your own “journey” was an important part of this article, showing your own thoughtfulness & willingness to read & find out rather than blind prejudice. Showed your article to a friend who’s mum lives in the constituency & who has had to ask Ian for help. She said “…and that is exactly my experience of Ian Murray”.

  4. Yvonne that is true. However the other Edinburgh Labour MP’s Sheila Gilmore and Mark Lazarowicz have also been not only MP’s but Community Champions. And Paul I appreciate what you say but Labour do support more powers. At the same time the SNP signed the Smith Commission Labour did too. But Labour wouldn’t stand for FFA when it would leave Scotland worse off. It already appears that the SNP are trying to find away to refuse FFA. But all political conversations are going to use an opponents party in their answer. Not even Nicola Sturgeon can answer without saying Labour or Tories.

    1. Adam, I agree with you that many MPs were community champions and yet lost their seats. (I say that here: They said, “He’s very active in the community.” Again, I’m sure there are many MPs you could have said the same about.) I have heard people praise both Sheila Gilmore and Mark Lazarowicz, and certainly do not mean to suggest they did anything other than a great job. From what relatives in Aberdeen tell me Anne Begg was also an extremely hardworking MP, and I’m sure many elsewhere were too.

      But Ian Murray survived when nobody else did, and it is important to consider why. While it is most likely due to a combination of factors, I think the emotional aspect cannot be overlooked.
      Negative campaigning stirs fear, which can motivate people, but it can also put people off. Any negative needs to be balanced with a very strong positive message that provides reassurance. Otherwise, you just leave people feeling scared and hopeless. The SNP nailed this, with their claim that Labour had signed up for £30 billion of austerity cuts and their slogan, “We’ll stand up for Scotland.” (It’s scary, but we’ll look after you – and we’ll give you what you want.)
      Ian Murray and his team struck me as reassuring whilst not being over-confident and I would guess that came across to many voters. They also were able to do use Neil Hay’s slurs to say exactly the same as the SNP’s message – it’s scary, but we’ll stand up for you. And I’m not suggesting that Labour politicians should try to manipulate people’s emotions. I would like to see more honesty, not less, in politics.

      Perhaps it’s as simple as that in other areas activists and MPs felt more panicked?

      1. Writing a long comment in a small box isn’t always the best idea. I don’t mean that Ian and his team deliberately tried to manipulate people to feel fear, but that when the truth about Neil Hay cam out and people were worried, they were able to provide a very simple solution!

  5. Great article – it pretty much summed up my position exactly as well -even down to having a chronically ill child who has been saved many times by the NHS – there is a lot to be hopeful about now though for Labour in Scotland. Regarding the comments about carping at the SNP from the previous commenter – I think we will be free of this two way problem soon (after all since you are commenting on a Labour website you can’t claim complete innocence). The ground shifted for Labour to an argument we did not want to have – we felt that the problems of Scotland were the problems of the UK – but the people have spoken and that cannot be argued with – it is for Labour to find our feet and rediscover our purpose. All we can hope is that the electorate are as careful choosing their representatives as the residents of South Edinburgh have been. Politicians like Ian Murray will restore the public’s faith – given time.

  6. I think this is more one person’s story of why they voted and worked for the Labour Party than an in-depth explanation of why we held Edinburgh South – though it’s no less interesting or insightful for that.

    I am sure Ian worked very hard but we also should recognise Edinburgh South is an exceptional constituency, surely the most “liberal” in Scotland, with, I imagine, the University as one of the biggest, if not the biggest employer. It used to be rock-solid Tory – we came from third to win it in 1987 – and tactical voting against the Nats will have been a contribution to at least some extent.

    I think we lost in Scotland for lots of reasons and the cyber-Nat explanation of “treachery” is the gloss on a deeper cultural problem – some Labour MPs spent their time in the referendum campaign talking about coal mines and steel mills when there are neither in Scotland. We just didn’t sound like we were in touch.

    But we should not ignore the fact the Ed Miliband was not a credible alternative Prime Minister. Pledging you would stop the Tories but being unable to credibly pledge you could form a majority government allowed the SNP to sound even more anti-Tory and exploit Labour’s weaknesses.

  7. Again, fair enough as far as it goes, but you make the enduring Labour mistake of using the unqualified abstract noun ‘nationalism’ as if it meant something in isolation. There is (small-scale) Scottish nationalism and there is (large-scale) British nationalism, the latter having strong connections with imperialism (fascism by another name). It amazes me that you could have been a Green voter for so long without understanding that Green-ism is a modern form of anarchism, and hence could never support British nationalism over Scottish nationalism.

    I have heard that Edinburgh South was created explicitly to be a feasible Tory constituency in central Scotland, hence the extraordinarily bizarre boundary between Edinburgh South and South West. That is possibly the main reason for Ian Murray’s success last week.

    1. Yes, it’s a conspiracy against the SNP, probably dreamed up by MI5 in between covering up Clair Ridge and stealing all those ballots in the indy ref. What I wonder is how you “heard” this through your tin foil hat?

      And yes, we’re all fascists in Labour. well done on revealing that.

      Do you people ever listen to yourselves?

  8. Mark – your answer uses classic deflection technique to avoid confronting the similarity between Scottish Nationalism and British Nationalism – both of which are opposed by socialists in favour of internationalism. Bringing up accusations of fascism also serves to shine a light on the SNP’s authoritarian backbone – police stop and search is 4 x UK average, single centralised police force, party members ban on criticism of group policy ie gagging clause….etc etc.
    The modern Green party has very little left of its anarchist roots – they propose a lot of nationalisation and state intervention – quite rightly, and they also allow multiple positions on policies – such as Independence in Scotland.
    As for the comments regarding Edinburgh South – we got votes from Liberals – the tory vote held up.

  9. I was heartened to read Yvonne’s piece. I found it all relevant and it can serve as an inspiration. Something to add which I don’t see as taking away from Yvonne’s comments but supplementary. I was not switched on to party politics in my area until the referendum. In the lead up to the recent election I actively followed Labour and Scottish Labour fb pages. So I speak as a very recently active voter. Something I found tricky was the connection between Labour and Scottish Kabour parties. Were they the same party? Did they stand for the same things? Where was everyone in the Scottish Labour page? (Though there were plenty trolls and snide commentators but where were the sinewy commentaries such as I’ve just been reading here?). I posted comments trying to make them encouraging as I wanted Scottish Labour to do as well as possible in the difficult circumstances
    of being faced with an exceptional kind if popular movement not like elections as I’ve known them. In hindsight I am left with that puzzlement about Scottish Labour and a sense if it’s being caught in suspense just now. I don’t have enough political backstory to understand more clearly what’s going on. But for that very reason this is a moment when I can voice how I feel as I am sure it has some bearing on the current situation. I am still committed to Scottish Labour.

  10. Murray’s survival can be attributed entirely to what happened with Hay, and the way both his own campaign (with an expensive letter drop held back until the very day before the vote, for maximum effect) and the wider Labour press effort (in particular the Scotsman and the Daily Record) milked it for maximum effect. Nothing else. Plenty of hard-working Labour MPs in other affluent seats were overturned by huge swings regardless. It’s telling that this article pretends to downplay this while conveniently repeating the precise phrasing used by all the hacks.

    If there’s a lesson here, it’s only that weaker candidates can be undone if an awful lot of money is thrown at negative campaigning. (Admittedly in Murray’s case an awful lot of money was also thrown at positive campaigning, especially in the latter stages.)

    It’s also worth noting that a first-time candidate who practically stopped campaigning between the opening salvo from the papers and the week before the vote due to being doorstepped and followed around by hacks still took the contest to the wire. Were it not for said last-day mail drop he might even have caused Labour’s Scottish Westminster presence to have been wiped out entirely. If he could do that without name recognition, an established campaigning apparatus, and with (as always repeated amongst Labour types) around 60% of the local population predisposed to reject his party’s primary policy, it would suggest that there are far more important things to mull over than whether or not Ian Murray has competently performed his job over the last five years: something which one would dearly hope shouldn’t even need to be a matter over which a Labour MP needed to be judged.

    1. I think this is a rather dishonest comment. Neil Hay’s team campaigned throughout the contest, and Ian actually increased his majority from a few hundred to a few thousand votes, so was hardly “taken to the wire”.

      Ian’s campaign was overwhelmingly positive. The SNP candidate owns the responsibility for his own actions.

      1. Oh, the campaign certainly had its highlights (indeed, the leaflet noting his achievements in his time in Parliament was indeed a very positive one, and commendable in itself). It’s disingenuous to suggest that a campaign which had to rely on withholding an attack ad until the day before the election is “overwhelmingly positive” however. You don’t get any credit for taking the high road at hustings if you’re only doing it so that the final attack has maximum effect.

        I’m not sure that a Labour candidate who knows that both his own campaign and the Scotland-wide one was responsible for Daily Mail hacks pestering his opponent’s family on their doorstep will have a clear conscience about it.

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