The review is underway but symptomatic of Labour’s current difficulties, it is not quite clear who is reviewing what. First, we were told three Scottish MPs were being dispatched to rescue the Scottish party; the next day it was reported that Jim Murphy MP and Sarah Boyack MSP would lead the review. If the basics are not clear, what hope for the rest of it?
There is no shortage of advice coming from current and retired Labour politicians, bloggers and commentators. A lot of it is contradictory: Labour in Scotland, Scottish Labour or Labour and Unionist; Scottish MPs – in or out of the leadership process; not enough opposition/Nat-baiting or too much; the need to oppose and the need to be more positive. Aye, good luck making sense of that little lot. Rumours suggest the review is being steam-rollered through, yet these knotty problems and issues need time and proper deliberation.
So what can the burd offer the Labour party in its time of trouble, without appearing to tread on private grief? I’ve been cogitating and digesting some of the contributions. There are many thoughtful ones out there – Tom Harris MP in particular has been doing the rounds and talking a lot of sense; there are also a number of Labour MPs who might do better to keep schtum or actually venture north of the border to be educated on just how different the political climate and landscape is. Few have all the answers; indeed, some have rushed to provide the answers without actually considering the questions. Allow me to fill that gap.
- If, as Labour maintains, independence and Scotland’s constitutional future is way down the list of voters’ priorities, why then does it dominate so much of Labour’s political engagement?
Take the 2011 election: independence wasn’t on anyone’s lips, least of all the SNP’s, until Labour in desperation, trotted out some of the very old, very tired scare stories. The narrative shifted on to the SNP’s territory and while they were, for all of a moment, put on the back foot, it simply does not make any sense to enable the political discourse to be dominated by what the SNP wants to talk about. Particularly if when push comes to shove, the fear of allowing the question to be put simply engenders debate without end. Iain Gray managed, at last, to come to terms with this old chestnut in his speech welcoming Alex Salmond as the new First Minister. He dismissed the current chatter about independence – or 57 varieties as he termed it – in one sentence and focused on what he and Labour sees as the priority, jobs. More of this is required frankly. How many supporters/members/elected representatives chose/choose Labour because they are unionists above all else? Exactly.
- Where have all of Labour’s people gone?
A shrinking membership, family dominance in some constituencies, less influence on people’s voting habits by trade unions, a distillation of the municipal power base all combine to create a pretty small base of candidates to choose from. How to find new talent and encourage greater participation in all parts of the Labour movement by a much broader base? Clearly success attracts successful people but for a long time, the SNP was very insular about its people but it learned and now has a much more welcoming, inclusive approach to candidates. So learn from them. Open up doors and processes; encourage diversity of background and routes into candidacy.
- Since when did Labour politicians wake up every morning with the avowed intention to stick it to the Nats?
The level of hatred evinced by Labour MSPs and MPs is truly eye-popping, though it is reciprocated by some SNP counterparts who also regularly define their views of various Labour politicians by the word “hate”. How utterly stultifying and pointless. We are moving to a politics in Scotland that is tribe-less. People across the country have proven themselves capable of switching between one and the other for different elections. They are less motivated by dislike of the alternatives and much more keen to weigh up the parties’ offerings in different electoral contexts. Going to work everyday to stick it to the Nats is easy but ultimately self-defeating: if the party can only define itself by its relationship with its main opponent, the game’s up. Some delusionary souls have suggested that when the parliamentary group was dishing out unconstructive opposition daily in the Parliament, the polls were buoyant. Carry on this tactic and electoral oblivion is all but guaranteed.
- What can be done to replace a shrinking core vote?
Another straw being clutched at is that Labour’s constituency vote only went down by 0.5% on 2007, conveniently ignoring the fact that 2007 marked an already low point in Labour’s electoral fortunes in Scotland. The core vote is shrinking fast. In fact, see above – there is no real core vote anymore. The old ties that bind have been broken for good. Forget the numbers! Focusing the review on processes and structures suggests this very narrow approach to the extent of the decay and malaise is still winning the day. Voters will return only if the values, the narrative, the policies, the political strategy and the people are right. Yes, there is still a core of people who will always vote Labour but it is diminishing either by choice or by natural decay. It is no longer a sustainable electoral strategy to presume there is a core vote.
- What does the Labour party want to believe in?
Other are already asking what is Labour for? In truth, this is exercising the wider UK party, as evidenced by the Blue/Purple/Red debate going on just now, and it’s all good. But there is a deeper question to be asked and answered first – what does Labour in Scotland want to believe in? From this, all else flows. And it should spell an end to political expediency and pointless triangulation. It should also create a much more meaningful and holistic narrative rather than the incoherent ragbag of policies in the most recent manifesto. Which is not to criticise some of the very good ideas therein, but they were disjointed and without a common thread. Indeed, some were more radical than the SNP was proposing; the difference was that the SNP was able to present a much more coherent whole, informed by some central tenets. Labour needs to get to such a place to have a chance of a comeback. And it might even want to combine Blue, Purple and Red threads that meet Scottish needs to form a distinctly Tartan Labour.