What next for Scottish Labour?

Now that the dust has settled from the SNP’s landslide victory in last month’s Scottish Parliament elections, the focus for Scottish Labour moves towards reshaping the party, making them electable once again after they were rejected at the polls. As the Westminster government acquiesces seemingly daily to constitutional tantrum after constitutional tantrum by the Nationalists, Labour north of the border have – the Inverclyde by-election aside – some much-needed breathing space to define their direction and approach to the next few years, in opposition in both London and Edinburgh.

The work on this has already started. At the Scottish Young Labour policy forum event a few weeks ago, held at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, we engaged in a number of focus groups aimed at providing fresh input into the official review of the Labour Party in Scotland, which is being co-chaired by Sarah Boyack MSP and Jim Murphy MP. Sarah herself was present at the event, along with Kezia Dugdale MSP and Thomas Doherty MP, the three of whom took questions from the floor in an informative and useful session.

No consensus has yet emerged on what direction Scottish Labour should take in readiness for the next elections – though we have plenty of time to decide. My view, however, is that we need to understand why we lost so badly in May, and address those issues, before we can move further.

One of the key factors in the SNP’s victory was capitalisation on the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, much of which went to them rather than to Labour. This was probably not due to sudden Damascene conversions, up and down the country, to nationalism, but the culmination of a process we have seen since the Holyrood assembly was founded – the establishment of the SNP as the natural “protest party” for Scottish voters.

How have the SNP maintained their position as the default destination for “anti-establishment” votes, despite having been in government for the past four years? One major element of their armoury has been to attack the “unionist” parties for attempting (as they see it) to thwart good, wholesome SNP policies for no reason other than political pettiness. Labour had solid reasons for opposing minimum alcohol pricing, for instance – such as the belief that Scotland’s alcohol problem will not be solved by giving greater profits to supermarkets – but their dissent was successfully spun by the SNP as political showboating, opposing “sensible” policy for the sake of opposition itself.

With an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP will have a harder job of painting themselves as the anti-establishment party in this Parliament – they are, after all, the establishment themselves – but Labour needs to change too, to prevent similar charges from being levelled against us in the future.

One obvious way to address this problem would be to base all of our policy on principle (and to vote accordingly in the chamber), rather than populist sloganeering that chimes well with a particular interest group. I was amused – but slightly worried – to hear Thomas Doherty, at the Scottish Young Labour event, warn that we must not “drift to the left” in order to recapture lost votes. To warn against a leftward shift, after a campaign in which we had been totally hammered and when one of our flagship policies was “Carry a knife, go to jail,” seemed to show an astonishing lack of self-awareness.

Something approaching a consensus that did emerge from the Scottish Young Labour event was precisely this; that once we have established our vision for Scotland and its people, the policy should follow naturally.

One of the hard lessons we had to learn in May was that Scotland is not “natural” Labour territory; we do not “own” the Scottish voters nor the Scottish political landscape. That much should have been obvious already. What we also had to learn is that regaining power in Scotland is not just about attacking the Tories and expecting the Scottish people to side with us. As Kezia Dugdale pointed out, when we asked the voters “Who can best protect Scotland from the Tories?” they told us it was Alex Salmond. Labour had no vision – or, at least, no vision that it effectively presented to the Scottish electorate.

We need to outline our own vision for Scotland, to inspire and inform policy, before we can begin the process of making policy itself. That will not happen by allowing a few people at the top of the party to cobble a manifesto together, or let them hurriedly ape the SNP in all but a few areas. It requires positive, active engagment with the party’s grassroots and local communities, to build a future for Labour and for Scotland in which we all have a stake. On these terms, we can beat the SNP, by eschewing presidential grandstanding in order to focus on delivering for the Scottish people.

The review of the Labour Party in Scotland needs to be more than merely cosmetic – the voters won’t fall for that. I trust Sarah Boyack and Jim Murphy to deliver – and it is vital that they do.

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