Election 2011: What now for Labour?

by May 13, 2011 No Comments
Labour needs to embrace the “politics of national purpose and personal aspiration,” according to senior members

It’s not that complicated. Establish and affirm what you stand for; offer hope; give cause for optimism; and articulate a coherent strategy that chimes with the values and ambitions of a broad spectrum of the electorate. True, to put this into practice you also need intelligence and ability. All underpinned by organisational skills and a gift for presentation. But you start with one fundamental factor on your side; a majority of the electorate disagrees with the raison d’être of your principal opponent.

How difficult Labour makes recovery from the drubbing it received on 5 May – its number of MSPs was cut from 44 to 37 while the SNP gained 23 – will become clear over the coming months.

Ed Miliband has ordered a “root-andbranch review” of the Scottish party. In charge are shadow defence secretary and former Scottish secretary Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack, who lost Edinburgh Central to the SNP but was returned as an MSP on the Lothian list. They will produce an interim report for Miliband and Iain Gray, leader of Labour’s MSPs, next month. Their detailed verdict is expected by August, before the contest to replace Gray who has announced his intention to stand down.

In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Scottish Labour activists tried to take comfort in the fact that the party’s vote had declined only marginally. It was, they implied, the fault of Liberal Democrat supporters who had “deserted” to the SNP. It was certainly true that the Lib-Dem vote collapsed but some analysts now believe that Labour was also a partial beneficiary of this switch.

The problem, according to former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, was that this masked a significant loss of its core vote. The party, said Darling, had to “wake up”.

Murphy and Boyack’s easiest task will be an assessment of the campaign’s organisation; Hugh Henry, who managed to hold onto Renfrewshire South, described his party’s effort as inept and amateurish. “The strategy was fundamentally lacking in coherence,” he said. “You have to give credit to the SNP, as the party had a well-organised campaign.

Iain Gray worked his socks off, but there are others involved who need to consider their position.” However, Henry also underlined the depth of appraisal that is required: “Labour now has to reassess where it is at and look at some fairly basic questions, such as what’s the purpose of Labour? It’s no good blaming the media, or talking about the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote. We had no strategy to attract these votes to Labour.” Shadow foreign secretary and MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, Douglas Alexander agreed: “This was not simply organisational,” he said, “it was a political defeat exacerbated by organisational weakness.” The problem, believes Alexander, lay with “traditional Labour.” He said the party’s campaign did nothing to seize the agenda: “Our traditional support and our traditional strategy aren’t enough even in places which people think of as traditionally Labour.” In addition, large numbers of middle-class voters chose the SNP and rejected Labour. As a result, he said, the party needed to recognise the importance of what he described as the “politics of national purpose and personal aspiration.” Alexander said that this lesson should echo with the UK Labour Party also.

The SNP’s victory, argued Alexander, was built “not so much upon a record in government as a story about the future.” He cited the “success of sentiment, emotion and feeling,” rather than the “detail of policy, record and manifesto” as crucial elements in this story. Alexander may be missing something there; emotive issues (North Sea oil, de-industrialisation, Thatcher) have buoyed the SNP in years gone by but for the past five years its positive outlook has been rooted more in its policies for Scotland and less in its issues with England. Nonetheless, Alexander is surely right when he emphasises that the mission of Scottish Labour should now “accord with a sense of the future of Scotland.” Charles Falconer, the Labour peer and former Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, agreed that the ground has shifted in Scotland and that there are lessons too for the UK party: “In Scotland, success in politics depends on being a Scottish nationalist. This does not mean that you have to be a member of the SNP, but what’s best for Scotland must be at the centre of your politics.” It was easy to conclude, as most Scots did, he said, that Scotland’s interests are best served by being part of the Union: “But that conclusion must be based on a calculation of what is best for Scotland,” he said.

In Scottish politics, said Falconer, Labour has a structural problem; it is a UK party and the SNP is a Scottish party. To combat this, Scottish Labour needs to convince the Scottish public that its concerns are Scottish too. A good starting point, he said, would be a leader who can show the Scottish people that he is independent of the Westminster leadership and can deliver for the country.

Falconer observed that once one party gets a reputation for understanding the public’s concerns and responds to them, it quickly squeezes the life out of the other main party.

“This is what the SNP has been doing to us in Scotland over the past four years and it is what we did to the Tories after 1992. You don’t have to be in government to do it. The aim is to be the party that best understands people’s preoccupations and concerns and is most effective at addressing them,” he said.

Labour’s challenge in Scotland and the UK is to convince the public that the party’s progressive values and current priorities reflect its concerns. “We have some way to go.

And we have much to fear from a resurgent Conservative Party and an emboldened SNP.

“Labour faces a real challenge. In order to regain power in Scotland and to ensure Scotland does not break away from the UK, which I think is unlikely, Scottish Labour must demonstrate that it puts Scotland first.

At the same time, Labour, including Scottish Labour, must convince the people of the UK that it is putting the people of the UK first. It is a challenge unique to Labour. The Tories can win in Westminster without Scotland.

Labour can’t.”

Will Peakin Will Peakin

Beginning as a reporter on weekly newspapers in the North-East of England, Will moved to Glasgow and worked as a freelance for a number of UK national newspapers. In 1990 he was appointed News Editor of Scotland on Sunday and in 1995, Scotland Editor of The Sunday Times. In 1999, he and his family moved to the south-west of France where he wrote for The Sunday Times Magazine. Returning to Scotland in 2002, he was Assistant Editor (Features) and Deputy Editor at The Scotsman before joining Holyrood Magazine in 2004. He writes for the magazine's business pages and edits its series of...

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