Labour’s defeat at the hands of the SNP highlighted two truths: the political distance the SNP has travelled in the past decade to become a formidable election machine and party of government, and how little political progress Labour has made since the 2007 election defeat. Alex Salmond has demonstrated the importance of our Parliament for the future of both Scotland and the Union, conferring a new status and credibility on an institution which has been discredited and downplayed by many people. Labour delivered devolution and a Scottish Parliament in 1999 but now finds itself in a difficult political place, consequently, it has no credible narrative for Scotland’s constitutional future.
It has to: escape from the “second-class status” culture which many have used to deliberately diminish the Parliament’s, and devolution’s importance thus undermining Labour’s ability to make progress; embark on a fundamental review of what Labour stands for; move beyond excuses and be honest with the electors. There is a sense of negativity, insularity, defensiveness, entitlement, a lack of humility and confidence about Labour politics in Scotland, all surprising in a party that has been the driver of social and economic improvement for over a century. This is about renewing the soul of the Labour Party, its self-belief and then convincing voters of what it has to offer. Labour has to be for not always against ideas and issues, willing to support policies that are in Scotland’s interests and able to reach out to other parties. It is chilling to note that despite the Lib-Dem meltdown in Scotland, hardly any voters switched to Labour! Scottish Labour needs to embrace the politics of identity, diversity and nationality and evolve an intelligible and working alternative to independence. The SNP has no monopoly on Scottishness, solidarity, pride, patriotism and the Saltire. Part of its appeal is the embrace of sentiment and of fighting for Scotland. Why can’t Labour do this? Westminster Labour and Scottish MPs need to understand the importance of a political culture which can set the tone and provide a sense of belonging and solidarity. Scotland is different from the rest of the UK and our distinctive politics is now diverging, and will do so under the SNP over the next five years. If Labour dislikes the direction of SNP travel it must do something about it. It needs to have a distinctive Scottish brand based on the theme of Scotland First; a theme wholly consistent with a modern Union. The Holyrood election showed that few people were concerned about independence but they were about a party that made Scotland number one priority and one not embarrassed to put pride, passion and patriotism, all wrapped up in a Saltire, before the electors. Scottishness is a simple concept but a highly effective one! The soul of the Labour Party should be inextricably linked to that of our nation.
So where to start to renew Labour? It is collectively liable for the recent drubbing and everyone must put the future of Labour and the country above the usual blame game and search for scapegoats. The election was an accident waiting to happen because Scotland and its people had moved on; Labour had not. Enormous good will and potential support for Labour remains but allegiances are weakening and no vote can be taken for granted. Many concerns must be addressed including Labour’s vision, values, language and style – the ability to frame the debate and not be led by it- attitude, approach, organisation, leadership, strategy, communications and more importantly, substance, especially in relation to policy and priorities. Progressive politics in Scotland must confront the SNP with a constitutional alternative which appeals to Scots who are still lukewarm about independence, but may, in the absence of a credible alternative, start to warm to the softer, less aggressive tones of the new SNP Government. Why has Labour failed to put independence under the microscope, expose its shortcomings and learn from the experiences of the centre left elsewhere in Europe in similar devolved situations? The Labour Party in Scotland needs more autonomy and identity within the UK party. Like the SNP, Labour MPs and MSPs must co-operate to build a much more effective political platform.
This separate Scottish identity of the Labour Party requires a new relationship and status within UK Labour. Ed Miliband should support this. Part of the SNP success is that they don’t have to look over their shoulder to Westminster. For Labour, establishing a distinctive Scottish brand based on a Scotland-first approach – should be a priority. Labour can and must be the progressive party in Scottish politics: reaching out to other people and other parties does make sense!
There is no need for a defensive attitude. A progressive agenda must engage in the battle of ideas. Labour should not be held back by sentiment, a sense of political entitlement or clinging to an old political era which has been overtaken by new political realities and challenges. 5 May was a watershed for Labour. A perfect storm of political factors changed Scottish politics and its electoral map. Labour should be the party of new thinking and new ideas; the progressive party in Scotland. Surely it can weave a new political philosophy. Justice and the common good can be embedded in an imaginative plan for national self-determination which would retain our links with the Union,but would embrace the pride and passion which is the right of every Scottish citizen. .
What is so hard about embracing a new and challenging future?