Scottish politics 2: Scottish Labour dusts itself down

Richard Leonard says his party must understand the historic scale of its defeat last May if it is to have hope of recovery.






Scottish Labour must return to the ethical economic principals such as those espoused by Keir Hardie when the Independent Labour Party was brought into existence

I am bound to declare an interest. I was one of those selected to represent the Scottish Labour Party before the people in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. I put forward a policy agenda of full employment, public ownership of public services and greater equality through a Living Wage and equal pay. This may have influenced the vote of some electors, but not many of them and then probably not all that much.

May 5 was Labour’s worst election result in Scotland since 1931. The Party’s share of the popular vote was the lowest since 1923. Only 15 out of 73 constituencies returned a Labour parliamentary representative. I was among the majority of constituency candidates who lost, and with loss comes humility and honesty. I don’t have all the answers. The reasons for Labour’s rout were partly tactical, partly strategic and overwhelmingly political.

Days after the election Strathclyde University Professor John Curtice concluded “Labour’s vote… fell more heavily in areas with more working class voters and in areas with relatively high levels of social deprivation”. This has since been validated by research for the Carman, Jones and Mitchell “Scottish Election Study” which found in its sample that Labour could only secure the support of 36 per cent of working class voters, whilst the SNP attracted 42 per cent.

Many of the seats where Labour lost to the SNP were amongst those with the lowest turnout: the Glasgow seats of Shettleston, Kelvin, Anniesland and Glasgow Southside. Part of Labour’s problem was a switch of voters to the SNP as a result of the degeneration of the election into a Presidential contest, last minute unilateral policy u-turns, and a defensive campaign. But the biggest factor was differential abstentions no doubt brought about for the same reasons. This is borne out by my own experience. Where the SNP polled highest in Carrick Cumnock and Doon Valley it tended to be in the wards with the highest turnout and the more prosperous wards at that. Conversely where Labour significantly out-polled the SNP in former mining villages, turnout was typically below the constituency average.

And this decline is long term. In the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections Labour polled 908,392 votes on a 58 per cent turnout. This year it polled 630,461 on a 50 per cent turnout.

And that pattern of turnout, always tracking around 10 points below the Westminster elections, I am bound to say rubs some of the shine off the claim that “it’s all about Scotland now”. More worryingly it also represents a significant vacuum in Scottish political life. Across Western Europe in these circumstances we have seen the emergence of populist far-right parties claiming to speak for the so-called ‘silent majority’. Parties invariably constructed on a platform of blatant chauvinism and undisguised hatred. The Left in Scotland needs to be ever vigilant, united and active to keep this virus from spreading here.

That’s why in Labour’s ranks the response to the defeat must be political more than organisational, more national than local but firmly led by the Party’s grass roots. For a start, Labour needs a vision of the kind of society we want to build, an up to date, relevant, compelling case for socialist transformation, rooted in people’s everyday experience bound by a golden thread of intellectual credibility.

That means that Labour needs to rediscover its élan and understand its role in transforming public opinion and restructuring people’s preferences rather than simply mirroring them. Listening of course but leading rather than following. Not relying on safety first but capturing imaginations and lifting horizons with a bit of vision and a message of change. Labour can’t simply wait for the SNP to fail or to come unstuck with the much-promised referendum on Scottish independence. It needs to recognise the fundamental dimension of the shift that has taken place and rediscover its own distinctive sense of purpose in light of that.

Working men and women are in revolt against an economic system which has failed them badly and gives them no voice. And so Labour’s pledge on full employment, industrial democracy, growing the co-operative economy and keeping public services public should have been vote winners. But it was not policy or manifesto promises that caused Labour to lose; it was image and impression and so credibility. Despite warnings there were too many in Labour’s ranks who were lulled into believing we could sneak back into office rather than march back into power.

There were profound tactical mistakes too. Scotland does now have a two-party system but the two parties are not Labour and the Tories, but Labour and the SNP. This was lost sight of in the Election campaign. Labour’s re launch was a false trail too. Attacking independence when voters understood that voting SNP would not of itself deliver independence was a wrong call. It also occurred at the very time when resources could have been devoted to spelling out what Labour was standing for, not just against.

In the wake of the 1931 defeat, RH Tawney wrote a seminal essay “The Choice before the Labour Party” in which he argued that what was wrong with Labour was not “a failing in organisation or a weakness in programme.” It was, declared Tawney “its lack of a creed”. And that lies at the heart of what is wrong with the Scottish Labour Party today.

People are looking to the labour movement in their struggles to defend locally-delivered publicly-owned public services, in their fight for jobs and useful work, for educational opportunities and dignity in retirement. And make no mistake; the SNP’s promise to freeze the Council Tax for five years and its bid for a much bigger cut in corporation tax than even George Osborne is contemplating will lead to closures, rising charges, pay and pension cuts and job losses if left unchallenged.

So the Scottish Labour Party must reconnect with the broader movement in the defence of jobs and services. Labour must vigorously oppose injustice, inequality and privilege. Aspiration shouldn’t be confused with materialism. Citizens should not be pigeon-holed as consumers. People have aspirations but many of them are social and collective. They want decent affordable housing, they fear for rising youth unemployment not for themselves but for the next generation, they want accessible public services like libraries and public health delivery in their own communities. And what people aspire to most of all is having more power over their daily lives. To borrow a phrase of John Maclean they want to “rise with their class not out of their class”.

So Labour needs to articulate a credible and convincing case for the alternative: for full employment, economic democracy, an equal society and common ownership. And greatest of all a radical redistribution of power not from one Parliament and one set of politicians to another but from those who happen to own the wealth to those who actually create it.

A week before the election in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley the 8th Marquess of Ailsa put the iconic island Ailsa Craig up for sale. A small event perhaps but one which served as a gentle reminder of some of the deepest challenges we face. So much power and wealth lies outside any kind of democratic control. Land is a natural asset that should held in trust for and by the people. Ailsa Craig is a national asset not a bauble to be bought and sold by the old aristocracy. How archaic our society still is. Add to this the untrammelled but often hidden power of big capitalism, including much of the media and most notably the banks and we see that whatever the constitutional settlement the real power in Scotland will lay elsewhere. Political democracy without economic democracy is ultimately hollow and unsustainable.

It is for these compelling reasons, economic but ethical too, that the Scottish and then the Independent Labour Party was brought into existence by Keir Hardie and the trade unions to change the old order. It is for these same reasons that Labour and its democratic socialism will be seen as relevant again.

And relevant in Scotland too not despite the fact that Labour organises and represents people across the whole of these islands but precisely because it does. More relevant than ever because Labour is and always has been part of a worldwide movement for change with a common cause internationally built upon an underlying faith.

And that lies at the heart of what is wrong with the Scottish Labour Party today. It needs to rediscover its purpose and its soul and so win the battle for hearts as well as minds. To do that it must become less of an electoral machine and more of a political movement. Renewing Labour’s distinctive and historic mission to secure equality, peace and democracy, including economic democracy is not only the right thing to do. It would win back the confidence of working people and so win back their votes too.

Richard Leonard was Scottish Labour Candidate for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley in the Scottish Election. This article is published in the current issue of The Scottish Left Review, available here.