Melanie photoMelanie Ward (@melanie_ward) is an anti-poverty campaigner and Labour activist who was the Scottish Labour and Co-op candidate for Glenrothes and Central Fife in the 2015 General Election.


We in the Labour family are hurting. For so many reasons.

For some of us, there is personal sadness that this was not our time to serve. For me, that sadness is outweighed by the fact that the people of Scotland clearly do not currently see Labour as the vehicle to express the values of social justice and equality which we feel to our core – or believe that that asserting Scottish identity is more important. It is outweighed still further by horror at what five more years of a Tory government will likely do to the most vulnerable in our communities.

Our defeat in Scotland is of historic proportions. Anyone who already claims to know all the answers as to where we go next, or who seeks to apportion blame on individuals should be disregarded.

Many of us will feel grave concern at the rise of nationalism in both Scotland and England. Voters in Scotland often expressed the view on the doorstep that the need to ‘stand up for Scotland’ was motivating their vote. This simple message may not carry with it any clear proposals for change but it has engendered a feeling of being part of a movement for something positive. Voters in England expressed the need to ‘stop Scotland’ from dictating the agenda. Tory sources have apparently told journalists that they would have been trounced if it were not for the SNP. Setting people against each other because of a border in the land is a basic tenet of nationalism. It is not left wing. And I believe that a serious discussion as to how we tackle it must be central focus of debates as to who will be the next Leader of the UK Labour Party.

Blaming the SNP for their success will do us no good if we are to rebuild. This was Labour’s failure in Scotland and it is a failure built up over years. I believe it is incumbent on all of us in the Labour movement to take responsibility to be part of the solution. We must not sit and wait for new leaders to fix everything. There is much to be done, and nothing to stop us getting on with it (perhaps after a brief rest). In this spirit, I offer a few initial thoughts on what next:

  • Replaying old records from the past would be a road to nowhere. We must choose now whether we want Scottish Labour to win again, or we are happy to be a voice of ideologically pure protest. For me, the answer is simple. We exist to help change lives and we can never do that from the sidelines of mainstream politics. Nor is a return to New Labour the answer – it was a hugely successful election-winning creation of its time but it too is of the past. A desire to win again must guide us as we look forwards and tackle the challenges of the future.
  • We must reconnect with our communities. This applies in some parts of the country more than others but voters think that we have been complacent and they are right. At one time, those who volunteered in local projects to bring community change would have been part of Labour and seen our Party as their natural ally. No longer. We can change this but it requires us to get out and be active. Our councilors have a massively important role to play. Community campaigning must be at the heart of this – championing issues that will make a real difference to people, and inviting them to join us. Some of the young people in my area who have recently joined Labour are already doing this but many more members must follow their lead – and take a lead. This will help us to build our movement.
  • As a trade unionist, I believe this is a crucial time for unions to recruit. The next five years will be really tough for working people. I was so struck by some of my recent campaign visits to care homes, for example. On a number of occasions care home workers would stop me in the corridor for whispered conversations about Labour’s plans for a higher minimum wage and the living wage, and how these would help them. They were scraping by on the minimum wage but doing a difficult and stressful job looking after very vulnerable older people. Especially in the face of a Tory government, union organisation could help these workers achieve fair pay for the vital work they do.
  • We must continue to talk about Labour’s achievements – not as the answer to our problems now or because we think people should somehow be grateful, but as a way of reminding the public that politics can and does change lives for the better. Time and time again on the doorstep, I reminded people who expressed the view that politics changes nothing that there was no minimum wage before a Labour government. It was Labour who brought in free bus passes for older people, winter fuel payments and free TV licenses. A community activist expressed surprise to me when she learned that Labour had first introduced the tax credits that today continue to make such a difference to her family.
  • Further change in Scottish Labour’s constitution may or may not be necessary as a means of helping us to get more done. But if we think our main problem is our constitution, we are kidding ourselves. There is nothing to stop us from bringing immediate change ourselves; even if on a relatively small scale. We have long collectively joked about CLP meetings as necessities that must be endured and which switch off new members. We don’t need constitutional change to fix that, we can just get on with making meetings interesting – inviting campaign groups and speakers from our communities and from the Labour movement. It’s not rocket science, we just need to do it.

This is a time when we need all the ideas we can get on how to rebuild. I hope that others will similarly put forwards suggestions on some of the things that Labour in Scotland should do next.

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11 thoughts on “What now for Labour in Scotland?

  1. On the one hand, yeah. On the other hand, meh.

    I’m not sure it is a good idea to talk of a ‘rise of nationalism in both Scotland and England’, at least without being clear about what kinds of nationalism we are talking about. What there has clearly been over the last couple of decades is a *shift* in nationalisms. In Scotland, ordinary people have been shifting from British nationalism to Scottish nationalism, and this has arguably helped trigger a corresponding shift from British nationalism to English nationalism in England. While it is understandable (and maybe even admirable) that the Labour Party should have set itself up as the main party-political bastion of British nationalism, this is no longer a sustainable stategy, at least in Scotland.

    Nationalism is not a political ideology like socialism or conservatism, but rather a basic cultural assumption about one’s ‘first order polity’ – the people and places we are happiest being primarily identified with at a global level (when you are travelling in Japan or America, do you naturally say ‘I come from Britain’ or ‘I come from Scotland/England’). With this in mind, it should be clear that nationalism cannot be ‘tackled’ – even to use such vocabulary is horribly patronising, and you don’t win votes by telling a highly educated 21st century electorate that they are ignorant, misguided fools. If the last six months hasn’t taught you that, then it’s over.

    Rather than ‘tackling’ nationalism, Labour needs to set about *understanding* nationalism, especially in the political context of the 21st century. Too much of what Labour politicians have said about Scottish nationalism is ignorant and uninformed, seemingly having had no input from the intense, nuanced debate that the rest of us were having in the run up to IndyRef. Labour has to come to terms: (a) with its own (British) nationalism (viz. Ian Murray’s union jack costume!); (b) with the fact that most socially progressive (i.e. ‘left wing’) voters in Scotland are now very comfortable with their identity as Scottish nationalists; and (c) with the fact that there is a strong intellectual case for ‘small’, progressive nations being intrinsically better (for everyone) than ‘big’, reactionary nations, as societies of highly educated, politically aware ‘knowledge workers’ and ‘smart creatives’ tries to figure out how to leverage the internet to replace old-style top-down, representative democracy with a more modern bottom-up participatory/collaborative democracy.

    1. Well said, Mark. I’m fed up with the very word “nationalism.” As someone who came into the whole situation as an outsider (I moved here seventeen years ago from Germany) I voted YES because I believe every country has a right to political self-determination and because, as you say, small countries can be governed better. Also, coming from a country with a proper democratic system, I find the Westminster model quaint, to say the least, and it is so obviously set up in a way to make reform nigh impossible.

      But it is crucial that the Labour Party should be saved, for the sake of England and Wales, where Plaid and the Greens are not (yet) strong enough to step up and lead the left.

  2. Good luck with getting Labour Councillors to support community campaigns. Most of the Labour Councillors I have known over the years spend much of their time wishing community activists would just go away and leave them alone. The Councillors view (with a few honourable exceptions) is that they know what is best and they know what people think (even thought they rarely live in the Ward). Community activists and community campaigns are treated as an irritant at best and a threat to their local power base at worst. Councillors are usually much happier and more comfortable listening to and taking advice from Council Officers than they are listening to and representing what community activists and campaigners think. You say that you expect community campaigners to follow the Councillors’ lead, it needs to be the other way about with Councillors accepting that it is their role to take a lead from what the local community is saying and the solutions they as identifying as opposed to what the Council Officers are recommending.

  3. Simply railing against the “rise of nationalism” is too simplistic.
    It’s obvious that many of the votes for independence or greater home rule were not just about waving a flag, or ‘standing up for Scotland’, but about the opportunity to pursue a more socialist agenda.

    Only 14.9% of Scotland voted Tory, yet we got another Tory government and more Tory policies coming our way. That just isn’t right and people know it.

    Labour needs an independent Scottish party that embraces Devo-max or federalism, and isn’t afraid to pursue a more left wing agenda than colleagues south of the border. That frees up the Labour party in England to take a more Blairite approach that wins votes there.

    If Scotland has more economic and welfare powers, then Tory governments in London become less relevant, and there is a chance for a revival here. Genuine home rule would also reduce the desire for independence.

    Heads have been stuck in the sand for too long.
    The perception of a ‘branch office’ party is killing Scottish Labour. If nothing changes, why would seats go back to Labour at the next election? The SNP looks like the ‘pro-Scottish’ party, whether we like it or not.
    Scottish Labour could turn into the Tories, being stuck with one MP for years to come. A radical new approach is needed.

  4. My opinions as follows. It might help explain why I, and other previous long term Labour supporters, voted Yes and SNP.Nobody cares what the Labour Party did 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago anymore than care about whether the SNP are now the descendants of some quasi Nazi supporters from the 1930s. Ian Smart needs to listen to that point in particular. Labour language of the referendum and Twitter alienated me and many like NE. I’ve been a virus, thick, a Nazi, stupid, a narrow nationalist and many other unpleasant names. Labour failed badly. It failed to offer up a vision of Scotland in the UK at a time when the key focus was about precisely that vision. Labour’s red paper was unconnected with real people not helped by the failure to use plain English. Labour associated itself with a campaign that was built around fear and frightening people. That’s not to say there wasn’t much to be fearful of. It merely confirms the lack of vision. However flawed the White Paper was, and it was, it offered up a vision of sorts that, despite its flaws, people signed up to. Subsequent to the No vote, Labour influence on the Smith Commission appears to turn on what it wanted removed not what it stood for. It looks from here that Labour was prepared to ignore a substantial part of the community to keep its Westminster status. Self interest isn’t attractive even if that impression is wrong. It’s how it looks.
    I’m afraid your campaign looked like a continuation of the referendum campaign. The set pieces with tame press, the propaganda, the leaflets to pensioners, the invitation only public meetings, the focus on devolved issues rather than a vision for Scotland in the UK suggested to many that you had given up on Westminster and were setting the ground for Holyrood.
    If you want to make headway in Scotland you need to address these things in my opinion. The killer for you to consider though is this. 45% of people voted Yes. That rose from high 20%. You won’t win back that support by blaming the SNP or the people. You won’t win back that support by ignoring the fact that your party was niggardly in its approach to self determination and devolved powers or to focus on the fact that ‘only’ 49.7% voted SNP not 50%. (51.4% support for pro independence parties is huge).
    It’s not acceptable any more to fight dirty. It besmirched what you stand for and it polarises support. Vote SNP get Tory was/is a disaster. Nobody was listening or prepared to change. Your hatred for the SNP, your reprise of the Callaghan fiasco despite his own views on the matter is verging on Stalinist in my opinion.mwriting your own part in the rise of thatcher out of the picture is reminiscent of the East European parties at the fall of the Berlin Wall.
    I could go on. Many of you will strongly disagree with my views. Consider though why I can not vote for your party now.

  5. Melanie,
    If you want my advice and if you really want to tackle poverty in Scotland, form a new labour party in Scotland. A labour party independent of the British Labour Party.
    You should speak to those that were vilified for organising the Labour for Independence movement in the run up to the referendum. Better be quick though, I suspect there are quite a few others with the same idea.

  6. “We must continue to talk about Labour’s achievements” – spot on. It is unforgivable that we allowed ourselves to be labeled as the party that had done nothing for Scotland… and then watched as others took credit for our achievements.

    We should have been reminding voters of what we had done and then outlining our future plans. We did this, but not enough.

  7. I was hoping my video dropping off a “So you’re leaving us…” card and flowers would be the last time I’d mention Red Coat, aka Melanie Ward, but the Labour Party has a rather bad habit of letting rejected careerists …

    [Long, bitter fisking removed because the author made clear it was being published elsewhere anyway and while I welcome opposing views, I prefer them to be expressed respectfully, and this wasn’t.]

  8. I have to say your lengthy piece contributed little or nothing to what should be a thought out debate about why we were all but wiped out last week and how we can start the process to turn this disaster round.
    In your short opening paragraph you quickly reveal the real reason for your contribution. A poor attempt at trying to deflect attention away from the failure of Jim Murphy as leader of the Party in Scotland, those who seek to apportion blame on individuals ‘should be disregarded’
    Murphy is not just any old individual he is the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party and with that position comes responsibilities, it would be wholly wrong for me to suggest that he and he alone was responsible for our unprecedented defeat here is Scotland, there are many reason for that calamity, however the adage ‘ the buck stops here’ is apt and certainly seems to have been the view of both Ed Millband and Nick Clegg!! It is not just because he is leader it is what kind of leader he was, how the leadership was perceived by the voting public, how it contributed to the defeat and why as a consequence he needs to go, so the party can start again afresh.

    Scottish Labour had a number of good, dare I say it, progressive and distictivly Scottish policies, many of them endorsed by a leader who had never shown support for them in the past, while part of the London based Blair leadership, what I’m trying to say is people did not trust this leader to deliver the policies advocated by him, this was not a leader who had had a Damascian conversion, this was a cynical operator. That was an understandible perception that contributed to the defeat
    Apportioning responsibility for this disaster on Murphy and indeed his ‘Chief of Staff’ John McTernan (With is Thatcherite utterances) is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. We need to start afresh, that means the resignation of Jim Murphy, the longer he clings on, the more irrelevant and pathetic the party looks.
    On the issue of the party, we need a radical over haul of the party in Scotland, starting with the establishment of an independent Scottish Labour Party, affiliated in some way or form to the UK party. The Scottish conference, policy forums and executive should have absolute responsibility for policy development and strategy, apponintment of party staff, membership funding etc.

  9. Sorry but I think you are way off here and this is why labour didn’t win. In the bit community volunteers don’t vote labour etc etc well I am active local volunteer I voted labour. People simply didn’t like the campaign and what was on offer. Yous simply don’t know what people want real people cause there no connection no involvement. You can’t get people to join if its not what people want labour needs change because people want there real needs spoken for. Also totally ridioulous to look back at what went right before if do this will lead labour to doom times and issues are now.

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