We need to talk about Labour

If you’ve not read Euan McColm’s piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, I’d recommend that you do.  Though you might want to grab a mug of strong coffee and a pen and paper first.

That’s because he sets out the intricacies of the tangled web of Scottish Labour politics.  And how it really is all about them and not about us.

Euan explores Labour’s current inability to get its story across. He concludes that the party needs a new storyteller, one who can not only craft a narrative the electorate will buy, but also sell that narrative to voters coherently and convincingly: “Scottish Labour’s is a tired old story which meanders along, punctured by moments of pathos and unintentional comedy. Anyone who believes that Johann Lamont is going to change that now (after three years in charge) is either mad or deluded. Or both.”

He lays bare the extent and scale of Labour’s problem but fails to highlight the glaringly obvious; that Labour in Scotland is so focused on its own machinations that it cannot see the extent of its problems. The very fact that all this internal manoeuvring and calculating is going on during the most important debate in Scotland’s history shows how far Labour has drifted from its founding principles, values and purpose.

People like Jim Murphy – and even Douglas Alexander and a few others besides – are weighing up the ifs, buts and maybes of outcomes from not only the referendum, but also the 2015 UK election.  For Labour it is all about power for individuals and the party: the fate and the future of Scotland and her people are but pawns on the chessboard.

I’ve listened to a fair number of very decent Labour folk try to articulate why Scotland should vote no in September. They sing yesterday’s song, harking to the past and what was achieved particularly in the postwar years.  Which is fine and I agree with much of what they say.  But this debate isn’t about the past, it’s about the future, Scotland’s future.  And on that, their cupboard is largely bare.  They have a string of soundbites which sound plausible but which go nowhere.  Their arguments fail to frame their opposition to what the independence offer means for families and communities.  Let them talk long enough and they disagree with themselves, ending up far from where they began. I’m not even sure they believe what they are saying half the time.

When their devolution-plus proposals are more timid and offer fewer powers being transferred from Westminster to Scotland than the Conservatives, then the game’s a bogey.  Their Devolution Commission final report offered less than was touted because it was a shoddy compromise, finalised within a framework of hoping to win the UK election in 2015.  What that means is that if Labour is in charge of the UK in the next five years, they’ll be putting precious little Scotland’s way in terms of further devolution.  Because if they’re in power, they don’t want to be handing it over to us.  It really is that simple.

And if they lose, then MPs hoping for UK Ministerial office start to look elsewhere. After years of ignoring Scotland’s wee pretendy parliament and playing with the big boys, some of them might set their sights on Scottish leadership and the possibility of First Ministerial or other Ministerial office in Scotland.  I’m sorry but if Jim Murphy is the answer, then someone, somewhere is asking the wrong question.

Already Labour is working towards winning in 2016: that’s why it has selected most of its parliamentary candidates to run already. Forget the referendum, that’s just a sideshow: the real focus is on regaining what they see as their rightful place in Scottish politics. In power, in control and in charge.

Which is not to say that there are not good and decent Labour people whose hearts and minds are much less calculating than that. Some of them really do believe in the Union. Some of them do believe that what they offer is best for Scotland and her people – the best of both worlds is more than a slogan. I – and many others I know – share common values on fairness and equality in particular.  It’s just that those core beliefs are being obscured by naked ambition, particularly at leadership level.  And yes, I agree that power is needed to put into effect the policies you believe will change people’s lives.

But what are these exactly?  Scotland will get control over housing benefit, the rest will stay at Westminster.  It will get all income tax levers but not the ability to cut tax, only raise it. A UK Labour government will stick to the Tory public spending plans – that’s familiar.  So the £5 billion cut to Scotland’s block grant, putting at risk key public services will go ahead in the next two years.  The freeze on energy prices is good but takes no account of the disproportionate impact of high costs on rural Scotland. Worse, freezing bills for a limited time gives the energy companies a continued opt-out on investing in providing outlying areas with greater choice of cheaper energy. It’s a short term fix.

And in the absence of a positive offer to stay in the Union beyond the notion of family and a shared past and the hint of a Labour government to come, Labour is resorting to the scaremongering tactics so expertly practised by their Tory counterparts in the Better Together coalition. You might not put border controls up but we will, cries Ed Miliband.  Thus, he would treat us differently from a completely foreign, neighbouring country across the water.  I’ll resign if the Treasury allows a currency union, whines Ed Balls.  Who cares, shrugs most of Scotland.

The very fact that Labour is selecting candidates not just for the 2015 UK election but also the 2016 Scottish election tells its own story.  The fact that it is having these internal conversations in dark corners about who is best placed to lead the party in Scotland tells us all we need to know about where the party’s priorities lie.  And it ain’t with the people of Scotland.

It’s why more and more Labour party members and supporters are not just moving from no to yes but also getting involved in the Yes campaign.  They want to talk about the future of us all, not just their party.  They want to be part of this exciting, big conversation that individuals, families and communities are having about their future and their country’s future.  They want to talk about how best to end child poverty, to protect and nurture our NHS, to raise incomes, to create a fairer society for all.

And that’s a narrative we can all get behind.



Political pinball wizardry

This post is all about the mess Scottish Labour got itself into this week. But let’s focus on the positives from the first week back at Holyrood.

The SNP played a blinder. Whoever came up with the ruse of wrapping independence calls around announcements on devolved matters deserves a bonus. It’s a tactic which outfoxed Labour. Tawdry politics it might be, as some have suggested, but it’s effective. And given how effective it was at producing disarray in Labour’s ranks from top to bottom, the SNP will be using it again. Labour might want to spend less time bleating and more time thinking about how not to get boxed in again.

Last week, the SNP and the Scottish Government’s leadership triumvirate of Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney showed why they are truly Scotland’s political pinball wizards. They bounced Labour around the policy board, causing them to careen off their own hastily formed opinions and positions, flicking the opposition away with the minimum of effort, ending the week with a new highest score.

And actually they didn’t have to do very much to achieve it all, for Labour inflicted a lot of the damage on itself. First, it decided that putting money into providing free school meals for children in primaries 1 to 3 was no longer a priority measure in tackling poverty. When? On Tuesday when Johann Lamont said so. Then it refused to accept the proposed extension of free early learning and childcare to more vulnerable two year olds, insisting instead that the Scottish Government should go further, even though there wasn’t enough money from the Barnett consequentials arising from the Autumn Statement to do so. Nor did it cost how to achieve its preferred policy. Possible options were mooted by one frontbench spokesperson as cutting the small business rate package.

In truth, Labour was stuck fast by the independence wrap-around in the parliamentary motion. But it should have abstained when its amendment was defeated. We anoraks all know that they voted against that bit of the motion but the public won’t. What they will recall -and what the SNP will make mischief with all the way to 2016 – is that Labour voted against key anti- poverty measures, and worse did so with the Tories.

Then, because they were working out how to pay for their childcare options on the hoof, they were caught out again, when a different frontbench spokesperson insisted they did support the additional relief rates package for small businesses. Finally, there was some confusion over council tax – as there has been for a while actually. Does it support rises as plenty, particularly at local government level, are calling for or does its 2011 manifesto pledge of sticking to the freeze still hold sway as party policy? Who knows. Labour certainly doesn’t.

The detail of this fine mess matters less than the overall impression created. Which is that Labour doesn’t have a scooby. And that where – let’s not forget, just over two years out from the next Scottish elections whatever the result of the referendum in September – there should be at least the bones of a narrative and platform to win back the hearts, minds and crucially, the votes of people, instead there is a big, black hole.

Scottish Labour’s travails are three-fold. Firstly, nae policies. Everything, it would appear, is up for grabs. Still. The only discernible thread in Labour policy is that if the SNP is for it, we must be agin it. Yet, no one yet knows what Scottish Labour is for. Of course, the role of an opposition is to respond. But all that Labour is doing currently is reacting. There is a crucial difference in behaviour and it shows in recent exchanges and indeed, the mess it got itself into this week.

At the very least, Labour needs a vision and a broad thrust of direction. And it needs to start setting the agenda – just as Ed Miliband has skilfully managed to do at UK level – through a few big ticket numbers that grab attention. Currently, Scottish Labour is on the backfoot, reacting to the Scottish Government’s agenda, allowing it to play political pinball. It needs to shift the dynamic if it wants to avoid more highest scores being posted.

Second, Labour’s youth and relative inexperience. Johann Lamont is indeed a longstanding MSP but her Ministerial experience was scant, spending all of the first parliamentary term and much of the second, on the backbenches. There is much to like about Kezia Dugdale, Drew Smith and Jenny Marra et al. They are bright, shiny young things with heaps of ideas and potential but they are being asked to pit their talents against a well honed team of SNP Ministers whose stability of tenure is a huge advantage.

Third, the Labour parliamentary group is being poorly advised. Partly this is because of a lack of parliamentary and government experience in its team: much of that left to explore pastures new after 2007 and leaders tend to usher out the hand picks of previous incumbents to bring in their own. Aside from Paul Sinclair, who is in the leader’s and group’s team? Does anyone know any of them? Are we impressed at all? It might be unfair but longevity and familiarity bring with them credibility. But whoever is formulating strategy and tactics behind the scenes needs to remove their “get SNP” blinkers which tend to, or at least appear to, cloud every stance and position taken.

Labour might point to its winning streak on parliamentary by-elections as evidence that its approach is working. But holding seats in previously staunch Labour territory is no feat worth crowing about. And it should certainly give no comfort about prospects in 2016: the polls should be showing them that. Such victories might help chip away at the SNP’s overall majority and provide a fillip for activists but without an improved performance as an Opposition – measured, joined up, coherent and rational – voters are left with the impression that little has changed since the party’s first defeat in 2007.

And that impression matters. For, there is yet another flank to the SNP’s strategy that slipped by, almost under the radar this week. Alongside the announcement of another senior Labour figure (or not as it turned out) voting for independence, Nicola Sturgeon urged Labour supporters to vote yes, suggesting that this is about much more than party politics and loyalties. Expect more wooing of this nature in coming weeks and months. If the party you’ve spent all your days identifying with appears to have nothing positive to offer, either in the here and now, or for the future, plenty will be tempted.

It’s clear from the opening skirmishes that the SNP has a plan, not just to try and win the referendum but it would appear, with a weather eye on the 2016 elections. And until Labour comes up with one of its own – which in referendum terms, needs to amount to more than warning of complacency – they can expect more weeks like this. Meanwhile, we can all sit back and enjoy the sport.

Guestpost: Susan Dalgety on how Scotland could be like Malawi if it copied Australia

This week, the blog will be focusing on some of the wider issues raised by last week’s local elections – the voting system, the impact of apparent Alphabetis, the low representation of women (and others).  To kick us off, a fantastic guest post on low turnout and compulsory voting from Susan Dalgety.  

Susan is an independent communications adviser, focusing on public policy campaigns, gender and international development. She was a Labour councillor in Edinburgh (1992 – 99) and Jack McConnell’s chief press officer during much of his time as First Minister. 

I was following the 2012 council election results on Twitter last Friday as I simultaneously proofed a project proposal for training women candidates for Malawi’s 2014 local elections.

I don’t need my crystal ball to predict that the turnout in Malawi in two years time will be much higher than Scotland’s was on 3 May, with less than 40 per cent of Scots exercising their hard won right to vote. Let’s not even mention the dire 32 per cent average that our English neighbours managed.

Last time Malawians went to the polls in 2009, the turn out was 76 per cent. Stop and think about that for a moment.

Most of Malawi’s 14 million population don’t have a bike, let alone a car. Women and girls spend much of their day walking miles to collect water. And there is no long and proud tradition of multi-party democracy, as there is here in Scotland. Malawi’s first democratic elections were less than twenty years ago.

Yet more than three quarters of the adult population played their part in their 2009 elections– and there is nothing to suggest that the turnout for the 2014 elections will be any less.

By contrast, in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, only half of eligible Scots (50.4 per cent) managed to drag themselves along to the polling station – probably moaning every inch of the way about the weather, that they were missing Corrie, that all politicians are the same, so why bother.

But at least they made the effort. What about the other half who couldn’t be bothered?

A healthy dose of voter cynicism is essential in any functioning democracy, and as a non-driver a rainy day does make voting that bit more miserable, but seriously folks, voting is our civic duty.

How hard can it be to turn up once every few years to play your part in choosing the people who will oversee the economy, run the health service, manage schools, collect our household rubbish – and send our young men and women to war.

Opting out of voting is opting out of adult life. The women of Malawi understand that. Even as they are squeezing dirty water out of the ground to make porridge for their children, they know that the democratic process will – eventually – bring them piped water and sewage drains. Voting will change their life.

And it changes our lives too. Remember Thatcher? The “new dawn” of 1 May, 1997? As for the #indyref – a vote there has the potential to change history.

So how do we get people back to the ballot box? No point in depending on the political parties – they have failed. They have, largely, given up on the people who need a bit more persuasion to vote, preferring instead to concentrate on getting out their “core” vote.

We need to make voting compulsory. Just like paying council tax, sending children to school and buying a TV licence. We might only ever watch Sky Sport on our iPads, but 95 per cent of us stump up £142.50 a year to pay for the BBC, largely without complaining.

Imagine if election turnout was 95 percent.

Well it can be – it is in Australia where failure to vote is subject to a fine. Since the national introduction of compulsory voting in 1924, turnout has been over 90 per cent at every election.

In exchange, voting is made as easy as possible. Elections are held on a Saturday, postal ballots are widespread and you can vote in any state polling place if you are away from home.

And compulsory voting doesn’t oblige people to support candidates or parties – spoiling a ballot paper is always an option as the wag from Edinburgh’s Morningside showed last week. “I hate you all” this disgruntled citizen scrawled across his – or her ballot paper. But at least he – or she – took part.

The positives of compulsory voting far outweigh the negatives.

Our parliaments and council chambers will truly reflect the will of the people – for better or worse.

Ministers and council executives will have to be much more thoughtful about policy and much better at service delivery.

And political parties can campaign on the issues rather than simply worrying about getting people out to vote.

So what are we waiting for – we have nothing to lose but our apathy.