If Labour is to survive, it desperately needs to adapt
Reports from the meeting suggest that Ian Murray described himself as “the cockroach after the nuclear holocaust” at the Labour deputy leadership hustings, and, while his animal of choice may not have been particularly flattering, it’s easy enough to see where he is coming from.
Murray has developed a reputation for survival, after all, with the MP for Edinburgh South finding himself turning into something of an expert in enduring the various national collapses of the Labour Party. And while he may be an outsider in the race for the deputy leadership, one way or another, there are surely lessons to take from his ability to navigate post-referendum landscapes.
Or at least, the rest of the Labour Party is going to have to adapt quickly. That is certainly the message to emerge from most of the candidates – both for the leadership and deputy leadership – with Jess Phillips explaining the party now faces a fight just to be heard.
“We run the risk of being completely irrelevant for the next four years,” she said. “All over the country people have busy lives, with lots of noise from one way or another. We have got to get them to hear us in the little time they give us.”
But while the point may seem obvious, when matters turned to Scotland, Phillips became somewhat less convincing. Asked about her view on a second independence referendum – and while referring to Scotland as “up there” – she was clear in her intention to refuse demands for a second vote. “Fifty-three per cent of the Scottish public in the general election did not vote for a party that was promoting independence and lots of people who are pro-UK will have voted for the SNP either in tactical or for other reasons,” she said, adding: “I cannot understand that you’re pro-European but you’re not pro-UK. You think it is important to be part of that but not part of the UK.”
And Phillips is not the only candidate to face difficult questions on how her election as leader would help the party north of the border.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is seen by many as a favourite for the job, due to her appeal to supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, even if the current leader has stated that he will not endorse any of the candidates to replace him. Yet, in outlining her vision for the party in the Guardian, Long-Bailey didn’t mention Scotland once. Instead, the piece placed an emphasis on “progressive patriotism”.
“Over the next few years, our task is to rebuild the broad base of support that will get us into government and this work must begin immediately. From ex-miners in Blyth Valley to migrant cleaners in Brixton, from small businesses in Stoke-on-Trent to the self-employed in Salford, we have to unite our communities in all their diversity.
“Britain has a long history of patriotism rooted in working life, built on unity and pride in the common interests and shared life of everyone. This history is internationalist: as in 1862 when Lancashire’s mill workers supported Abraham Lincoln’s anti-slavery blockade of cotton from the American south. To win we must revive this progressive patriotism and solidarity in a form fit for modern Britain.”
Is an emphasis on British patriotism the answer to the rise of the SNP in Scotland? It seemed doubtful, yet if any of the candidates for leader had solutions, they were not particularly forthcoming.
There are currently six candidates in the running for leader, with Long-Bailey and Phillips joined by Sir Keir Starmer – the bookies’ favourite – alongside Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy and Clive Lewis, and most of them have stayed pretty quiet on what the party needs to do to win back Scotland. But maybe that’s for the best.
After all, from Johann Lamont’s complaints of Scottish Labour being treated as a “branch office” to John McDonnell repeatedly contradicting the party’s stance over a Section 30 order, to Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that it would be “difficult and very problematic” for Scotland to have a distinct legal system, despite the fact it has always had one, there will surely be members north of the border who view interventions from UK Labour with a sense of dread.
Not, of course, that any of this is likely to have much bearing on the outcome of the contest, which will see a winner announced on 4 April. Scotland aside, the party has quite a few other issues to contend with beyond the rise of the SNP.
The general election result was clearly damning, and while it will take time for the party to pick over the autopsy results, the initial message was clear. In losing 59 seats across the UK, including former Labour strongholds in the so-called ‘red wall’ across the north of England, the result represented the worst electoral performance by the party in almost 100 years.
Recriminations quickly followed at a UK level, but in Scotland, the results were at least as bad, with Labour losing six of its seven MPs, and reverting back to the historic low of 2015, when Labour was crushed in the aftermath of the independence referendum. Yet again, Murray emerged as the only Scottish Labour MP capable of holding onto their seat.
Murray is holding a pro-union seat in the post-2014 landscape, and the reasons for his success may well go beyond his reputation as a hard-working constituency MP, but as the sole survivor from two collapses, he has at least had time to consider the dangers of focusing on constitutional issues.
In outlining his plans to run as deputy leader, weeks after being denied the role of shadow Scottish Secretary despite being the party’s only Scottish MP, Murray provided a four-point plan for rebuilding.
As he put it: “The architects of the party’s catastrophic failure in 2019 cannot be allowed to be the architects of the response.
“The next leadership team must turn us into an election-winning machine that uses the skills and talents of all our members and supporters to succeed.
“To win again we will need to beat the odds, and I know how to win by building broad coalitions of support.”
Under Murray’s plans, the party would engage in a listening exercise, both with voters in seats Labour lost, as well as with those who gave up on the party in the seats it still holds.
Second, Murray argued for greater clarity on policy, particularly in the party’s stance on independence and the EU. “We should always be a pro-EU and pro-UK party because it is not just in the national interest, but part of our values,” he said. “We must show leadership and strength to make and win those arguments.”
Thirdly, if elected deputy, Murray would launch a review of the party’s organisation to understand where it made mistakes and address them for the future.
Then lastly, he argued for an “open and inclusive policy process” to build Labour’s next manifesto. “I believe Labour can win again,” he said. “But we will only turn this round if we don’t dwell on the past and instead look to the future.”
Yet for some in Scottish Labour that will not be enough, and again, talk reverted to the strengths and weaknesses of turning Scottish Labour into an independent political party.
As MSP Monica Lennon put it, in advocating the idea in the Daily Record ahead of a party review: “We must be honest about our long-term decline. We are the third-largest party at Holyrood but our capacity to shrink is a sure bet, unless we act fast.
“The opportunity to recast ourselves as a modern, dynamic political force is there – if we are prepared to take bold action.
“My submission to the review will recommend we become a separate political party in our own right. It’s no longer tenable for decisions about Scottish Labour to be taken or undermined by colleagues outside of Scotland.
“The UK link is stopping the Scottish leader from being heard or taken seriously. If we look like a pressure group within a UK party structure, we will continue to be rejected.”
It seems Murray at least is open to considering the idea, though there remains a sense that the appeal or otherwise of splitting the Scottish and UK parts of Labour will depend on the outcome of the leadership election, and what it means in the polls.
Beyond that, some in the party, such as Neil Findlay, have moved closer to backing calls for a second independence referendum. Whether others will follow remains unclear, but while the new leader will be unveiled on 4 April, for Labour, the hard work will just begin.