Scottish Labour needs to fight its battle over the long term

Written by Paul Sinclair on 30 March 2016 in Comment

Scottish Labour won't win back voters by attacking the SNP, writes Paul Sinclair, former adviser to Gordon Brown, Johann Lamont and Alistair Darling

Since they were first defeated at a Holyrood election in 2007, the Scottish Labour Party has waited – often indignantly – for the tide to turn back in their favour.

And waited. And waited.

And since then, the sea they thought they commanded has become a smaller and smaller puddle.


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Come May’s election, in constituency seats at least, that puddle might dry up completely.

Time is very, very short to create any sort of ripple of change.

In one sense, that could take some pressure off. Kez Dugdale should not be blamed for defeat nor, if as expected, Scottish Labour loses a third of its seats.

This could be an opportunity to write the opening chapters of a new story for Scotland from the Scottish Labour Party, one they can develop over the next five years of opposition rather than the next six weeks.

But they need to face up to some self-evident truths. Scottish Labour isn’t just unpopular, it’s cool to hate them.

Faithful voters left them as a spurned lover and ain’t going to go back anytime soon.

If Donald Dewar was the father of the nation, on the latest polling figures to the breadth of Scottish voters, Nicola Sturgeon is the mother, partner, favourite granddaughter and top ‘bit on the side’ of the nation.

Attacking her personally will not win any new friends or get back any old ones.

Nor can Labour continually play in the SNP’s frame.

They might think that their proposals on tax are setting the agenda, but they too often frame them by pointing out what the SNP wouldn’t do.

Fracking? We’ll ban it but the Nats won’t. Hypocrites.

Council tax? We’ll abolish it but the Nats won’t. They are not serious.

But the polls show the majority of the people of Scotland aren’t yet ready to be told they’ve been gulled by the SNP and certainly not by the Scottish Labour Party. Many are offended by attacks on their party.

But there is an opportunity.

It is difficult for the SNP to have a new story. The various faces of their vision for Scotland were rejected at the referendum.

All they can do is ask for another one, and so far, Nicola Sturgeon has shied away from real reform in case it cracks her broad coalition.

In a third term it will be difficult for her to offer nothing more than Indyref2.

Sturgeon, of course, is sitting where the Labour Party used to in the days when it won elections – firmly in the centre ground.

The Scottish Labour Party needs to aim to get back there.

Crudely, it was the middle class who kept Scotland in the UK; the Scottish Labour Party should reach out to them and stick to being a pro-union party. Instead of trying to chase those voters who have run out the door, it should try to invite new ones in.

And above all, it needs to think. Nicola Sturgeon set the frame for the last UK election with a thoughtful, detailed and intellectually coherent case against austerity economics.

Whether you agreed with it or not, it was a solid foundation upon which she built.

Scottish Labour’s version of it appears to be to send a spokesperson into TV studios to say they are more anti-austerity than the Nats because they will raise taxes – and then be taught a basic lesson in economics that raising taxes increases austerity. Deeply embarrassing.

The tide shows no sign of turning but there are opportunities for the longer term.

For Scottish Labour, May 2016 is Dunkirk. Victory will be emerging with enough resources to fight another day.

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