David McKenzie argues that to win back trust Scottish Labour should speak for the whole of Scotland and learn the lessons of a successful mayoral campaign in London.
First of all I want to say a big thank you to all the candidates, activists and party officials for all the great work you produced during what was a very tough election for Scottish Labour. It’s a long road back and it’s not going to be easy. Coming third was something even I deemed improbable. Scotland 2016: there are now no longer any improbable outcomes!
It might be easy for me to sit on the sidelines, given that I now live in England, dictating my thoughts on why this happened and how we come back. And we did have a fantastic result in my new abode of Reading where Labour retained the Council.
But… Scotland is my home, Labour is my house. And more importantly, as we all know, there cannot be a UK Labour government come 2020 if Scottish Labour can’t make significant gains again across Scotland.
I had the opportunity recently of conversing with the Shadow Chancellor on the subject of Scotland. I made it very clear Labour and Scottish Labour can simply not afford to give up on Scotland in 2020. A focused and consistent campaign of pressure has to be mounted over the next four years. The question remains what will the message of that campaign be?
During last weekend’s Progress Conference in London, Jamie Reed MP suggested that Labour will win in Scotland again when it’s seen as a capable party of government. Now, in fairness, he wasn’t given an abundance of time to expand on his line of reasoning. It was however to the astonishment of the room a rather low level understanding of the predicament Scottish Labour finds itself in.
So we took a stand in 2016. An olive branch to our dearly departed heartlands with a manifesto based on socialist principles. Why not? It’s a forgotten truth that in 2003 the SSP won roughly 200,000 votes across the constituencies and regions they contested. Scotland, after all, sticks to the Red Clydeside roots built after the First World War and indeed the formation of the Labour Party under the watchful eye of Keir Hardie. What we seem to have forgotten is that when the SSP collapsed almost the entirety of that vote was swallowed up by the SNP.
Some people can say it’s political manoeuvring, but our main goal in 2016 should have been to stop the rot. We allowed Ruth Davidson to shift the Toxic Tories to being the Defenders of the Union, socially liberal and a bit fun. Essentially we abandoned the centre and the squeezed middle who rejected independence. Seeing no alternative they essentially loaned their vote to the Tories.
That, though, is also not a good enough explanation as it doesn’t ring true for our results in 2015, certainly not in Inverclyde where I had the privilege to be election agent. What we encountered was our traditional vote split cataclysmically, huge swathes opting for the grandeur of messaging from Nicola to be ‘Stronger for Scotland’. We ended up chasing a top-up from traditional Conservative areas who decided to vote SNP to ensure Cameron could at least form a minority administration.
I must point out none of this is a reflection on Kezia. She has done a fantastic job as Scottish Leader and I truly hope we continue to support her in that role. She’s a warm person, someone you can take an automatic liking to, so we need to use that get her in front of as many people as possible. Jings, crivens, help ma boab though: give her a platform to stand on she feels at ease with.
2016 should have been damage control as a priority. So where does that leave us now?
I was listening to a recording of Michael Heseltine and Tony Blair in conversation in 1994. Blair said ‘When do you think Labour is going to win again?’ and Heseltine replied ‘Labour will win again when Labour wants to win again.’
So how do we topple an SNP government with over 1 million votes in its favour? We need to learn the lessons of Sadiq Khan’s successful campaign to become London Mayor.
Sadiq’s team had four main strategies during this campaign:
- Define the personality. Learning the lessons of Ed Miliband’s portrayal as weak or weird, Sadiq’s team was repetitive in its message of a council estate boy who’s going to tackle the Tory housing crisis, a Muslim who will be tough on extremists and the son of a bus driver trying to make commuting more affordable. Victorious campaigns are repetitive with a simply conveyed message.
- Announce policy platforms early and continue to bang the drum on the key policies. Scottish Labour waited far too long to announce its manifesto pledges.
- Chase every vote! I’ve seen a number of people saying they can’t believe Scotland voted the Tories into second. Some of the Cybernats are slightly more abusive than that. We spent too much time trying to convince everyone we were the leftest party going, instead of asking people what the priorities were to them.
- Know the headlines coming your way! The SNP will consistently look to attack Scottish Labour’s agenda and legacy. Cut them off at the pass. Let’s talk about how Labour championed the smoking ban, free bus passes and how if it wasn’t for Labour there would be no Scottish Parliament. Anticipate where Nicola and the SNP will make attacks and be more skilful in navigating a hostile media environment.
That is simply the basis of our journey to win back Scotland’s trust. We have to speak for the whole of Scotland. To do that you have to incorporate a broad spectrum of ideas. Yes we maintain our commitment to social justice, that would never be in doubt. But why can’t Scottish Labour be the most pro-business Scottish Government, creating an abundance of new jobs across our post-industrial towns and cities?
You can be bold and have a vision for Scotland while encompassing the larger electorate. Everyone cares about education, crime, public transport and the NHS. What is our vision for them for everyone?
Finally, my one final suggestion for Scottish Labour to bring that Scottish community back to listening to us: we need a teaming agreement with our Westminster colleagues. Two or three MPs per Scottish Constituency to come up once a quarter to get on the doorsteps. We will never escape the ‘London Labour’ mantra if our colleagues don’t show support and say ‘Hey, we are here to listen and learn’. Sometimes the electorate needs to vent. The solidarity across borders that we campaigned on has to be a reality. Let’s show the electorate that the MP for Islington has the same message for Inverclyde.
Scottish Labour has three listening years ahead, and one campaign focused year in 2020. Perhaps third place isn’t the worst of situations to find ourselves in. We can now dedicate a larger majority of our time to truly engaging with voters on a weekly basis, starting from now.